Reviewers overwhelmingly agree that the Google Nexus 7 (Est. $230 and up) is the best Android tablet. If value is part of the equation, it's also one of the best small tablets. Like the Apple iPad Air and the iPad mini with Retina Display, the 2013 version of the Nexus 7 scores Editors' Choice awards and high ratings from most professional reviewers.
Its price has jumped $30 from its predecessor, but the 2013 Google Nexus 7 is upgraded in nearly every way. Powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, it does exceedingly well in benchmark testing at Laptop Magazine, where it simply "blew away the competition." PCMag.com finds similar results, but Sascha Segan notes some real-world bobbles with some third-party apps. That remains Android's Achilles heel compared to Apple: The app experience under iOS is simply surer. However, Segan adds that "the Nexus 7's app situation is good enough for that not to be a deal-breaker." At CNET, Eric Franklin says that gaming performance is second only to the fourth-generation iPad. However, that means that it has fallen a little further behind the newer iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display.
The Nexus 7 also sports a new and stunning 1,920-by-1,200-pixel display. That translates to a pixel density of 323 pixels per inch (ppi), comparable to the iPad mini with Retina Display's pixel density of 326 ppi. CNET says that the touch screen is extremely responsive. It's also bright, with accurate colors and wide viewing angles.
Value is over the top. "Google's Nexus 7 continues to set the bar for small-screen tablets with a perfect balance between price and performance," Segan writes. "The Nexus 7 is now the best 7-inch tablet and offers the most value of any slate under 10 inches," Laptop Magazine's Michael A. Prospero concurs, though the magazine splits hairs a bit by declaring the iPad mini with Retina Display to be the "best mid-size tablet on the market."
The Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 (Est. $230 and up) costs the same and has an even more impressive hardware lineup, but uses a "forked" version of the Android operating system that allows access to the Amazon.com App Store but not the larger Google Play store. For heavy Amazon.com users that might be all you need or want; for others, it's likely a deal killer.
Under the bezel, the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 sports a Snapdragon processor that's more advanced than the one in the Nexus 7. PCMag.com reports that benchmarking the Fire HDX 7 proved to be difficult as the Silk browser "pre-fetches" some pages to speed loading times. In real-world tests, pages such as NYTimes.com, the home page of a local Thai restaurant and the mobile version of PCMag.com all loaded in under two seconds. "That's pretty wild," says Segan.
The display is the same resolution as the 1,920-by-1,200-pixel beauty found on the Nexus 7. Most are impressed, though CNET complains of "a yellowish quality to the white."
What sets the Kindle Fire HDX 7 apart from the Nexus 7 is the user interface. The Mojito (Fire OS 3.0) overlay on top of Android renders the operating system unrecognizable to those who expect a pure Android experience. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing depends on the user. It does allow for a more unified user experience than standard Android fare -- almost Apple-like -- with a heavy emphasis on consuming media sourced by Amazon.com. However, it substitutes Amazon versions of popular programs for ones commonly used under Android -- and most are not as well liked, though improved in this latest go-around.
One liked new feature is a Mayday app, which brings you into contact with a customer service representative in surprisingly short order. CNET found the representatives to be "helpful, polite and knowledgeable." A feature that lets you transfer video to a second device (such as a smart TV) was not working at the time that the Fire HDX 7 was reviewed. FreeTime is a parental control feature that carries over from previous versions; it's one of the better sets of parental controls on a non-kid-centric tablet.
While the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX 7 represent a sweet spot in terms of value and performance, those looking for a large premium tablet or a cheap smaller tablet have lots to choose from among the Android family.
Amazon has released a larger version of the Kindle Fire HDX. The Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (Est. $380 and up) features the same internals and operating system as its smaller sibling. Most like the 8.9-inch version every bit as much as the HDX 7 but add that its appeal will be strongest to Amazon Prime members and others who don't mind being tied to Amazon.com for their content needs.
We saw some high praise, but also some lukewarm feedback, for the 2014 Edition of the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (Est. $550 and up) . What sets it apart from other slates in this class is the inclusion of the S Pen stylus, also found in its Note 3 smartphone. The stylus proves to be quite useful in a host of productivity and just-for-fun apps.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) is also one of the few tablets in this class that can do true multitasking. Two multitasking features -- Pen Window and Multi window -- can be used together to let you have as many as five apps running simultaneously in their own "windows," PCMag.com reports. "These two features combined blow away any other tablet when it comes to multitasking, which gives the Note 10.1 a huge advantage for productivity," Eugene Kim says.
