I’ll be frank with three disclaimers up front:
#1: I’ve never been on board the Kindle as a stripped down Android tablet. To me, that’s like buying your television set from Time Warner cable.
But I definitely understand it. My mother-in-law couldn’t care less about editing presentations from the airport or Skyping into a concall from the Starbucks. She wants her books, magazines, some video, and it’d nice to be able to check her email once in a while without resorting to the laptop.
#2: Neither of these tablets are the iPad or even the iPad mini, even more so than Android phones aren’t iPhones. Up until about five minutes ago, Android tablets were, for the most part, big phones. They’re only now being optimized for tablet-style computing, which is a niche that Apple invented. So if you’re in the market for wow-factor tablet life right this minute, you’ll be hindered by either of these devices, and you should drop the extra cash on an iPad.
#3: Speaking of niches, the form factor of a 7-inch tablet opens up one seemingly small but important possibility I uncovered years ago when reviewing the first 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab: You can actually hold the device in portrait like a phone and thumb type. This doesn’t seem like much, but if you have no surface and want to quickly make a note or send an email, it’s a lifesaver.
Both the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HD fall into the category of moderately-priced but powerful 7-inch tablets, as both can be had for around $200 – $300 depending on how much memory you want on board – and this is important, because neither is expandable with an SD card. But beyond that, they couldn’t be more different. The Nexus, with hardware made by surprisingly strong Asus, is pure Android Jellybean with no outer layer while the Fire is all outer layer, stopping just short of being an Amazon portal in hardware form.
Let’s start with Jellybean, which will instantly be the reason you select the Nexus over the Fire. Jellybean is the first version of Android designed to be completely tablet-friendly. I reviewed Jellybean as part of my review of the Motorola Droid RAZR M because it was the best thing about that phone, and that’s still the case here.
It’s hard to describe how much of an impact Jellybean makes if you don’t have it, but you’ll know when you don’t have it anymore. It’s akin to the difference between driving a car with a V8 versus a 6-cylinder, that much more powerful and more of an enjoyment to drive. Plus you get the benefits of Google Now and some of the other enhancements that come standard with Jellybean.
As with any tablet, your next key decision factor is probably going to be the screen. Again, I can tell you that neither of these screens have the pop of the iPad, but again, that device is centered around the visual approach to tablet computing. These are not, but the screens are just short of awesome.
For the first time on a 7-inch tablet, I had no problem reading content on the ExitEvent site without zooming. Some of the smaller text is harder to read, but the main content text — this text — is readable at arms length.
For reference, this is still not possible on the latest Galaxy 7-inch.
When zooming in on the Nexus 7 using the Chrome browser, the site looks great, and it’s a pleasure to read from top to bottom. The Fire is not too far off of that.
Magazines, now optimized for tablet, also looked outstanding on the Nexus 7, and the same holds true for content I got from Google Currents, basically tablet optimized versions of news sites like CBS Sports. YouTube, now also optimized for Jellybean on the tablet, looked and worked very well.
In fact, without opening up any fanboy ire, the Nexus 7 display is pretty freaking close to the wow factor you get with the iPad.
Now, let’s talk about apps, because there are two drawbacks here. One, there aren’t nearly as many and as high-quality as on the iPad, but since we’ve already carved Apple out of the discussion, it should be noted that not enough of the Apps in the Google Play store are tablet optimized.
Some are, like Gmail, and these are excellent to use, taking full advantage of the real-estate on the screen. I actually like Gmail better on the Nexus 7 than I do on the web.
On the Kindle Fire, everything in your Amazon universe was created for the Kindle, so the app experience is more iPad-like. My friends used to complain about having to have one set of apps for the iPhone and another for the iPad. I get why Apple did this now.
For reasons you might expect, Google Play store is not available on the Fire and won’t be any time soon. Comparatively, the Amazon App Store is lacking, and on the Nexus, of course, you get both. But again, if you’re buying the Kindle, I assume you’re tied into your Amazon account the same way I’m tied into my Gmail/Drive account as a one stop shop, so this might not matter to you.
With the major differences out of the way, some quick hits on both devices:
Neither is currently available with a mobile 3G/4G connection. This might be a dealbreaker for you. My tablet usage occurs within range of a WiFi connection maybe 90% of the time, but that 10% is not an “oh well” type situation. If I’ve got a mobile device in my hands, I expect connectivity. It’s why I leave my laptop at home or at the office or in my car.
Neither has a rear-facing camera, but both have front-facing for Skyping and Hangouts. Not a big deal at first, but when I think about the fact that I now deposit checks with my phone and this kind of technology is only getting more broad, it seems like kind of an oversight.
Update: The Fire DOES have Bluetooth. I had device issues. My bad
Finally, I typed about half this article on the Nexus 7 in landscape mode (and also messed around with the Kindle Fire keyboard quite a bit). I usually do this kind of thing in a review. It was frustrating, but not because of the keyboards, both of which I think are fine, but because the tablet typing method is just foreign — to me and I’m probably guessing to you too. I can do thumb typing or I can do full keyboard typing, and I get lost in between.
But this is something I even find true on the iPad. Losing half your screen and trying to type flat to what you’re looking at with only haptic response just doesn’t work for me.
What it comes down to, in my opinion, is entertainment vs. mobile versatility. I used to tell people back in the day — “Look, if you’re already locked into the Apple universe, like you have a Mac, go get an iPhone, otherwise you don’t need one.” The same holds true for the Kindle Fire. If you’re Amazon Prime or a big Kindle user or kind of a technophobe, the Fire is truly a great device, it’s the Rolls Royce of eReaders and a decent entry-level tablet computer.
Otherwise, get a Nexus 7. I really, really want one now and I didn’t feel this way after a couple weeks with the original Galaxy Tab. That alone should tell you how far the Android tablet has come.