Google's revised media tablet is a lot better than the original, but not enough to unseat the iPad Mini in our media tablet deathmatch
Last year's Asus-made Google Nexus 7 was the first 7-inch tablet done right, and it quickly created a market for a media tablet, a more portable unit primarily used to read books, watch movies, and listen to music. Although backward-thinking analyst firms and IT pros considered the iPad and the 10-inch Android equivalents to be "mere" media tablets, in fact they were general-purpose tablets, with the same mix of entertainment and business uses as, say, a Windows PC. The Nexus 7, by contrast, was designed to be primarily a media tablet, even putting the Google media services front and center on its modified Android home screen.
But the original Nexus 7 was a poor piece of hardware, a clearly compromised device meant to get customers with a low price. Compared to an e-reader, its color screen and multiple capabilities may have seemed advanced, but to anyone who used an iPad or a better Android tablet, such as a Galaxy Tab 10.1, it was an unsatisfactorily cheap device.
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Amazon.com's Kindle Fire HD followed a few months later, but it too was a compromised device. Then came the iPad Mini, which showed everyone how to do a media tablet, though for $329 rather than the $199 of a Nexus 7 or the $214 of a Kindle Fire HD. Its hardware quality put it head and shoulders above the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HD, meaning you got a much better media experience. And it did everything a full-size iPad did, as long as you could read the smaller screen. Ironically, the Nexus 7 did almost everything a standard Android tablet could do, too, but many people never noticed due to its media-centered initial UI.
Now Asus and Google have reworked the Nexus 7, delivering a new model with significantly better hardware that's more in line, at least at the spec level, with what an iPad Mini delivers. The new Nexus 7 does cost $30 more than the old model, bringing the 16GB Wi-Fi model to $229 versus the iPad Mini's $329. The 32GB model costs $269, versus the iPad Mini's $429. The new Nexus 7 appears to be a bargain compared to the iPad Mini -- but is it? To find out, InfoWorld has updated its original deathmatch comparison of the three signature media tablets. Read on to see how the new Nexus 7 stacks up in that comparison.
A good media tablet is all about quality entertainment: music, videos, books, magazines, games, edutainment apps, information services, social networking, Web browsing, and messaging (chat and email). Of course, it needs to be lightweight and easily carried in your hands, purse, or jacket -- so much the better if it can be used to check on business in a pinch, such as when you're standing in line for the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland and your boss has a mini-crisis about one of your accounts.
The primary reason most people want a media tablet is, well, to access media over the Internet. But each media tablet also has its own method of transferring, storing, and organizing media files.
Getting media files onto your tablet. iTunes is Apple's not-so-secret weapon when it comes to media delivery on PCs, Macs, iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches. It's a media organizer for movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, and books. It lets you buy music, videos, books, and all sorts of apps, as well as import your own music, videos, and books. It syncs your media content to all your devices and keeps your purchases consistent. It lets you create playlists. iTunes is the flexible central hub that simply has no rival on any competing device.
Google, Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble all have music, video, and app stores, as does Microsoft, but they lack iTunes' easy integration of your existing media with the media they sell. Yes, you can use direct transfer of media files (in Windows) or transfer utilities (in OS X), or cloud storage, or USB drives to transfer files to these devices, but all are poor imitations of the iTunes experience.
If you're using a standard Android tablet, you can use a utility such as DoubleTwist to get fairly close to iTunes' capabilities (it even works with iTunes libraries), but it doesn't work with the Nexus 7 unless you buy the $10 AirTwist add-on to DoubleTwist. With or without AirTwist, DoubleTwist isn't available for the custom versions of Android that Amazon and B&N have on their media tablets, so you'll need to use a direct USB connection to transfer your computer's existing media (in OS X, you also need Google's primitive Android File Transfer utility).
Note that the iPad Mini and Nexus 7 both support MP3 and AAC (.m4a) audio, MPEG-4 (.m4v and .mp4) video, and ePub and PDF files. You can convert several common video formats to compatible MPEG-4 versions using OS X's included QuickTime Player utility or via third-party utilities for Windows. The Kindle Fire HD supports all the same formats except ePub, meaning you can only read books in its proprietary Mobi file format. (The free open source Calibre app for OS X and Windows can convert ePubs to Mobi format.)
All three media tablets put transferred music in their music apps; on the Kindle Fire HD, be sure to switch to the Devices pane to see them. But they handle transferred videos and books differently:
- The iPad Mini puts all personal videos in the Movies pane in the Videos app. The Nexus 7 puts transferred video in the Play Video app's Personal Videos pane. The Kindle Fire HD doesn't put the videos in the Videos window at all; you have to go to the Kindle Fire's Apps view, then open the Personal Videos app to see your transferred videos. (The Kindle Fire's Videos window shows only videos purchased at Amazon.)
- For books, the iPad Mini puts ePubs and PDFs in their books apps. The Kindle Fire puts copied PDFs in its Docs window and Mobi books in its Books window, both in the Devices pane. The Nexus 7's Play Books app can't access copied books at all, though the Kindle app can if you place the Mobi files in the Nexus 7's Kindle folder.
If you're willing to live without iTunes, Amazon has the broadest video and music libraries, followed by Google, then Microsoft. You can watch or read iTunes-purchased content only on an Apple device, just as you can play videos or music purchased from the Google, Barnes & Noble, or Microsoft media stores only on their respective devices.
