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 reviewFollow @MobileGalen
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 working with groups in Mail, 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.