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
Deathmatch: Application support
iOS is known for its app selection, and because the iPad Mini uses the same 1,024-by-768-pixel resolution as an iPad 2, it runs every app any other iPad does. Thus, the entire iOS app library is available to the iPad Mini, from games to news readers to photo editors to productivity apps. Plus, if you enable it, your iTunes purchases are kept synced to all your iOS devices.
As a result, you get the best collection of fun and serious apps available for mobile devices for practically any purpose, and Apple's iTunes U library of free courses, aimed mainly at high school and college students, is an amazing resource. That's probably the iPad Mini's biggest advantage: It's not just a media tablet.
The Apple App Store also has the benefit of being rigorously screened for malware, which is not true for the Google Play Store that powers the Nexus 7 and other Android devices. The app selection in the Play Store does not match what Apple offers, but for the kinds of apps you'll want on an entertainment tablet -- gaming, social networking, and information apps -- the Play Store's options are strong. Over the years, Google has strengthened its backup services so that apps you get in the Play Store are available to your other Android devices. The Nexus 7 can therefore double as a business tablet in a pinch.
But just because you bought an app on one Android device does not guarantee it will run on another. For example, the Nexus 7 is not compatible with several of my Android news apps, including CNN, the Economist, and USA Today. You only find out when you try to install them -- there's no indication in the list of previously purchased apps as to which are compatible.
The Kindle Fire HD's selection of apps is more limited than Android's Play Store offerings, mainly to edutainment apps and lightweight utilities. But the Kindle Fire does have an extensive game catalog.
All the media tablets have the most popular social apps, such as Skype, Twitter, and Facebook, either preinstalled or downloadable for free. If you use Pinterest, you can get the app for the iPad Mini (or any iPad) and the Kindle Fire HD but not the Nexus 7.
The app support winner. There's no question the iPad Mini has the greatest and best app catalog. But the Nexus 7's catalog is strong for media tablet usage, and the Kindle Fire HD's catalog is adequate.
Deathmatch: Web and Internet
Although "consuming" media and playing games are the main uses of a media tablet, being able to connect to the Internet for Web access is a close third. It's no surprise that all the devices support Wi-Fi for Internet connections -- and Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 models will soon follow in the iPad Mini's footsteps and support cellular connections for anywhere-access to the Internet.
Browsers. As you might expect, all the media tablets provide Web browsers. Using a browser on a 7-inch-class device, however, is often difficult. Web pages are designed for viewing on PCs, where 19-inch and larger monitors are now the norm. On a 10-inch-class tablet, they often feel scrunched, and it's worse on a 7-inch device. Plus, the onscreen keyboard for entering URLs is harder to use.
Still, the ability to zoom in as needed makes surfing acceptable. The iPad Mini provides the best browsing experience due to its larger (8-inch) screen and the capable Safari browser, which has the extra benefit of iCloud synchronization with other iOS and OS X devices.
Android's Chrome browser has a similar feature and is a great browser choice as well. Chrome is slightly more HTML5-savvy than Safari on the iPad -- Chrome scores 390 out of 500 points versus Safari's 386 in the HTML5test.com compatibility tests -- but Safari is better at supporting AJAX controls than Chrome is, meaning some interactive websites will work better on iOS's Safari than on Android's Chrome. All in all, running Chrome on the Nexus 7 is a close second to running Safari on the iPad Mini.
The Kindle Fire HD has the least satisfactory browser experience. Its Silk browser is noticeably slower to load -- sometimes excruciatingly so -- than the other media tablets. And it often reports itself to websites as a smartphone, causing you to get the mobile versions of websites rather than the desktop versions. Plus, Silk responds jerkily to zoom and swipe gestures. Silk is anything but smooth. The Amazon Appstore has no other browsers available for it, so you're stuck with Silk.
Silk offers good bookmarking and history capabilities, but no private-browsing modes, no cross-device tab syncing, no on-page search capabilities, and no built-in sharing capabilities, as both the iPad Mini and Nexus 7 do. Silk has good HTML5 compatibility, scoring 358 points, and its AJAX support is better than Android's or Windows RT's, and nearly equal to iOS's. Too bad using the browser is so frustrating.
Messaging. If you're under a certain age, you text more than you email -- but standard SMS messaging is not supported on tablets. On an iPad Mini or any iPad, you can use Apple's iMessage service to message other iOS and OS X users.
If you don't want to restrict yourself to just people using Apple hardware, you can install a variety of messaging apps such as AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Google Talk, and Yahoo Messenger, or you can message across multiple services using an app like IM+ Pro. The same options are available for Android devices such as the Nexus 7. But of these, only AIM and a version of IM+ Pro called IM+ All in One are available for the Kindle Fire HD.
Apple's FaceTime is an easy-to-use video-calling service, but it too is restricted to iOS and OS X devices. For cross-platform video chats, you'll want to use Skype, which both the iPad Mini and Nexus 7 support. But not the Kindle Fire HD. In fact, I couldn't find any video chat apps for that media tablet.
Wi-Fi support. In addition to 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks, the iPad Mini (like the third- and fourth-generation iPads) supports 5GHz Wi-Fi networks, which usually provide faster connections and greater signal reach, letting you access the Internet in more places and faster. The Kindle Fire HD also supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi, though its Silk browser was still noticeably slower than the iPad Mini's and Nexus 7's. The Nexus 7 supports only 2.4GHz networks.
The Web and Internet winner. The iPad Mini and the Nexus 7 outshine the Kindle Fire HD when it comes to their online capabilities, tying in this category as the best.
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