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

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.

Media tablet showdown categories:

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.

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.

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.

The usability winner. iOS has long balanced ease-of-use with capable applications. Although some aspects of iOS are harder than they need to be, such as switching to airplane mode, overall the iPad Mini is the most usable media tablet. Thanks to its larger screen, the device is even easier to handle. However, the Nexus 7's front-and-center approach to media apps offers much more straightforward access as a media tablet out of the gate. The Note 8.0 is a bit more complex to use than the Nexus 7, but not in a bad way. The Venue 7 is a straightforward if vanilla Android tablet. The Kindle Fire HDX is the simplest to handle, but it overly locks users into its stores, making it less flexible than other tablets.

I mentioned previously that all the media tablets here have high-quality displays and good to very good built-in speakers. All have front cameras, and all but the Kindle Fire HDX have rear cameras. None felt poky, as some had in earlier incarnations. All support 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, as well as Bluetooth 4.0. Fully charged, all the media tablets ran for at least eight hours on battery power -- often several hours more, with moderate use. The Kindle Fire HDX, Galaxy Note 8.0, Venue 8 Pro, and iPad Mini have a standby life of several days, whereas the Nexus 7 and Venue 7 last a couple of days.

iPad Mini with Retina Display. The priciest media tablet is also the most souped-up model. It boasts the fastest processor and graphics, a usefully larger screen, and a rear camera that can take good-quality photos and videos. These make a real difference for gaming, video playback, and photography. Note, however, that the iPad Mini lacks a flash, like all its competitors.

The iPad Mini and the Note 8.0 are the largest of the bunch, and the second-heaviest at 12 ounces -- but not unduly large or heavy. The iPad Mini is a fraction of an inch longer than the Kindle Fire HD but nearly an inch wider than the Nexus 7. It's a half-inch narrower than the Note 8.0. Its screen size is nearly an inch longer diagonally than the Kindle Fire HDX, Nexus 7, and Venue 7, making for a noticeably larger screen. However, widescreen movies play at the same size on the iPad Mini as on all other devices except the Note 8.0, where they are larger. Although all the media tablets reviewed presented videos equally well, the iPad Mini's screen is noticeably superior in terms of sharpness and clarity when it comes to small text in applications such as e-readers and browsers.

The iPad Mini has no storage expansion capability -- a hallmark Apple limitation. But it comes in a 16GB model for $399, 32GB for $499, 64GB for $699, and 128GB for $799. Plus, it offers LTE versions for the four top U.S. carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon, for $130 more. It also supports AirPlay streaming if you own an Apple TV and AirPrint wireless printing with a compatible printer.

The iPad Mini's Lightning connector is compact and versatile, if you're willing to pony up for such pricey peripherals as video connectors ($49 each). Taking its wired and wireless capabilities together, the iPad Mini can connect in almost every way that matters.

Original iPad Mini. Available only in the 16GB Wi-Fi-only model, the original iPad Mini's non-Retina display is hard to tell from the Retina model's screen, and it's at least as good as the competitors' screens. The processor is also slower than the Retina model's, but it's more than fast enough for use as a media tablet. In fact, I didn't see any difference in media usage between the old and new iPad Minis, though I would expect games to shine in the new model as they get rewritten for its 64-bit A7 chip.

The original iPad Mini's $299 price is significantly less than the new model's starting price of $399. In fact, the original iPad Mini's price is more in line with that of the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX. Note that the 16GB won't store many movies or lots of music; if you like your iPad loaded up, that 16GB model's capacity is too constrained. I strongly urge anyone considering the original iPad Mini to look for a refurbished, larger-capacity version in Apple's online store.

Nexus 7. This tablet is designed with an unobtrusive look that lets you focus on the screen's display. The Nexus 7 has a more pronounced widescreen proportion than its competitors, giving it the widest or narrowest feel, depending on how you're holding it, of all the media tablets. The screen's visual quality is very good, though the display is smaller than I would like.

The Nexus 7's speakers are good but can suffer from distortion at high volumes and an (unfortunate) choice between an echo-chamber effect or tinny tone depending on whether surround sound is enabled. The Nexus 7 sports a rear camera, which is perfectly adequate; my big beef is its confusing user interface for in-camera adjustments.

Like the iPad Mini, the Nexus 7 offers no expansion capability for storage. Like the iPad Mini, the Nexus 7 comes with a dual-voltage USB wall charger and MicroUSB charge/sync cable. Like all its competitors but the Kindle Fire HDX, it supports HDMI video output (in this case, via an optional SlimPort-to-HDMI cable).

Performance is good. Although not quite as zippy as an iPad Mini, the Nexus 7 certainly holds its own. The 16GB Wi-Fi model costs a modest $229, whereas the 32GB Wi-Fi model costs $269. A 32GB model with LTE cellular radio (compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile) costs $349.

The 10.5-ounce weight of the Nexus 7 is 1.5 ounces less than the iPad Mini and Note 8.0, and 0.5 ounce less than the Kindle Fire HDX. In other words, the Nexus 7 is the lightweight of the group, at least when it comes to actual mass. All in all, the Nexus 7 has good hardware that will meet many users' needs.

Note 8.0. The iPad Mini-sized Android tablet ties with the iPad Mini as the second-heaviest media tablet, at 12 ounces. For that ounce or so of extra weight, you get a bigger screen that can be easier to read. Like the iPad Mini, the Note 8.0 isn't designed only as a media tablet -- it's a full-fledged Android tablet that also boasts several Samsung-only technologies such as its S-Pen. It also has the most ways of the Android and Android-derived devices to send video content to stereos and other devices, though not as many as the iPad Mini has.

