Like Nate Silver, One Direction, and whatever Honey Boo Boo Child is, the 7-inch tablet is so hot right now.
The one you've probably heard the most about -- and probably the source of America's newfound lust for the handheld tab -- is Apple's iPad mini, a smaller version of the company's mega-popular 10-inch iPad. But contrary to what you might have seen on the evening news, the mini is not the only small tablet on the market, nor is it necessarily the best value.
For all of the iPad mini's graces -- its supreme speed; its tremendous selection of full-screen apps; its weight, thinness and quality construction -- it still sports warts. At $329, the iPad mini is over $100 more expensive than the products it competes against from Amazon (the Kindle Fire HD, $199) and Barnes & Noble (the Nook HD, $199), as well as the Nexus 7 ($199), which has been available from Google for several months. That's hefty change for anyone who doesn't own a fancy horse that competes in dancing competitions.
More disconcerting, the iPad mini comes without the high-definition Retina display that is now standard on almost every major handheld Apple product. This is troublesome for two reasons: First, on a device that's going to be used mostly for reading and watching movies, the quality of the display is absolutely paramount; and second, you better believe that within a year from now Apple is going to release an iPad mini that DOES have a Retina display, and that everyone who rushed in for the first-generation iPad mini is going to have to scrounge up another $330 to upgrade their viewing experience in 2013.
The Kindle Fire HD and Nook HD, meanwhile, already ship with beautiful high-definition displays that are noticeably crisper than the iPad mini, when held side-by-side; these are definitely the displays that you want in a tablet. But do either pack the computing punch to justify your purchase?
The Kindle Fire HD
Storage/Cost: A 16GB tablet is $199 (with advertisements on the lock screen).
The Kindle Fire HD -- Amazon's second attempt at a small LCD tablet after last year's somewhat disappointing Kindle Fire -- is all about the screen: There are no buttons or real borders surrounding the high-definition display, which means that your eyes can stay laser-focused on the content in front of you. Text appears crisp, and the faces and features of all of your favorite movie stars come through brilliantly.
(Brief interruption as I watch "Cruel Intentions" for the 1,000th time).
Aside from the display, the Fire HD's other major advantage is that it can gracefully connect to that mammoth (and cheap!) Amazon store, bringing movies, music, books, magazines -- and pretty much any other non-pornographic multimedia you'd want -- straight onto your a tablet. And with the display and an excellent pair of internal speakers, produced by Dolby, that content really shines.
Amazon has also rectified many of the major unforced errors it made on the first Kindle Fire: Battery life has been improved, as has the power button placement (no more accidentally turning it on or off!). And Amazon has mercifully added volume buttons and a front-facing camera for Skype.
Where It Falters: The Kindle Fire HD is noticeably heavier than the iPad mini and Nook HD and, unlike those two devices, can't really be held with one hand due to its width. The front display is a fingerprint-magnet, so you're going to need plenty of tissues handy. Browsing the web is still a bit of a chore on the Fire HD, moving much slower than it does on competitors. Though Amazon has improved touchscreen responsiveness, my review unit still had a slight though noticeable pause between touch and screen recognition, especially on the Internet; up against the Nexus 7, iPad mini and Nook HD, that's a major problem.
The Kindle Fire HD also still does not come with a wall charger (you have to plug it into your computer to charge), which is annoying for a device that would be great to take along on plane rides or business trips. A wall charger is about $20 extra.
These little blemishes add up. The Kindle Fire HD seems worth the money for someone who wants to read, watch a few movies and do light web browsing, but not for much more. Amazon's full online storefront makes it a nice value as a secondary device -- just don't expect it to be your primary computer, or even your primary tablet.
The Nook HD
Storage/Cost: An 8GB tablet is $199 (more memory available via an SD card slot).
Barnes & Noble's impressive Nook HD has a display you'll want to show off to your friends. The display bests the Kindle Fire HD's by a hair and the iPad mini's substantially. This is the display standard by which other 7-inch tablet displays should be judged.
Because of the pixel-rich display, the Nook HD gives you the best long-form reading experience you'll find on an LCD tablet. You can hold the plastic-back with one hand, and the text and images are super-crisp. Multicolor magazines are reproduced beautifully, with colors popping like they do on the grocery newsstand.
The Nook HD is also very light and thin (see table below), comparing favorably with the iPad mini in terms of weight and easily besting the Kindle Fire HD. The operating system has been totally redesigned to allow for multiple accounts, so that each family member can manage his or her own library of apps, books and movies -- or so that you can stop Junior from watching, say, "Cruel Intentions." The display is responsive to your touch without much lag, though loading large webpages or switching between user accounts can take some time.
Where It Falters: Barnes & Noble has frustratingly few apps available -- about 10,000, compared to more than 60,000 on the Kindle Fire and 275,000 on the iPad mini. The movie store, which Barnes & Noble just launched, features a thinner selection than you'll find on iTunes or the Amazon store. There are no cameras, and like the Kindle Fire HD, there is no option for mobile data.
Otherwise, though, the Nook HD is a real victory for Barnes & Noble, which is now proving that it can produce high-quality, innovative hardware. The Nook HD is a great little tablet for readers and travelers that adds on snappy web browsing and attractive software design. I'd take it over the Kindle Fire HD: The screen, software and speed simply outpace Amazon's latest Kindle Fire.
Below, check out a few photos of the Kindle Fire HD and Nook HD as well as a comparison of the four best small tablets on the market: The iPad mini, Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD and Nook HD.
*The Google Play Store has more 600,000 apps, all of which can be run on the Nexus 7; Google has not said how many are optimized for the tablet, however.
CORRECTION: A previous chart listed specs for the last generation of the Google Nexus 7 rather than the updated model recently outed by Google; the iPad Mini was also found to have stereo speakers, not mono speakers. The Barnes & Noble NOOK HD does have an option for HDMI-output with an accessory dongle.