October 21, 2013, 3:31 PM — Sure, sure. The tablet market is teeming with options, but are you seriously going to buy Sony's Xperia Tablet Z? Or Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1, the 2014 edition? No, you're not. That's because the tablet market has conveniently divided itself into two distinct product categories, with marquee devices on one side and "budget tablets" (see also: low performing) on the other. Thankfully, the truly great tablets don't cost much more than the wannabes, so you don't have to pay a high price for high-end hardware.
If you're interested is something smaller, you might be looking straight at Google's updated Nexus 7 or Amazon's new Kindle Fire HDX 7-inch model. These tablets lead the 7-inch pack, and they trump Apple's iPad mini (for now). Aside from having a black chassis, the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HDX are nothing alike--and choosing between them is a challenge because their features and software ecosystems are worlds apart. Do you care about open-source software or one-touch customer service? Do you want to purchase all of your media from Google Play or from Amazon? Let's dig in, and figure out which tablet is a better match for your needs.
The 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX is smaller than last year's Fire HD, and more compact than the Nexus 7. Its smaller size leaves a bit of extra room in your purse or bag, and it's easy to hold and use one-handed--both important elements to consider in this consume-while-you-commute world. The HDX is noticeably heavier than the Nexus 7, however, and the volume and power buttons are awkwardly placed on the back of the device. The Nexus 7's recessed buttons are no better, though, and both devices seem to have sacrificed comfortable buttons to achieve thinner bodies.
Winner: Tie. Both the Nexus 7 and the Fire HDX are stylish-looking devices with their own little quirks.
Both the Fire HDX and the Nexus 7 have 7-inch, 1080p displays with the same pixel density. Their high-resolution displays and pristine viewing angles make watching videos, perusing the Web, reading ebooks, and playing games on either one a pleasant experience. But the Kindle HDX shows ivory whites and slightly saturated colors, while the Nexus 7 exhibits a bold color palette against a whiter background. Though neither tablet's screen displays a true black, the Kindle makes a much better reading device because of its softer--albeit dimmer--color palette.
Winner: Google Nexus 7. Its colors are more true-to-form than the Kindle HDX, though the Kindle's screen makes ebooks easier to read.
Quad-core processors are already the norm for most top-tier Android tablets, and both the Nexus 7 and HDX have 'em. The Nexus 7 uses a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro with 2GB of RAM--a beefed-up version of the processor in the now-antiquated Nexus 4 phone--while the Fire HDX is fueled by a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 with 2GB of RAM. Both devices are speedier than most of their similar-size rivals; they launch apps and games without any lag, and the Fire HDX's new processor seems to have taken care of the responsiveness problems that plagued its predecessor.
Winner: Tie. Though the Fire HDX technically has a more powerful processor, both tablets are speedy and responsive.
The Kindle Fire HDX comes with a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera--sufficient for video chatting--but no rear-facing camera. The Google Nexus 7, meanwhile, comes with both a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera.
My review of the Nexus 7 noted that the photo quality, while far from pristine, was passable for sharing photos online and snapping quick shots of the mammals in your life doing silly things. Amazon may have considered it an unnecessary feature, but that rear-facing camera can be a real bonus if you're livecasting the family to grandparents far away.
Winner: Nexus 7. It's nice to have rear-camera functionality when you need it.
After three days of reading, checking things on the Internet, downloading content, and watching a movie on the train ride home, I finally got a request from the HDX to plug it in. It took about 5 hours of constant video playback to reduce the Kindle HDX's battery life to 50%--but even when I left it in my backpack for a few days at a time the HDX didn't burn through much of its battery life.
The Nexus 7 is just as long-lasting, and it can handle almost 9 hours of constant video streaming before it peters out entirely. It managed several days on standby without needing a charge, too. Overall, both devices performed similarly; and if you keep the screen brightness at dim, they'll get through a day of constant usage.
