With the release of new iPads likely less than two months away, and a new Nexus 7 already on the market, it’s a good time to take a look at how Apple’s and Google’s differing visions of tablet computing stack up. Before we get started, let me just say that I’ve owned a lot of tablets over the last three years, covering all shapes, sizes, and OS’s: 7, 8, 9.5, and 10″ – iOS, Android, Windows 8, and webOS. So, I’ve got a good idea of what separates the successful ones from the average also rans and the flat-out junk that end up on the clearance aisle before their time. I owned a first-gen Nexus 7 for a few months last year, and could tell that it was definitely far better than average. Despite some issues, most notably with slowdowns due to memory management, it was an excellent value and really set the standard for Android tablets going forward.
I bought the updated Nexus 7 three weeks ago, and I have to say that I am even more impressed this time around. It is improved in just about every area, and while the price did go up a bit, it is still an excellent value. With its high resolution screen and lofty battery life specs, there have been a lot of tech pundits taking pot shots at the iPad Mini and openly wondering if there is still a place left in the market for it. While much of that is just overdone rhetoric designed to rake in page-views, the price differential between the two devices alone makes comparison inevitable. But before we do any comparing of Apples and Androids, here’s a few observations on Google and Asus’ latest creation.
Nexus 7 Observations
The screen is as good as advertised
It really is, and it shows just how important a quality screen is on a tablet this size. For example, even though the current-gen iPad Mini has a lower resolution screen than the first-gen Nexus 7, it still outperformed that tablet in certain areas, such as brightness, and color reproduction. It honestly didn’t look better to me with the two tablets side by side. It definitely underlined the fact that raw pixel count does not necessarily equal a better screen.
Evidently, Google took this to heart, because no such comparison can be made this time around. The new Nexus 7 has the best screen on a tablet under 9.5″, and beats many of them, as well. The Kindle Fire and Nook HD are in the general vicinity, but the 7 definitely comes out comfortably on top of all the 7 and 8 inch tablets on the market. Unfortunately for Apple, the iPad Mini won’t be in the conversation until October, if the rumors of a Retina version are true. Everything I’ve tried looks good on the new 7, especially games that are optimized for high resolutions. For example, the recently released Asphalt 8 (shown above) looks and plays fantastic.
The thinner side bezels make the tablet fit great in the hand in portrait orientation
While I liked a lot of things about the original Nexus 7, the extra wide bezels were not among them. They made the tablet feel a lot bigger than was necessary. This was only magnified when the iPad Mini came out, with its much thinner side bezels and slender aluminum back. Despite it’s larger screen, it didn’t feel like a larger device. In fact, it made the original Nexus 7 feel like a brick.
Again, Google took a problem area of the Nexus 7 and made a noticeable improvement in version two. The thinner side bezels make this 7 work so much better in portrait orientation. It now fits more comfortably in one hand.
While the logo on the back indicates that the new design is geared more toward landscape orientation, I personally think it sets the standard for Android tablets in portrait performance. I’m usually put off by 16:10 tablets in portrait, but this one doesn’t bother me at all. One of my favorite tablet apps, Flipboard, works very, very well in portrait on this tablet.
It is light-weight and easy to carry
I’ve always shrugged my shoulders when reviewers and other users have talked about carrying a tablet in their pants or coat pocket. I prefer to keep my tablets in a case of some sort for adequate protection while carrying them around. However, after seeing how thin and light the new 7 was, I decided to put this claim to the test using a pair of cargo shorts. I carried it everywhere I went for an entire day, and the Nexus 7 fared a lot better than I expected. It wasn’t uncomfortable and didn’t really get in the way. While I still won’t carry it around this way myself, I can see the attraction for those who might. No matter how you carry it, the 7 won’t get in the way.
