Kindle Fire HD vs. Nexus 7: Which one is right for you?

The 7-inch tablet market just got more interesting, and more confusing. CNET breaks down the key differences between two $199 tablets: the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and the Google Nexus 7.

Kindle Fire HD and Google Nexus 7 tablet
There are the key differences between the Kindle Fire HD tablet (left) and Google's Nexus 7 (right). CNET

When Amazon launched the original Kindle Fire in 2011, the $199 tablet was a surprise hit that reigned as one of the top budget tablet options. But that reign came to a dramatic end with the introduction of the Nexus 7, Google's flagship Android 4.1 tablet.

To keep things interesting, Amazon just upped the ante with a Kindle Fire HD, offering several key hardware improvements, overhauled software, and that same $199 price tag. And while it's not likely to send Google back to the drawing board, the Kindle Fire HD does offer an interesting alternative to the pure Android experience of the Nexus 7.

Which of these $199 tablets is right for you? It's a tough call, so let's weigh the pros and cons and check the specs.

Kindle Fire HD

Pros:
If your main use for a tablet is entertainment, there's plenty to love about the Kindle Fire HD. Like its predecessor, this tablet is inextricably tied to Amazon's much-beloved ecosystem of digital media storefronts, including Kindle e-books, Amazon MP3s, and Amazon video on demand. Members of Amazon's Prime service ($79 per year) are entitled to bonus features, such as free streaming-video content and free books from Amazon's lending library.

A new feature called FreeTime allows parents to place caps on how much time their children spend on the tablet. Amazon's Whispersync system allows gamers to save their progress and lets book lovers jump back and forth between written and audio forms of some book titles. And the expansion of Amazon's X-Ray feature gives fans behind-the-scenes information on their favorite movies and TV shows, in addition to e-book analysis.

In terms of hardware, the Kindle Fire HD has a few features that the Nexus 7 can't boast. You get the option of a 32GB capacity ($249), not offered by Google. There's an HDMI output for sharing content on a connected TV. And for those of you who typically dislike the reading experience on a tablet, Amazon paid special attention to Kindle Fire HD's display, using no-gap lamination techniques and antiglare polarization to dial in the readability. The inclusion of a dual-antenna Wi-Fi antenna system should (in theory) allow for greater Internet speed and improved streaming-media quality.

Cons:
The Kindle Fire HD is a closed system that, for the most part, plays nice only with Amazon's own services along with a selection of apps that is dramatically limited compared with Google's Play store. Its hardware lacks many of the sensors found in the Nexus 7, including NFC, a digital compass, and GPS. To that end Amazon also lacks an integrated Map or Navigation app, as these would rely on some of the omitted sensors.

Android apps purchased through Google are not easily installed on the Kindle Fire HD, nor are apps purchased through Amazon easily installed on all types of Android devices (though the latter action is easier to accomplish).

Read CNET's hands-on impressions of the Amazon Kindle Fire HD.

Google's Nexus 7 tablet
Google's Nexus 7 tablet Josh Miller/CNET

Nexus 7

Pros:
The Nexus 7 tablet produced by Google and Asus delivers an undiluted Android experience. It runs Google's most advanced version of the Android 4.1 operating system, Jelly Bean, which includes advanced features such as voice commands, NFC, and context-aware information though the Google Now dashboard. Features such as Google Maps and GPS make this tablet a great traveling option. The breadth of apps and games is second only to Apple's. Android apps purchased for the Nexus 7 can also be easily added to many compatible Android smartphones. The deep integration with Google services (Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Drive) can allow professionals to seamlessly juggle between computer, phone, and tablet.

Cons:
While the Nexus 7 has arguably the most easily usable Android interface yet, the device's overall complexity may intimidate users focused solely on entertainment and Web browsing. The $199 base price includes only 8GB of storage, compared with the 16GB offered by Amazon for the same price. Google's entertainment ecosystem (movies, music, and e-books) doesn't measure up to Amazon's, though it is improving quickly.

Read CNET's review of the Google Nexus 7.

What's the verdict?

This is definitely a close race. The answer may have less to do with which model has the "best specs," and more with which one offers the better app ecosystem. In other words, if you're already invested in the Amazon mediascape -- with ebooks, music, and Prime video -- the Fire HD will likely have the edge. (The Kindle ebook and Amazon music apps are available on the Nexus 7, but Amazon video is not; nor is the Amazon Lending Library.) And if Google Play has some must-have apps you can't get on Amazon, that might be the tipping point.

We won't have a more definitive answer until we get a chance to live with the new Kindle Fire HD, at least for a few days (expect a full review by the time it begins shipping on September 14). In the meantime, here's how the tablets stack up against one another.



  Kindle Fire HD 7" Nexus 7
Dimensions  7.6 inches by 5.4 inches by 0.4 inch (HWD) 7.8 inches by 4.72 inches by 0.41 inch (HWD)
Weight 13.9 ounces 12 ounces
OS Custom Android 4.0 Android 4.1
Processor Dual-core,1.2GHz OMAP 4460 Quad-core Tegra 3
RAM 1GB 1GB
Storage 16GB or 32GB
8GB or 16GB
Front camera Yes, unknown type Yes, 1.2 megapixel
Rear camera No No
Battery 11 hours 10 hours
Charge type Micro-USB Micro-USB
3G No No
Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n (MIMO) 802.11 b/g/n
Bluetooth Yes
Yes
Screen size 7 inches, antiglare, laminated (IPS) 7 inches (IPS)
HDMI out Yes No
Resolution 800x1,280 pixels 800x1,280 pixels
Book store Amazon Google Books, third-party
App store Amazon Google Play
Book formats Kindle (AZW), TXT, PDF, unprotected MOBI, PRC natively, DOC, DOCX, Audible (Audible Enhanced (AA, AAX)) App-dependent, more inclusive
GPS No Yes
Gyroscope Yes Yes
microSD No No
NFC No Yes
Adobe Flash No

No

Microphone Yes Yes
Other features Cloud storage backup, wireless sync, Whispersync, Amazon Silk Web browser, Amazon Lending Library, Prime Instant Video, Dolby Digital Plus audio, X-Ray, FreeTime, MIMO dual-band antenna Larger app selection, Google Now, Voice Commands, broader accessibility options, integration with Google services (Gmail, Docs, Maps, Drive), location-aware,
Price $199 16GB, $249 (32GB) $199 8GB, $249 (16GB)
 

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