Christmas is nigh, and the season of gift-giving is nearly upon us. If you've been a good little Jack or Jackette, a tablet to cosset in your sweaty little hands might be top of your list. But choices, choices. Which of the 7-inch wonders on sale today should you want stashed under the tree? We've got the answer.
In the red corner, we have Google's Nexus 7, a 7-inch pure-Android-loving budget tablet attempt, clocking in at just £159 for the 16GB version. The iPad Mini is Apple's play, with a slightly bigger screen, sexy all-metal construction, and signature Apple thinness; it all comes in at a heavy £279 for the 16GB. The other competitors are more 'media tablets' -- from Amazon and Barnes and Noble respectively. They both run heavily skinned versions of Android, customised around the media giants' own content stores. As you would expect, the hardware is geared more towards reading and watching movies than bashing out emails. So, four contenders -- which is the 7-inch hunk of goodness for you?
The Nook HD comes into this battle as the rank outsider: although Barnes and Noble, the company behind it, has made attempts at tablets before, its heart lies firmly in the days of books and e-readers. The Nook HD is a media tablet -- with a gorgeous screen and a skinned version of Android, it should be a user-friendly device for gobbling up films.
On paper, the hardware looks pretty damn attractive -- 314g puts it almost as light as the iPad Mini, and the screen crams in 1440x900 cute little pixels. In real life, that screen lives up to the specs -- in good conditions, it's properly stunning. Deep blacks and that high pixel-density display mean accurate and crisp graphics. The screen is slightly let down, though, by the glossy finish; trying to use it on a busy train on my commute ended with me watching more of my face than the movie. One further gripe is with the build quality -- this doesn't feel like a premium device. Though the soft-touch rubber back and wide bezels make it easy to hold, it just doesn't feel as sturdy or pleasant to touch as the Nexus 7 or especially the iPad mini.
Software and OS
The Nook runs a heavily skinned version of Android 4.0. The app store is what B&N likes to call "curated"; you might want to call it terrible. Notable omissions here include anything made by Google (so no Maps or Mail), Facebook, iPlayer, and a whole bunch of the more popular games. Even the games that you can run suffer from horrendous lag. In fact, that's the biggest problem with the whole device. Every touch seems to take a while to register; sometimes it's unclear whether my fat fingers just haven't registered, or if the processor's just stubbornly hanging. Internet browsing is torturous, with scrolling stuttering worse than a 1990s Palm Pilot. Overall then, the skinned app store leaves the Nook HD gutted; the emphasis here is clearly on reading and watching films, not as a fully-fledged tablet.
So, as a device designed for content consumption, how does it fare? The Barnes and Noble library is decent, if not comprehensive; there's a smattering of recent-release films in HD, and a solid collection of others dating back for decades. I have to say, however, that the prices are really rather steep -- around £12 to buy an HD movie, or £5 to rent. Compared to the Play Store or even iTunes, that's somewhat extortionate. At the time of writing, the store was also rather buggy, having a few TV shows listed in searches that wouldn't allow themselves to actually be bought.
There are a few other minor complaints: Yes, the Nook HD does come with an external SD card, but you'll need it, as downloaded file sizes seem excessively big -- around 2.4GB for a 40 minute HD TV show. Want to skip B&N's library and put your own films on? You better painstakingly convert them to .mp4s first, as that's the only way I could get the Nook HD to play nice with my movie library. Third-party media players were conspicuously absent in the app store. Even if you do get your own movies on there, make sure you've got your headphones to hand -- the in-built speakers on this redefine awful. In fact, I'd be ashamed to play an 8-bit ringtone through these. Finally, the lack of front-facing camera rules it out for anyone who values a bit of Skype on the side -- though I, for one, am not bemoaning the omission of a rear-facing camera. As we've said before, people who take photos with their tablets are morons.
Overall, then, the Nook HD is basically a giant device for accessing the Barnes and Noble library. Yes, the screen is awesome -- easily the best in this test. But the rest of the tablet fails to do it justice. The pathetic app store, laggy interface, and expensive content library sadly undermine the gorgeous face. If you're after a quality budget tablet, and don't have a ton of cash already sunk into Barnes & Noble books, you'll be much better served by the Nexus 7.