However, in addition to playback on the Kindle Fire HD, Amazon lets you play music bought from its store on Android and iOS devices (you need to use its iPhone app on the iPad) via its Cloud Player app. It lets you play rented videos on iOS devices, but not Android, through its Instant Video app. And Amazon lets you read its e-books nearly anywhere using the Kindle app available for most PC and mobile platforms.
Google lets you play music on an iOS device via a Web app, as well as read Google Play e-books on iOS through the native Google Play Books app -- but you can't watch Google Play videos on non-Android devices.
Both the iPad Mini's Music app and the Nexus 7's Play Music app (the standard Android player) let you create your own playlists on your tablet, but the Kindle Fire HD's Music app does not. Likewise, the iPad Mini supports podcasts and podcast subscriptions via its Podcast app, but there is no equivalent capability included with the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD; you'll need to get a third-party app instead.
You can use popular video streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, along with audio streaming services such as Pandora on all the media tablets. Over Wi-Fi, they all played streaming videos and audio smoothly.
The iPad Mini comes in versions for the AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon cellular networks, for $130 more. On the Verizon LTE network in San Francisco, a cellular iPad Mini sometimes struggled to keep up with the video stream -- a fact of life on cellular networks from any provider. The Nexus 7 does not come in a cellular version, though $349, 32GB models are planned to support the T-Mobile and Verizon networks. The 7-inch Kindle Fire HD has no cellular model; you have to get the 8.9-inch Kindle Fire, which belongs to a different class of tablets.
For e-books, Amazon has the largest book library of anyone. But that doesn't give the Kindle Fire an advantage, because you can read books purchased from Amazon on your iPad or any other iOS device, Nexus 7 or any other Android device, or for that matter, a Windows 8/RT device.
The content winner. Of the media tablets, the iPad Mini has the broadest options for content sources, not just for iTunes media but for media from Amazon (books, music, and video), Google (books), and B&N (books). Next is Android, which supports media from Amazon (books and music) and B&N (books). It's a no-brainer that the best small tablet for accessing media content is the iPad Mini.
But what about for playing media? Here, the decision is a bit more complex.
Video playback. Many product reviews zero in on the tablet's pixel count, but that's usually a meaningless figure. The quality of the image rarely correlates to total pixels, so my evaluation is based on subjective image quality.
The iPad Mini's screen is the best of the three media tablets reviewed here, with a brighter display and a better tonal range. By contrast, the Kindle Fire HD's screen is both dark and muddy. The new Nexus 7 has a much improved screen compared to the original model, which suffered the same quality issues as the Kindle Fire HD. The new Nexus 7's screen is brighter and has a good tonal range, close to the iPad Mini's quality level. But the Nexus 7's screen is quite a bit smaller than the iPad Mini's -- readily apparent if you play a movie on the two side by side.
A full-size, third- or fourth-gen iPad screen has even better color range and details, though honestly you only notice the differences in nature films and sci-fi epics, where high-def images are accentuated. Your typical comedy film or TV show appears the same on both types of iPad screens -- and on the new Nexus 7's screen. But an issue with all three tablets is their screens' reflectivity: Even in cloudy daylight skies, you'll see a reflection of your face constantly in view.
In addition to the dingy look and the unpleasant cast that puts on videos, the Kindle Fire HD suffered from periodic stutters during playback, even of video stored on the device. Neither the iPad Mini nor Nexus 7 had playback stutters.
Audio playback. All the media tablets support standard audio jacks for private listening on the headphones or earbuds of your choice. All three also support Bluetooth audio streaming, and the iPad Mini supports Apple's proprietary AirPlay streaming over Wi-Fi networks to compatible speakers or, via an Apple TV, to stereos and TVs.
For direct audio, the full-size iPad has long suffered from having a mono speaker, though one with good clarity and tonal balance. The iPad Mini adds stereo -- and wins hands down. You can crank the iPad Mini louder than the other two tablets, without the distortion the Kindle Fire HD has at maximum volume. The new Nexus 7 can get almost as loud as the iPad Mini, but with the surround sound option switched on (the default), you'll often hear distortion when music is playing (not so much for dialog).
The quality of the iPad Mini's speakers is good enough for boom-box-style use, such as at a party or in a conference room, though at maximum volume a flatness creeps in, likely due to the iPad Mini's thin chassis. To optimize the audio, the iPad Mini's Settings app has equalizer preselects you can choose, but no tool to set your own EQ settings.
The sound from the original Nexus 7's built-in stereo speakers struck me as tinny, muddy, and hollow, even with bass boost on -- it was grating to listen to. Its equalizer option in the Play Music app was both unintuitive to use and unable to eliminate the hollow tone. The new Nexus 7's speakers are much better, with clearer tones and range. But there's an annoying echo-chamber effect when the surround sound option is on, and a tinniness when it is off. Overall, the new Nexus 7's speakers are better than the old model's, but still inferior to the iPad Mini's.
The Kindle Fire HD's stereo sound is also tinny and a bit flat, even with the Dolby Digital Plus audio processing option enabled; there's also unmistakable distortion at maximum volume. Unlike the Nexus 7, the Kindle Fire HD offers no equalizer controls. Its speakers sound better than those of the original Nexus 7 but not as good as the new Nexus 7.
TV/stereo playback. The iPad Mini supports AirPlay streaming (if you have an Apple TV), along with video-out via HDMI and VGA cables. You can use it as a portable DVD and music player at hotels and other people's homes, as well as a presentation device at conferences and meetings via its video mirroring capability.
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