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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Media tablet showdown: Hardware

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 storage. (Remember that Windows 8.1 needs 16GB more flash memory 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.

InfoWorld Editor's Choice

Media tablet
Apple 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.

InfoWorld Editor's Choice

Media tablet
Asus/Google Nexus 7
(2013 edition)

And the overall winner is ...

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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