Small-tablet spec comparison: iPad mini with retina display vs. Google Nexus 7 vs. Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7

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Last week I recommended Apple’s iPad mini with retina display over the iPad Air, but how does it stack up against tablets its own size? To figure that out I’ve compared specs for the retina display-equipped iPad mini against two popular 7-inch tablets, Google’s Nexus 7 and Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX.

While both Android tablets are certainly a lot less expensive than the iPad mini, are they a better value?

iPad mini comparison chart

What’s the same?

Physically, all three tablets are pretty evenly matched. The iPad mini is just a little larger than the other two, but it also has nearly an extra inch of screen. All three are plenty portable and good companions for your next long trip or morning commute. Design-wise, Apple has a slight leg up on the competition, with a more distinctive design and two color options for the iPad mini, compared with the relatively staid black look of the other two tablets.

iPad mini

The screens are all comparable as well. The iPad mini features the highest resolution at 2048 by 1536 pixels. Across its 7.9-inch display, that works out to 326 pixels per inch. But the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HDX have slightly smaller 7-inch screens, so their 1920 by 1200 resolutions work out to 323 pixels per inch. That means it might be hard to tell the difference from one screen to the next.

Battery life is comparable across the board, though the Kindle wins out with an estimated 11 hours of battery life. Apple said the iPad mini will get up to 10 hours and the Nexus 7 is rated for 9. You should get at least a full day’s worth of battery life from any of these tablets with fairly heavy use.

What’s different?

The camera is where things start to get different, and the iPad mini and Nexus 7 have a definite advantage over the Kindle Fire HDX, which lacks a rear camera. I’m still not convinced that rear cameras are an important feature for tablets, but I’ve seen a surprising amount of tablet photographers throughout the streets of New York, so maybe I’m just not getting something. That said, if you find a rear camera to be a necessity, you can rule the Kindle Fire HDX out completely.

Nexus 7

The iPad mini and the Nexus 7 both feature 5-megapixel rear sensors, as well as 1.2-megapixel front-facing cameras. Amazon doesn’t specify a megapixel rating for the Kindle Fire’s front-facing camera, but it is capable of shooting 720p video, which makes it fine for video chat.

Another issue to consider is storage. None of these tablets come equipped with a microSD slot for expandable storage, so what you see is what you get. Apple provides storage options all the way up to 128GB, but the price for that model starts at a whopping $699. The Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX are priced much more reasonably, though the Kindle Fire tops out at 64GB and the Nexus 7 at 32GB.

I think most people use tablets to consume streaming media, though, so I’m primarily basing my opinions here on the 16GB models, which are also the least expensive.

What really makes a difference?

While we’ve seen some differences among the tablets so far, for the most part, none of them are deal breakers (aside from maybe the Kindle’s camera). Things start to get more heated when it comes to processing power.

The Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire are easier to compare, since both run a modified version of Android and both use Qualcomm CPUs. The Kindle Fire uses a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 chip, which is among the fastest processors on the market. The Nexus 7, on the other hand, uses an older 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro. It’s still plenty powerful, but it’s no match for the Kindle Fire.

The iPad mini, on the other hand, uses Apple’s new 64-bit A7 processor and M7 motion coprocessor. It’s the fastest chip to appear in an iOS device yet, but Apple hasn’t released more detailed specifications, which makes it difficult to compare to the offerings from Qualcomm. Chip review site Anandtech has shown that the A7 is a 1.3GHz dual-core chip, which sounds like it should present no competition against the other offerings. But so far benchmark scores have shown that the A7 processor actually beats out phones like the LG G2, which is powered by the same processor as the Kindle Fire HDX. So from an overall power perspective, the iPad mini and Kindle Fire HDX are likely to be your strongest options.

KindleFireHDXLandscapeAngleLeft

Then there are some factors to consider that can’t be compared so easily in a chart. Apple, for instance, offers the most robust tablet app ecosystem by far. The Apple App Store is currently home to over 475,000 tablet-specific apps. Android has been improving its tablet app game and finally has plans to introduce its own tablet section to Google Play. But if you want access to the largest selection of high-quality tablet-specific apps, there is still no comparison to a tablet from Apple.

The Kindle Fire HDX, on the other hand, is probably the best choice here for first-time buyers and casual tablet users. Amazon’s Fire OS software, along with live video tech support via the Mayday button, makes it very clear what you can use the tablet to do. It also does the work of sorting out tablet-ready apps for you in Amazon’s app store, though it doesn’t come with direct access to Google Play. Provided you like Amazon’s content ecosystem it’s a great buy.

By comparison, the Nexus 7 offers a pure version of Android, which is hard to find on other devices. And you’re not tethered to Amazon, so the Nexus 7 is more of a blank slate you can customize as you see fit. If you want to receive the latest software updates from Google in a timely manner, it’s the small-screen tablet to get. And while Google Play is still not the easiest place to find tablet apps, most phone apps look great on the Nexus 7’s screen.

So which is the right tablet for you? In my mind, tablets are about apps, and no small-screen tablet offers a better app experience than the iPad mini with retina display. It’s also the only tablet here that makes no compromises — the Kindle Fire lacks a camera and the Nexus 7 uses an older processor. If you’ve got the money to spend it’s the tablet to buy.

That said, the iPad mini costs nearly twice as much the Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire HDX. And for many people, that gap is wide enough to make you think twice about whether you really need all those extra apps. In that case, I’d put my money towards the Nexus 7. Although it has a slower processor, its stock Android build offers a much more open platform than Amazon’s locked down Kindle Fire. And it gives you unfettered access to Google Play, where you should be able to run most apps without a hitch.

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