Winner: Tie. The HDX may last a little longer, but both tablets will hold up for several days of moderate use or a full day of heavy use on a single charge.
Both the Fire HDX and the Nexus 7 use Android, but the former runs a "forked" version of Android, meaning that Amazon has essentially built its own mobile operating system (called Amazon Fire OS 3.0) on Android's original framework. The Nexus 7, on the other hand, runs the latest version Android Jelly Bean, so it will receive updates for the latest base version of Android as long as Google supports it.
Amazon places its own content front and center on the Fire HDX, hoping to constantly tempt you to invest in more stuff. As you scroll through the media carousel, you'll see additional suggestions associated with every book, movie, or music title you've downloaded. The avalanche of buying opportunities can be a little overwhelming at first, but the carousel is also why you might gravitate toward the Kindle for reading and watching. Rather than having to sift through myriad disjointed apps, you can find everything you could possibly want to use a tablet for in one place.
Amazon kept some key Android interface elements, such as the Notifications shade and the Quick settings, for its Kindle tablet UI. If you're currently an Android user, you'll notice plenty of similarities in the menus, too.
The Nexus 7 begins its gadget life as a blank slate. Not until you install apps does it have a purpose. After you link your Google account, you don't have direct access to content, as you do with the Fire HDX's interface. Apps are merely icons on the screen, rather part of the instinctual flow of the interface.
Winner: Kindle Fire HDX. It quickly gets you right to the content you use the most.
Apps and content
Though Amazon has a massive content library, its severe lack of apps put it at a disadvantage. The number of Amazon apps has grown exponentially since its app store opened in 2011, but it's still missing major hits like Instagram and Candy Crush Saga. It also lacks Google's core applications--including YouTube--and though it carries Evernote and Dropbox, among other productivity applications, you won't find Microsoft's One Note or (especially) Google Docs.
You can view content that you buy or add to your Amazon Watchlist on any Kindle tablet device, on your computer, or on your television. And though its content is tied down with DRM, you can stream it to any device that supports the Amazon Video app. A neat second-screen app called X-Ray brings up extra information about the video you're currently watching, without your having to scour IMDB. And for the technologically inept, Amazon offers it Mayday service to connect you via video to live support for any Amazon- or Kindle-related issue you might run into.
The Nexus 7 is a bit like traversing the Wild West with a few prospecting tools and a mule: There's a lot of gold out there, but getting to it is an adventure. The Google Play store has grown significantly over the past two years, and it's now neck-in-neck with Apple's iTunes Store for iOS in total app count. Out of the box you'll get Gmail, Google Chrome, and a family of separate apps for each of the different Play services, including Google Books and Google Music (which offers an All Access monthly subscription service). Though your media is tied to the Android platform, you can use Chromecast (sold separately) to stream video to your television from the Nexus 7, or Miracast to physically tether it.
Winner: Kindle Fire HDX. Though it lacks the Nexus 7's core applications, you can watch your content virtually anywhere and call on Amazon's attentive customer service if you find yourself in dire straits.
And the winner is...
The Kindle Fire HDX. It wins on the strength of its superior interface and software/content, though it excels in other matters, too.
I found myself using the Fire HDX more often than the Nexus 7 to watch movies and to read on the train ride home. Its smaller size and convenient content carousel help guide you to exactly what you're most likely to use a tablet for, without having to sift through a library of apps or spend hours setting it up. The HDX is also a keen choice for technologically challenged family members, as it offers better out-of-the-box functionality. And it doesn't hurt that the Fire HDX is the cheaper of the two: a 16GB second-generation Nexus 7 costs $269, while the 16GB version of the Kindle Fire HDX will set you back $229.
Multitaskers looking for a huge app library and maximum flexibility, however, might prefer the Google Nexus 7. It provides access to a vast application library, and it's a good option for families looking to share a tablet, since it lets you switch between user accounts. You don't have to worry about missing out on Amazon's features, either, because Amazon's services are available as individual apps in the Google Play store.