When it comes to 7″ tablets, while the Nook HD beat out the Kindle Fire HD in our last comparison, the truth is that Amazon’s tablet will undoubtedly sell far more units because of it’s popularity and because of the Amazon Prime service. That said, the Nexus 7, which we just recently reviewed, is still the top 7″ tablet for the moment, with an extremely powerful set of components and equal pricing to the Kindle Fire HD. Which should you get between the two?

Size

The only real difference when it comes to size between these two tablets is weight and thickness, the two are very similar. At 340 grams versus 395g, the Nexus 7 feels much lighter in the hand over an extended period, but the Fire HD is actually .15mm thinner than the lighter tablet. This is both interesting and strange, and not in a good way for the Amazon tablet. Heavier devices should be slightly thicker so that they can be properly held with a solid grip; less weight means a slimmer design works better. That’s why smartphones, in almost all cases, get thinner and lighter. They don’t get thinner and heavier.

Winner: Nexus 7, which is significantly lighter and only very slightly thicker, which makes it easier to grip than the heavier but thinner Fire HD.

Appearance

While both the Nook HD and Fire HD look fairly similar, the Nexus 7 has a smart design that’s very appealing. Not only is the dimpled back pretty to look at, it’s also easy to grip and stays put on a flat surface. The rubber back coating on the Fire HD doesn’t do a better job of mitigating sweat while maintaining grip, nor does it look as crisp and sharp as the Nexus 7.

Winner: Nexus 7, which looks sharper, cleaner, and uses those looks as a feature, not just sex appeal.

Display

One of the main disappointments I have with the Nexus 7 is the mediocre display. It does a good job at showing images on the screen, but that’s the extent of it. Colors aren’t vibrant, they don’t pop, and overall brightness and contrast is nothing to write home about. It’ll certainly work in most conditions, but you won’t think back in a few years, “wow, that Nexus 7 had a good screen.”

The Kindle Fire HD, on the other hand, is Amazon’s pet display extraordinairre…at least that’s what the retail giant wants you to think. They’ve molded three panes of glass into two for better picture clarity and threw in a polarizing filter to improve color and light contrast, and from the ten minutes I saw of the Fire HD the display was decent. Obviously conditions were questionable, and I’ll need more time to examine it more closely, but after how much time I spent with the Nexus 7, I can say without a doubt that the Fire HD has a better, more potent display.

Winner: Kindle Fire HD, which has a display that’s the same size and resolution, but offers better overall picture quality.

Operating System

This one’s a tough sell for both parties. Amazon’s OS is closed, has a limited number of Android applications specific to the Kindle App Store, but it’s also cleaner, easier to navigate, and the ratio of good apps to bad/crap/waste-of-digital-space apps far surpasses that of stock Android. And Amazon’s highlight of the Fire has been full access to Prime, enabling users not only tons of free videos (movies and TV shows, in numbers that keep growing out of proportion that Netflix has to watch out), but even magazines too.

As for stock Android? 4.0 was a significant step forward (the OS that the Fire HD is built around), but 4.1 is a significant improvement over that. Battery life, general speed and performance, everything is improved on Jelly Bean. The sheer number of apps available is also way above and beyond what the Fire offers, though with a Kindle tablet more dedicated users can find a way to throw on most any application (at their own risk/peril).

After playing around with Android 4.1 on the ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700T (which just updated, so if you’ve got the tablet go ahead and get that update…it’s a ridiculously good firmware upgrade), I came to realize just how good of an improvement 4.1 is over 4.0. It’s gargantuan. It’s not clear if those upgrades will make their way to the Fire HD anytime soon, but the Nexus 7 is the top dog when it comes to Android tablets. Any updates will come to the Nexus 7 first, potentially weeks or even months in advance of other tablets. The Fire, however, will receive updates in a similar fashion direct from Amazon, so who’s to say the two are so dissimilar?

Winner: Tie, because the Kindle Fire HD offers tons of free services and better organization, plus an extremely stable OS; the Nexus 7 offers top-in-class mobile OS with the earliest updates by a significant margin, the largest app store in existence, and a completely open OS. Both are excellent, but it really, really depends on what you plan on using the tablet for.

