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 Web and Internet winner. When it comes to their online capabilities, the iOS and Android tablets are essentially tied, with strengths and weaknesses essentially canceling each other out. The Kindle Fire HDX isn't as good a Web device as the others, but it's quite sufficient for the kind of browsing you would expect to do on a media tablet, such as visiting news and gossip sites, shopping online, and banking. The Venue 8 Pro is a mixed bag, mainly because its browsers are awkward to use and HTML5 support is limited.

You don't get a media tablet to do work. But as more and more workers find themselves on perpetual call, your media tablet should provide at least first-level capabilities such as the ability to do work email and view documents in common formats. It's even better if you can use such devices to work on projects without having to find a computer somewhere. (All the tablets reviewed here support optional Bluetooth keyboards for when you want to do extensive text entry.)

An iPad Mini, because it's an iPad, has great support for Microsoft Exchange, in addition to IMAP and POP servers. If your company supports iPad access to corporate resources, your iPad Mini becomes just another iPad for both your company and you, giving you the most security of any mobile OS, as well as the greatest selection of effective mobile productivity apps. If you hadn't installed those apps on your iPad Mini, you can download them from the App Store at no charge if previously purchased for a work iPad. The only real difficulty you might face is dealing with the smaller screen and smaller keyboard for text-intensive work.

The trio of Android tablets -- the Nexus 7, Note 8.0, and Venue 7 -- tie as your second-best bet for doing work from a media tablet. Their Android 4.2/4.3 Jelly Bean OS has solid security capabilities and Exchange support, their Email and Calendar apps are solid if unexceptional, and both Mobile Systems' OfficeSuite Pro and Google's Quickoffice HD Pro apps for Android are capable enough for most business work. Plus, as with the iPad Mini, you'll find apps for a wide variety of business needs, from Salesforce.com to SAP access. As with the iPad, any compatible apps you purchased for other Android tablets can be downloaded at no charge to your Nexus 7, Note 8.0, or Venue 7.

The Note 8.0 has a larger screen, which helps readability, and Samsung has tweaked several mainstay apps such as Calendar and Email for easier usage on its less-than-full-size screen. Plus, its included S-Pen digital stylus can make note-taking and other activities easier than on other tablets.

The Kindle Fire HDX supports Exchange, including the same kinds of security policies as standard Android devices. The Email and Calendar apps have simpler UIs than the stock Android versions, to fit better on the small screen. But all the capabilities you need are there, including attachment previews and calendar invites. I was impressed with their quality, given the Kindle Fire HDX's decidedly nonbusiness target user. It too can be used in a pinch -- if your business is willing to let it in.

Although the Amazon Appstore is curated, the Kindle Fire HDX allows sideloading of apps like other Android devices do, so you can install non-app-store apps. Google's Quickoffice is no longer available for Amazon's Fire OS, so you're stuck with a limited selection of mainly unsatisfying office apps on the Kindle.

You can buy the Windows 7-based version of Microsoft Office for the Venue 8 Pro, but it's unusable on a tablet's small screen. There are no decent productivity apps for the Metro user interface in Windows 8. But there is a decent email app in Windows 8.1: the Mail app in the Metro UI. Just note that it does not support POP accounts, such as those typically provided by Internet service providers. The Microsoft Store for Metro apps is curated, but you can install any "legacy" Windows 7 app via its installer file, so malware can make its way in.

The business connectivity winner. In all cases, assuming you're permitted Exchange access from your media tablet, you have basic email, calendar, and contacts capabilities available. But to do real work routinely, your best option is the iPad Mini, followed by the Android tablets. Windows tablets simply don't have usable business software, and neither does the Kindle Fire HDX.

Security is probably not top of mind when choosing a media tablet, but it should be one of your purchase criteria.

