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

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)

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Application security vs. application variety

The Android ecosystem has been growing at warp speed, surpassing iOS in terms of number of units out there and reaching application quantity parity (at least according to Google) a few months ago.

But there are some very serious qualitative differences between these two ecosystems.

The first issue is security. Apple's iOS architecture "sandboxes" apps, so each app can't really touch much of what's in any other application. Some apps can get to your contact list, but they can't modify anything in the OS or files belonging to other applications, or the behavior of the machine.

If you want to tweak your iOS machine, there are definite limits.

On the other hand, Android lets everything be controlled and programmed by app developers. This allows applications like XBMC (the Xbox Media Center) to be ported to Android, but not iOS. Apple doesn't allow some of the media codecs that XBMC uses. Apple is somewhat careful about what apps it allows to be sold for iOS, where Google allows everything.

You can find apps for Android you just can't find for iOS. This is good... and bad.

As CNN reports, Android malware is rising at a furious pace. Because each app can fiddle with the entire environment (assuming you grant it permission), a lot more damage can be done in Android than in iOS.

In my Android security deep dive presentation last year, I showed how third-party app stores are embedding malware payloads on otherwise legitimate Android products. This problem doesn't exist for iOS devices (unless you jailbreak them).

If you want to run something specific and special, like XBMC, then you're probably going to want the Nexus 7. But if you're nervous about security, the iPad mini is your choice. Amazon does a better job securing apps on its app store than Google, so it gets an honorable mention.

Office ecosystem integration

The Nexus 7 is intimately tied into the Google ecosystem, so if you're running Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs (which are part of Google Drive), the Nexus 7 is a no-brainer. You actually can't use the Nexus 7 until you login with a Google ID.

Speaking personally, I really hated that. I don't use Gmail (I use a corporate Exchange server), and I really didn't want to immediately link my Nexus 7 to Google's identity controls. But I'm in the minority.

The iPad has a number of excellent Office clones, as does the Android ecosystem. However, the iPad mini will let you access a corporate Exchange server with the built-in email app, where you need to buy an Exchange-aware app for either the Kindle Fire HD or the Nexus 7.

Amazon ecosystem integration

This is clearly a gimmee for Amazon, but for good reason. Amazon provides a wide range of added features to Kindle Fire HD purchasers, especially if you're also an Amazon Prime ($79/year) customer.

If you're an Amazon Prime customer, you get access to a moderately large collection of free TV shows and movies, right on your device. You also get the ability to "borrow" Kindle books, checking them out just like you would in a library. My wife "borrowed" Hunger Games from the Amazon Kindle Library, read it, and returned it -- and it didn't cost her a cent.

In my mind, this is the key point when it comes to the Kindle Fire HD. If you're an Amazon customer, particularly if you're an Amazon Prime customer, and you make heavy use of the Amazon ecosystem -- and you want the device primarily as an Amazon content consumption machine, then the Kindle Fire HD is for you.

To be fair, the Kindle reader app works just fine on the iPad mini and the Nexus 7 as well, so if you just want to read Kindle books you've paid for, you can use any device. This, in fact, is the enormous inherent value in the Kindle ecosystem itself. I read most of my books on my iPhone, and find it quite pleasant.

As a bonus, if you're not an Amazon Prime customer, you get a free month of the service (a whole $6.58 value) when you buy the Kindle Fire HD.

One gotcha is that the base $199 Kindle Fire HD comes with "special offers". These are ads that pop up in between programs you run (no, they won't intrude while you're reading). Most users tell me that they're very unobtrusive, but do be aware that you're paying $199 for access to an ecosystem where you can buy more stuff, and you're also being advertised to at the same time. If you don't want those ads, Amazon will ding you an extra $15 to buy an ad-free device.

Clarification: If you want to "borrow" Kindle books, you must have a Kindle-branded device. On the other hand, if you want to watch Prime Instant Video, you can watch that on your PC, using an iOS app or Android app, or watch on a Kindle Fire.

Non-US Readers: Much of the Amazon and Kindle ecosystem is still only available to US customers. Before buying a Kindle, make sure the services you want to use are available in your country.