The Fire HD follows a similar formula to the Nook HD: it's more of a portal into Amazon's book and movie collection than a hard-core tablet.
The hardware immediately feels more attractive than the Nook. The face is flat, unlike the Nook; it still sports some serious bezels though, which make it easier to hold in one hand for reading (though at the expense of some difficulty typing in portrait mode). Round the back, soft-touch paint is again the name of the game. It feels much, much more solid than the Nook, though. Overall, it's far more pleasant to hold and use.
The screen is worse than the Nook HD, but still not bad at all. In terms of pixel density, it's better than the iPad, the same as the Nexus 7, and worse than the Nook HD. Still, it's a good screen, with good contrast. It'll do justice to all those HD movies you're gonna download.
One other feature that deserves a mention are the Dolby-infused speakers. They're impressive for any portable device full stop, let alone a tablet -- and as long as you hold the tablet the right way round, you can happily watch a film using the in-built speakers.
The Kindle is running a skinned version of Android 4.0. Though this is an update from the 2.3 that the last Kindle Fire ran, it loses out on "Project Butter", and the results are clear. Compared to the Nexus 7, the interface is more stodgy magarine than smooth butter. This choppiness also runs through to the way the interface is designed -- to be brutal, it's bad.
There's a basic inconsistency to the design that's frustrating, even using the Fire HD on simple levels. Here's a small but telling example: The shortcuts bar with the Home, Back and Favourites buttons shifts from the bottom to the right side of the screen when you rotate to landscape mode. That's a space-saving technique, which is fair enough, but at the same time, the Home button changes from the bottom left corner to the bottom right corner. Except the natural progression of your eye starts on the left for a bottom bar, and at the top for a vertical one. That's a minute detail, but it shows what a labyrinth the Kindle OS can be.
The addition of the Favourites app tray is a big plus for keeping track of apps like Calendar or Email or Twitter, but its contents are always, at a minimum, two taps away. You've got to tap the star in the bottom right corner to bring it up instead of just dragging it open, like for notifications and the quick settings bar at the top. The result is that, seemingly by design, using apps like Twitter or Facebook on the Kindle Fire HD feels kind of tacked-on. Sure, you can pop open the Twitter app, which functions more or less identically to the stock Android version. But it's more like you're peeking over the top of a newspaper to catch a news update or sports highlight than actually reaching a destination.
These are nitpicks. But they're also central to the experience of using a tablet — and stuff that everyone else, even Android, is finally getting right.
The Fire HD is a difficult device. It's wonderful, but it's a very targeted kind of wonderful. You won't use this as the device to power you through a day full of events, email and documents. Whilst it's good if you're already tied in to the Amazon ecosystem, you can get at all the Amazon goodness through the Kindle app on the Nexus 7. The only people who will really get an advantage from the Kindle over the Nexus 7 are heavy readers, for whom the hardware is a little bit better.
I'll just say it: the iPad clearly feels like the most premium of the devices here. And so it should -- at nearly £100 more than the competition, the iPad Mini has something to prove. In terms of sheer sex appeal, the iPad's got it in droves. The aluminium chassis, and just-over-300g weight, lend it a solidity and featherweight that have to be felt to be believed. It's rocking a 7.9 inch screen, bigger than the other devices on test here -- but the slim bezel minimises the overall footprint of the device.
You pay for Jony Ive's sexy block of aluminium when you try and use it, however. The thinness and smooth, sleek aluminium make it difficult to hold. While Apple might've got a hand-giant to wrap his meaty paws round it for the press shots, you'll find it damn hard to hold it all the way round with one hand, meaning you want to grip in on the side -- but with no bezel, your thumb will intrude onto the screen. Yes, it's got some fancy palm-recognition technology, but at the end of the day, you're still blocking some of the screen.
Speaking of the screen, it's underwhelming. Ever since the iPhone 4, we've become accustomed to Retina displays being the Only Acceptable Thing. We kneeled at the altar of Steve Jobs when he told us that we should no longer have to suffer the indignity of seeing the individual pixels hiding in the screen. But here we are -- a 7.9 inch screen, with 1024 x 768 pixels. That's 163 ppi. I can see the edge of the letters, dammit! To add insult to this kick in the nuts, the glassy screen's also quite glossy, making it a bit of a pain on trains and planes. So, sure, the screen isn't as good as the competition. It's a bit of a let-down, and a step backwards for Apple. Is it the end of the world? No. The screen is just as good as the iPad 2, which not so long ago was the Best iPad In The Whole World. Not quite the apocalypse then -- but not as good as its stablemates, either.