Processor

The processor was a real sticking point for me with the Nexus 7. The 1.3GHz Tegra 3 T30L processor is powerful, but with so many GPU cores I wonder how many applications will take full advantage of the device. Then there’s the Fire, which runs a 1.2GHz TI OMAP 4460, a dual-core CPU with more power that has proven it can outperform the Tegra 3 in a short-distance race, though when more cores and more graphics processing are thrown into the mix, it starts to stumble under NVIDIA’s graphical might.

But, then again, each tablet is for a fairly different market. The Nexus 7 is an all-in-one media tablet, built to handle anything. Heck, it even has a separate processor core just to keep the device running efficiently at a low-power state. The Fire HD, on the other hand, has a lower-powered but faster processor for everyday tasks like web browsing, traditional app processing, and general use. So which one is better?

The reality is because all processing power is effectively app-driven, it depends solely on the applications on-hand. And frankly, most applications will take advantage of the higher clock speed that the Tegra 3 offers, but they’ll also take more advantage of the larger bandwidth of the OMAP. Overall the OMAP will be a better chip because most developers don’t want to or need to develop for quad-core processors and multi-core GPUs because their apps just don’t require it. Apps aren’t getting any smaller or lighter, but any developer who wants to get their app into the market isn’t going to produce something that they’re afraid only a small portion of Android users can run. So they’ll go with the lowest common denominator, and in that case the OMAP wins. Even if it’s by a slight margin.

Winner: Kindle Fire HD, which has a lower clocked OMAP processor that is more powerful for traditional application use.

Storage

Finally, an easy one. The Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 couldn’t be more different here: the Fire HD has two models, 16/32GB, and the Nexus 7 offers half of that at 8/16GB. Amazon came out with a bold claim, that people need more space, and they’re right. Furthermore, the 16GB Nexus 7 has been difficult to find as of late, while the Fire HD, in any size, is easy to find and the exact same price. So for $50 more than the Nexus 7, the Kindle Fire offers 4x the available data on the $250 model (that’s 32GB compared to the $200 Nexus 7 unit, with 8GB).

Winner: Kindle Fire HD, which offers double the memory for the same price across all models.

Wireless Connectivity

Another thing that Amazon made a stink about regarding the Kindle Fire HD (and tablets as a whole) is Wi-Fi connectivity. The Fire HD has two antennas and works over the 2.4GHz band, 5GHz band, and over MIMO. The Nexus 7 is a little more conventional with a standard 2.4GHz a/b/g/n Wi-Fi transceiver, which may sound boring compared to Amazon’s numbers, but realistically won’t make as big a difference as Amazon makes it out to be.

Then again, if you take the tablet out into the world and find yourself having trouble connecting, it’ll be harder on the Nexus 7 than on the Fire HD. The latter will (likely; we’ll have to test and confirm) be able to reach farther and carry a more stable connection than the Nexus 7. And the best part is, all these additional features come at no expense to the user. Same price for both devices, but Amazon’s has better Wi-Fi.

Winner: Kindle Fire HD, which supports the 5GHz band and MIMO, and has dual antennas.

Battery Life

The Fire HD has a 4400mAh battery, and the Nexus 7 has a 4325mAh battery. The difference in capacity between the two is moot, so minimal that comparing them side by side by statistics alone is a crapshoot. Instead, since we don’t yet have a Kindle Fire HD to test the battery life with, I’ll use historical data from the Kindle Fire (2011 model), the Nexus 7, and combine it all with what both companies claim.

Firstly, the Kindle Fire lasts forever with minimal use. I don’t care if the Nexus 7 has a processor core dedicated to keeping the newer tablet working for longer in standby mode, it drains within a week and a half. Google lists it as 300 hours of standby (12.5 days); I’ve let the Kindle Fire sit for over a month on standby and seen it operate just fine with a charge. I expect that same sort of longevity to carry on to the Fire HD.

Second, the Nexus 7 lasts around 6-8 hours of use with games and media, which is fairly consistent with what Google lists (they say 9 hours of video, 10 hours of reading and/or web browsing). The Fire HD is listed at 11+ hours for all functions, meaning it’s split between all things we’d actually use the device for, not just one individual thing like watching video. It’s safe to assume that means overall better battery life, because we can scratch off an hours and a half and we’re still left with time over the Nexus 7′s tested clock.

