Cloud Computing, Entertainment, Hardware, Reviews

Which $199 Tablet to Buy? Nook HD vs. Kindle Fire HD vs. Nexus 7 Review


Today we will be comparing the three most popular and awaited $199 Android tablets. Each of these tablets also happens to be from well-known brands and feature a 7 inch display. The truth is that none of these tablets are alike, and as a result, we decided to roll all three of these tablets into one review to make comparing them easier in order to help consumers more easily decide what to purchase. We expect these $199 tablets to be extremely popular for this holiday shopping season as they are priced at a sweet spot and are all brand name products.

Introduction – Design and Functionality
In this section, we will cover the physical design of the products including their hardware specifications and design choices as well as their overall functionality as a result of these decisions.

Left to Right: Nexus 7, Nook HD, Kindle Fire HD

When it comes to these three tablets, there is a drastic difference when it comes to design principles and each tablet has its strengths and weaknesses. When it comes to overall aesthetics, the Nook HD is without a doubt the best looking and lightest (315g) tablet compared to the Nexus 7 (340g) and Kindle Fire HD (390g). The Nook HD is also a grayish color while the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 are more of a black color front and back. The Nook HD has a rubberized smooth finish to it and is the most standard in terms of size for a tablet. The Nexus 7 has an interesting black dimpled texture on the back, with metal edging and a black front. It also seems like it is the skinniest and longest, while the Amazon Kindle Fire HD feels like it is the shortest and fattest. Of the three, the Nexus 7 and Nook HD feel the most comfortable being held vertically.

Left to Right: Nook HD, Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD

Beyond the overall initial looks and weight of the tablets, the display on Nook HD looks just a little bit sharper than the Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HD. This is because even though all three tablets are 7" they do not have the same resolution. The Nook HD sports a 1440×900 resolution while the other two tablets have a 1280×800 resolution. The difference is admittedly negligible in most cases, but it will offer slightly sharper looking video playback and more webpage visibility.

In addition to the looks, weight, and resolution, there is also the topic of battery capacity. There is a variance of 10% between the battery sizes of the tablets, which should indicate relatively similar battery life depending on the SoC and display power consumption. The Kindle Fire HD has a 4400 mAh battery while the Nexus 7 sports a 4324 mAh battery and the Nook HD a 4050 mAh one.The Kindle Fire HD sports a Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 dual core SoC @ 1.2GHz with 1GB of RAM while the Nexus 7 features an Nvidia Tegra 3 quad core SoC @ 1.3GHz with 1GB of RAM and the Nook features an OMAP 4470 dual core @ 1.3GHz with 1GB of RAM.

One interesting thing is that the Nook HD is also the only tablet of the three without a front-facing camera. This means that tablet does not support Skype or video chat of any sort, which may be a negative point for some. It does, however, follow the design principles of previous Nook tablets which also lacked front facing cameras.

One must also take into consideration that the Nook HD is the only tablet of the three that only features 8GB of internal storage, while the other two have 16GB standard at the same price. Of that 8GB, only 5.44GB is actually available for storage of books, music, and movies, which is not much. The Kindle Fire HD gives you 12.8GB of usable space and the Nexus 7 gives you 13.2GB, so in reality the Nook has only 68% available out of 8GB and the Kindle Fire HD has 80% available out of 16GB, while the Nexus 7 has 82.5% of 16GB. The one saving grace of the Nook in this category is that it, unlike its competitors, sports a microSD card slot supporting up to 32GB of storage. However, we do not want anyone to be fooled by claims of their capacity when having to figure in OS and other files.

Nexus 7’s two connectors, 3.5mm headphone jack and microUSB for data and power.

Another thing to consider when looking at these tablets is their connectivity. Amazon handily won this category because they not only have microUSB like the Nexus 7, but they also enable HDMI through a microHDMI connector. The Nexus 7 does not support video out through microUSB like many smartphones using MHL nowadays do. The Nook is a similar story, but worse, because they decided that they would use a totally proprietary connector. This is disappointing, because the Nook Color had a custom high-power microUSB connector, but would still accept regular microUSB as well. The one nice thing about the Nook HD is that it does have a microSD card slot, which we mentioned earlier, that allows media swapping and provides the ability to increase the capacity of the device by up to an additional 32GB from the initial measly 5GB. The Nexus 7 also has Google’s own docking system with four pins for easy docking and undocking, but they don’t have any accessories that make use of that yet.

The Nook HD and it’s proprietary connector and MicroSD card slot as well as mic and speakers pictured (above)

Finally, in the design category we wanted to talk about the buttons and their placement/function. The buttons on the Nexus 7 protrude from the casing of the body to the point where they are very easily found, but they are not necessarily aesthetically pleasing. The Nook HD’s buttons protrude from the body of the tablet and are the smallest buttons out of the three tablets. Furthermore, the power/unlock button of the Nook HD is on the left, unlike the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 which both have it on the right. The one saving grace of this oddity is that the Nook is the only tablet of the three with a physical home button unlike the other two which have software home buttons. The Amazon Kindle Fire HD bothered us the most in this section, because all three buttons of the tablet are totally flush with the body of the tablet and virtually impossible to feel for by touch. Some may say that these are most aesthetically pleasing, but they are an absolute pain because they often require one to physically look at the tablet in order to find the buttons.

The sides of the tablets pictured with their respective buttons and Kindle Fire HD’s connectivity

Amazon Kindle Fire’s flush Power and Volume Buttons and 3.5mm headphone jack

Software – OS and User Interface
When it comes to OS and user interfaces, these tablets may all run on Android, but that is where the similarities end. The Nexus 7 runs on Android 4.1.2 and the latest version of Android’s stock user interface for 4.1.2. The Amazon Kindle Fire HD actually runs Android 4.0 while the Nook HD runs 4.0.3. The fact that all these tablets run ICS (Ice Cream Sandwich) or higher is good because it means that they benefit from a lot of Google’s optimizations for performance and battery life. The one thing one should consider is that the Kindle Fire HD and Nook HD will likely not see any upgrades to Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) or 4.2 (also Jelly Bean).

Nexus 7 Interface

The Kindle Fire and Nook HD both have their own proprietary interfaces that are overlaid on top of stock Android, which is what the Nexus 7 has. Interestingly enough, both of them feature an application/content carousel that allows one to pick applications based upon when they were last used. The main difference between the two is that the Nook is similar to stock Android in that it has multiple panes for adding books, apps, wallpapers, bookmarks and onboard files. In that sense, the Barnes and Noble Nook HD can be personalized much more than the Amazon Kindle Fire HD. As a result, the Nook HD’s user interface is probably the best looking out of the three tablets, but is simultaneously the most locked-down OS/UI combination, which is a major problem.

Nook HD’s less customizable version of the stock of the Android interface with locked icons at bottom and carousel at top.

The problem with the Nook HD’s locked-down operating system is that it does not enable installations of applications that are not downloaded from Barnes and Noble’s marketplace/store. This problem is aggravated by the fact that the B&N Nook HD’s marketplace is the least populated of the three tablets, so much so that there is not even a Facebook application available on it. In order to install any off-market applications, ADB must be enabled on the tablet, the one would have to install the Android SDK with Nook add-ons and sideload the applications through command prompt using ADB. On the Kindle Fire HD, an APK can be downloaded via email and executed on the tablet without any issues. The Nook HD also has options for different accounts with parental controls to allow parents to control which apps and content their children can read on the tablet.

Amazon Kindle Fire HD’s interface with larger carousel and multiple menu list

Part of the reason why we believe that the Nexus 7 is superior to the Nook HD and Kindle Fire HD in this category is because the Nexus 7 will continue to get the latest Android updates and improve in terms of performance, UI, and functionality. It is highly likely that anything we will write now about Android 4.1.2 will be outdated very soon, since the Nexus 7 would be running a newer version. This ability to constantly update and improve Android is invaluable on any mobile device and the fact basically ANY Android application can be installed on this tablet and the full Android market accessibility is absolutely unbeatable. We continually found ourselves using the Nexus 7 to extract apps from the marketplace to install on the other two tablets for testing/comparison. The fact that the Nexus 7 is running Jelly Bean also means we have access to Google Now and Google’s latest Voice Search, both of which are unbelievably well done and useful on a daily basis. This is perhaps the Nexus 7’s largest advantage over the other tablets.

