There are quite a few 7 inch tablets to choose from, and today we're doing a 4-way comparison between three hot new tablets and one that's a few months old but is now a great buy thanks to a precipitous price drop. The Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble Nook Tablet are the eBook readers that do more, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus and HTC Flyer are full Android tablets with no bounds.
All are available now: Kindle Fire $199 Nook Tablet: $249 HTC Flyer: $299 Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus: $399
You'll notice that the adage "you get what you pay for" holds true here. The Kindle Fire is a well made, quality product, as are all these tablets, but it has lower specs for storage, expansion and RAM. The Nook Tablet doubles storage and RAM and adds a microSD card slot. The two full Android tablets add front and rear cameras, a GPS, Bluetooth, HDMI out (via dongle adapter) and DLNA. The most expensive, the Samsung, has the fastest CPU and runs that latest version of Android for tablets.
The Nook Tablet and Amazon Kindle Fire
Design and Looks
The Kindle Fire is a basic black slab that's by no means unattractive, but it won't win any design awards, especially since it piggybacks off the BlackBerry Playbook's design. The lack of hardware controls, particularly volume buttons, and that annoyingly teeny power button don't win points. Weight: 14.8 ounces. 0.45" thick.
The Nook Tablet looks exactly like last year's Nook Color other than a bezel color change; it's a nice enough design but doesn't impart a sense of newness. It is slim and comfortable to hold and we like the volume buttons and the N button that brings you to command central. Weight: 14.2 ounces, 0.48" thick.
The HTC Flyer has HTC's unibody design with plenty of metal and a curved front that speaks of quality. Weight: 14.8 ounces, 0.5" thick.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus, like all 2011 Samsung tablets, is very thin at 0.39" and is the lightest at 12.1 ounces. It's made of plastic but it doesn't look cheap.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus.
Brains and Brawn: CPU and Storage
The Kindle Fire has 8 gigs of internal storage and no expansion slot. It has 512 megs of RAM and we have to wonder why Amazon didn't go with a gig given the low cost of RAM. Amazon thinks you don't need much storage because you'll have everything stored on their cloud servers. That only holds true if most of your books, movies and videos come from Amazon and you are in range of a WiFi access point. The tablet runs on a 1GHz dual core TI OMAP CPU.
The Nook Tablet has 16 gigs of storage and a microSD card slot. It has a gig of RAM. The internal storage is strangely divided with 15 gigs dedicated to B&N and their partners and 1 gig for you. With the Nook Color, you could bring the tablet into a B&N store and have them apportion the storage allocation differently, and we hope they do the same for the Nook Tablet. The tablet runs on a 1GHz dual core TI OMAP CPU.
The HTC Flyer has 1 gig of RAM, 16 gigs of internal storage and microSD card slot. It runs on a single 1.5GHz Snapdragon CPU that benchmarks as well as some dual core tablets. It's peppy and responsive, and we never get the feeling that HTC Sense is bogging it down. But a single core CPU just doesn't get folks hot and bothered anymore in our specs-obsessed world of high tech.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus has a dual core 1.2GHz Exynos CPU that makes it one of the fastest tablets, period. This is where the "you get what you pay for" part kicks in. It has a gig of RAM, 16 gigs of internal storage and a microSD card slot.
The HTC Flyer.
OS and Software
These tablets run Android. The Samsung runs Android OS 3.2 Honeycomb while the other three run the phone-centric Android OS 2.3 Gingerbread. HTC has promised an upgrade to Honeycomb, and we'd absolutely love to see it because it would likely bring ubiquitous digital pen support to all apps as it did with their 10" HTC Jetstream. But we've been waiting quite a while...
The Kindle Fire and Nook run heavily skinned versions of Android, and many folks might not even realize they're Android at first blush. There's no app drawer, no Android Market and core Android apps like Google Maps and the YouTube player are MIA. If you root these two content consumption tablets, you can bring back the Android-ness, if you will.
Though the Fire is the most heavily modified and de-Androided tablet, Amazon's large Appstore makes it easier to install apps like file managers, media players and office suits vs. the very limited B&N Nook app store.
