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Display wars: Nexus 7 vs. Kindle Fire HD

When Google launched the Nexus 7 earlier this summer, it was trumpeted for its best-in-class 7in 1280 x 800 IPS LCD display. It packed all the HD punch that we are used to getting in 10in tablets into a tiny, hand-holdable package. Sales took off accordingly. Now Amazon has updated its Kindle Fire 7in model with an HD display, with the tablet finally coming to the UK, looking to top Google as the best way to consume content in the palm of your hand.

With the competition heating up, DisplayMate has just completed an exhaustive comparison of the displays on these two tablets. The results hold some surprises for those owning, or looking to buy, a 7in tablet.

As you’d expect, the displays both receive much higher marks than the older screen found in the first-generation US-only Kindle Fire, and both get very high marks for overall sharpness. The new Kindle Fire HD 7in display even scored above the more expensive iPad 2. These findings are tempered by the unsurprising note that neither can go head-to-head with the Retina display of the new iPad.

Sharpness and colour

At 216 PPI the Fire HD and Nexus 7 both get high marks for resolution, with DisplayMate pointing out that 15.9 inches (40cm) is the “Retina display” distance for both. In other words, if you’re 16 inches or more from the device, you probably can’t see individual pixels. Both tablets can render 86 per cent of the sRGB colour gamut – an improvement over almost every tablet on the market, except the new iPad. Aside from the Nexus 7 having slightly more saturated reds, and the Fire HD doing a little better on greens and yellows, DisplayMate calls the displays themselves pretty much a toss-up. Both tablets also get high marks for low reflectance.

When it comes to colour calibration, however, it seems Google may have made an almighty goof.

Does Google deserve to be lambasted?

DisplayMate’s President, Dr. Soneira, goes out of his way to criticise Google’s handling of the display panel on the Nexus 7. Describing its factory calibration as “incompetent” and “messed up,” he goes on to suggest that those who care about image quality “might want to skip the Google Nexus 7.” The DisplayMate shoot-out highlights additional criticisms, especially for Google’s choice of green primary for the display. You can read the entire report, in addition to the comparison with the new iPad, for yourself.

Since laboratory testing doesn’t always equate to actual, real-life performance, I was naturally inclined to see for myself exactly how visible the problems are in an everyday setting.

First, to get a sense of whether bright, colourful images looked washed out as mentioned in the shoot-out, I set up a calibrated HP LCD monitor, an Apple iPad 2, and a Google Nexus 7, all displaying the same photo of the vividly-coloured Grand Prismatic Basin in Yellowstone.

While I preferred the HP image – which was to be expected – there wasn’t much to choose between the iPad 2 or the Nexus 7, with both of them being a bit washed out by comparison. However, I considered the Nexus 7 version to be acceptable for casual viewing or sharing. So while I’m sure DisplayMate’s numbers are right on this one, it wasn’t a show-stopper for me – unless I needed to use the tablet to showcase a professional portfolio.

Soneira also points out that Google’s green primary choice is not sufficiently saturated. Setting up another test image, this time with some deep green areas, I definitely saw the problem. While there wasn’t anything unpleasant about the Nexus 7 version, it literally paled by comparison to the same image on an iPad 2 and the HP monitor.

Purists will note that my photos weren’t captured in a carefully-controlled environment. That’s intentional, since most image sharing on tablets isn’t done in light booths. The good news for Nexus 7 owners is that calibration can be fixed in software, so there is hope that the Nexus 7 display will eventually live up to its full potential.

Which tablet should you buy?

The bottom line from the DisplayMate report reinforces Amazon’s excellence at producing pure content delivery devices. For anyone looking at getting the best audio, video, and photo experience for £159, the Kindle Fire HD is the clear choice. None of that changes the fact that the Kindle is a locked-down, forked, muted version of Android, so if you want maximum flexibility in a £159 tablet, the Google Nexus 7 is still the best option, even if you have to live with some display issues.