Review: New Nexus 7 takes on iPad Mini and Kindle Fire HD

Google's revised media tablet is a lot better than the original, but not enough to unseat the iPad Mini in our media tablet deathmatch

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But what about for playing media? Here, the decision is a bit more complex.

Video playback. Many product reviews zero in on the tablet's pixel count, but that's usually a meaningless figure. The quality of the image rarely correlates to total pixels, so my evaluation is based on subjective image quality.

The iPad Mini's screen is the best of the three media tablets reviewed here, with a brighter display and a better tonal range. By contrast, the Kindle Fire HD's screen is both dark and muddy. The new Nexus 7 has a much improved screen compared to the original model, which suffered the same quality issues as the Kindle Fire HD. The new Nexus 7's screen is brighter and has a good tonal range, close to the iPad Mini's quality level. But the Nexus 7's screen is quite a bit smaller than the iPad Mini's -- readily apparent if you play a movie on the two side by side.

A full-size, third- or fourth-gen iPad screen has even better color range and details, though honestly you only notice the differences in nature films and sci-fi epics, where high-def images are accentuated. Your typical comedy film or TV show appears the same on both types of iPad screens -- and on the new Nexus 7's screen. But an issue with all three tablets is their screens' reflectivity: Even in cloudy daylight skies, you'll see a reflection of your face constantly in view.

In addition to the dingy look and the unpleasant cast that puts on videos, the Kindle Fire HD suffered from periodic stutters during playback, even of video stored on the device. Neither the iPad Mini nor Nexus 7 had playback stutters.

Audio playback. All the media tablets support standard audio jacks for private listening on the headphones or earbuds of your choice. All three also support Bluetooth audio streaming, and the iPad Mini supports Apple's proprietary AirPlay streaming over Wi-Fi networks to compatible speakers or, via an Apple TV, to stereos and TVs.

For direct audio, the full-size iPad has long suffered from having a mono speaker, though one with good clarity and tonal balance. The iPad Mini adds stereo -- and wins hands down. You can crank the iPad Mini louder than the other two tablets, without the distortion the Kindle Fire HD has at maximum volume. The new Nexus 7 can get almost as loud as the iPad Mini, but with the surround sound option switched on (the default), you'll often hear distortion when music is playing (not so much for dialog).

The quality of the iPad Mini's speakers is good enough for boom-box-style use, such as at a party or in a conference room, though at maximum volume a flatness creeps in, likely due to the iPad Mini's thin chassis. To optimize the audio, the iPad Mini's Settings app has equalizer preselects you can choose, but no tool to set your own EQ settings.

The sound from the original Nexus 7's built-in stereo speakers struck me as tinny, muddy, and hollow, even with bass boost on -- it was grating to listen to. Its equalizer option in the Play Music app was both unintuitive to use and unable to eliminate the hollow tone. The new Nexus 7's speakers are much better, with clearer tones and range. But there's an annoying echo-chamber effect when the surround sound option is on, and a tinniness when it is off. Overall, the new Nexus 7's speakers are better than the old model's, but still inferior to the iPad Mini's.

The Kindle Fire HD's stereo sound is also tinny and a bit flat, even with the Dolby Digital Plus audio processing option enabled; there's also unmistakable distortion at maximum volume. Unlike the Nexus 7, the Kindle Fire HD offers no equalizer controls. Its speakers sound better than those of the original Nexus 7 but not as good as the new Nexus 7.

TV/stereo playback. The iPad Mini supports AirPlay streaming (if you have an Apple TV), along with video-out via HDMI and VGA cables. You can use it as a portable DVD and music player at hotels and other people's homes, as well as a presentation device at conferences and meetings via its video mirroring capability.

The new Nexus 7 supports the Miracast wireless video streaming protocol, like the Nexus 10 tablet, though compatible TVs and other devices are so far unavailable. If that changes, the Nexus 7 may gain the same streaming advantage the iPad Mini has today. The Kindle Fire HD has no streaming capability.

All three tablets let you connect to TVs and projectors via HDMI cables, which are available from third parties. The iPad Mini needs an adapter for its Lightning connector, just as the Nexus 7 needs an adapter for its SlimPort connector. The Kindle Fire HD has a MiniHDMI port. All worked just fine, both for playing videos on an HDTV and mirroring the screen.

Book reading. For reading books, Apple's iBooks and Amazon's Kindle apps are the best. Their default settings are the most readable, though you may want to increase the Kindle's default text size. I like iBooks 3.0's scroll mode for reading -- turning virtual pages may remind you that you're reading a book, but scrolling is faster and a bit more natural. The interactive Multi-Touch style of e-book available only for iPads can be nothing short of amazing in presentation richness and flexibility -- it's little used, though, outside of textbooks. After using an iPad with a Retina display, I noticed that text on the iPad Mini's non-Retina display was not as crisp -- yet it's roughly equivalent to the crispness of the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7, which pack more pixels per square inch.

The Kindle Fire HD's reader and the Kindle app on both the iPad and new Nexus 7 load fast -- the Kindle app exhibited noticeable lag on the old Nexus 7. Also, the yellower color balance of the Kindle Fire HD's screen made the book pages dimmer and harder to read than on the Nexus 7 or iPad Mini.

On the old Nexus 7, books in both the Kindle app and the native Play Books app were hard to read until I adjusted their text settings. But the new Nexus 7 fixes that, with reader-friendly default settings.

Magazine and newspaper reading. When it comes to magazines, the battle is between the iPad Mini and the Kindle Fire HD, both of which have fairly large magazine and newspaper subscription libraries. Android's Play Market has a small magazine selection. iOS's Newsstand app conveniently puts all your subscriptions in one place, with the option to get alerts when new editions are available. The Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire also aggregate your subscriptions and offer new-issue notifications.

The real test for reading print publications on a tablet comes down to the magazines' specific apps, and too many don't work well. Most are PDF-like replicas of their print layouts, perhaps with the ability to switch to a text view for easier reading but without the accompanying graphics -- standard for the Kindle Fire and optional on other devices. I find most magazines on all the media tablets unsatisfying. One major exception is the Economist, whose iOS and Android apps show how it should be done.

Fortunately, most newspaper apps are designed for tablet reading, such as USA Today, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Newspaper apps on the iPad Mini tend to be more nicely designed, easier to navigate, and more readable than those on the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD.

All in all, the iPad Mini is the best book reader, especially if you use the iBooks and Kindle apps. On the Nexus 7, you'll really want to use the Kindle app rather than the native Google Play Books app, because Play Books is hard to read -- a nonstarter for an e-reader.

The playback winner. When it comes to playback options, the iPad Mini wins, mainly because it has the most flexible playback options, both in terms of output options and playback apps available. If you're looking for a device you want to listen to without external speakers or headphones, you'll again prefer the iPad Mini, whose video playback quality is very nice. But the new Nexus 7 has become a solid second choice.

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