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

The iPad has a comprehensive set of parental controls that let you configure what your kids can access. Tech-savvy parents can even use Apple's free Apple Configurator tool for OS X to create and deploy profiles with such configurations to their kids' devices, as well as update them remotely (though we're talking supergeek parents here). Safari's private browsing mode lets parents access Web pages they don't want their kids to easily see, as this mode ensures no history is kept of the visited pages.

The Kindle Fire HD too has a solid set of password-based parental controls should you decide not to use FreeTime; these controls can also protect you should your device be lost or stolen. The Nexus 7 has no parental controls to restrict individual capabilities, just the ability to set a password for access to the tablet itself.

The bottom line is that the iPad Mini's iOS assumes that just one person uses an iPad (or iTunes), so it can be problematic to share freely. But it has the most sophisticated parental control options and the best corporate security capabilities. Android is even more single user-oriented and its parental controls are nonexistent, much less anything like the notion of separate user accounts. The Kindle Fire HD is designed for multiperson use and offers both good parental controls and adequate corporate security.

The security winner. For business security, the iPad Mini rules. For family security, the Kindle Fire HD rules.

Deathmatch: UsabilityNo matter what media tablet suits you, 7-inch tablets come with a fundamental usability trade-off. Small screens means small controls and small text. If you're middle-aged, don't be surprised if you need reading glasses, and don't expect to touch-type on the onscreen keyboards.

The iPad Mini has the usability of any iPad: a rich gesture-based interface and avoidance of menus that can slow you down. Its Music, Videos, Podcasts, and iBooks apps for media playback are simple to use, and I like that the store apps are kept separate so that you're not distracted with ads when trying to play media. Its larger screen is quite usable on all sorts of apps and Web pages that feel constrained on a Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7. Yes, the iPad Mini may be too small for some purposes, but it's surprisingly usable in a large range of circumstances.

The Nexus 7 has a custom user interface that displays on the main home screen tiles for book, movie, music, and magazine content that resides in your libraries. The standard app icons on the home screens are all related to media usage: Play Store, Play Music, Play Video, Google Play's magazine library, and Play Books. By having your media options front and center, you can get right to what you likely bought the Nexus 7 to do -- I also appreciate its separation of the store from the playback tools. If you don't want the media controls front and center, you can change the home screen and default app icons.

Once you get past that media-oriented home screen, the Nexus 7 is just another Android tablet, providing the standard UI for accessing apps and services. My objection to that UI is it favors thin, light text and controls on black backgrounds, which I find hard to read, particularly on a small, reflective screen. But if you like Android's operational UI -- its gestures, notification tray, widgets, and configurable home screens -- you'll be right at home on the Nexus 7.

The Kindle Fire HD's UI is very simple, using the Carousel interface you may recognize from the Kindle app on an iPad or Android tablet. You slide from one type of usage -- Books, Apps, Docs, Newsstand, and so on -- via a horizontal scroll list at the top of the screen, and the apps, media, or files for that usage appear onscreen. Media windows typically divide their contents into two panes that you must switch between: one showing purchases previously purchased but not downloaded (Cloud) and those on your device (Device).

The Home, Back, and Add to Home Screen buttons almost always display onscreen -- you have to tap the screen to see them when reading books or watching movies. But settings are hidden and you have to swipe from the top of the screen to see your settings options. The Kindle Fire HD's UI takes some time to get used to, mainly because it's so different from the approach in iOS and Android. In fact, it's quite easy once you get the hang of it. Its only real flaw is its hard sell of Amazon's content and app stores, which are frequently front and center.

The usability winner. iOS has long balanced ease of use with complex, capable applications. Although some aspects of iOS are harder than they need to be, such as switching to airplane mode, overall the iPad Mini is the most usable media tablet. Thanks to its larger screen, the device is even easier to use. However, the Nexus 7's front-and-center approach to media apps offers much easier use as a media tablet out of the gate. The Kindle Fire HD is simple to work, but it oversells its stores to the point of annoyance.

Deathmatch: HardwareThere's a fairly wide price range among media tablets, which typically reflects the degree of hardware punch. Both the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD are somewhat underpowered. They're easier on the wallet, but their usefulness is limited by comparison.

Fully charged, all three media tablets reviewed here ran for at least eight hours on battery power -- often several hours more, with moderate use. The Kindle Fire HD and iPad Mini had a standby life of several days, whereas the Nexus 7 lasted only about a day and a half.

iPad Mini. The priciest media tablet is also the most souped up. It boasts the fastest processor and graphics of the lot and has a usefully larger screen. Unlike its competitors, the iPad Mini has a rear camera that can take good-quality photos and videos -- but not as good as the current iPod Touch, iPhone, and full-size iPad can, as it lacks a flash and support for HDR photos. These make a real difference for gaming, video playback, and photography. The built-in speakers' sound is much better than that of the Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7.

Although the iPad Mini doesn't use Apple's very crisp Retina display (with 2,048-by-1,536-pixel resolution), the 8-inch screen size means its 1,024-by-768-pixel resolution results in a higher number of dots per inch than that of the iPad 2's display.

The iPad Mini is barely bigger than the Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7; it's just a fraction of an inch longer than the Kindle Fire HD and a fraction of an inch wider and longer than the Nexus 7. Yet its screen size is nearly an inch longer diagonally, for a noticeably larger screen. The iPad Mini is also noticeably thinner than the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7, although their weights are similar (the iPad Mini and Nexus both weigh 12 ounces, while the Kindle Fire HD weighs 14 ounces).

