Visionary Apple co-founder and innovative genius Steve Jobs once famously pronounced that Apple would never produce a seven-inch iPad. He said it was too small for serious work.
Then Google partnered with Samsung to produce the seven- inch Galaxy Nexus, which flew off store shelves and proved that even Steve Jobs could make mistakes.
Then the world was treated to the fairly rapid appearance of the iPad Mini, with a 7.8 inch screen.
7-inch form factor: In the beginning
It all started with Amazon’s Kindle Reader, which while not a full fledged tablet set the standard for size, form factor and major function: reading books, magazines and more.
So with all these small tablets you can read a book on a device the general size of a paperback. You can also browse the internet, compose and receive email, play countless games, and with a subscription to Netflix or Amazon Prime, watch more movies and television shows than is probably good for you.
You can even do serious work. (This article is being written on a Google Nexus 7 using Quickoffice.)
You can purchase and listen to music from Amazon, Google or iTunes.
These devices are small enough to be easily portable in purse, bookbag or, in a pinch, back pocket.
What can tablets do for me?
These are not toys. They are full-fledged computers which can do all that a notebook or laptop can do. They come with serious performance power, crystal clear screens and fast (mostly WiFi) connections. Some come with 4G LTE connectivity through a service provider, though these latter come at a premium price, and a pricey monthly payment.
The entertainment value of these devices alone is worth the price of admission, but staying connected to work, friends and family through Facebook and VPN means you can do more than play and consume media with them.
A Kindle reading app is available for the Mini and the Nexus, and the reading experience is the same across the brands. So if you own a large Kindle library do not feel that you are obliged to stick with the Kindle Fire to have access to your books.
They come with both front and rear facing cameras, allowing the user to, in the case of Apple, video chat with friends and family using Facetime. The Nexus and the Kindle also come with front and rear cameras, with which you can use Skype to video chat. None of these devices comes with expandable memory, so if you are in the habit of downloading movies you should spring for the 32 gig versions.
The Nexus has a unique multi-use charging port, which, coupled with an On The Go adapter, can be used with a USB stick to cheaply double your RAM, or to be used as an HDMI port, to attach to your television.
In general, these three devices have practically the same battery life: 10 to 12 hours. This includes light web browsing, watching a movie or two, and reading magazines or books.
Which is the best tablet for me?
I’ll make it easy for you. I have done much research and there are three standout winners: the iPad Mini, the Google Nexus 7, and the Kindle Fire HDX. If you have an iPhone and a Macintosh, you are likely already heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem and it makes sense to remain there. But you’ll pay the Apple premium.
The Mini, with its stunning Retina display, starts at $399 with its 16 gigabyte formation, $499 for 32 gigs, and these are just WiFi. It’s a brilliant, supremely well built device, but it has serious competition, most notably in price.
Google, partnering with Asus, has built the Nexus 7, a solidly built, very thin and lightweight tablet running a high performance processor and the clearest, most densely pixel-packed screen of any small device on the market. It runs the latest version of the Android operating system–Kit Kat 4.4, and, most remarkably, costs only $229 for 16 gigabytes.
This is made possible by Google’s willingness to sell the device at less than cost, hoping you’ll spend the money you saved by not buying the Mini on Google’s video, app and movie offerings.
Amazon’s entry is somewhat of a hybrid beast. It comes in two sizes, the 7 inch and an 8.9 inch, though screen resolution remains the same. It runs a flavor of Android, based on Google’s Jelly Bean, one slight iteration behind Android Kit Kat. But this is hardly noticeable, given that its interface is heavily customized to steer you to consume its Kindle offerings, and receive its streaming video service when you sign up for its Amazon Prime service–$79 a year.
It sports a very high resolution display, and amazingly crisp speakers. The 16 gigabyte version starts at $229, and is comparable in performance with both the Mini and the Nexus. You are, however, locked out of Google Play’s one million apps, and limited to all things Amazon. Amazon does have a app store, but it is very paltry compared to Apple’s or Google Play. If you are heavily invested in the Amazon ecosystem, this is the tablet for you.
The winner is…the Nexus 7. It runs stock Android, which heavily resembles the iOS, especially in intuitive ease of use, yet is much more customizable, has the highest resolution of either of the other two offerings, you can’t beat the price and has the best feature set of its rivals. It routinely takes the Number 1 spot on tech websites, and having used all three this reviewer is convinced that in shape, form and function it wins hands down.
Again, you might be wondering why you would need a tablet. Once you own one, you’ll be wondering how you managed without it
Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology.