I had the opportunity of hosting a workshop recently titled “The New World of Tablet Computing” where the point was to display the feature sets and capabilities of four new (and market leading) tablets: the Nexus 10; the Kindle Fire HD 8.9″; the iPad 4th generation; and the Microsoft Surface RT. Market leading is deceptive. iPad leads the market by light years, and the Fire and Nexus can only be mentioned as distant competition with the Surface not even appearing on the charts if sales is used as the standard. Nevertheless, since some actual competition to the iPad now exists, I set out to compare and contrast.
At one point, in a gush of enthusiasm I think we titled the putative workshop “Fun with Tablet Computing,” but as I gathered materials for the presentation I made a long comparative chart of features the quickly dispelled the idea of having fun at all. This was serious business and highly technical, unfortunately for prospective tablet buyers. As it turned out, the chart was far too technical for the audience, so let me summarize its principle findings here. Before that, however, take a look at this Microsoft video I presented to kick off the workshop. The gee whiz factor is high, but the serious point is that capacitive touch screens are going to revolutionize the information management landscape of the near future.
Amazing, huh? We have the bare beginnings of this fluid sort of information management in our hands with our phones and tablet devices, and only the greed and proprietary designs of the big four companies—Google, Amazon, Apple and (to a far lesser extent) Microsoft, can delay its general arrival.
But I digress. Without printing a lot of mind-numbing numbers here are the principle findings of my comparison chart:
The best camera combos (front and rear facing) are on the Nexus and iPad. Their specs are almost identical, with the Nexus getting the technical edge, but the picture on the iPad is better for reasons beyond specs and having to do with blacks, highlight management and color stauration. The nod goes to the iPad. The Kindle does not even have a rear facing camera, and the cameras in the Surface are notably inferior. If cameras matter, get the iPad.
The Nexus has the highest pixel density per inch, but to be honest you really can’t see a difference in pictures seen on the Kindle, Nexus or iPad. They all look great, with, as indicated above, a nod to the iPad for a better defined, more saturated picture. The Surface picture is far inferior with a pixel density half that of the Nexus. Movies look great on all but the Surface.
The iPad A6X chip is lightning fast, but so is the Nexus with a Samsung Exynos 5250 assisted by a dedicated Mali T604 GPU—oops, fell into tech speak. Sorry. Both the iPad and Nexus are very fast and responsive. The Kindle lags noticably. The Surface is so different that it is hard to judge, but feels slowest of the bunch in getting basic things done. That is just a reflection of Windows RT vs. iOS and Android. It is bigger, bulkier, and doing entirely different things.
Here again it is a tie between the Nexus 10 and the iPad. Both are highly responsive and smooth. The Kindle lags and the Surface is also notably sluggish.
The speaker systems on the Kindle and Nexus are the best, with the nod going to the Nexus because its speakers are truly front facing. The Surface speakers are OK, nothing to brag about, and the iPad speaker system is downright tinny and inadequate. Audio on all four devices using the headphone jack are very good, with the Kindle sounding best in my opinion. I find myself using the built-in speakers more often than headphones, though—after all, I have an iPod for extended listening through headphones—so I have to give the nod here to the Nexus.
NFC and NFC Android Beam
The Nexus is the only one of these devices that has this technology, which sounds like a selling point, but try to find a place it is implemen6d. Unless you have lots of friends with whom you share data who also own Nexus tablets, don’t worry about this one.
This is important if you are planning on using your device in the classroom to connect to a projector. The iPad wins hands down, using an Apple TV device or the Reflector airplay emulator. The Nexus is supposed to support a wireless protocol called MiraCast, but I bought a NetGear Miracast device and could not get it to connect to the Nexus. As far as I know, it is not possible to wirelessly project using the Nexus, Kindle or Surface. They all have micro-HDMI out, but cannot be used wirelessly.
Here again, iPad wins, with over 11 hours of video battery life. The Nexus and Kindle are in the middle, and the Surface has the poorest battery life of the group.
When you purchase one of these devices, what you are really buying into is their content infrastructure; iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and the Microsoft App Store. By far the best developed and most elegant is the Apple implementation. The others look kludgy by comparison, with the Microsoft App Store having just a bare minimum of useful or appealing apps and little else. Amazon has the edge on quantity of content, but iTunes is the best implemented and happiest user experience.
The winner is…
So let’s sum up by category that might mean something to users of content. The winner is for:
- apps and games: iPad
- movies & TV: Kindle
- picture quality: iPad
- music: Nexus or Kindle
- books: Nexus or Kindle
- productivity apps: iPad or Surface (yes, Surface, only because it runs Office, sort of)
- speed: Nexus or iPad
- smooth performance: Nexus or iPad
- storage: iPad, at 128GB, but cloud storage makes this rather beside the point
- cameras: iPad
- ports: Nexus or Surface
- battery life: iPad
- price: Ah, price. There you have the quandry. At $399 the 16GB Nexus 10 is the best value, in my opinion, but because of its other virtues, infrastructure being a significant one, I still give the nod to the $499 iPad. It’s worth the extra hundred, though it is hard to criticize the Nexus 10. If what matters the most to you is entertainment content, however, and you are willing to put up with less than premium performance, the Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ at $299 is a really good choice. The only real excuse for the Surface is that it runs Windows on a tablet and will also run a version of Office, if that indeed is an excuse. The price is too high for what you get, in my opinion, and rapidly escalates into laptop land when you add keyboards, adapters, extra storage and warranties, which makes it awfully hard to justify. It is more a novelty than serious competition for the other three.
That’s my take on the state of the market leading tablets as they exist to date.