The iPad Mini has no storage expansion capability -- a hallmark Apple limitation -- but it supports 5GHz Wi-Fi for increased range and speed. Plus, it offers LTE versions (to ship in mid-November) for the three top U.S. carriers: Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint. It also sports low-power Bluetooth 4.0 and AirPlay streaming if you own an Apple TV and AirPrint wireless printing if you have a compatible printer.

The iPad Mini's Lightning connector is compact and versatile, if you're willing to pony up for such pricey peripherals as video connectors ($49 each) and wait for the peripheral makers to offer Lightning versions of all those Dock-connector devices that made the first three generations of the iPad so versatile. Taking its wired and wireless capabilities together, the iPad Mini can connect in almost every way that matters.

The iPad Mini's aluminum casing feels lovely in your hand, and the iPad Mini is beautiful to see. By contrast, the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 feel plasticky and lack visual sophistication.

The Pad Mini costs $329 for a model with 16GB of storage. The 32GB model costs $429, and the 64GB model costs $529. The cellular models cost $130 more.

Nexus 7. This unremarkable tablet is designed with an unobtrusive look that focuses you on the screen's display. The screen's visual quality is adequate, though its screen resolution of 216 ppi doesn't help it appear as sharp as the iPad Mini or even the Kindle Fire HD. Also, the screen is too reflective and a bit dim, making it difficult to use in normally lit offices (forget about daylight use outside). The Nexus 7 lacks a rear camera, so you can't use it for picture-taking, but it has a front camera for video chats.

The Wi-Fi support is basic 2.4GHz, so your range and speed are less than those offered by some other devices. There's a Bluetooth radio, but it's the older, power-hungry 3.0 version. And there's no expansion capability for storage, nor support for video-out. Like the iPad Mini, the Nexus 7 comes with a dual-voltage USB wall charger and MicroUSB charge/sync cable. Like its two competitors, it has no SD card for adding storage.

Performance is good. Although not as zippy as an iPad Mini, the Nexus 7 doesn't have the periodic lags of the Kindle Fire HD. The 16GB model costs a modest $199, whereas the 32GB model costs $249. A 32GB model with 3G cellular radio will cost $299 when it ships later this month.

Its 12-ounce weight mirrors that of the iPad Mini. That's 2 ounces less than the Kindle Fire HD. In other words, it's close to its competitors. All in all, the Nexus 7 has decent but limited hardware; it feels slightly dated, though it's a six-month-old product.

Kindle Fire HD. The visual quality for the Amazon media tablet's screen is adequate, though crisper and clearer than the Nexus 7's even with the muddiness created by the Kindle's yellowish color balance. But the screen is not as good as the iPad Mini's screen, despite the fact that is has a higher pixel density (216 ppi versus the iPad Mini's 163 ppi).

Although it claims fast, dual-radio Wi-Fi, I found the Kindle Fire HD was the slowest of the three media tablets for Wi-Fi access, with occasional stuttering for streamed videos that I didn't experience on the iPad Mini or Nexus 7. It was also pokey when opening media files and suffered from stutter occasionally during video playback of stored movies.

You do get a MiniHDMI connector for video-out, as well as well as a MicroUSB connector for charging and syncing. There's also a front-facing camera for video chats, but no rear camera for taking pictures. There's also no SD card or other expansion capability, and it uses the older, power-hungry Bluetooth 3.0 technology. It's clear that the Kindle Fire HD's low price comes from hardware compromises.

Beware the prices you see on the Amazon website for the Kindle. Once you pay to remove the obnoxious ads and pay for the power charger block that isn't included as it should be (though a USB cable is, so you can charge it from an existing 10W power block), the 16GB model costs $224 and the 32GB model costs $274.

The hardware winner. Apple has the best hardware -- no question. But you'll pay for it: For the Wi-Fi model, my recommended configuration of 32GB costs $439, versus $274 for the 32GB Kindle Fire HD. The 32GB cellular model will cost $569, versus $299 for the 32GB cellular Nexus 7. If you don't want the iPad's better, larger screen or need a fully capable tablet that can do anything a full-size tablet can, then the Kindle Fire HD should be your top choice. But it's a performance-compromised device.

The Nexus 7 has some nice attributes, especially its ability to run almost anything a full-size Android tablet can and its decent Web browser. But the device has too many compromises. It doesn't play audio as well as the others, its parental controls are minimal, its video playback is just OK, and it has no video-out. Like the Kindle Fire HD, the Nexus 7's hardware feels underpowered at times, though it doesn't suffer from video stutter as the Kindle Fire HD does. The Nexus 7 needs a serious refresh to regain the high praise it earned when it was released in June, but it still beats the newer Kindle Fire HD in some hardware areas.

Media tabletApple iPad Mini

And the overall winner is ...It should be clear by now that the iPad Mini is the best tablet because it does so much more and at a much higher level of quality than the competition.

But many people don't need all that or aren't willing to pay for it. If you just want to read books, listen to music, watch the occasional video, and periodically check email, get a Kindle Fire HD instead -- unless Web browsing is a paramount need, in which case the Nexus 7 is the better low-cost option. Either way, don't think you're getting a cheap iPad if you do. The iPad Mini lives in a higher-class world than the other media tablets do, and you're either in that world or you're not.

This story, "Tablet deathmatch: iPad Mini vs. Nexus 7 vs. Kindle Fire HD," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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This story, "Tablet deathmatch: iPad Mini vs. Nexus 7 vs. Kindle Fire HD" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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