Software and OS
In terms of software, it's running the iOS 6 we know and sometimes love. No real changes here at all -- the app store is still a wonderful (if walled) place filled with Angry Birds and Instagrams. All the things that bug you about it -- no widgets, sometimes-clunky menus, etc etc -- are still there, but so is the stable, sleek user interface that first introduced the world to smartphones back in 2007.
In terms of performance, the dual-core A5 is no gangbuster, but is no slouch either -- in real-world web browsing and gaming, it'll keep pace with the Nexus 7, unless you perhaps push it with high-intensity graphics. Battery life is superb, having been empirically proved by Which? to leave the competition smouldering. And, in real-world use I have to admit there's one other thing I vastly prefer -- the wider screen. Whilst it's a less useful aspect ratio for watching films, it is far better for web browsing and reading books.
Overall, the iPad Mini is an excellent device, but there's a slight feeling that it's not top-of-the-range. The lack of a Retina display, and the last-gen processor, leave the feeling that maybe this isn't the best that Apple can offer. All that said, if money's no real object, you're not just planning on watching movies with your tablet, or you need the best battery life around, the iPad is a strong contender.
Asus has done wonders on the build quality front; this thing is rock solid (apart from the loose screen issue). There's absolutely no creak or flex, and although it's a bit heavier than the iPad mini or Nook HD at 340g, it feels great in the hand with a really nice, texturised back, and packs Gorilla Glass on the front so there's no scratching to worry about. The screen itself looks decently crisp, clocking in with a resolution of 1280×800 at 7-inches, and while there have been complaints that it's not as bright or saturated as it could be, it's perfectly fine for watching video; browsing the web, and reading books.
Being Google's own cherished offspring, it's no wonder that the Nexus is packing the latest version of Android, 4.2. Thanks to both Jelly Bean and its quad-core Tegra 3 chip, plus 1GB of RAM, it's fast, responsive and slick — there's little to no lag anywhere, and you just don't notice you've got loads of things open. Basically, this is the best Android experience I’ve ever had the pleasure to use, bar none.
Given that this bad boy has unfettered access to the Google Play store, it's no real wonder that the selection of apps available to the Nexus 7 is far wider than on the Kindle Fire HD or especially the Nook HD. Whilst stock Android is ever so slightly less hand-holding than the Kindle or the Nook, it offers far more options functionality than the others. This isn't a tablet to buy your granny -- it's a fully-blown device designed to be pushed to the limits of its superb hardware. The battery is also decent, if not quite iPad Mini-level. In our testing, we managed to eke out 4 days of real-world use; considering that the Nexus has more pixels to push than the iPad, that's a decent effort.
It also must be said that the Nexus 7 is a more, well, usable device. While Apple's latest will stun onlookers with its sleek and svelte appearance, the Nexus is decidedly easier to hold onto, and the rubberised back makes me far more willing to chuck it around. The iPad feels like a device that needs to be cossetted, wrapped in warm cotton wool and sung lullabys. I'd be far more willing to chuck the Nexus 7 in a bag and just go -- so ultimately, I'm more likely to use it, which is what a tablet is all about.
The Nexus 7 is the best of the Android tablets. Unlike the Kindle Fire HD and the Nook HD, this feels like a tablet you can really use for everything -- the Swiss Army Knife of tablets, if you like. Yes, the Nook has a better screen, and the Kindle's better for reading, but with the Nexus 7 you can read, watch, and do so much more besides.
Surprise! What it comes down to is the Nexus 7 vs. the iPad Mini. Clash of the Titans, Android vs. iOS. The Nexus 7 wins out on price and hackability; the iPad wins out on style, and usability to a small extent. Which should you buy? It depends on how deep your pockets are, and how much you value that smooth aluminium back. It's fair to say, though, that both tablets are superb; the distance we've come in a year is startling.
Sam Gibbs and Casey Chan contributed to this article