Next: hardware and how to decide...

All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide
This project: How to decide: tech buying guides for DIYers and small business

Hardware

You may have noticed that I've gotten almost 1,500 words into this article before I talked about a single hardware feature. That was on purpose. You see, I don't consider the hardware features key in almost anyone's decision-making process.

Yes, one has a slightly faster processor. Yes, one has slightly better speakers (although this is disputed by reviewers). And yes, one has slightly more screen real estate.

The thing is, if you're trying to decide between these devices, the hardware differences are, essentially superficial. They all run quite well, they all do the job well, they all play most games well, and they all play video quite well.

You can go ahead and read about the hardware features in many of the reviews all over the Web. But, fundamentally, you probably shouldn't decide on one of these three devices based on the hardware configuration. The ecosystem decision is far more relevant.

The iPad mini price issue

Okay, here's the thing. The iPad mini is $129 more than the base Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7 and comes with the same 16GB of RAM that they do.

In fact, you could buy a Nexus 7 and an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite and still have $10 left over, for the price of an equivalent iPad mini.

That's a measurable price premium for what's arguably a placeholder device. This is an important detail. The iPad mini doesn't come with the higher-quality "Retina" display now standard on the iPhone and larger iPad. In fact, the iPad mini comes with a last-generation display that many users aren't happy with.

Our own Stephen Chapman called the iPad mini's display "atrocious" and described the iPad mini this way:

With almost every single device of Apple's now having a Retina display, the regression for the iPad mini immediately makes it feel like a half-hearted, disingenuous, and greedy effort.

Ouch. On the other hand, ZDNet's Joel Evans likes his iPad mini more than the iPad 3.

See what I mean? You have to choose what meets your needs. We each have our own impressions.

That said, if you do decide it's worth spending the extra $129, be aware that Apple is almost guaranteed to introduce a Retina display version of the iPad mini within six to nine months for the same price. This $329 device will likely wind up on their price list for $199.

So if you can't stand buying a device and then having it drop precipitously in price, don't buy the iPad mini. On the other hand, if you don't care much about the less-than-stellar display (it's as good as the iPad 1 and 2, but not as good as the iPad 3), want access to the iOS ecosystem right now, and don't mind parting with an extra $129, the iPad mini might be for you.

If you want a GPS

A reader sent me a note asking if the iPad mini had a built-in GPS. As it turns out, the WiFi-only model does not. You have spend an extra $130 to get the cellular version, and that will include GPS capability. The Nexus 7 already has GPS built into the WiFi only unit.

There's nothing on the Amazon site for the Kindle Fire that indicates GPS.

How to decide

Let's bring this story in for a landing, shall we? Here are some guidelines to consider:

  • If how much you spend is the most important, get the $199 Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7.
  • If how much you spend is really, really important, get the last-generation Kindle Fire for $159.
  • If the most important thing is using all your iOS apps, get the iPad mini.
  • If the most important thing is using all your Android apps, get the Nexus 7.
  • If you want the freedom to run apps that Apple might not approve of, get the Nexus 7.
  • If you want GPS and don't want to buy cellular service, get the Nexus 7.
  • If you're an avid Amazon customer and want all the benefits of Amazon Prime, free videos, and the ability to "borrow" Kindle books, get a Kindle Fire HD.
  • If you think you'll be infuriated when Apple introduces a better iPad mini for the same price and drops the price on this one, don't get the iPad mini right now.
  • If you want the most mainstream option, with better app security, and you don't mind spending extra for the privilege, get the iPad mini.
  • If you've never used a tablet or a tablet operating system and you want access to the most training resources and materials, get the iPad mini.
  • If you want to read magazines and books in the bathroom and don't want to freak out if you drop your tablet in the toilet, get the last-generation Kindle Fire.

There you go. Stay tuned. I'm going to do a full-size "how to choose" that will include the new Nexus 10-inch tablet, the full-sized iPad, the large Kindle Fire, and even the Microsoft Surface. That one will bring the fanbois out in droves, I'm sure!

 

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