The screen is also upgraded. The 2,560-by-1,600-pixel display out-pixels that of the iPad Air, with a pixel density of 298 ppi. Much like a higher-end TV, you can switch image profiles to get the level of color accuracy and saturation you want, Kim says, adding: "This is one of the better tablet displays I've seen, and gives the iPad a run for its money."
However, there are some disappointments. Despite some impressive specifications and benchmark scores, real-world performance isn't the best. Dann Berg at TheVerge.com says that despite its fantastic specs, the Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) still can't keep up with the demands of its TouchWiz interface, which is layered on top of the Android operating system. "There were traces of stuttering when swiping between home screens -- especially if I hadn't used the device for a few minutes -- and even swiping to unlock the device was slow sometimes," he says. Compared to the older Nexus 10 (released a full year earlier), the Samsung tablet just felt slower. At Engadget.com, Brad Molen makes the same comparison and reaches the same conclusion.
While the Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition) is all-new, the earlier Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 (Est. $360 and up) soldiers on. Although it's a little too large to fit into your pocket, the Note 8.0 is light enough to hold in one hand while taking notes with the S Pen stylus in the other. As such, reviewers recommend it for students (even though the battery life is somewhat short and may not last a full day of lectures), for artists and for those who think while writing. All others may prefer to look at other, newer and more powerful tablets such as the Nexus 7.
While critics are oohing and aahing the iPad Air, it is worth noting that at least one large Android tablet got there first with a design that's incredibly thin and light. We are referring to the Sony Xpiria Tablet Z (Est. $430 and up) . "This superlight 10-inch Android tablet weighs barely over a pound and is thinner than a pencil," says Michael A. Prospero at Laptop Magazine, where the Tablet Z earns an Editors' Choice award.
Powered by the same Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor as in the Nexus 7, most say that the Tablet Z is a zippy performer, albeit one that suffers from the typical Android bobbles in real-world usage: "Basically, it works like an Android tablet: Scrolling stutters in some apps, as it always does, and the occasional app can take a beat or two to open, as it always does, but nearly everything works as it's intended to," says David Pierce at TheVerge.com. The display is crisp and bright, but at 1,920 by 1,200 pixels, it falls short of what you can get on other premium premium large tablets.
One feature that's drawn some attention is that the Tablet Z claims to be waterproof. CNET dunks it in a half foot of water for several minutes and reports that all is fine after a quick towel drying. Others concur, though as TheVerge.com reports, that doesn't mean that you should actually try to use the tablet while submerged as some odd things can happen. Value is an oft-cited concern, but current street prices place the Sony Xpiria Tablet Z below the iPad Air (base version) in terms of cost.
While the Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 (at least for Amazon.com users) present a terrific value proposition, you can spend even less and still get a perfectly usable and even enjoyable Android tablet.
For example, we saw some good feedback for the Asus MeMO Pad HD 7 (Est. $130) . Anand Lal Shimpi at AnandTech.com says that while he'd rather spend the extra money for the latest version of the Nexus 7, the MeMO Pad HD 7 is a good option for those on a strict budget. Laptop Magazine is more enthusiastic: "With epic battery life, strong performance and powerful custom software, this is not only the leading tablet under $200, but one of the best you can purchase at any price," Avram Piltch writes.
The MeMO Pad HD 7 won't win any performance races against any of today's top Android or Apple tablets. In benchmark testing it comes in a hair behind the original Nexus 7 (which Asus also made), but Shimpi says that the MeMO Pad HD 7 otherwise pretty much replicates the experience of using the previous-generation Nexus 7, just for a lot cheaper. It also has things that the first-gen Nexus 7 lacked. Those include a rear-facing camera and a microSD slot so that you can expand memory.
The display is fine, but not noteworthy. Its 1,280-by-800 resolution is lower than the Nexus 7 (second generation) but "is more than crisp enough for books, games and movies," says Jon Fingas at Engadget.com. It's a bit glossy, however, making things a little challenging in bright lighting, and blacks don't look all that black when the lights are turned down. Still, Fingas joins a number of reviewers who can't help but be impressed: "The HD 7's battery life, display, software and storage are all above-average in the budget realm; for $150, Asus' tablet provides an experience that some companies can't manage in devices that cost $200 or more."