Media tablet showdown: Retina iPad Mini faces newly beefed-up challengers

The Retina iPad Mini, Kindle Fire HDX, Nexus 7, Dell Venue 7 and Venue 8 Pro, and Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 go toe to toe in InfoWorld Test Center's review

The Retina iPad Mini, Kindle Fire HDX, Nexus 7, Dell Venue 7 and Venue 8 Pro, and Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 go toe to toe in InfoWorld Test Center's review

What a difference a year makes. Last year, the then-new iPad Mini was the unquestioned top pick for a media tablet, thanks to its friendly iTunes software for managing your personal media and its superior hardware, which easily outperformed the corner-cutting componentry used by competitors to gain a price advantage.

This year, Apple has added the higher-quality -- and higher-priced -- iPad Mini with Retina Display to its lineup, and both Google and Amazon have significantly upped the hardware quality of their respective contenders, the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX. Samsung's Galaxy Note 8.0 also received a hardware face-lift earlier this year. Further, there are now several 8-inch Windows tablets that could act as a media tablet; I tested the Dell Venue 8 Pro here, as well as its smaller sibling, the Intel-based Venue 7 Android tablet.

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Today, you can choose from a wide range of tablets to read books, listen to music, watch movies and other videos, casually surf the Web, keep up with social networks, and otherwise entertain yourself. Their sizes and shapes vary, as do their capabilities -- I was surprised at how differently the various Android devices handled key features such as personal videos and video streaming, for example. Yet they all now have front and rear cameras. The media tablet is still very much a work in progress.

Here are the contenders: the Amazon.com Kindle Fire HDX, the Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display, the still-sold original iPad Mini, the Dell Venue 7 (which runs Android) and the Dell Venue 8 Pro (which runs Windows 8.1), the Asus-made Google Nexus 7, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0. Read on to see how today's media tablets stack up.

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 easy to carry in your hands, purse, or jacket -- 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 at Disneyland and your boss has a mini-crisis about one of your accounts.

The 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, as well as import your own music, videos, and books. It syncs your media content to all your devices and keeps your purchases consistent. It lets you create playlists. iTunes is the flexible central hub that simply has no rival on any competing device. You can also get files into your iPad Mini by opening the file in an email, from a cloud storage service, or via a transfer utility like GoodReader; when you open a file, the iPad will ask to launch a compatible app.

Google and Amazon.com both have music, video, and app stores, as does Microsoft for Windows tablets, 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), or cloud storage, or USB drives to transfer files to these devices, but all are poor imitations of the iTunes experience. For one thing, they're slow -- USB transfer on the non-Apple devices typically took 40 minutes for a feature-length movie, versus well under 10 minutes on the iPads. Amazon also has a cloud-based transfer utility, but it doesn't support video files.

Google's Play Music lets you upload songs from your computer to its cloud servers, so you can play your own music via streaming on Android and iOS devices. Play Music's streaming-radio option costs $10 per month but has no ads, versus Apple's free, but ad-supported, iOS-only iTunes Radio service.

If you use the recommended Android File Transfer utility from Google, you also have to work with a primitive file hierarchy, and you have to know the idiosyncracies of your device. On the Kindle, in order to transfer movies, they have to be stored in the Photos folder, not the Movies folder, which means they are accessible in the Photos app, not the Movies app. On the Nexus 7, Note 8.0, and Venue 7, you can put movies in the Movies folder. Got that? Also, the Android File Transfer utility often crashed when transferring files to the Kindle Fire HDX.

Many Android tablets -- including the Nexus 7, Note 8.0, and Venue 7 -- support DoubleTwist to get fairly close to iTunes' file-syncing and library-access capabilities (DoubleTwist even works with iTunes libraries). The app doesn't work with the Kindle HDX, which uses Amazon's proprietary version of Android 3.0 called Fire OS 3.0 -- and doesn't support standard Android apps.

Windows tablets can run iTunes, which gives you the full power of iTunes in a non-Apple tablet. It was difficult to install and set up iTunes on the Venue 8 Pro, because of how unresponsive its touchscreen is, how tiny the menus and fields are in Windows 7 apps like iTunes, and the difficulty of text entry for Windows 7 apps due to the manually enabled onscreen keyboard that obscures the fields you're typing in. Once set up, though, iTunes worked just like it does on a Mac or PC, downloading purchased media from the iTunes Store and importing media files from cloud storage and physical media. You can also get music and videos from Microsoft's Xbox Store, its iTunes clone, as well as copy music and videos into the standard Windows folders for media to make them accessible to the Xbox Music and Xbox Video apps.

All the tablets reviewed here support MP3 and AAC (.m4a) audio, MPEG-4 (.m4v and .mp4) video, and PDF files. All but the Kindle HDX and Venue 8 Pro support ePub files as well. The Kindle HDX supports only Amazon's proprietary Mobi e-book file format; the free open source Calibre app for OS X and Windows can convert ePubs to Mobi format. Windows 8 tablets like the Venue 8 Pro can read ePubs with a third-party app such as the ad-supported BookReader, and they can read Mobi books via Amazon's Kindle app.