Corporate security. The iPad Mini has the same strong, enterprise-class capabilities as any iOS device, including a highly compatible VPN client. The Nexus 7, Note 8.0, and Venue 7 have the decent security capabilities of most recent Android tablets. All three tablets provide Android's standard VPN support, which unfortunately does not include Cisco IPSec VPNs (you'll need to download Cisco's AnyConnect client as well as buy a client access license for it). The Kindle Fire HDX provides the basics of Exchange device security, including encryption, and there are even a few VPN vendors' clients for it in the Amazon Appstore -- including one for Cisco VPNs. Of course a Windows tablet like the Venue 8 Pro supports the full set of Microsoft security and management tools and protocols, like any PC.

Note that the Kindle Fire HDX, Nexus 7, Note 8.0, and Venue 7 come unencrypted. The encryption process requires a full charge, so you can't do it as soon as you open the box; it takes about 30 to 45 minutes. Note that you can't enable encryption on the Kindle Fire HDX in its Settings app; only when you try to connect to an Exchange server that requires encryption are you given the ability to turn on encryption. If you're on the road without a full battery charge the first time you try to connect to Exchange on the Kindle Fire HDX, you'll be out of luck. Like all iOS devices, the iPad Mini is always encrypted, and encryption can't be disabled.

All the media tablets reviewed here support passwords, so you can prevent unauthorized people from using them.

Family security. There's another kind of security to consider for a media tablet, because it's likely to be shared by several family members. In this regard, the Kindle Fire HDX, Nexus 7, and Venue 8 Pro are the most secure.

The Kindle Fire HDX includes the FreeTime app that lets you set up separate content libraries for each person, essentially giving them a separate login to just their library. Parents can use that capability to restrict what their kids can access, as well as limit the number of hours of usage each day.

Both the Nexus 7 and the Venue 8 Pro let you set separate user accounts on the tablet, so each person has his or her own apps and content. Furthermore, you can set up restricted profiles for users, so parents can control which apps and services their kids can access. (Neither the Note 8.0 nor the Venue 7 offers this feature, because they run Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, and this feature requires Android 4.3 Jelly Bean or later.) The setup is easier in Android than in Windows, which requires you to have a live Internet connection to change settings.

In the Kindle Fire HDX, Nexus 7, and Venue 8 Pro, you can restrict access to any downloaded app, not just predefined Apple titles as in the case of the iPad, and you can turn off location detection globally (not per service, as in iOS). But there aren't the age-related restrictions for content as in iOS and Windows 8; for example, you can't restrict Google Play videos in Android to G and PG-13 movies.

The iPad Mini's Guided Access lets you restrict the tablet to a specific app and even block some of an app's capabilities (such as Buy buttons) by drawing blocking ovals around their controls. But this feature has to be enabled each time you want to use it and can be applied to just one app at a time. It's fine when you want to hand your iPad to your kid for a specific purpose, but it's nowhere near as useful as the ability to set up separate environments, as the Kindle Fire HDX, Nexus 7, and Venue 8 Pro can.

The iPad has a comprehensive set of parental controls that let you configure what your kids can access. Tech-savvy (read: supergeek) parents can even use Apple's free Apple Configurator tool for OS X to create and deploy profiles with such configurations to their kids' devices, as well as update them remotely. Safari's private browsing mode lets parents access Web pages they don't want their kids to easily see, as this mode ensures no history is kept of the visited pages.

But iOS doesn't let you have multiple accounts, so if you want to set parental controls for your kid, you either need to have a separate iPad for each child (clearly Apple's preference) or enable the controls when you allow your child to use your iPad, then disable them when you want to use that iPad. You can't even save settings groups, so such enabling and disabling is a manual process for each setting -- not good.

The Kindle Fire HDX too has a solid set of password-based parental controls, should you decide not to use FreeTime. These controls can also protect you should your device be lost or stolen, similar to controls offered by both iOS and Android.

