Spec Comparison: New iPad v. Nexus 7 v. Kindle Fire v. Surface

Google announced its first direct foray into the tablet market on Wednesday with the Nexus 7, a 7 inch tablet that will run Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. As we said in our coverage of the product’s launch, the company has completely reset the bar for what to expect for a 7 inch tablet. Even more interestingly, while the Nexus 7 competes with the Kindle Fire or the Nook Color tablet in terms of size, it also competes with Apple’s new iPad and Surface by Microsoft in terms of specs.

Accordingly, we offer you the following spec shootout between the new iPad, Surface for Windows RT, Amazon’s Kindle Fire, and the Google Nexus 7. Due to limitations in space, we have to omit the Nook Color Tablet, though that device is popular with the same market that is also interested in the Kindle Fire.

The Sound You Just Heard Was the Value of Kindle Fire Hitting the Floor

We’re going to start off with our conclusion, because we think it’s important. The media tablet market just became a two-horse race with Apple’s new iPad as the champion of the high-end, full size touch tablet and the the Google Nexus 7 carrying the Android banner. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab line and Motorola’s Xoom family might as well pack it up and go home.

On the hybrid side, the Asus Transformer line will be fighting for the title of King Toaster-Fridge with Microsoft’s Surface, and may the best device sweep up the crumbs left by Apple and Google.

Below the fold, we have some specific analysis on these devices and their specific specs.

The Specs
(Product images are intended to be close to scale, but since we’re shooting in the dark with Surface, they may be off by a pixel or two)

 Apple's new iPadSurface for Windows RTAmazon Kindle FireGoogle's Nexus 7
ProductThe New iPadSurface for Windows RTAmazon Kindle FireGoogle Nexus 7
OS (current)iOS 5.1Windows RTAndroid 2.3 (forked version)Android 4.1 Jelly Bean
Dimensions (in.)9.5 x 7.31 x 0.37? x ? x 0.37 (9.3mm)7.5 x 4.7 x 0.457.81 x 4.72 x 0.41 (198.5 x 120 x 10.45 mm)
Weight (lbs)1.4 (Wi-Fi) 1.46 (4G)1.490.910.75 (340 grams)
Display size (in., diag)9.710.677
Display Resolution2048 x 1536 (IPS, LED bklight)Unknown (Listed as “HD,” which is likely to be 1280 x 720)1024 x 6001280 x 800
Pixels per inch 264Unknown

169

220
RAM (MB)1024 (1GB)Unknown

512

1024
ProcessorA5X (dual core) 1 GHz;
quad core GPU
Unspecified Nvidia ARM-Based Tegra ProcessorTI OMAP dual core/ 1 GHzNvidia 1.3 GHz Tegra 3 Quad-core CPU
User Storage (GB)16/32/6432/6488/16
Expanded StoragexUnknown - microSD possiblex√ (through microUSB)
Cloud StorageiCloudUnknown - Microsoft Service PossibleFree Cloud Storage for Amazon ContentGoogle Cloud
Front Camera“VGA”√ (resolution unknown)x1.2 MP
Rear Camera5 MP (1080p) stabilization√ (resolution unknown)xx
Camera FlashxUnknownxx
MicrophoneUnknown**x
Audio/speakermono spkr, stereo headphoneUnknown**mono spkr, stereo headphonesstereo spkrs & headphone
Wi-Fi802.11 a/b/g/nUnspecified (probably 802.11a/b/g/n)802.11 b/g/n802.11 b/g/n
Radio (GSM)UMTS/HSPA/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA/4G-LTEUnknownxx
Radio (CDMA)CDMA, EV-DO/UMTS/HSPA/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA/GSMUnknownxx
Bluetooth4.0Unknown (probably Bluetooth 4.0)x√ (unspecified)
GPSw/4GUnknown (likely, if there is 3G or 4G support)x
Battery Life, hours10 (9 w/ 4G) (11666 mAh)Unspecified (31.5 watt-hr)8 (4400 mAh)8 (4325 mAh)
AccelerometerUnknown**x
Magnetometer/CompassUnknown**x
GyroscopeUnknown**x
Video outHDMI (w/ accessory) + AirPlayMicro HD Videoxx
USBxUSB 2.0USB 2.0
SensorsAmbient LightUnknown**xAmbient Light, Proximity
ColorsBlack or WhiteGray (with variety of colored keyboards)BlackBlack
Price US$ (Wi-Fi)499/599/699Unknown (similar to other ARM-based tablets - say $399 and up)199199/249
Price US$ (3G/4G)629/729/829Unknown (see above, but add roughly $100)N/AN/A

** Microsoft hasn’t announced these features, but at this stage of the game they are all but standard. Accordingly, we think it safe to assume it will be included.

