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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

Google lets you play music on an iOS device via its new app, released last week, as well as read Google Play e-books on iOS through the native Google Play Books app — but you can't watch Google Play videos on non-Android devices.

Both the Music app on the iPad Mini and the standard Android Play Music app on the Nexus 7, Note 8.0, and Venue 7 let you create your own playlists on your tablet. Last year's Kindle Fire HD did not support playlist creation, but the new HDX model does. Likewise, the iPad Mini supports podcasts and podcast subscriptions via its Podcast app, but there is no equivalent capability included with the competing media tablets. You'll need to get a third-party app instead.

You can use popular video streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, along with audio streaming services such as Pandora on all the media tablets. Over Wi-Fi, they all played streaming videos and audio smoothly.

For e-books, Amazon has the largest book library of anyone, but that doesn't give the Kindle Fire an advantage. You can read books purchased from Amazon on your iPad or any other iOS device; on your Nexus 7, Note 8.0, Venue 7, or any other Android device; or for that matter, on any Windows 8 device such as the Venue 8 Pro.

The content winner. Of the media tablets, the iPad Mini has the broadest options for content sources, not just for iTunes media but for media from Amazon (books, music, and video), Google (books), and others (such as Kobo and B&N for books, and from your PC or Mac via iTunes syncing), in addition to the iTunes Store. Next is Windows 8, which supports Microsoft's media store (music and video), and, if you install them, iTunes (music and video) and Kindle (books). Then comes Android, which supports media from Amazon (books and music) and B&N (books), in addition to the Google Play store. The Kindle is all about Amazon's content, restricting your options from other providers. It's a no-brainer that the best small tablet for accessing media content is the iPad Mini.

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.


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