All the media tablets put transferred music in their music apps. But they handle transferred videos (called personal videos) and books differently. For personal videos:

  • The iPad Mini puts all personal videos in the Movies pane in the Videos app.
  • The Nexus 7 and Note 8.0 put transferred videos in the Play Video app's Personal Videos pane; they're also accessible from the Gallery app. The Venue 7 makes them accessible only via the Gallery app.
  • The Kindle Fire HDX accesses personal videos in the Photos app. (The Kindle Fire's Videos window shows only videos purchased at Amazon.)
  • In the Venue 8 Pro, as with all Windows tablets, you determine where to place the files. If they are in Windows' standard media folders, Windows' native playback apps see them. Otherwise, you navigate to them from your media player. Note that the Xbox Video app makes it hard to find personal videos; swipe to the left to get the navigation controls.

For personal books:

  • The iPad Mini puts ePubs and PDFs in the iBooks app. 
  • The Kindle Fire HDX puts copied PDFs in its Docs app and Mobi-format books in its Books app, both in the Devices pane.
  • The Play Books app on the Nexus 7, Note 8.0, and Venue 7 can't access copied ePub or PDF books at all, though the Android Kindle app can if you place Mobi versions of your ePub e-books in the tablet's Kindle folder.
  • The Kindle app for Windows 8 is decent, though with fewer font options than on other devices. The free BookReader app for ePubs is also limited in display options, and it's serviceable only for books that don't have images, as it won't display them.

If you're willing to live without iTunes, Amazon has the broadest video and music libraries, though Google's selection continues to improve. Amazon also has a much larger book selection than iTunes. You can watch or read iTunes-purchased content only on an Apple device. By contrast, Amazon lets you play music bought from its store on the Kindle, Android tablets, and iOS devices via its Cloud Player app. Amazon lets you play rented videos on iOS devices, but not Androids, through its Instant Video app. Finally, Amazon lets you read its e-books nearly anywhere using the Kindle app available for most PC and mobile platforms.

Google lets you play music on an iOS device via its new app, released last week, as well as read Google Play e-books on iOS through the native Google Play Books app -- but you can't watch Google Play videos on non-Android devices.

Both the Music app on the iPad Mini and the standard Android Play Music app on the Nexus 7, Note 8.0, and Venue 7 let you create your own playlists on your tablet. Last year's Kindle Fire HD did not support playlist creation, but the new HDX model does. Likewise, the iPad Mini supports podcasts and podcast subscriptions via its Podcast app, but there is no equivalent capability included with the competing media tablets. You'll need to get a third-party app instead.

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

For e-books, Amazon has the largest book library of anyone, but that doesn't give the Kindle Fire an advantage. You can read books purchased from Amazon on your iPad or any other iOS device; on your Nexus 7, Note 8.0, Venue 7, or any other Android device; or for that matter, on any Windows 8 device such as the Venue 8 Pro.

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 others (such as Kobo and B&N for books, and from your PC or Mac via iTunes syncing), in addition to the iTunes Store. Next is Windows 8, which supports Microsoft's media store (music and video), and, if you install them, iTunes (music and video) and Kindle (books). Then comes Android, which supports media from Amazon (books and music) and B&N (books), in addition to the Google Play store. The Kindle is all about Amazon's content, restricting your options from other providers. 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. Now that all the media tablets except the Note 8.0 have Retina-class pixel counts (323 per inch or so), the only real meaningful test is actually viewing the screen.

A year ago, the iPad Mini's screen was clearly the best of the media tablets reviewed, with a brighter display and a better tonal range. Now, all of the tablets have iPad-quality screens, with equally good brightness, contrast, clarity, and tonal range. None had playback stutters, as some models did last year. They all also unfortunately have overly reflective screens, so you almost always see yourself in the reflection while watching a film. All but the Note 8.0 show movies at the same size, despite their different-size screens; the Note 8.0 shows movies a tad bigger than the others. The bottom line: They're all great for watching video. The only issue I had was with the Note 8.0, which slightly distorted some widescreen movies, so the actors look unnaturally thin due to excessive horizontal compression.

Audio playback. All the media tablets support standard audio jacks for private listening on the headphones or earbuds of your choice. All 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. The $10 AirTwist add-on to the DoubleTwist app for Android lets you stream music to AirPlay devices on the Nexus 7, Note 8.0, and Venue 7.

When it comes to the quality of its built-in speakers, the iPad Mini wins hands-down, as it did last year. But the difference has narrowed. Most of the competing devices have good speakers, though the Kindle Fire HDX has a bit of a space-echo effect, the Nexus 7 has a bit of tinniness with surround sound off and excess echo when it is on, and the Note 8.0 sounds a bit flat and hollow. Both the Venue 7's and the Venue 8 Pro's speakers have the tinniness and flatness of an AM radio -- their sound quality is the least pleasant of the bunch.

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