Winner: Fire HD, which has a slightly larger battery and lasts longer according to both companies, and history and our testing shows it’ll provide a longer-lasting charge over the Nexus 7.

Price

The prices between available units are identical, so the question of price comes down to features. The Kindle Fire HD offers a better display, better Wi-Fi, and more storage for the same price. The Nexus 7 offers a better processor for games (though not everyday apps) and, well, little else in features. So it seems like an easy deal.

But there’s a catch. The Kindle Fire HD is a solid device to get, but only if you’re a current Prime subscriber (not only…but the device was built around the Prime service. Not paying for Prime and getting a Kindle Fire is like buying a shaver but no razors. Sure, it’ll be nice for a little while, but then it’ll be just another thing clogging the bathroom mirror. Prime accounts cost $80 annually ($40 for students), and offer a pretty good deal for that price: free two-day shipping for a year on anything listed (which is, frankly, a ton of non-used stuff), and full access to Prime videos (which houses tens of thousands of movies and TV shows).

That means the reality of the price is not $200/$250, but $280/$330, plus the annual fee. For students there’s a major difference, but if you keep a tablet in use for, let’s assume a year longer than most cellphones (that’s three years), you’re looking at $240 (or $120 for students) on top of the original base price. And that’s a big deal.

Then again, plenty of users like myself already buy Prime knowing full well that the benefits are worthwhile, even without the tablet on-hand. At least for me, and plenty of others, it is. So the standard price may be the same. And users aren’t required to buy into Prime to get the Kindle Fire HD, but it would be silly without it. It isn’t even a hidden cost because of this. But if you buy the Nexus 7, you pay once, and only once.

Winner: Kindle Fire HD, which considering the features is a better deal, but also costs $80/$40 annually for Prime. However, Prime users will know what they’re paying for, and it’s still a good deal, though the price rises significantly over the course of the tablet’s ownership.

Overall Winner

Deciding between these two tablets is, and should be, a tough choice. As you read the score above you must’ve thought, “why, there’s a clear winner.” But the differences between these two tablets are all too often very slim. The 7 – 3 victory is still very slight; this is no simple immediate buy.

The first thing buyers have to consider is what they expect from the tablet. Both are media tablets, but how do you consume your media? Do you download and manually throw videos, music, and books onto your tablet, or stream it through a service. If you use any services, which ones? All are available on both devices, but Prime users should of course remember that Prime features will only work on a Kindle.

Then there’s apps, the most important feature. If you like to, or are at least used to, spending time researching the best new apps on Android, then the Nexus 7 is going to be a better choice with hundreds of thousands of more apps to choose from. But if you want something simple, with less apps that are generally higher quality and better organized for you to find, then again Amazon is the better choice.

For video, the display on the Fire is better. Both have access to essentially all of the media you can dream of, so that’s not a concern. Battery life is better on the Fire, as is Wi-Fi and the additional storage for no real increase in price.

With all that, how can the Nexus 7 compare? Well, for starters it’s completely open. If you want to throw any app on it, go right ahead. If you want to watch any video or listen to any music, it makes no different what the filetype is. Just get the right app if the OS doesn’t support it and you’re in business. And if you’re heavy into gaming and don’t necessarily like waiting around for the versions to hit the Kindle App Store, then the Nexus 7 is both a more powerful device and one you’ll be able to play on sooner.

But the biggest thing to think about of all is if you aren’t a Prime user, are you willing to pay the $80/year for the service? Because if you aren’t, then the Kindle Fire doesn’t have as much to offer. It’ll cost more over time with the service, and without it you’re looking at a tablet that was built for one service that you’re dismissing. So what’s the point then?

Ultimately I know users will be happy with whatever tablet, so long as Fire HD purchasers actually get and use Amazon Prime. The Nexus 7 is a very good device, as I just recently reviewed, though for the majority of tablet owners/buyers, it may not be the best. Amazon’s offering is stronger in many ways, and it’s only a shame that Google either didn’t know or didn’t expect a tablet of the Fire HD’s caliber to release so shortly after the Nexus 7′s debut.










James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.