Browsers are becoming an increasingly important part of eReaders and tablets. On these tablets, we are seeing more of the same; with Amazon’s custom Silk Cloud Browser and Nook’s own browser application as well as the Nexus 7’s standard Chrome browser. We looked into it further and discovered that the Nook’s browser is simply a Chrome browser with a Nook overlay (similar to what they did with the Android OS). The Amazon browser, though, is not a typical browser, as much of the information is cached in the cloud. We will be evaluating the performance of these different browsers in our performance section, but we did want to note that they all had serious issues with supporting Flash, which we consider an issue for some users. So, remember to not treat these tablets as desktop replacements, because they are not.

When it comes to tablets, content is king. Heck, it is with almost any device, but especially so with tablets. There is a need for content that is relevant to tablets that makes it worthwhile to get a tablet over, say, a five inch smartphone.

When it comes to content, both Barnes and Noble?s and Google?s abilities to deliver content pale in comparison to what Amazon can deliver. Not to mention the fact that Amazon has their Prime service, which also makes having an Amazon tablet beneficial and affordable while including access to a lot of content. Barnes and Noble’s content strategy is heavily focused on books and newspapers while Google’s is more magazines and video. The truth is that Amazon basically has everything that both Google and Barnes and Noble have, and then some. One thing to consider, though, is that with the Nexus 7, you can download the Kindle and Nook applications and get access to all of their libraries of books and magazines, which reduces the content advantage of those tablets.

Content is also about applications. When it came to applications, the Nexus 7 obviously had the widest selection of applications, but upon using the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, I realized that almost every App that I got for the Nexus 7 was also available on the Kindle Fire HD. Also, as we mentioned earlier, it is not necessarily difficult to get off-market applications onto the Kindle Fire HD. The problem with Barnes and Noble’s Nook HD is that their marketplace is so scarce that it lacks simple applications like Facebook, as we mentioned earlier. We believe that Barnes and Noble should be spending more effort and money to attract application developers to their Nook and not just try to lure people to use it as a simple eReader and web browser.
Performance – Benchmarks and User Experience
In this section, we will be addressing both synthetic benchmarks as well as real world benchmarks. We will be using Rightware’s benchmarks to quantify certain performance metrics of the processor and OS while using some other real-world benchmarks to measure things like wireless performance and battery life.

The benchmarks will consist of Rightware’s BasemarkOS, Browsermark, Basemark ES2, and Basemark GUI. These benchmarks are designed to give us an idea of the whole system?s performance from top to bottom and give us an idea of what kind of performance each tablet has relative to the other. We will also be running a series of WiFi signal tests in multiple environments to understand the wireless performance of the tablets. And finally, we will be testing the battery life of the tablets to see if they live up to their claims.

In BasemarkOS, the benchmark tests four things. It runs a system test, a graphics test, a media decoding test, and a program startup test. These four tests combine to make up the BasemarkOS suite of tests and help create a composite score.

As you can see in our tests, the Nook HD actually performed the best in our system tests with a score of 304. This puts it at about 10% ahead of the Nexus 7, which scored 269 in our tests and about another 10% ahead of the Amazon Kindle Fire HD with a score of 235.

Since BasemarkOS is such an encompassing application, it also has its own battery test for tablets which we also ran. The battery test essentially takes all four of the different benchmarks and loops them repeatedly until the battery dies at which point it will record the time it took for the device to die. Considering that this is a continuous use test, we don’t necessarily consider this to be entirely representative of actual usage. In our tests, the Nexus 7 got a battery life of 6.99 hours while the Amazon Kindle Fire HD got a battery life of 7.22 hours. The Nook HD also got 7 hours of battery life, so in essence they tablets under constant use will essentially get the same battery life.

In BasemarkGUI, we were testing the GPU’s ability to handle graphical user interfaces smoothly with actual graphical user interfaces as benchmarks. In this benchmark, there are two scores, one being run natively on the display at the native resolution while the other is run ‘off-screen’ at 720P independent of the display.

The Nexus 7 scored 44.26 FPS (frames per second) native and 85.57 off-screen, while the Amazon Kindle Fire HD scored 30.18 FPS native and 51.41 FPS off-screen. Finally, the Nook HD once again outperformed the competition by scoring a native frame rate of 58.15 FPS and an off-screen score of 87.20 FPS. We found this a bit astonishing considering the added resolution of the Nook HD, but it looks like B&N beefed up the GPU quite a bit to compensate for that.

