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: Application support

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.

Media tablet showdown: Web and Internet

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 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 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 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.

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