The battery life is not as good as advertised for real-world use
I wouldn’t say this is a negative, as the new Nexus 7 definitely has better battery life than last year’s model, and is definitely acceptable considering how good the screen is. However, it is not as good as Google’s claims if you are, you know, actually using it. The 9 hours stated battery life is accurate for use without any of the wireless radios. That makes for a nice sound byte to use against the iPad Mini, but it’s more than a little disingenuous. For the vast majority of people, normal usage will include WiFi at the very minimum. Also, the automatic app update feature, which can be a big battery drain during periods of non-use, is enabled by default.
The Nexus 7’s battery life certainly isn’t bad. It just isn’t going to ever give me 9 hours. Considering how good the screen is, though, I really don’t have any complaints. After turning off automatic app updates, there is less drain during periods of downtime, making sure that I don’t have to think about charging too much while I am using it. The issue for me is that Google was clearly skewing their statistics to make a bold claim against the current competition. Nothing new there, I guess. But if Apple does follow through with a new Retina screen iPad Mini that isn’t significantly bigger and heavier and still gets 10 hours of usable battery life, then the tactic could backfire a bit.
Overall, I really like the new Nexus 7. A lot. It’s one of the few Android tablets I’ve owned that I have genuinely enjoyed using for more than a week, with the others being the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and the original Nexus 7. However, I can say without reservation that it is better than both of them. It checks all of the boxes that a good tablet should, and is an excellent value, as well. So what does that mean for my iPad Mini? Well, it’s complicated. Here are some observations I’ve made since buying the new Nexus 7 and using the two side by side.
Nexus 7/iPad Mini Comparison
While they are close in size, the iPad Mini and Nexus 7 are very different devices
I’ve heard several Android users make the case that the .8″ of diagonal size difference in the screens of these two tablets makes little to no difference. I couldn’t disagree more, and personally feel that they are very different. To me, the Nexus 7 is a device designed for consumption. Whether it be gaming, reading, watching movies, or streaming music, its top-notch screen and portable form factor make it unparalleled in this respect. However, it isn’t just a tablet, in the way that various iPads, the Nexus 10, and the Samsung Note 8 and 10 seem to me. Like last year’s model, the new Nexus 7 does a great job of leveraging the apps that Google Play has to offer, even if those apps were designed with a phone in mind.
This is a big reason why I really didn’t like the Nexus 10 when I tried it last year. Despite its awesome screen, it didn’t advantage of Google’s current app ecosystem the way that the 7 does. So many of the apps that I used felt like phone apps exploded onto a giant screen. The 10 also felt very awkward in portrait, and several of the apps that I tried were locked into that orientation exclusively. However, these same apps feel so much more at home on the 7, especially the new model with its thinner bezels and great feel in portrait. When you consider how many Android apps are built with larger screen phones in mind, this is not a big surprise.
On the other side, the iPad Mini, and also the Note 8 for that matter, feel much different to me than the Nexus 7. What seems like a small amount of extra screen real estate actually translates into 26% more viewable space for the Mini, and 23% for the Note 8. This is noticeable in portrait orientation, especially on the iPad with its 4:3 aspect ratio. However, landscape is where that extra space really shows up. The 7 feels a LOT smaller than both of these devices, especially since you lose some of the 7’s already smaller screen to Jellybean’s virtual buttons. In the examples below, you can see that there is more screen real estate available to view images and text from articles in Flipboard on a Mini or Note 8 in landscape.
The bottom line to me is that, while the Nexus 7 is unquestionably a tablet, it feels like a different category of device. On the other hand, the iPad Mini and Note 8 feel more like cut-down versions of their larger counterparts. However, that’s NOT always a good thing. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Retina displays are even more important on 7″ and 8″ tablets
There were some grumbles about the iPad Mini’s resolution when it was released, but the thinness, build quality, and battery life usually overcame those concerns. They ultimately did for me, as I ended up trading in my chunky and less battery friendly iPad 3 for a Mini last November. Apple’s in-plane screen technology helped to mitigate some of the Mini’s resolution challenges. In the end, it was good enough, but just barely. There were several other small tablets that beat it in screen specs, but none badly enough that it became a big selling point for them.
