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

If you've been to Disneyland recently, you've seen the big change in how Americans while away their time in line. Many are absorbed by their smartphones, most often iPhones and Galaxy Notes. But these days you're also starting to see small 7-inch tablets, especially among kids, who play games and goof off electronically in line instead of whining or teasing their siblings (or, rather, the teasing happens in text). Their parents are also using smaller tablets for messaging, social networking, games, catching up on news and sports, and even picture taking.

Although 7-inch tablets predate the iPad by six months, most were mediocre or worse -- enlarged smartphones running a few primitive apps. Even the best of that class, the original Galaxy Tab 7, was a flop. The original iPad swept away that whole class within a year. Amazon.com's Kindle Fire tried to bring back the small tablet as a media device in late 2011, but after a strong initial sales surge, it petered out as its subpar hardware's compromises became clear to buyers.

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But this past spring, Google debuted the Google Nexus 7, which showed what a well-designed small media tablet could be. Now we have the souped-up Kindle Fire HD, and -- as of this past Friday -- Apple's own iPad Mini, an 8-inch tablet that seeks to dominate the media tablet market by being, well, an iPad. (This coming Friday, too late for this review, Barnes & Noble will ship its updated Nook HD 7-inch tablet.) Which should you buy? And can they serve any business use, even if incidental to their entertainment core?

Let's find out.

A good media tablet is all about quality entertainment: music, videos, books, magazines, games, edutainment apps, information services, social networking, Web browsing, and messaging (chat and email). Of course, it needs to be lightweight and easily carried in your hands, purse, or jacket -- and so much the better if it can be used to check on business in a pinch, such as when you're standing in line for the Jungle Cruise ride and your boss has a mini-crisis about one of your accounts.

Deathmatch: Media supportThe primary reason most people want a media tablet is, well, to access media over the Internet. But each media tablet also has its own method of transferring, storing, and organizing media files.

Getting media files onto your tablet. iTunes is Apple's not-so-secret weapon when it comes to media delivery on PCs, Macs, iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches. It's a media organizer for movies, TV shows, music, podcasts, and books. It lets you buy music, videos, books, and all sorts of apps. It lets you import your own music, videos, and books as well. It syncs your media content to all your devices and keeps purchases consistent. It lets you create playlists; iTunes is the flexible central hub that simply has no rival on any competing device.

Google, Amazon.com, and Barnes & Noble all have music, video, and app stores, as does Microsoft, but they lack iTunes' easy integration of your existing media with the media they sell. Yes, you can use direct transfer of media files (in Windows) or transfer utilities (in OS X), cloud storage, or USB drives to transfer files to these devices, but all are a poor imitation of the iTunes experience.

If you're using a standard Android tablet, you can use a utility such as DoubleTwist to get fairly close to iTunes' capabilities (it even works with iTunes libraries), but it doesn't work with the Nexus 7 unless you buy the $10 AirTwist add-on to DoubleTwist. DoubleTwist, with or without AirTwist, isn't available for the custom versions of Android that Amazon and B&N have on their media tablets, so you'll need to use a direct USB connection to transfer your computer's existing media (in OS X, you also need Google's primitive Android File Transfer utility).

Note that the iPad Mini and Nexus 7 both support MP3 and AAC (.m4a) audio, MPEG-4 (.m4v and .mp4) video, and ePub and PDF files. You can convert several common video formats to compatible MPEG-4 versions using OS X's included QuickTime Player utility or via third-party utilities for Windows. The Kindle Fire HD supports all the same formats except ePub, meaning you can only read books in its proprietary Mobi file format. (The free open source Calibre app for OS X and Windows can convert ePubs to Mobi format.)

All three media tablets put transferred music in their music apps; on the Kindle Fire HD, be sure to switch to the Devices pane to see them. But they handle transferred videos and books differently:

  • The iPad Mini puts all personal videos in the Movies pane in the Videos app. The Nexus 7 puts transferred video in the Play Video app's Personal Videos pane. The Kindle Fire HD doesn't put the videos in the Videos window at all; you have to go to the Kindle Fire's Apps view, then open the Personal Videos app to see your transferred videos. (The Kindle Fire's Videos window shows only videos purchased at Amazon.)
  • For books, the iPad Mini puts ePubs and PDFs in their books apps. The Kindle Fire puts copied PDFs in its Docs window and Mobi books in its Books window, both in the Devices pane. The Nexus 7's Play Books app can't access copied books at all, though the Kindle app can if you place the Mobi files in in the Nexus 7's Kindle folder.

If you're willing to live without iTunes, Amazon has the broadest video and music libraries, followed by Google, then Microsoft. You can watch iTunes-purchased content only on an Apple device, just as you can play videos or music purchased from the Google, Barnes & Noble, or Microsoft media stores only on their respective devices.

However, in addition to playback on the Kindle Fire HD, Amazon lets you play music bought from its store on Android and iOS devices (you need to use its iPhone app on the iPad) via its Cloud Player app. It lets you play rented videos on iOS devices, but not Android, through its Instant Video app.

Both the iPad Mini's Music app and the Nexus 7's Play Music app (the standard Android player) let you create your own playlists on your tablet, but the Kindle Fire HD's Music app does not. Likewise, the iPad Mini supports podcasts and podcast subscriptions via its Podcast app, but there is no equivalent capability included with the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD -- you'll need to get a third-party app instead.

You can use popular video streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus and audio streaming services such as Pandora on all the media tablets. Over Wi-Fi, they all played the videos and audio smoothly on such services.

On the Verizon LTE network in San Francisco, a full-size cellular iPad sometimes struggled to keep up with the video stream. Expect the same inconsistency on the cellular version of the iPad Mini that ships in mid-November, given the wide variance in LTE throughput and availability on the AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon networks the iPad Mini will support. (The Kindle Fire HD does not come in a cellular version, although a $524, 8.9-inch version of the Kindle Fire HD due Nov. 20 will support AT&T's LTE network. The Nexus 7's 3G -- no, it's not LTE -- cellular versions for AT&T and T-Mobile aren't due to ship until Nov. 13.)

For e-books, Amazon has the largest book library of anyone. But that doesn't give the Kindle Fire an advantage, because you can read books purchased from Amazon on your iPad or any other iOS device, Nexus 7 or any other Android device, or for that matter, a Windows 8/RT device.

The content winner. Of the media tablets, the iPad Mini has the broadest options for content sources, not just for iTunes media but for media from Amazon (books, music, and video), Google (books), and B&N (books). Next is Android, which supports media from Amazon (books and music) and B&N (books). It's a no-brainer that the best small tablet for accessing media content is the iPad Mini.

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.

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