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Nexus 7 vs. Kindle Fire or wait for something better?

Mini-tablets are affordable enough that everyone wants one. But which one should you get? Ask Maggie's Marguerite Reardon offers some advice.

The $200 tablet market is heating up as Google introduces its own Android Nexus 7 tablet. Is now the right time to buy one of these bargain tablets?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I try to help one reader determine which tablet is best for her. And I give her some advice about waiting to see what might be coming next down the mini-tablet line. I also offer some advice to another reader about whether to wait for the iPhone 5 or not.

Nexus 7, Kindle Fire or wait?

Dear Maggie,
Our family has an iPad. But I've been thinking of getting at least one new cheap tablet for my kids, who are 11 and 13 years old. The iPad itself is too expensive for me to buy them each one. So I am considering getting at least one, and maybe two Amazon Kindle Fire tablets. But now I see Google has a tablet for the same price of $199.

My question is should I buy the Google or the Kindle Fire? And should I get the tablet now or are there going to be better ones that come out for the same price in the next couple of months?


Dear Desiree,
There are two main things to consider here in deciding which low-cost tablet to get. First you should consider the hardware. Sometimes the differences in hardware between devices are minor. In this case, I think the differences are important and very noticeable to the average user.

The Nexus 7 clearly has superior hardware compared to the Amazon Kindle. The quad-core processor, HD screen, front-facing camera: all these add up to score the Nexus 7 major points over the Kindle Fire. To be fair, the Kindle Fire has been on the market for more than half a year. In technology terms, that's old. And Amazon will likely introduce a Kindle Fire 2 soon, so these differences may not mean much once that happens.

If I were buying a tablet now and you really want something that offers a lot of the bells and whistles you expect from a tablet, I'd go with the Nexus 7. It's quad-core processor and HD screen really are a huge improvement over the Kindle Fire. Plus the Nexus 7 is thinner and lighter than the Kindle Fire. While the difference is slight in actual weight, when you compare the heft of these devices in person, you can really feel the difference. So that is definitely something to consider, especially if you or your kids plan on using the tablet for reading.

And the Nexus 7 has a front-facing camera for video chats and other fun picture-taking that your kids will probably enjoy.

But hardware isn't the only thing to consider. More and more when people buy a mobile device like a tablet or smartphone, they're also buying into an entire platform or ecosystem. Each of the big companies getting into the tablet market, also has some kind of content service to go along with it. Amazon, Apple, and Google have cloud-based music services and app stores where these companies sell you content. The tablet is really just the beginning when it comes to the hit your wallet will take. It's simply the vehicle on which you watch, listen to, play or read whatever you've bought from one of these big ecosystems.

For millions of customers this is fine. They want access to movies, TV shows, music, magazines, books, and games on their portable devices. And often they're willing to pay for it. The problem comes when you realize that buying these apps and downloading movies from a particular service now binds you to that company and its products and services.

Apple's iOS software and iTunes store are the most isolated and proprietary of the platforms out there. This means that all the apps and games you've purchased from iTunes for your existing iPad will not work on either the Kindle Fire or the Nexus 7.

The good news is that Amazon and Google aren't as closed off as Apple. The benefit for consumers, such as yourself, is that even if you own a lot of books via Kindle, you can still access your books and other reading material on non Amazon devices through an Android or iOS Kindle app. And you can even use your browser on these devices to access other Amazon content that's not part of an app.

But to be clear, Amazon's services tend to work better on Amazon devices. And the same is true of Google services. They also tend to work better on Google Android products.

So if you use Amazon a lot and you happen to be an Amazon Prime member, which gets you free access to lots of content, you might want to stick with the Amazon products. But keep in mind that Amazon restricts what content you can access on this device. Amazon actually uses the Google Android software to power the Kindle Fire, but the company has chosen to limit the Android functionality of the device. This means Amazon Kindle Fire users can't access the Google Play app market from their devices. So even though it's an Android device, you can't get the apps and games a regular Android device could get.

At this point, I probably wouldn't buy the current generation of Kindle. I'd likely wait to see what Amazon announces next. There are lots of rumors floating around that Kindle will announce its next iteration of the Kindle Fire this summer.

This leads me to the answer for your second question: Should you buy either device now or should you wait for something cooler to be announced in a few months? This is the age-old question in technology since buying something now means that it will be old and potentially obsolete in a few months time.

If you are not already invested in one ecosystem or another right now, then I'd say go for the Nexus 7. Eric Franklin, my CNET colleague who reviews tablets, said he was very impressed with the Nexus 7. He recommends it over the Kindle Fire at this point, too. I think the hardware is well worth the $199 you'll pay, and it's a fully functioning Android tablet that has access to many of Android's apps, as well as music and video services and cloud storage.

But if you are an Amazon Prime customer already then you should probably wait. By the way, this is also the advice that my colleague David Carnoy offers in his post comparing the Nexus 7 with the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet. It's a great reference if you're considering any of these devices right now.

You may also want to wait anyway to see what Apple does next. There are all kinds of rumors floating around that Apple may launch its own 7-inch tablet. I have no idea if there is any truth to these rumors. My gut tells me that Apple doesn't really need to diversify its product line with another product. It's selling plenty of 10-inch iPads.

Also, that's not the strategy it's adopted for the iPhone. The company has one device it sells each year. And then it discounts the older model once a new one comes on the market.

That said, Apple has introduced different flavors of the iPod over the years. So it's conceivable that it may bust out of the 10-inch only tablet world soon. But it's hard to say when. And it's even harder to predict what the technology will look like and whether it will be as low cost as these other two options.

My guess is that it would be more expensive than $199. Apple likes to make money when it sells products. And Google, as one exec from the company recently told me in an interview, may not be motivated by profits when it comes to selling its own Google-branded hardware.

The good news for you and other consumers is that these devices are only $199. While this is not necessarily chump change to many people, especially in this tight economy, it's a heck of a lot easier to swallow than $500 or $600.

So whatever device you buy today, if it starts to look a little long in the tooth in a year or so, it won't break the bank if you buy a different one. (I can't tell you how many $200 cameras I've bought in the past five or six years.)

The one thing to be mindful of is that once you get one device or the other, you may be locking yourself into an ecosystem longer term. So keep that in mind when you're choosing a device. I hope this advice was helpful. Good luck!

Now playing: Watch this: Nexus 7 aims its sights at Kindle Fire

iPhone 4 or hold for iPhone 5?

Dear Maggie,
My wife has the the iPhone 4. I have an iPod Toch and a Samsung flip phone. I can upgrade my device in July. I really want to get an iPhone too. Should I just hold off until the iPhone 5 is available?

I enjoy the column!


Dear KB,
If your current flip-phone is still functioning, you should definitely wait. The new iPhone is expected to be announced in September, and it will likely be available by October. By the time you are eligible for a new phone at a subsidized price, you'll only have a couple of months to wait.

At that point, you can buy the new iPhone 5 or if you want something less expensive, you could probably get the older iPhone 4S at a discount. Apple typically cuts the price of the older model once the new one is released.

But I also think the iPhone 5 is something to wait for. In all likelihood, it will operate over 4G LTE. That means much faster downloads when you're browsing or accessing Net-based apps. And there are likely to be loads of other enhancements.

Just try to be patient. I think you'll be happy you waited.

Good Luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.