Magazine and newspaper reading. When it comes to magazines, the battle is between the iPad Mini and the Kindle Fire HD, both of which have fairly large magazine and newspaper subscription libraries available. Android's Play Market has a small magazine selection. iOS's Newsstand app conveniently puts all your subscriptions in one place, with the option to get alerts when new editions are available. The Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire also aggregate your subscriptions and offer new-issue notifications.
The real test of reading magazines on a tablet comes down to the magazines' specific apps, and too many don't work well on a tablet. Most are PDF-like replicas of their print layouts, perhaps with the ability to switch to a text view for easier reading but without the accompanying graphics -- that's standard for the Kindle Fire and optional on other devices. I find most magazines on all the media tablets unsatisfying. One major exception is the Economist, whose iOS and Android apps show how it should be done.
Fortunately, most newspaper apps are designed for tablet reading, such as USA Today, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Newspaper apps on the iPad Mini tend to be more nicely designed, easier to navigate, and more readable than on the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD.
All in all, the iPad Mini is the best book reader, especially if you use the iBooks and Kindle apps. On the Nexus 7, you'll really want to use the Kindle app rather than the native Google Play Books app, because Play Books is hard to read -- a nonstarter for an e-reader.
The playback winner. When it comes to playback options, the iPad Mini wins, mainly because it has the most flexible playback options -- both in terms of output options and playback apps available. If you're looking for a device you want to listen to without external speakers or headphones, you'll again prefer the iPad Mini, whose video playback quality is also very nice.
Deathmatch: Application supportiOS 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 InternetAlthough "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.
Deathmatch: Business connectivityYou don't get a media tablet to do work. But as more and more workers find themselves on perpetual call, your media tablet should provide at least first-level capabilities such as the ability to do work email and view documents in common formats. It's even better if you can use such devices to work on projects without having to find a computer somewhere.
An iPad Mini, because it's an iPad, has great support for Microsoft Exchange, in addition to IMAP and POP servers. If your company supports iPad access to corporate resources, your iPad Mini becomes just another iPad for both your company and you, giving you the most security of any mobile OS outside the BlackBerry, as well as the greatest selection of effective mobile productivity apps. If you hadn't installed those apps on your iPad Mini, you can download them from the App Store at no charge if previously purchased for a work iPad. The only real difficulty you might face is dealing with the smaller screen and thus smaller keyboard for any text-intensive work.
The Nexus 7 is your second best bet for doing work from a media tablet. Its Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" OS has solid security capabilities and Exchange support, its Email and Calendar apps are solid if unexceptional, and Google's Quickoffice HD Pro app for Android is capable enough for most business work. Plus, as with the iPad Mini, you'll find apps for a wide variety of business needs, from Salesforce.com to SAP access.
Of course, many enterprises refuse to support Android devices due to concerns over its malware-infested Play Store and Google's history of inattention to security. So even if your Nexus 7 or other Android tablet can help you out in an emergency, your company may or may not not let you use it.
The Kindle Fire HD supports Exchange, including the same kinds of security policies as standard Android devices -- a new capability in this second Kindle Fire generation. The Email and Calendar apps have simpler UIs than the stock Android versions, to fit better on the small screen. But all the capabilities you need are there, including attachment previews and calendar invites. I was impressed with their quality given the Kindle Fire HD's decidedly nonbusiness target user. It too can be used in a pinch -- if your business is willing to let it in.
Although the Amazon Appstore is curated, the Kindle Fire HD allows sideloading of apps like other Android devices do, so you can install non-app-store apps on it. A basic version Quickoffice is available for the Kindle Fire, so you can do basic Office document work with it.
The business connectivity winner. In all cases, assuming you're permitted Exchange access from your media tablet, you have basic email, calendar, and contacts capabilities available. But to do real work routinely, your best option is the iPad Mini.
Deathmatch: SecuritySecurity is probably not top of mind when choosing a media tablet, but it should be one of your purchase criteria.
Corporate security. As noted, the iPad Mini has the same strong enterprise-class capabilities as any iOS device, including a highly compatible VPN client. Also as noted, the Nexus 7 has the moderate security capabilities of most recent Android tablets. The Nexus 7 has Android's standard VPN support, which unfortunately does not include Cisco IPSec VPNs (you'll need to download Cisco's AnyConnect client as well as buy a client access license for it). The Kindle Fire HD provides the basics of Exchange device security, including encryption, and there are even a few VPN vendors' clients for it in the Amazon Appstore -- but not for Cisco VPNs.
Note that both the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD, like all Android 3 and 4 devices, come unencrypted. The encryption process requires a full charge, so you can't do it as soon as you open the box, and takes about 30 to 45 minutes. Note that you can't enable encryption on the Kindle Fire HD in its Settings app; only when you try to connect to an Exchange server that requires encryption are you given the ability to turn on encryption. If you're on the road without a full battery charge the first time you try to connect to Exchange, you'll be out of luck. Like all iOS devices, the iPad Mini is always encrypted, and encryption can't be disabled.
All three media tablets support passwords, so you can prevent unauthorized people from using them.
Family security. But there's another kind of security to consider for a media tablet since it's likely to be shared by several family members. In this regard, the Kindle Fire HD is the most secure, thanks to its FreeTime app that lets you set up separate content libraries for each person, essentially giving them a separate login to just their library. Parents can use that capability to restrict what their kids can access, as well as limit the number of hours of usage each day.
The iPad Mini's Guided Access lets you restrict the tablet to a specific app and even block some of an app's capabilities (such as Buy buttons) by drawing blocking ovals around their controls. But this new iOS 6 feature has to be enabled each time you want to use it and can be used for just one app at a time. It's fine when you want to hand your iPad to your kid for a specific purpose, but it's nowhere near as useful as the ability to set up separate environments, as the Kindle Fire HD can.
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