Display

Google and its hardware partner Asus have achieved a remarkable feat offering so much for so little. In fact, I am of the opinion that Google is subsidizing this device in some way, but that’s only because we don’t see how there can be any margins at this price. After all, Amazon was selling the Kindle Fire at a loss at the same price point six months ago, and the Nexus 7 has markedly higher quality (and therefore more expensive) components.

That’s neither here nor there, however, as the Nexus 7 starts at $199, and that includes a 220 pixel-per-inch display with a resolution of 1280 x 800. That’s 720p with some change left over on the shorter side, and it makes for the best display yet on a 7 inch device. It’s not as good as Apple’s new iPad, at 264 pixels per inch, but it’s darned good.

When we compare it to Amazon’s 1024 x 600 resolution on a display roughly the same size, Amazon is a clear and distinct loser left far behind. At the same time, we don’t know for sure what resolution Surface for Windows RT will have, but the educated money is on either 1280 x 720, or more likely 1336 x 768. In other words, what Big Redmond led us to expect is a device with very low pixel density, and it’s likely to look like crap next to both the new iPad and the Nexus 7. That’s a double whammy!

The bottom line on display quality is that Apple rules the high end with its 2048 x 1536 Retina Display on the 9.7 inch new iPad, while Google rules the 7 inch market and everything else that’s not a new iPad with the Nexus 7.

OS

Google announced Android 4.1 Jelly Bean at the same time it showed off Nexus 7. This update to Android looks great, and it closes quite a few gaps with Apple’s iOS (for instance, voice controls), while it lengthens some areas where Google already led. Notifications, for instance, look fantastic on Jelly Bean, and we think beat Notifications even on iOS 6. That said, both OSes await hands-on experience.

All of this is subjective, but we think that Nexus 7 and Jelly Bean combine to make for the first Android tablet that can reasonably give the iPad a run for its money in terms of the user experience. That’s huge, and we predict that no matter what your platform of choice, we’re going to see a rush of innovation during the next two years now that Apple has a serious challenger.

We’ve already commented on our belief that Microsoft is making a mistake with Windows 8 in trying to make the tablet and the PC be, essentially, extensions of one another. While we happily give Microsoft kudos for going its on way with Windows 8 and the Metro interface, in the end buying a Surface means buying into Microsoft’s vision of going back to the future.

It’s quite possible that Big Redmond’s approach is right on the money for some segment of the market, particularly old-school IT types. We won’t know until these and other Windows 8 tablets get released later this year. If Microsoft is right, it will sew up the market for toaster-fridges.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire is another beast altogether. It runs a forked version Android 2.3 that Amazon customized to be a portal to Amazon content and physical goods. There is a subset of users for whom that is a great choice, but it’s a shadow of a media tablet. When you consider that for the same price you can now get the Nexus 7, those for whom it is a good choice shrinks to nobody, and maybe their mother.

More: Kindle E Ink devices are terrific ereaders, but in our opinion, reading even a Kindle book is a far more enjoyable experience on the iPad than it is on the Kindle Fire. The same is going to be true on the Nexus 7, too. It’s faster, can do the page turning thing that we old fogies like, and text looks better.

No, at this stage of the game, the OS on the Kindle Fire is the clear, hands down loser in the tablet race.

Horsepower

Apple’s new iPad is powered by a dual-core 1 GHz Apple A5X processor. It’s fast, but the quad-core 1.3 GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor in the Nexus 7 is likely going to smoke the new iPad. Microsoft won’t specify which Nvidia Tegra processor will be in the Surface for Windows RT, so we it’s a tad difficult to offer an opinion. The processor in the Amazon Kindle Fire is low-end and slow. Once again, it’s the clear loser.

