New Nexus 7 Takes on iPad Mini and Kindle Fire HD

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.

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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 it 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. There's another kind of security to consider for a media tablet, because it's likely to be shared by several family members. In this regard, the Kindle Fire HD and new Nexus 7 are the most secure.

The Kindle Fire HD includes the 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 new Nexus 7 lets you set separate user accounts on the tablet, so each person has his or her own apps and content. Furthermore, you can set up restricted profiles for users, so parents can control what apps and services their kids can access. You can restrict access to any downloaded app, not just predefined Apple titles as in the case of the iPad, and you can turn off location detection globally (not per-service, as in iOS). But there aren't the age-related restrictions for content as in iOS, so you can't for example restrict Google Play videos to G and PG-13 movies.

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 and new Nexus 7 can.

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.

But iOS doesn't let you have multiple accounts, so if you want to set parental controls for your kid, you either need to have a separate iPad for each child (clearly what Apple would prefer you do) or enable them when you allow your child to use your iPad and then disable them when you want to use that iPad. You can't even save settings groups, so such enabling and disabling is a manual process for each setting. Not good.

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, which is offered by both iOS and Android as well.

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. The new Nexus 7's Android 4.3 and the Kindle Fire HD are designed for multiperson use, and both offer good parental controls and adequate corporate security.

The security winner. For business security, the iPad Mini rules. For family security, the new Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD are the winners.

No matter which media tablet suits you, 7-inch tablets come with a fundamental usability trade-off. Small screens mean 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 wide 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 that 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 feel right at home on the Nexus 7.

The Kindle Fire HD's UI is very simple. It's the same Carousel interface you may recognize from the Kindle app on an iPad or Android tablet. You slide from one type of content -- 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 content appear onscreen. Media windows typically divide their contents into two panes that you must switch between: one showing items previously purchased but not downloaded (Cloud) and the other showing items 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 may take 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 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 handle. However, the Nexus 7's front-and-center approach to media apps offers much more straightforward access as a media tablet out of the gate. The Kindle Fire HD is simple to use, but it oversells its stores to the point of annoyance.

It used to be that the priciest media tablet -- the iPad Mini -- had clearly superior hardrware, justifying its price over the cheaper but compromised Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD. The new Nexus 7 changes that equation. The iPad Mini's hardware is still superior -- its larger, better screen and better speakers stand out -- but the Nexus 7's is now quite good, for $100 less. The value decision is a tougher calculation to make than it had been, and factors such as preferred operating system and content stores may end up determining your choice.

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 a couple of days.

iPad Mini. The priciest media tablet is also the most souped up. It boasts the fastest processor and graphics, a usefully larger screen, and a rear camera that can take good-quality photos and videos. These make a real difference for gaming, video playback, and photography. (Note, however, that the iPad Mini lacks a flash and support for HDR photos, both of which you'll find in the current iPod Touch, iPhone, and full-size iPad.) 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. Although the 163 pixels-per-inch count for the iPad Mini is less than that of its competitors, the iPad Mini's screen quality still comes out ahead.

The iPad Mini is a fraction of an inch longer than the Kindle Fire HD but nearly an inch wider than the Nexus 7. Its screen size is nearly an inch longer diagonally, making for a noticeably larger screen. The iPad Mini is also noticeably thinner than the Kindle Fire HD and a tad thinner than the Nexus 7. The iPad Mini weighs 12 ounces, while the Kindle Fire HD weighs 14 ounces and the Nexus 7 weighs just 10 ounces.

The iPad Mini has no storage expansion capability -- a hallmark Apple limitation. Plus, it offers LTE versions 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 with 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 buy the 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 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. For that higher price, you get the best hardware of any media tablet.

Nexus 7. This tablet is designed with an unobtrusive look that focuses you on the screen's display. The new Nexus 7 has a more pronounced widescreen proportion, giving it the widest or narrowest feel, depending on how you're holding it, of all three media tablets.

The screen's visual quality is very good, though it's smaller than I would like. The new 323-pixels-per-inch screen is a big step up compared to the previous Nexus 7, bringing it close to iPad Mini quality levels.

Its speakers are decent -- better than the original model's -- but suffer from distortion at high volumes and an (unfortunate) choice between an echo-chamber effect or tinny tone depending on whether surround sound is enabled. The Nexus 7 now sports a rear camera, which is perfectly adequate. My big beef is its confusing user interface for in-camera adjustments.

In the new model, Wi-Fi support has been improved to include 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi in addition to 802.11g/n 2.4GHz, so your range and speed are now compatible to the competitors. Plus, the Wi-Fi radio supports the new Miracast video streaming standard that is expected to be adopted by TV and other entertainment hardware makers in the next few years. The Bluetooth radio has also been updated to the low-power Version 4.0. Finally, you get the near-field communications (NFC) radio that Google has long promoted but has gained little traction in peripherals.

Like the iPad Mini, the Nexus 7 offers no expansion capability for storage. 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 supports HDMI video output.

Performance is good. Although not quite 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 $229, whereas the 32GB model costs $269. A 32GB model with LTE cellular radio will cost $349 when it ships later this year.

Its 10-ounce weight is 2 ounces less than the iPad Mini and 4 ounces less than the Kindle Fire HD. In other words, it's the lightweight of the group, at least when it comes to actual mass. All in all, the Nexus 7 has good hardware that will meet many users' needs.

Kindle Fire HD. The display quality of the Amazon media tablet 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 Kindle Fire HD's screen is not nearly as good as the iPad Mini's screen, despite the fact that it 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 when playing streamed videos that I didn't experience on the iPad Mini or Nexus 7. It was also poky when opening media files and suffered from stutter occasionally during playback of stored movies.

You get a MiniHDMI connector for video-out, 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 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.

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