The next important benchmark for us was Rightware’s Browsermark, which is their newest version of the application. This application runs in-browser and enables you to measure the performance of your browser taking into account your device’s hardware. Certain browser and hardware configurations are also ranked on their site so you can see which combinations are delivering the best browsing performance and experience.

In Browsermark 2.0, The Nook HD scored the highest with a score of 2156, this is in comparison to the Nexus 7 which scored 2066, a difference of less than 5%. When one considers that both devices are running Google’s Chrome browser, one begins to realize that is the reason why the performance is so close. Now, when we benchmarked Amazon’s Silk browser, we were astonished discover that it only scored 1163 in Browsermark. We spoke with Rightware about the disparity between the browsers and they broke it down for us; explaining that Chrome can run CSS 3D and it also has much better page load times and responsiveness than Silk. The rest came from the fact that the Nexus and Nook can run better than the Kindle in terms of executing similar tasks. So, since we were not satisfied with this score, we side loaded the Chrome APK from our Nexus 7 and put it on the Amazon Kindle Fire HD. With Chrome, we were able to get a much more reasonable score of 2019, much closer to the other two tablets. To us, this speaks volumes about the lack of maturity of Amazon’s Silk Cloud Browser.

Finally, in Basemark ES2 Taji Free, we are testing the tablets? abilities to play games and handle complex 3D graphics. This will determine how well games will perform on these tablets and could heavily sway someone towards one tablet or another. After all, many children nowadays start playing their first games on tablets, rather than consoles. In this benchmark the Nexus 7 scored a frame rate of 17.78 FPS while the Nook HD scored 15.40 FPS and the Amazon Kindle Fire HD a measly 8.92 FPS. Based on these findings, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD is clearly not meant for gaming.

WiFi performance is another aspect of tablets that gets commonly overlooked, but is likely to be one of the biggest determining factors of how a tablet’s performance is perceived. This is one of the main reasons why Apple’s products have some of the best WiFi performance available.

In our tests, we will be testing the signal strength of the tablets in a home environment as
well as in a public environment such as a coffee shop where the network infrastructure is less stable and not a known variable. Taking into consideration that Amazon put a lot of time and effort into the WiFi antenna of the Kindle Fire HD, we figured that we would try to measure how it stacks up against the competition.

In our home scenario, we were able to get a maximum signal strength of -33 dBm using the Kindle Fire HD, this is in comparison to the Nexus 7 which got a signal strength of -42 dBm, while the Nook HD got a signal strength of -48 dBm. Take into consideration that the closer the number is to zero, the better the signal strength in this case.

Taking the tablets out to the coffee shop yielded even more interesting results. While at the Corner Bakery, we were able to lock in a signal strength of -40 dBm on the Amazon Kindle Fire HD while both the Nexus 7 and Nook HD had a much weaker -51 dBm signal strength. What stronger signal strength over WiFi provides is faster internet speeds over WiFi and improved battery life while using WiFi, as the tablet needs to use less power to get a good signal.

We also noticed that during the initial setup of the Nook HD, we actually had a lot of problems getting the WiFi to stay connected and only after a day of constant disconnections and internet connectivity errors did the problem resolve itself. Nevertheless, it seems like an odd bug that we encountered and it may lead to some users returning their tablets the day they get them.

The benefits of the Kindle Fire HD’s stronger WiFi antenna were also apparent while traveling where WiFi signal can be difficult to maintain from a distance. However, with the improved dual-band antenna (2.4GHz and 5GHz), the Kindle Fire HD was able to connect to the internet when even our own laptop had issues.

Video Playbacks Tests
In this suite of real-world benchmarks, we decided that we would take an hour long episode of Top Gear and run it at 720P on all three tablets while fully charged. Upon doing so, we would then calculate the overall video playback battery life of the device based upon the amount of battery it took to playback one hour of video. This would simultaneously serve as a test of the tablet’s ability to smoothly play back video and audio. We set all of the tablets to 50% brightness and set the sound to just above mute to be as fair as possible.

