The 7-8in tablet bracket has become one of the most hard-fought markets in tech, with everyone and his uncle releasing a 'small' tablet.
With the Kindle Fire HDX 7, Amazon is the latest company to release a model this year – so how does it match up to its main rivals? We pit it, spec-for-spec, against the cheap and cheerful Tesco Hudl, current Android pick-of-the-bunch the Google Nexus 7, and the so-premium-it-hurts, Retina display-equipped Apple iPad Mini 2. It's a slate grudge match!
Choose your rectangle
Picking a favourite in the design department is a little tricky when you’re comparing four glass-fronted slabs, but there are a few distinct differences here.
The Google Nexus 7 is the slimmer, more elongated device, measuring a svelte 200 x 114 x 8.7 mm, while the Kindle Fire HDX 7 and Tesco Hudl are a slightly burlier 186 x 128 x 9.0mm and 192.8 x 128.8 x 9.9mm respectively.
This discrepancy is mainly due to the proportions of the bezels on offer. Google’s pad has a thinner frame on either side of the screen, whilst keeping the top and bottom bezel much the same, which means it can be easily grasped in one hand for portrait reading. The Kindle Fire and Hudl are a more traditional tablet shape: fatter around the edges. The Kindle’s camera is positioned for use in landscape mode, while the Nexus 7 works better in portrait.
Given its larger screen, you'd think the iPad Mini 2 might be substantially larger than the Android tablets, but at 200 x 134.7 x 7.5mm it's the thinnest by some margin, and only a wee bit bigger than the others.
All three Android tabs are built from matte plastic, though the Kindle wins out aesthetically with its angular, tapered edges on the rear that are faintly reminiscent of the Microsoft Surface. No bad thing. The iPad Mini? Its elegant aluminium and glass body is a class apart from the Android models – and that's one of the reasons why the asking price is so much higher.
Winner: Apple iPad Mini 2
Best of the rest: Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7
Same screen, different body
Both the Nexus and the Fire HDX 7 have dramatically improved screens compared to their predecessors. They’re equipped with 7-inch, 1920x1200 IPS-LCD designs boasting an ultra-crisp 323ppi. On paper there’s little to separate the two screens, although the HDX boasts '100% sRGB technology' that it claims results in improved colour accuracy, while Google claims nothing beyond eye-slicingly sharp resolution. Our review calls the Nexus 7's screen "razor sharp, brilliantly bright and altogether rather jaw-dropping" and the HDX gets similar praise – with one caveat: "white webpages can nudge towards the creamier end of the spectrum and when using apps or browsing pages with a white background, you occasionally encounter a blue tint, especially in the corners. It's minimal, barely noticeable when watching movies, but once you spot it you won't be able to stop your eyes travelling back to it."
After launching the first-gen iPad Mini with a somewhat disappointing 1024x768 screen, Apple has gone all out with its successor: the iPad Mini 2 offers a 7.9in 2048 x 1536 Retina display (also 323ppi) – larger than the above Android models' displays but just as sharp. Our review notes that the iPad Air's screen (with slightly less pixel density) tops the Mini 2's when it comes to vibrancy and colour accuracy, but the Mini 2's remains among the best tablet screens around thanks to its wide viewing angles and high brightness level, which means you rarely need to nudge it past half power.
And the Hudl? While it doesn't match the better-than-1080p screens of the other trio, its 7in 1600x900 (242ppi) display is better than you'd find on most £120 tablets, and offers decent viewing angles. In our review, however, we weren't especially impressed with the brightness, contrast or colour range – things all the other screens here excel in – and found the display to be "an absolute smudge-lover", attracting fingerprints a little too readily.
Winner: Apple iPad Mini 2
Best of the rest: Google Nexus 7
The Tesco Hudl is the weakest model when it comes to on-paper specs, with 1GB of RAM and a 1.5GHz quad-core Rockchip processor. AnTuTu benchmarks, however, don't put it too far behind the Nexus 7 (not that benchmarks tell the whole story, of course. It comes with only 16GB of on-board storage, but can be expanded by a further 32GB thanks to to microSD slot. Our review describes it thus: "the Hudl generally flies, tearing up HD movies and games such as Bounty Arms like a turbo trolley tearing up Aisle Six at 3am. Web browsing is smooth enough, though we were surprised to see the Hudl struggle with streaming movies compared to its rivals amid talk of dual-band Wi-Fi."
