How to decide: should you buy an iPad mini, a Kindle Fire HD, or a Nexus 7?

Summary:You might think the big decision is about which has the best hardware, but you'd be wrong. In fact, the big decisions are all about price and ecosystem. David Gewirtz has the details inside.

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The tablet market is moving at warp speed. Back in July, I wrote How to decide: should you buy the Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire? -- and already, we've moved to a new generation of approximately 7-inch mid-size tablets.

The Kindle Fire updated to a new, improved HD version. The Nexus 7 added more memory for the same price. And Apple, better late than never to the party, has finally gotten around to introducing the tablet Steve Jobs said would never be: a 7-inch iPad mini.

The ground rules

Before I dive into the details of these three tablets, let's discuss our usual "how to decide" ground rules. The first is the most important: this is not a review. I'm not reviewing these products and telling you which is better. Instead, I'm helping you understand the various elements of each product, so you can make up your mind which best fits your needs. This is all about you and how you will use the device.

There are two big deciding factors between these devices: price and ecosystem.

Second, I'm only talking about the 7-inch (ish) mid-size tablet offerings. Each of these vendors offers a larger 9- or 10-inch variety, and I'm not going to talk about them at all. You need to decide if you want a smaller or larger tablet (or both). This article is just about the 7-inchers.

And that brings me to the last of the ground rules. Within this article -- and this article only -- when I talk about "tablet" I'm speaking of the device that's approximately 7-inches in size. That's just so I don't have to type "approximately 7-inch tablets" over and over, and you don't have to read it.

So, let's get started.

The big differences

There are two big deciding factors between these devices: price and ecosystem. Put simply, the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 enter the market at $199 while the iPad mini debuts at $329. If you want to spend less money, the iPad mini probably won't be your choice.

The second big factor is ecosystem. Each of these devices is very firmly attached to its own ecosystem: Amazon for the Kindle Fire HD, Android for the Nexus 7, and the mega-kahuna of them all, Apple's iOS for the iPad mini.

If you already have a big investment in any of these three ecosystems, the device choice may turn out to be a no-brainer. Let's look at those ecosystems in a bit more detail.

The Kindle Fire vs. the Kindle Fire HD

In this guide, I won't really be talking about the Kindle Fire (the first generation color Kindle). As of November 9, 2012, the Kindle Fire was still available for $159. But since it got beaten handily by the Nexus 7 on features, and the Kindle Fire HD is only $40 more, I won't be comparing the original Kindle Fire to the other machines in this article.

If you're dying for a tablet, and you can only afford $159, get the original Kindle Fire. My wife still has hers, and she loves it. But if you can spend even just $40 more, there are better choices. Read on.

The app world

According to Wikipedia, Apple's App Store contained more than 700,000 applications as of September 12, 2012. Interestingly, Wikipedia also reports that Android also has more than 700,000 apps available for download from Google Play.

While it is possible to run Google app store Android apps on the Kindle Fire HD, there is some hacking and fiddling involved. According to The Verge, Amazon's Appstore for Android had 50,000 apps as of September -- but only a subset of them will run on the Kindle Fire or Kindle Fire HD.

An important factor (perhaps the most important factor) to keep in mind is that if you already have a substantial app investment, that investment transfers to the new device. So, for example, if you already have a full-size iPad with a pile of apps, you get those apps again on your iPad mini for free. That, alone, might justify the added price.

Clearly, when it comes to the absolute volume of available apps, the iPad mini and the Nexus 7 handily beat the Kindle Fire HD. But if you're buying a Kindle Fire HD, you're probably not buying it for the app store.

Next: application security and variety (plus hardware and more)

Topics: Tablets, Amazon, Apple, Google

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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