The Note 8.0 also ties the iPad Mini with Retina Display in (high) price: $399 for the 16GB model. Although Samsung says it has a 32GB model and a model with a cellular radio, I could not find either for sale at major U.S. retailers.

Kindle Fire HDX. The display quality of the Amazon media tablet is greatly improved over last year's Fire HD model. The performance hiccups I experienced in the Fire HD last year weren't evident in this year's Fire HDX -- its hardware is no longer compromised. And the Fire HDX has lost 3.5 ounces of weight as well, making it the second-lightest media tablet reviewed here at 11 ounces.

But gone is support for HDMI output. Coupled with its limited Miracast wireless display support, the Kindle Fire HDX is a device you can use only for personal media consumption, not to feed into a TV. And there's no rear camera, just a front-facing camera for video chats.

Beware the prices you see on the Amazon website for the Kindle Fire. Once you pay to remove the obnoxious ads, the 16GB Wi-Fi model costs $244, the 32GB Wi-Fi model costs $284, and the 64GB Wi-Fi model costs $424. For $100 more, you can get a model with your choice of an AT&T or Verizon cellular radio. Also, the Fire HDX comes with its own charger block; it's not a separate purchase as it was for last year's Fire HD.

Venue 7. The cheapest tablet is Dell's Android tablet -- it costs just $150. Dell has cut corners to get this price. There's no video-out port or video-streaming capability, the speakers are low-quality, and the Wi-Fi radio uses the older 2.4GHz-only version of the 802.11 standard. But the screen is good, and there is none of the touchscreen balkiness that plagues the Venue 8 Pro. And the Venue 7 does sport a MicroSD slot. Weighing 11 ounces, it is one of the lighter tablets -- and one of the smallest.

Venue 8 Pro. Its touchscreen is simply not responsive, requiring multiple presses to select fields and other UI controls. It's simply the least responsive mobile device I've tested since the ZTE Open smartphone and the Acer Iconia W3, the tablet Microsoft was touting in ads this summer that turned out to be a real dog. Its autobrightness control is also unreliable, randomly dimming the screen even in steady light. Fortunately, you can disable this unstable feature by turning off the autobrightness slider in the Power and Sleep options in the Settings charm's PC and Devices section.

The Venue 8 Pro weighs 14 ounces, landing as the heaviest tablet in this comparison -- and 2 ounces, or 17 percent heavier, than the iPad Mini. It costs $300 and comes with 32GB of RAM. (Remember that Windows 8.1 needs 16GB more RAM than an iOS or Android device for equivalent user-acessible storage, so this is equivalent to a 16GB iOS or Android tablet.) It has a MicroUSB 2.0 slot to charge the device; you can also connect a storage device to that port, but you will need an adapter to use standard USB thumb drives and hard drives. And there's a MicroSD card slot. But it has no HDMI or other video-out connector.

Media tabletApple iPad Mini with Retina Display

The hardware winner. Apple has the best hardware -- no question. But you'll pay for it. For the Wi-Fi model, my recommended configuration of 32GB costs $499, versus $284 for the 32GB Kindle Fire HDX and $269 for the 32GB Nexus 7. (There is no 32GB model of the Note 8.0, and although it supports MicroSD cards, Android overly limits what the expansion can be used for.) The 32GB iPad Mini cellular model costs $639, versus $349 for the 32GB cellular Nexus 7. Yet the Nexus 7 is a close second choice in terms of hardware quality.

Although much improved over its predecessor, the Kindle Fire HDX is clearly the laggard, missing key features such as HDMI support and a rear camera. Its hardware performs decently, if you don't need those capabilities. But you can get the similar Dell Venue 7 for a lot less, and the Dell tablet has the advantage of supporting the broader Android ecosystem.

Media tabletAsus/Google Nexus 7(2013 edition)

The value decision is a tougher calculation than it had been, and factors such as preferred operating system and content stores may end up determining your choice more than the specific hardware capabilities.

It used to be that the priciest media tablet -- the iPad Mini -- had clearly superior hardware, justifying its price over the cheaper but compromised 2012 Nexus 7 and 2012 Kindle Fire HD. The 2013 edition of Nexus 7 changes that equation. The Retina iPad Mini's hardware is still superior -- its larger screen and better speakers stand out -- but the Nexus 7's hardware is quite good, for a huge $170 less.

The Amazon Kindle HDX costs a bit more than the Nexus, but its hardware isn't as good and the device is much too focused on being an outlet for Amazon's online store. If you can handle the Kindle Fire HDX's limitations, the similarly limited Dell Venue 7 is a better choice at more than $100 less.

Although it's a compelling general-purpose tablet, the Note 8.0 is less attractive as a media tablet. Samsung needs to fix the speaker, tweak the widescreen movie display, and update the OS version.

The Dell Venue 8 Pro can function as a versatile media tablet, but its terrible touchscreen and hard-to-use Windows 8.1 operating system -- which gets worse on a small screen -- add up to the least pleasant media tablet option.

The reason the iPad Mini can command its high price -- even its galling price increase, in fact -- is that it's a great tablet, with better hardware overall and a much richer, more flexible entertainment ecosystem, thanks to the combination of iTunes and AirPlay. The iPad Mini also makes it easy to use your own media, rather than effectively rely only on downloads from an online store. Although Windows tablets can claim the same advantages, they lack the usability and hardware quality of the iPad Mini, to a fatal degree.

If you're not interested in using a media tablet for your ripped videos, and you don't plan on broadcasting music and videos to your TV, your best bet is the less-expensive, lighter-weight Nexus 7.

This story, "Media tablet showdown: Retina iPad Mini faces newly beefed-up challengers," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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