The HTC Flyer and Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus are full Android tablets with the Android Market, Google Maps, YouTube, Gtalk and everything you'd expect from an Android tablet. If you're looking for a complete tablet with access to the Android Market, they're better choices unless you're willing to root and modify your Fire and Nook.
Here's our video comparison of the Nook Tablet, Amazon Kindle Fire, Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus and HTC Flyer.
All four tablets have 7", 1024 x 600 capacitive displays with wide viewing angles. They all look great, with the Nook Tablet and HTC Flyer being my two personal picks. Despite marketing claims, they all are gloss displays with plenty of glare, though the Nook Tablet is a tiny bit less glare-ridden.
These tablets have similar battery life, and we had no trouble getting 7+ hours of actual usage with each.
Get the Samsung or HTC for this. There are no cameras on the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire. The HTC Flyer gets extra points for being Skype-optimized before that app was available for all Androids. It's particularly stable with very good video quality and low power consumption on the Flyer.
Ease of Use
For Android smartphone users, standard Android tablets should be a piece of cake. But for technophobes, Android newbies and those who just want to read books, listen to music and watch videos, the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet are better choices. The Kindle Fire has a very simple and limiting user interface that uses a carousel and tabs for various content types. Simply enter your Amazon account info (if you buy it from Amazon.com this will have been done for you) and you're ready to download Kindle books, Amazon videos and Amazon MP3s. You can also use Netflix and Hulu Plus. You can side-load your own content, but books must be in Amazon AZW or Mobi format and video in MPEG4. You can side-load apps as well.
The Nook works much the same, but you'll use Netflix and Hulu Plus for your streaming movie and TV content since B&N lacks a streaming video service. You can side load music, videos in MPEG4 format and books in ePUB and PDF format. Side-loading apps is a pain unless you're in the mood to root the device, and side-loaded apps will not appear on the application listing page on unrooted Nooks (you'll have to use the search feature to run side-loaded apps). The Nook Tablet has an excellent UI that's more polished and faster than the Kindle Fire.
What You're Giving Up with Nook and Fire
If you want to stream video to your HD TV, projector or monitor via HDMI or DLNA wireless streaming, the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire aren't for you.
If you want to use your tablet for maps and navigation, the Nook and Fire aren't for you since they lack a GPS.
If you want to use Bluetooth headphones or speakers, the two ereaders aren't for you since they don't have Bluetooth.
If you want the Android Market and full suite of Google Android apps, the Nook and Fire aren't for you unless you're going to root them.
What's Cool about the Samsung and HTC Tablets
They're open, and that means you can install the Kindle app, B&N Nook app, Aldiko and Kobo on your tablet. Get the best of all bookstores without having to root and hack!
VoIP for video and voice calls, plus cameras on front and rear.
Full Android Market access
GPS and mapping on the go.
3G/4G variants for those of you who need data when a WiFi hotspot isn't available.
The Kindle Fire is awesome for those of you who are deep into Amazon services. Using Amazon Prime video is a treat with really sharp and smooth video without the hassle of using Flash Player on other tablets. You've got your Kindle Books and Amazon MP3s handy too.
The HTC Flyer has an optional digital pen for precise writing and drawing. The tablet has a dual digitizer with both capacitive touch and an active digitizer for the pen.
The Samsung is wickedly fast, runs the latest OS and is the thinnest and lighter by 2.5 ounces.
The Nook has the friendliest UI for novices, and it's matured over the year since the Nook Color came out.
Other 7" Tablets
Honorable mentions go to the now heavily discounted BlackBerry Playbook and the Acer Iconia Tab A100 Android Honeycomb tablet. The Playbook's weakness is still lack of applications and no native PIM and email apps. Heck, even the Nook Tablet and Kindle can do email!
The Acer Iconia A100 is a solid Honeycomnb tablet that sells for $349 for the 16 gig WiFi model. Our roundup is somewhat reader-centric though, and the Acer has narrow viewing angles and a very glossy display that don't make it a top pick for reading eBooks. And when it came out, the price seemed like a bargin, but with recent price drops, it's no longer much cheaper than the Samsung and HTC 7 inch tablets.