What we found was that the Nexus 7 consumed 7% of battery playing back one hour of video, while the Amazon Kindle Fire HD consumed 12% and the Nook HD consumed 9%. That means that in our scenario, the Nexus 7 could theoretical play back 14 hours of video and the Nook HD 11 hours of video, while the Amazon Kindle Fire HD could only play back 8 hours and 20 minutes. We do not necessarily expect these one hour results to be reflected in a linear manner across the full life of the battery, so these estimations are purely theoretical. However, they should still be fairly close to what you can expect in the real world using low-resistance headphones rather than the onboard speakers.

Speaking of onboard speakers, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD was by far the loudest, with the Nook HD coming in second and Nexus 7 being the quietest. The Kindle Fire HD was the only tablet that was actually designed to properly deliver stereo sound in landscape (full resolution video mode). Both the Nexus 7 and Nook HD have their speaker(s) at the bottom of the tablet when held in portrait mode and on the right in landscape. Taking the speakers into account, they should reduce our estimated battery life by about 10-15% of the tablet if used.
Value Comparison – What do you get in a tablet for $199?
When it comes to these seven inch $199 tablets, there is always something being sacrificed in order to keep the price $199. Each of the tablets has its own positive and negative aspects. The truth of the matter is that one simply cannot have it all for $199 and they have to decide what is important to them in a tablet. Once that is done, one can choose the tablet that is best for them.

In addition to paying $199 for these tablets, it is important to remember that the Nook HD is only an 8GB tablet with 5.44GB of usable space, while the other two tablets are 16GB tablets with about 13GB of usable space. One could purchase 32GB microSD card from Kingston for $43 and up the storage to 37GB, but this would essentially make it a $249 tablet (same price as 32GB Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire).

What should also be taken into account is that only the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD have front-facing cameras while the Nook HD does not. This may be a deal breaker for some that intend to use their tablet for video chatting on the go. However, remember that all of the $399 tablets have both front and back facing cameras, so again something is being sacrificed in order to get a $199 tablet.

Conclusion – Which Tablet Should You Get?
When taking into account all of the different aspects that we have analyzed with these tablets, the choices are very clear. The Nook HD is the best looking, lightest tablet with the best display and raw performance but lacks good applications and video content as well as storage space for that video content, not to mention it does not have a camera. In order to get more space for that content, a microSD card would have to be purchases at extra cost. The Nook HD is for bookworms that might also like to watch movies on their tablet due to its resolution and relative lightness.

When it comes to the best overall content and WiFi performance, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD is definitely the winner. However, we did notice some issues with the quality of the display; there is some backlight bleed around the edges which can be an issue for some users in darker settings watching videos with lots of blacks. We actually spent the most time using the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and initially we really disliked its rigid UI and ‘limited’ app availability, but upon further investigation we realized that the app selection was fairly large and ample, albeit not as good as the Google Play marketplace. Our biggest disappointment was the browser for the Kindle Fire HD, which is surprising when considering how much time and effort was put into the WiFi antenna.

The Nexus 7 is the best tablet in terms of OS as it will always have latest version of Android, with the best customizability and access to one?s own content. Google makes it easy to install any apps or load one?s own content. The freedom feels nice and the Nexus 7 performs pretty much down the middle in most of our tests. A strong suit for the Nexus 7 beyond running Jelly Bean with Google Now and improved Voice Search is the gaming performance. The Nexus 7 runs 3D game graphics better than the other tablets. As mentioned earlier in the article, in addition to all of the pros and cons of the tablets it is important to consider that the Nexus 7 can still install the Nook and Kindle apps for Android, which effectively gives it access to all of the
books and magazines in each of those marketplaces. This, in our opinion, gives the Nexus 7 the slight edge, since the consumer is not necessarily forced into one marketplace for content.

Based on our findings, we put the Nexus 7 in first place followed closely by the Kindle Fire HD and then the Nook HD. This completes our $199 tablet review, with everything one might ever want to know about any of these tablets. Hopefully this enables consumers to easily compare the Google Nexus 7, Amazon Kindle Fire HD, and Barnes and Noble Nook HD. We also want to note that the Nook HD is the only tablet that is currently out of stock and will not be available again until November 23rd, so they appear to be selling well. The Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD are not sold out, but they have also been on the market for a bit longer.

Our editor’s choice goes to the Nexus 7

We also wanted to award Amazon for the Kindle Fire’s impressive WiFi antenna and daring to attempt a new browser