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

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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.

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