Tablet deathmatch: iPad Mini vs. Nexus 7 vs. Kindle Fire HD

A new generation of small tablets has reinvented entertainment on the go, but which is best? Find out now and gear up for holiday gift-buying

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Deathmatch: Media support
The primary reason most people want a media tablet is, well, to access media over the Internet. But each media tablet also has its own method of transferring, storing, and organizing media files.

Getting media files onto your tablet. iTunes is Apple's not-so-secret weapon when it comes to media delivery on PCs, Macs, iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches. It's a media organizer for movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, and books. It lets you buy music, videos, books, and all sorts of apps. It lets you import your own music, videos, and books as well. It syncs your media content to all your devices and keeps purchases consistent. It lets you create playlists; iTunes is the flexible central hub that simply has no rival on any competing device.

Google, Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble all have music, video, and app stores, as does Microsoft, but they lack iTunes' easy integration of your existing media with the media they sell. Yes, you can use direct transfer of media files (in Windows) or transfer utilities (in OS X), cloud storage, or USB drives to transfer files to these devices, but all are a poor imitation of the iTunes experience.

If you're using a standard Android tablet, you can use a utility such as DoubleTwist to get fairly close to iTunes' capabilities (it even works with iTunes libraries), but it doesn't work with the Nexus 7 unless you buy the $10 AirTwist add-on to DoubleTwist. DoubleTwist, with or without AirTwist, isn't available for the custom versions of Android that Amazon and B&N have on their media tablets, so you'll need to use a direct USB connection to transfer your computer's existing media (in OS X, you also need Google's primitive Android File Transfer utility).

Note that the iPad Mini and Nexus 7 both support MP3 and AAC (.m4a) audio, MPEG-4 (.m4v and .mp4) video, and ePub and PDF files. You can convert several common video formats to compatible MPEG-4 versions using OS X's included QuickTime Player utility or via third-party utilities for Windows. The Kindle Fire HD supports all the same formats except ePub, meaning you can only read books in its proprietary Mobi file format. (The free open source Calibre app for OS X and Windows can convert ePubs to Mobi format.)

All three media tablets put transferred music in their music apps; on the Kindle Fire HD, be sure to switch to the Devices pane to see them. But they handle transferred videos and books differently:

  • The iPad Mini puts all personal videos in the Movies pane in the Videos app. The Nexus 7 puts transferred video in the Play Video app's Personal Videos pane. The Kindle Fire HD doesn't put the videos in the Videos window at all; you have to go to the Kindle Fire's Apps view, then open the Personal Videos app to see your transferred videos. (The Kindle Fire's Videos window shows only videos purchased at Amazon.)
  • For books, the iPad Mini puts ePubs and PDFs in their books apps. The Kindle Fire puts copied PDFs in its Docs window and Mobi books in its Books window, both in the Devices pane. The Nexus 7's Play Books app can't access copied books at all, though the Kindle app can if you place the Mobi files in in the Nexus 7's Kindle folder.

If you're willing to live without iTunes, Amazon has the broadest video and music libraries, followed by Google, then Microsoft. You can watch iTunes-purchased content only on an Apple device, just as you can play videos or music purchased from the Google, Barnes & Noble, or Microsoft media stores only on their respective devices.

However, in addition to playback on the Kindle Fire HD, Amazon lets you play music bought from its store on Android and iOS devices (you need to use its iPhone app on the iPad) via its Cloud Player app. It lets you play rented videos on iOS devices, but not Android, through its Instant Video app.

Both the iPad Mini's Music app and the Nexus 7's Play Music app (the standard Android player) let you create your own playlists on your tablet, but the Kindle Fire HD's Music app does not. Likewise, the iPad Mini supports podcasts and podcast subscriptions via its Podcast app, but there is no equivalent capability included with the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD -- you'll need to get a third-party app instead.

You can use popular video streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus and audio streaming services such as Pandora on all the media tablets. Over Wi-Fi, they all played the videos and audio smoothly on such services.

On the Verizon LTE network in San Francisco, a full-size cellular iPad sometimes struggled to keep up with the video stream. Expect the same inconsistency on the cellular version of the iPad Mini that ships in mid-November, given the wide variance in LTE throughput and availability on the AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon networks the iPad Mini will support. (The Kindle Fire HD does not come in a cellular version, although a $524, 8.9-inch version of the Kindle Fire HD due Nov. 20 will support AT&T's LTE network. The Nexus 7's 3G -- no, it's not LTE -- cellular versions for AT&T and T-Mobile aren't due to ship until Nov. 13.)

For e-books, Amazon has the largest book library of anyone. But that doesn't give the Kindle Fire an advantage, because you can read books purchased from Amazon on your iPad or any other iOS device, Nexus 7 or any other Android device, or for that matter, a Windows 8/RT device.

The content winner. Of the media tablets, the iPad Mini has the broadest options for content sources, not just for iTunes media but for media from Amazon (books, music, and video), Google (books), and B&N (books). Next is Android, which supports media from Amazon (books and music) and B&N (books). It's a no-brainer that the best small tablet for accessing media content is the iPad Mini.

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