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Media tablet showdown: Retina iPad Mini faces newly beefed-up challengers

Galen Gruman | Dec. 5, 2013
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

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).

 

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