Tablet deathmatch: iPad Mini vs. Nexus 7 vs. Kindle Fire HD

A new generation of small tablets has reinvented entertainment on the go, but which is best? Find out now and gear up for holiday gift-buying

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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 brighter display and better tonal range. By contrast, the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 were both a bit dark and muddy. A full-size, third-gen 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. A bigger issue is the reflectivity of the iPad Mini's screen, which even in cloudy daylight skies causes a reflection of your face to be constantly in view.

The Nexus 7's video display was the most muted, even with the screen brightness turned up, likely due to its yellowish color balance. It too suffers from an excessively reflective screen.

The Kindle Fire HD's video playback had a bit more life to it than Nexus 7's, but it wasn't quite as bright or as well-balanced as the iPad Mini's screen. It also suffered from periodic stutters during playback, even of video stored on the device. Neither the iPad Mini nor Nexus 7 had playback stutters. I found the Kindle Fire HD's screen overly reflective, too.

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 much louder than the other two tablets, without the distortion the Kindle Fire HD has at maximum volume.

The quality is good enough for boom-box-style use, such at a party or 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.

Sound from the 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. It's also the quietest of the three media tablets. There's an equalizer option in the Play Music app where you choose an EQ or set a custom EQ, but it's not intuitive to use. I could make the audio sound less tinny, but I could not eliminate the hollow tone no matter what settings I tried.

The Kindle Fire HD's stereo sound is also tinny and a bit flat, even with the Dolby Digital Plus audio processing option enabled. And there's unmistakable distortion at maximum volume. Unlike the Nexus 7, there are no equalizer controls available. Still, the speakers sound better than those of the Nexus 7.

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

The other media tablets don't have wireless media streaming capabilities. Unlike most Android tablets, the Nexus 7 also lacks support for video-out cables. Fortunately, the Kindle Fire HD has a MiniHDMI port for the purpose. It worked just fine, both for playing videos on an HDTV and mirroring the Kindle Fire's 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 new 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. But 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, though they pack more pixels per square inch.

The Kindle Fire HD's reader and the Kindle app on the iPad both load pages fast, but the Kindle app exhibits noticeable lag on the 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 Nexus 7, books in both the Kindle app and the native Play Books app were hard to read until I adjusted their text settings. With both apps I experienced a noticeable lag when I turned pages. On the iPad, Google's Play Books app is also slow, and it's harder to read there than on the Nexus 7, due to strange text display 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 available. 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 of reading magazines on a tablet comes down to the magazines' specific apps, and too many don't work well on a tablet. 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 -- that's 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 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 also very nice.

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