The bottom line is that the iPad Mini's iOS assumes that just one person uses an iPad (or iTunes), so it can be problematic to share freely. But it has the most sophisticated parental control options and the best corporate security capabilities. The Kindle Fire HDX, Nexus 7, and Venue 8 Pro are designed for multiperson use, and all three offer good parental controls and adequate corporate security. The Note 8.0 and Venue 7 lack the multiuser capabilities that make the Kindle Fire HDX and Nexus 7 so appealing for family use.

The security winner. For business security, the iPad Mini and Venue 8 Pro rule. For family security, the Kindle Fire HDX, Nexus 7, and Venue 8 Pro are the winners.

No matter which media tablet suits you, these mini tablets come with a fundamental usability trade-off. Small screens mean small controls and small text. If you're middle-aged, don't be surprised if you need reading glasses, and don't expect to touch-type on the onscreen keyboards.

The iPad Mini has the usability of any iPad: a rich, gesture-based interface and avoidance of menus that can slow you down. Its Music, Videos, Podcasts, and iBooks apps for media playback are simple to work with, and I like that the store apps are kept separate so that you're not distracted with ads when trying to play media. Its 8-inch screen is quite handy on all sorts of apps and Web pages that feel constrained on a Kindle Fire HDX, Nexus 7, or Venue 7. Yes, the iPad Mini may be too small for some purposes, but it's surprisingly capable in a wide range of circumstances.

The Nexus 7 has a custom user interface that displays tiles for book, movie, music, and magazine content that resides in your libraries. The standard app icons on the home screens are all related to media usage: Play Store, Play Music, Play Video, Google Play's magazine library, and Play Books. By having your media options front and center, you can get right to what you likely bought the Nexus 7 to do. I also appreciate its separation of the store from the playback tools. If you don't want the media controls front and center, you can change the home screen and default app icons to be like the standard Android layout or your own.

Once you get past the default media-oriented home screen, the Nexus 7 is just another Android tablet, providing the standard UI for accessing apps and services. My objection to the UI is that it favors thin, light text and controls on black backgrounds, which I find hard to read, particularly on a small, reflective screen. But if you like Android's operational UI -- its gestures, notification tray, widgets, and configurable home screens -- you'll feel right at home on the Nexus 7. The Note 8.0 offers Samsung's version of the Android experience, meaning it's generally more refined and readable than Google's stock Android experience, which the Venue 7 uses. And the Note's 8-inch screen makes a big difference to older eyes.

The Kindle Fire HDX's UI is very simple. It's the same Carousel interface you may recognize from the Kindle app on an iPad or Android tablet. You slide from one type of content -- Books, Apps, Docs, Newsstand, and so on -- via a horizontal scroll list at the top of the screen, and the apps, media, or files for that content appear onscreen. Media apps' windows typically divide their contents into two panes that you must switch between: one showing items previously purchased but not downloaded (Cloud) and the other showing items on your device (Device).

In the Kindle Fire HDX, the Home, Back, and Add to Home Screen buttons almost always display onscreen (you have to tap the screen to see them when reading books or watching movies). But settings are hidden and you have to swipe from the top of the screen to see your settings options. The Kindle Fire HDX's UI can take some time to get used to, mainly because it's so different from the approach in iOS and Android. But it's quite easy once you get the hang of it. And the much-touted Mayday feature, where you get a live video chat with a real person, works quite well, though you have to dig around to find it. The Kindle Fire HDX's only real flaw is its hard sell of Amazon's content and app stores, which are frequently front and center in apps.

The Venue 8 Pro is the least usable of the media tablets reviewed here. The fault lies mainly with Windows 8, which scrunches Windows 7 apps too much to be read or navigated, and whose Windows Store aka Metro apps are of uneven quality. The mixing of the two user interfaces, coupled with silly differences (such as the Windows Desktop's onscreen keyboard needing to be manually displayed and hidden while Metro's keyboard opens and closes automatically), makes for a difficult experience. The Venue 8 Pro's unresponsive touchscreen adds insult to injury.

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