Whether you’ve never owned a tablet or just you’re looking to upgrade from an older one, there’s never been a better time to buy than now. The multitude of excellent tablets out now means that not only do we get a choice, but all our options are priced to compete. You can buy a great tablet for about $300, or even less.
Google’s $200 Nexus 7 tablet was hailed as the Kindle Fire-killer when it burst onto the scene in July, but Amazon responded with full force this fall, dropping the price on the old Kindle Fire to $159 and announcing new HD models.
Not to be outdone, Apple has released a downsized version of its wildly successful iPad. But while it has the slimmest profit margin of any device Apple sells, the iPad mini still costs $130 more than the Nexus 7 and 7-inch Kindle Fire HD (both of which are sold at cost).
Does the mere fact that it’s an iPad make it worth the extra dough? Keep reading to find out.
Apple’s position is that the iPad mini is not a 7-inch tablet. This is technically true: at 7.85 inches, it offers more screen real estate than either of its competitors, with the same pixel resolution (1024 x 768) as the iPad 2 and original iPad. But the mini’s display is the weakest of Apple’s current iOS devices – not even close to Retina quality.
The Nexus 7 and the 7″ Kindle Fire HD have the same resolution: 1280 x 800. That’s not too many more pixels than the iPad mini, but taking size into account, the Android tablets have substantially better pixel density. It’s pretty clear Apple skimped on the display quality to keep costs down.
That might not matter for you though. Most folks’ eyes cant distinguish individual pixels on any of these at arm’s length – especially not with a moving image. Games, videos, photos and even ebooks look great on all of these tablets.
Also, even if it isn’t as nice as the competition, the iPad mini’s larger display is handy for touch navigation – particularly on scaled-down iPad apps.
The Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD both start at $200 for 16GB. In both cases, $50 extra doubles your built in storage. The 16GB iPad mini starts at $330, and doubling up on capacity is an extra $100 instead of $50.
Under the Hood
The iPad mini runs on the same 1GHz CPU as the iPad 2, with the same amount of RAM, and as such it performs at almost exactly the same level. The interface is still snappy, and there aren’t many games it won’t run, but with the proliferation of faster iOS devices already underway it’s far from future-proof.
The same goes for the Kindle Fire HD – it’s way faster than last year’s Kindle Fire, but not on the same level as the Nexus 7.
Google’s little tablet runs on a quad-core NVidia Tegra 3, and it absolutely screams, outperforming the iPad mini and Fire HD by broad margins. It runs all the best Android games available now, and while it’s not quite as powerful as the brand new Nexus 10 we’ll be surprised if any Android game released in the next year is too much for the Nexus 7.
The Nexus 7’s battery lasts about 10 hours of use. The Kindle Fire HD is closer to 11 or 12. But the iPad mini takes the round, with normal-use rundowns lasting up to 13 hours. All of those numbers are impressive, so in a way you can’t go wrong as far as battery life is concerned.
The 32GB Nexus 7 is available with a 3G antenna for $300 ($50 extra). Adding mobile data to an iPad mini is $100, but instead of a 3G antenna you get 4G LTE. The 7″ Fire HD isn’t available with a cellular antenna and doesn’t include a GPS.
That might not make a difference for you, but if you’re using your tablet on the go it’s nice to have access to navigation and to streaming services like Spotify.
OS and UI
The iPad mini is instantly recognizable as an iPad. It has the same simple, fixed interface as the rest of Apple’s iOS devices, so chances are you know what you’re getting into. Customizable it isn’t – you can’t choose your own default apps and there’s nothing like Android’s widgets – but if you’re using it mostly for media and games that might not matter. We actually prefer its App-focused UI.
And while we were worried that scaling down the iPad’s interface by 20% might make navigation tricky, we never had any serious problems with it.
If you want to customize your tablet’s OS, there’s only one real option here. When you buy a Nexus 7, you get the latest version of Android (4.2 Jelly Bean) with no overlays or added limitations. And whenever a new version of Android is released, the Nexus 7 will be among the first devices to get it.
Asus may have done the assembly, but this is Google’s tablet. That means Chrome is the default browser, and Google services like Maps, Google Drive, Gmail and Google Now are fully integrated out of the box: so if you’re into those, awesome; if not, there’s another 700,000 apps in the ever-growing Google Play Store.
The Fire HD doesn’t do so well in this department: Amazon’s heavily-forked version of Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) is basically a pseudo-home screen that’s been skinned beyond recognizability. And it blocks 3rd-party widgets altogether.
And don’t forget about “Special Offers.” The lock-screen ads that would get you a $30 discount on the old Kindle E-reader are factored into all the base prices of Amazon’s tablets. There’s also an “Offers” icon stuck to the home screen. Yes, you can just ignore these – and it’s always possible they’ll point you to something you actually like (Amazon has an uncanny way of knowing what we want) – but ads do have the effect of making things feel cheap. For $15 you can unsubscribe from the ads at any time, so at least die-hard ad haters have a simpler option than rooting their tablet.