The Nexus isn’t slow by any means – there’s a Qualcomm S4 Pro under the hood running at 1.5GHz with an Adreno 320 GPU and 2GB of RAM. Our review notes that "the device feels incredibly fast and responsive no matter how much you multi-task or game. 1080p movie performance is equally smooth - there's a moment of lag to load, but after that we've not spotted a single judder in the playback of an entire season of Breaking Bad in HD."
In our test the Nexus never stuttered, so there may be little real-world advantage to the Kindle’s additional grunt. The Amazon tab packs the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor clocked at an incredible 2.2GHz, plus a mighty Adreno 330 GPU. And it flies: "They've chucked everything at the HDX, and Fire 3.0 runs beautifully as a result. It's amazing that a tablet as reliably fast and capable as this new Kindle Fire is going for just £200 – Amazon's really stepped up the performance, and it makes the difference in the little bits of navigation around the OS. Some of the stores, such as Games, can stutter when scrolling through choices, but apps download quickly thanks to dual-band Wi-Fi, while streaming is spot-on."
The iPad Mini 2 has undergone a major upgrade in the hardware stakes from the first Mini, but you might not know it from its on-paper specs: it sports less than a GB of RAM and its A7 processor is dual-core and clocked at 1.3GHz. That just goes to show that on-paper specs don't mean a whole lot in the real world, because the Mini 2 runs as smooth as you could wish for and has no issues with HD video – in fact, it streams video more smoothly than the Nexus 7 and HDX 7. Still, we feel the Kindle has the edge in terms of raw power.
The Kindle and Nexus are available in 16, 32GB and 64GB variants, but neither can be expanded. The iPad Mini 2 offers all those sizes, plus 128GB.
Winner: Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7
You want to take a picture, with a tablet?
Any self-respecting tablet has to have a reasonable front-facing camera for Skype, Google Hangouts and lots of sodding selfies. In this department there’s little to split the four devices: the Nexus and iPad have a 1.2MP sensor, the HDX 7 a 1.3MP one and the Hudl a 2MP one. None will win any awards, although the iPad Mini 2's works very well for video calls.
The HDX 7 doesn't even have a rear camera, while the Hudl packs a woeful 3MP effort. Both the Nexus and iPad offer mediocre 5MP sensors that lacks any LED flash, but we found the iPad to deliver better detail when taking pictures of distant objects (for macro shots, the two are fairly similar). Both will capture 1080p video – but are perhaps best reserved for the occasional emergency snap or clip.
Winner: Apple iPad Mini 2
Best of the rest: Google Nexus 7
It’s all in the ports
One of the downsides of the original Nexus was its lack of connectivity – the 2013 model is no different, packing only microUSB and 3.5mm jacks, although it’s worth pointing out the USB supports MHL for TV out up to 1080p and hosting capabilities so you can connect a mouse or USB gamepad.
The Kindle Fire has the same set of ports, but no way of outputting video directly from a cable. The only way to get video to your TV is via Amazon’s wireless ‘Fling’ service which sends content to compatible smart TVs – similar to Google’s Chromecast.
The Hudl sports a microHDMI output for wired connection to a TV, while the iPad Mini 2 is as much the same as all iPads: HDMI adapters are available for the Lighting connector, or you can use AirPlay to mirror the screen on an Apple TV-connected TV.
Apple, Amazon, Tesco and Google have equipped their respective tablets with Wi-Fi connectivity all the way up to dual-band 802.11n.
If you have a good commute with time to waste you might also want to consider the mobile-connected variants of the iPad, Nexus 7 and HDX 7: all offer 4G LTE connectivity, with Amazon choosing Vodafone, Google going with O2, and Apple offering a choice between 3, O2, Vodafone and EE. The iPad Mini 2 also supports 14 LTE bands – more than its rivals and relevant if you're planning on using it in other countries.
