OMG! Just a few days left to the holiday shopping season and you still don't know which tablet to pick? Or maybe you're counting those gift certificates and waiting for that day of shopping mayhem known as Dec. 26 (or Boxing Day if you speak Canadian). In this smackdown we compare three 9 to 10 inch tablets with better than full HD displays: the iPad with Retina Display, Google Nexus 10 and Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9. The iPad 4 and Nexus 10 are similarly priced (the Nexus is $100 less) while the Kindle Fire HD 8.9" is the budget shopper's friend at $299.
iPad with Retina Display (4th gen): starting at $499 for the 16 gig with WiFi and $629 for the WiFi + 4G LTE models. Max price is $829 for the 64 gig with WiFi and 4G LTE.
Not surprisingly, the Amazon tablet is the least expensive and Apple's is the most expensive in this lineup.
These are all very high resolution tablets given their respective display sizes. The Kindle Fire HD 8.9" and iPad with Retina Display use IPS panels while the Nexus 10 has Samsung's PLS panel that performs similarly to IPS. All are glossy and have wide viewing angles. Though Amazon claims to use a display filter to reduce glare, I find it every bit as much a mirror as the other two tablets.
Kindle Fire HD 8.9: 254 ppi iPad with Retina Display: 264 ppi Nexus 10: 300 ppi
Kindle Fire HD 8.9: 1920 x 1200 IPS iPad with Retina Display: 2048 x 1536 IPS Nexus 10: 2560 x 1600 PLS
Honestly, they are all excellent displays and they yield pleasing and fairly accurate colors with rich blacks. Text is very sharp, but I can see the difference on the Google Nexus 10: it's clearly the sharpest when using an app meant for Android tablets like Google Play Books. But your eyes will love you no matter which of these three tablets you choose. Despite it's top dog text, the Nexus 10 is the least ergonomic for eBook reading given the 16:10 aspect ratio and larger size.
Both the Fire HD 8.9 and Nexus 10 have micro HDMI out. With the iPad you'll have to buy Apple's Lightning to HDMI dongle adapter.
Winner: Google Nexus 10
Speed and Performance
The Kindle Fire HD 8.9" isn't the sharpest knife in the box compared to the iPad 4 and Nexus 10. But that's tough competition because the iPad and Nexus 10 are two of the fastest tablets on the market. Still, those with a need for speed and a keen fondness for specs will likely gravitate away from the Kindle. Amazon makes a tablet that's designed to be easy to use, reliable and good at delivering Amazon's many content types. This is not a general purpose tablet running standard Android, and it isn't built to win benchmark wars. It feels adequate in terms of speed, though the UI lags and pauses here and there. Honestly, the CPU inside is more than adequate to power a snappy experience, and I suspect Amazon's heavy UI overlay prevents the tablet from absolutely flying.
The iPad with Retina Display, like all iOS products does fly. Apple makes the hardware and software and so can tune them perfectly together. The new A6X CPU with quad core graphics certainly helps. This is a fast tablet from UI interactions to app launches to gaming. It's also very stable.
The Nexus 10 has been the most responsive Android tablet we've tested to date (and we test them all!). Ours hasn't lagged, stuttered or left us feeling a little impatient. Unlike the Asus Transformer Infinity TF700 with a full HD display and a fast Tegra 3 CPU, it doesn't put up "please wait" messages due to slow flash memory. It's also been stable except for two unexpected reboots when installing apps in batches of 10 during initial setup.
- Kindle Fire HD 8.9": 1.5GHz dual core OMAP with PowerVR SVG 544 graphics - iPad with Retina Display: 1.2GHz Apple A6X dual core with quad core GPU - Google Nexus 10: 1.7GHz Exynos dual core with MALI T604 graphics
Winner: iPad with Retina Display, though Google Nexus 10 has seriously fast hardware and is very close.
Hours of actual use time (not standby) in a mix of web, email, streaming video playback and music playback:
Nexus 10: 8 hours Kindle Fire HD 8.9": 9 hours iPad 4: 11 hours
Here's another area where Amazon doesn't try to compete. The Kindle Fire tablets lack rear cameras, though you do get a front HD camera that delivers very good outgoing video in Skype. The built-in mic likewise works well.
The iPad with Retina display has a 1.2MP FaceTime front camera and a rear 5MP camera, both with BSI sensors. The Nexus 10 has a front 1.9MP camera (same as recent high end Samsung Android smartphones) and a 5MP rear camera with LED flash. Both can shoot 1080p video and take fairly good photos. I give the edge to the iPad 4 for photo quality, but both the Nexus 10 and iPad 4 have pretty decent cameras. The iPad's built-in mic picks up better audio than the Nexus 10 for video chat.
Tie: iPad with Retina Display and Google Nexus 10.
OS and who These Tablets are For
The Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9" is for Amazon customers who have an investment in Kindle books and magazines, Prime Instant Video and Amazon's MP3 store. It makes reading and watching videos brain dead simple. It just works for those tasks. Amazon's app store has 50,000 apps, which is far fewer than the Google Play Store, but the top app picks are there. Those who are a bit geeky can side load apps from sources other than Amazon's app store; Amazon doesn't block that capability, unlike B&N and their Nook tablets. The 8.9" Fire is particularly well suited to video watching and viewing magazines, and it's the better pick over the 7" Fire HD if you plan to do lots of both. The 7" makes more sense for those who mostly read eBooks.
The iPad with Retina Display as ever has the widest selection of tablet-optimized apps and a huge library of games. Our advice still stands: if turnkey ease of use, speed and a huge selection of apps and quality games are what you want, then the iPad is for you. It's a general purpose tablet like the Nexus 10, and it can also play Amazon Instant Video like the Kindle Fire HD.
The Google Nexus 10 is a general purpose tablet with no manufacturer software customizations. It's particularly great for techie types and Android lovers who want to root it or install custom ROMs and prefer a clean OS. It doesn't have a manufacturer-bundled set of apps like an MS Office compatible suite or utilities that newbies might find comforting, though the standard healthy selection of Google apps are on-board, including PIM apps, email, Gmail, maps, YouTube, the Chrome web browser and multimedia players. You have access to the Google Play Store for books, movies and music, much like iTunes. For experienced Android users who already have a stable of preferred apps, the lack of bloatware is appealing as is the Nexus guarantee that you'll always get the latest OS updates first. The Google Nexus 10 gets an extra point for having a GPS. With the Kindle Fire HD 8.9" and iPad with Retina Display, you'll have to upgrade to the more pricey LTE models to get that feature. For those of you who must have cellular data on your tablet, the Nexus 10 isn't for you since Google doesn't offer an LTE version of the Nexus 10.
Here's our iPad with Retina Display, Google Nexus 10 and Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9" Comparison Smackdown Video: