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.

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The Kindle can get as loud as the iPad Mini. The 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 at top volume (not so much for dialog). At maximum volume a flatness creeps into the iPad Mini's sound, likely due to its 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 Note 8.0 can't get as loud as the others, so it's less useful as a boombox. The Venue 8 Pro is the loudest by far, but after about 55 percent volume, it's very unpleasant to listen to, essentially rendering its maximum useful volume the same as the competition.

TV/stereo playback. The iPad Mini supports AirPlay streaming (if you have a $100 Apple TV). 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 Nexus 7, Venue 8 Pro, and Kindle Fire HDX support the Miracast wireless video streaming protocol, though compatible TVs and other devices are hard to find. For example, Amazon lists only one compatible Miracast device, the Netgear Push2TV box, for its Kindle. If the troubled Miracast standard ever takes off, the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX could gain the same streaming advantage the iPad Mini has today. But note that the Kindle Fire can't stream personal videos you download to it, even if you have a Miracast device, because wireless playback isn't available for the Photos app -- where personal videos happen to be stored. Although the Venue 8 Pro uses Miracast for video streaming from Microsoft's own media apps, you can use Apple's AirPlay protocol (with a compatible speaker or Apple TV) if you use iTunes for playback on that Windows tablet, giving it the same wireless playback capability as an iPad.

You can stream from the Note 8.0 if you have a TV, stereo, or Blu-ray player that has a compatible version of the DLNA protocol. DLNA is available in many devices, but the protocol is implemented loosely, so not all DLNA devices can communicate. Fortunately, the Note 8.0 could stream to my LG 390 Blu-ray player, which passed on the video and audio to my TV. However, it took nearly a minute for video playback to begin when I streamed -- a sharp contrast to AirPlay's nearly instant streaming playback.

Although the DoubleTwist app with the AirTwist add-on supports AirPlay video streaming on Nexus 7, Note 8.0, and Venue 7, in my tests it rarely worked. The video wouldn't progress, and the Apple TV would eventually display a time-out error. DoubleTwist was unreliable a year ago and remains that way today.

The iPad Mini, Nexus 7, and Note 8.0 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 Note 8.0 has a MiniHDMI port. All worked just fine, both for playing videos on an HDTV and mirroring the screen. The Kindle Fire HDX, Venue 7, and Venue 8 Pro don't support video-out via cables.

Book reading. For reading books, Apple's iBooks and Amazon's Kindle apps are the best. Their default settings are the most readable, and they both sync your books and any annotations across all your devices. I like iBooks 3.x'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. The Kindle app works on almost every device you can think of, whereas iBooks runs only on iOS devices and Macs.

Google's Play Books app is horrible on both Android and iOS, with hard-to-read text at any size, due to awkward character spacing, poorly designed fonts, and few controls. Even if you choose an Android media tablet, I urge you not to use the standard Android Google Play e-reader app.

Magazine and newspaper reading. When it comes to magazines, the battle is between the iPad Mini and the Kindle Fire HDX, 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 HDX 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 HDX 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 Android tablets or on the Kindle Fire HDX.

All in all, the iPad Mini is the best book reader, especially if you use the iBooks and Kindle apps. On the Nexus 7 or other Android tablets, you'll 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. Windows 8 has the poorest e-book readers, making the Venue 8 Pro a subpar choice for readers.

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 audio playback quality is the best of the bunch. If you don't need the wide range of playback options and media sources that the iPad Mini offers, the Nexus 7 is your best choice given its high quality and lower price.

The Kindle Fire HDX is good, but too constrained in media playback options. The Venue 7 is fine for audio and video -- as long as you don't use its speakers or want to send your video to a TV. The Note 8.0 has weak audio and that unfortunate distortion of widescreen videos; it's less than ideal for media playback, even though it has a strong range of playback options and sources. The Venue 8 Pro has the worst speakers of the lot, though if you run iTunes on it, it matches the iPad's wireless streaming capability.

iOS is known for its app selection, and the iPad Mini runs every app any other iPad does. Thus, the entire iOS app library is available to the iPad Mini, from games to news readers to photo editors to productivity apps. Plus, if you enable it, your iTunes purchases are kept synced to all your iOS devices.

As a result, the iPad Mini provides the best collection of fun and serious apps available for mobile devices for practically any purpose, and Apple's iTunes U library of free courses, aimed mainly at high school and college students, is an amazing resource. That's probably the iPad Mini's biggest advantage: It's not just a media tablet.

The Apple App Store also has the benefit of being rigorously screened for malware, which is not true for the Google Play Store that powers the Nexus 7, Note 8.0, Venue 7, and other Android devices. The app selection in the Play Store does not match what Apple offers, but for the kinds of apps you'll want on an entertainment tablet -- gaming, social networking, and information apps -- the Play Store's options are strong. Over the years, Google has strengthened its backup services so that apps you get in the Play Store are available to your other Android devices. The Nexus 7, Note 8.0, Venue 7, or other similar Android tablet can therefore double as a business tablet in a pinch.

But just because you bought an app on one Android device does not guarantee it will run on another. You only find out when you try to install them -- there's no indication in the list of previously purchased apps as to which are compatible. The good news is that some of my media apps that didn't run on the 2012 edition of the Nexus 7 -- such as the Economist and USA Today -- do run on the 2013 edition Nexus 7, as well as on the Note 8.0 and Venue 7.

The Kindle Fire HDX's selection of apps is much more limited than Android's Play Store offerings, mainly to edutainment apps and lightweight utilities. But the Kindle Fire has an extensive game catalog.

The Dell Venue 8 Pro runs both the vast selection of Windows 7 apps and the more limited selection of Windows 8's native Metro apps. But Windows 7 apps are nearly impossible to read and navigate on the 8-inch screen -- they're difficult to use even on a full-size 10-inch tablet -- so the net result is you won't actually use the Venue 8 Pro to run Windows 7 apps routinely. And there are few compelling Metro apps, though the game selection is decent.

All the media tablets have the most popular social apps, such as Skype, Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook, either preinstalled or downloadable for free.

The app support winner. There's no question the iPad Mini has the greatest and best app catalog. The Android tablets' catalog is strong for media tablet usage, whereas the Kindle Fire HDX's catalog is only adequate. The Venue 8 Pro makes standard Windows 7 apps all but unusable, so it's not appropriate for the PC apps that are its key selling pitch.

Although "consuming" media and playing games are the main uses of a media tablet, being able to connect to the Internet for Web access is a close third. It's no surprise that all of the devices support Wi-Fi for Internet connections, and there are now cellular options for anywhere-access to the Internet for most media tablets. (Samsung says the Note 8.0 has a cellular-capable model, but I can't find it for sale at any major retailer in the United States.)

Browsers. As you might expect, all the media tablets provide Web browsers. Using a browser on a 7- or 8-inch device, however, is often difficult. Web pages are designed for viewing on PCs, where 19-inch and larger monitors are now the norm. On a 10-inch tablet, they often feel scrunched, and it's worse on a smaller device. Plus, the onscreen keyboard for entering URLs is harder to use.

Still, the ability to zoom in as needed makes surfing acceptable. The iPad Mini and Note 8.0 provide the best browsing experience due to their larger (8-inch) screens and the capable Safari and Chrome browsers, respectively, both of which have the extra benefit of synchronization with Safari or Chrome on other devices.

Chrome on Android is more HTML5-savvy than Safari on the iPad. Chrome scores 487 on the Nexus 7, and it scores 467 on the Note 8.0 and Venue 7 (out of a possible 555 points) versus Safari's 415 in the current HTML5test.com compatibility tests. (The Note 8.0 and Venue 7 run Android 4.2, whereas the Nexus runs Android 4.3, thus the Chrome differences.) Safari is slightly better at Chrome in supporting AJAX controls, so some interactive websites will work better on iOS's Safari than on Android's Chrome. All in all, running Chrome on Android is a close second to running Safari on the iPad Mini.

The Kindle Fire HDX ties with the Venue 8 Pro for the least satisfactory browser experience. Although the Kindle HDX's Silk browser scores well on the HTML5test.com test (440), it is noticeably slower to load than browsers on the other media tablets; plus, its AJAX support is uneven. Although the browser's performance has improved in the Kindle Fire HDX, it can still respond jerkily to zoom and swipe gestures. Silk is anything but smooth. Silk offers good bookmarking and history capabilities, but no private-browsing mode, no cross-device tab syncing, no on-page search capabilities, and no built-in sharing capabilities, as the other devices' browsers do.

The Internet Explorer 11 browser that comes with Windows 8.1 in the Venue 8 Pro has the least HTML5 support -- scoring just 373 in the HTM5test.com tests -- and IE11 is frustratingly awkward to use, due to the odd interface of the Metro version and the unusably small controls of the Windows Desktop version. But it does quite well with AJAX controls, as you'd expect from what is essentially a desktop browser.

Messaging. If you're under a certain age, you text more than you email -- but standard SMS messaging is not supported on tablets. On an iPad Mini or any iPad, you can use Apple's iMessage service to message other iOS and OS X users. If you don't want to restrict yourself to people using Apple hardware, you can install a variety of messaging apps on the iPad Mini such as AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Google Hangouts, and Yahoo Messenger, or you can message across multiple services using an app like Whatsapp or IM+ Pro.

The same options are available for Android devices such as the Nexus 7, Note 8.0, and Venue 7. Among these, Yahoo Messenger, AIM, and a version of IM+ Pro called IM+ All in One are available for the Kindle Fire HD. The Venue 8 Pro uses Skype as its messaging client, so you can message Skype users on pretty much any platform and older-version Windows users that have Messenger enabled. You can also install IM+ Pro. Yahoo Messenger and AIM are available as Windows 7 apps, which makes them unusable on the Venue 8 Pro's small screen, and Google Hangouts is available only if you run the Chrome browser in Windows.

Apple's FaceTime is an easy-to-use video-calling service, but it too is restricted to iOS and OS X devices. For cross-platform video chats, you'll want to use Skype, which all the tablets reviewed here support.

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