Google is also winning the graphics processing race, because the Nvidia system the company is using has 12 cores of GPU power. Apple’s quad-core GPU in the new iPad is no slouch—in fact, it’s very fast—but the Nexus 7 is probably going to be able to do some things on the graphics side that exceed the new iPad. We’ll have to wait and see how it works in the real world, but during Google’s keynote, the company showed off some great looking 3D games.

The Surface represents more unknowns on the GPU side, and the Amazon Kindle Fire is just plain slow and ugly.

All told, the Nexus 7 is probably going to be the clear leader on horsepower when it ships. A lot of that will depend on optimization, where Apple has the benefit of controlling every aspect of its iPad, but we still expect the Nexus 7 to be tops in horsepower.

Case, Looks, and Styling

The Nexus 7 looks great, front and back. That’s in part because it looks a lot like the iPad, or maybe the iPhone, from the front. It will be interesting to see if Apple tries to assert its design patent—the same patent that just won an injunction against the Samsung Galaxy Tab—against Google.

Google Nexus 7

Google’s Nexus 7

Whether or not that happens, we think both the new iPad and the Nexus 7 look great. Surface by Microsoft looks good from the front, but we think it is ugly as sin from the side and the rear. When we said so in our iPad/Surface spec comparison last week, several Microsoft fans let us know that we were wrong, but then they’re fans of Microsoft, so…

In any event, Kindle Fire is also a not-very-attractive hunk of plastic, leaving Nexus 7 and the new iPad at the top of the heap for looks.

Keyboard?

Nexus 7 is designed to be used without a keyboard, like a touch tablet should. The same is true for Kindle Fire, so for a change, Amazon isn’t bringing up the rear. Yay Amazon!

Surface for Windows RT is a toaster-fridge, however. It’s designed to be a touch device and to work with a keyboard. We know there are some people who think that this is the bee’s knees because they just can’t grok typing on a touch-display. Whatever, the world is a big place, and toaster-fridge lovers can enjoy their Surface devices.

Surface by Microsoft with Keyboard

Ecosystem

Apple rules the ecosystem. iPad has more apps—225,000 these days—designed for it than any other tablet, and the iTunes Store is the best place to buy music, movies, and TV shows.

Amazon has the second best ecosystem, and this is an area where the company not only doesn’t lag, it leads (just behind Apple). The company has more ebooks than anyone (Google’s claims notwithstanding), a healthy Amazon Appstore for Android, tons of movies and TV shows, and direct access to all those physical goods the company sells, too.

Microsoft has no real ecosystem for Surface, at least not yet. We expect that to change once Windows 8 rolls out later this year, but the company is still going to lag far behind its competitors on this front.

Which leaves Google and the Nexus 7. A big part of Google’s tablet problem has been the lack of dedicated tablet apps and a smaller catalog of books, movies, and TV shows. The company addressed some of this with the creation of Google Play, where it brought all of its Android digital content under one roof. Google Play is, frankly, a great step forward the Android platform.

The bigger news on this front, however, is that Google is now giving developers a solid tablet target for their apps. We believe this is going to result in many more apps being developed and tweaked for the Nexus. Google could really narrow the dedicated tablet app gap between Android and iPad by releasing this device. It hasn’t happened yet, but look for exciting new things to happen in the Android tablet app space starting within three months.

Conclusion

The Nexus 7 looks great, at least from the specs and Google’s presentation. It’s very inexpensive, but it has high-end features. That makes it great competition for Apple’s new iPad, and it truly represents the first credible Android challenger in this space.

Now, it’s possible that this device will take some sales away from Apple’s iPad. It’s possible, but we think that its real effect is going to be to grow the tablet market as a whole, and that this growth will make up for any potential lost iPad sales.

Where Google is going to kill it in by eating up every other device out there. Samsung’s sales are going to collapse. Kindle Fire is going to nose dive. Unfortunately, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color tablet is going to take a hit, too. Nothing on the Android side comes close to the Nexus 7, especially for the price.

Which means that Microsoft’s Surface product is also going to suffer. Microsoft was already working hard to position itself as the toaster-fridge king, but now the company can’t even vaguely hope to skim a few sales from the I-Hate-Apple crowd, because those folks are going to get a Nexus 7.

In short, Google has hit a home run with the Nexus 7. If it can manufacture them in high enough quantities—remember that Asus is the actual maker of this device—it will sell a ton of them. Apple is still king of the full size touch tablet, but the bar has been set if Apple wants to also enter the 7 inch space.