Winner: Apple iPad Mini 2
Best of the rest: Tesco Hudl
Google officially quotes a 3950mAh battery with around 9 hours continuous use, while Amazon’s 4550mAh cell is quoted to give 11 continuous hours of mixed use or 17 hours of reading. That’s a fair whack more capacity, but in reality the higher-clocked Snapdragon 800 in the HDX 7 is a thirstier processor, so real-life figures are more closely matched: we managed to get around 9.5 to 10 hours of constant gaming out of the HDX 7, putting it ever-so-slightly above its Google rival.
The Tesco Hudl is poorly-served by its battery. It's quoted as providing 9 hours of use but we found that optimistic - even with light use it was almost dead after a day.
The iPad Mini 2 lasted a full 9.5 hours in our HD video playback test, and will go on far longer with normal use. As such, it's on a par with the HDX 7.
Winner: Draw between Apple iPad Mini 2 and Amazon Kindle HDX 7
Android: The beast cometh in two forms
The Nexus 7 couldn’t be more resolutely Android – it’s a completely stock experience as we’ve come to expect on Nexus devices, and has just been updated to Android 4.4 Kitkat. This will please Android purists and guarantees compatibility with all the apps you’d need from Google Play. What’s more, you get all of Google’s toys including Google Now. In short, anyone who likes to experiment with or tweak their gadgets will prefer the Nexus 7.
In contrast, Amazon’s thick FireOS 3.0 ‘Mojito’ skin hides almost all aspects of Android’s desktop-style UI with a huge carousel that puts your music, books and movies front and centre. Fortunately, it’s now much simpler to use, with a conventional app drawer that you can pin your media to, and context-sensitive menus you pull in from the sides of the screen. Amazon has the media side of things covered with direct, dangerously simple access to its huge online candy shop. Unfortunately the same is not true of apps: the Kindle offers a cut-down selection compared to Google Play, which is the thorniest part of Amazon’s ‘walled garden’ approach to the Kindle ecosystems. The plus side is that Amazon provides near limitless cloud backup for nothing, builds in customisable profiles or kids (FreeTime) and even provides live help via videoconferencing (Mayday).
The Tesco Hudl, like the HDX 7, uses Android Jelly Bean, but it's an older 4.2.2 version upon which Tesco has slathered some of its own touches in the form of a few 'apps' for (really just links to) services like Blinkbox, Tesco Bank, Tesco Direct, Tesco Mobile and Tesco Clubcard. The latter is likely to be of some interest to those that shop at Tesco regularly, as it tracks Clubcard points and shows you relevant offers. Aside from that, it's pretty much stock Android.
The iPad Mini 2, of course, uses iOS 7. It's our favourite tablet operating system due to the sheer amount of tablet-tailored apps on offer (Android is poorly served in comparison, with most of its tablet apps merely being upscaled from the phone version), and comes with plenty of freebies like Garage, iMovie, iPhoto and Pages. iCloud, meanwhile, keeps everything synced across all your iDevices and computers. If apps are more important to you than web browsing and media consumption, the iPad should be your choice - even though it's significantly pricier than the others here.
Winner: Draw. Horses for courses, these.
Verdict: the iPad has it
This is a tough one to call, because aside from the Nexus and Kindle there's quite a bit of difference in the spec and pricing of the four tablets.
The Tesco Hudl only costs £120, making it something of a bargain, but is clearly a weaker all-round performer than all the other models.
The Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX 7 are a similar price (£200) and offer a broadly similar set of selling points (slightly more pocketable than the iPad Mini, great screen, Google services), but the former's 'pure Android' experience is a far cry from the latter's locked-down interface. If we had to pick between the two? Despite the extra layer of control that the HDX 7's FireOS 3.0 provides and its slightly better battery life, we'd still plump for the Nexus 7 as the pick of the small Android slates: the openness and customisability of its 'pure' Android KitKat OS gives it a small edge.
The iPad Mini 2 is expensive, starting at £320 for the Wi-Fi only 16GB model (the 4G-compatible 128GB model is a staggering £660), but features the largest screen, sturdiest build quality and, thanks to iOS 7, access to a substantially better selection of tablet apps than any of the Android models. It's our pick of the bunch here because, in the words of our review, "the Retina Mini really is the future of tablets: supremely portable, bursting with amazing apps and with no significant compromises." It's Stuff's preferred small tablet – in fact it's our second favourite tablet on the market after the iPad Air.