But that changed with the release of the new Nexus 7. The Mini may feel more like a full-size tablet in use, but its screen pales in comparison with the 7’s Retina quality display. It isn’t even close. Looking at small text is one practical area where the difference really shows up. That can be a struggle on the Mini, where small text often looks fuzzy, requiring you to zoom to read without strain. Not so on the 7, where small text is crystal clear. Another area where the superior resolution shows up is in high-resolution games, where images that look great on the new 7, as well as the larger iPad 3 or 4, look muddled or are full of “jaggies” on the Mini.
After plenty of side-by-side use, the new Nexus 7 proves that a Retina display is just as important for 7 or 8 inch tablet as it is on a larger version. Evidently, Apple has gotten the message. According to the most recent rumors, it looks like they will have a more competitive product within the next two months. That’s good, because if they don’t release a Retina Mini by the Holiday shopping season, this Nexus 7 will put in a more noticeable dent in Apple’s sales. The new 7 is too much of a forward leap for Apple to disregard.
Google is killing their own OEMs in the tablet businesses
I think a lot of us wondered if this would be the case when Google released the original Nexus 7. The new one is an even more refined Android cannibal. How much of an effect has Google had? Let’s see. Barnes and Noble has already raised the white flag. I can’t imagine that the current Fire HD is selling well next to this device. How far will Amazon be willing to go in their next version to keep up? Is Jeff Bezos willing to lose even more money on every device just to stay competitive. Amazon releasing a new Fire that passes the new 7 just seems unrealistic.
While both Amazon and Samsung have managed to carve out a little space for themselves in the tablet market, how much room is left to claim with two heavyweights like Apple and Google playing such an aggressive game of back and forth? Asus and Motorola will probably be able to carry on, but that’s mainly because of Google’s good graces- owning one, and bankrolling the other with Nexus tablet contracts. And then there’s everyone else. Is there any way that HTC, Sony, LG, or the other middle of the row Android OEMs can compete with what Google can do when they are subsidizing better hardware to sell their ecosystem?
For proof of the power of Google’s strategy, look no further than Asus’ 7″ MeMO Pad from earlier this year. You would think that the company that cranked out the Nexus 7 for Google would have picked up a thing or two about designing inexpensive tablets, right? While the MeMO came in at a frugal $149, Asus had to cut a LOT of corners to get there. The end result was a product that wasn’t even close to the original Nexus 7 in specs or quality, but was only a little cheaper. If the 7’s manufacturer can’t produce a competitive product at the similar or cheaper price, then no one can. This made it clear to me how much Google is spending on subsidizing their devices, and in turn, how committed they are in establishing a real presence in the tablet game. If you are a consumer who’s interested in buying an affordable Android tablet, this is great news. If you’re an Android tablet manufacturer other than Asus? Not so much.
While the gap is narrowing, the iPad still has an app advantage
I realize that there are two different mindsets at play here. Apple makes all iPhone apps that are compatible with a given iPad’s OS available to run on it, but their preference for tablet apps is clear. Apple wants developers to create separate versions of their apps with customized assets tailored to the screen real estate and usage patterns of a tablet. These separate versions can be part of a single, universal app that can be purchased once and downloaded on both the iPhone and iPad, or they can be set up as separate HD versions of an app, but the philosophy is the same. Apple wants developers to tailor their interfaces for each form factor.
Google has gone in the opposite direction with their app ecosystem. While a developer can create separate versions of their apps, Google’s recommended method is to create one app that scales between different screen sizes, including those of tablets. They’ve even upgraded their programming tools this year to make this task easier for devs.
To be honest, while I see the value in Google’s method, especially in handling the many different screens available on Android phones and tablets, I still prefer Apple’s philosophy. The 4″ screen of an iPhone and the 9.5″ screen of a full-size iPad have vastly different user experiences. I really appreciate the fact that most developers account for this difference, and build a tablet app that is made with the iPad and its Retina screen in mind. I guess each method is suited to its given platform, but there’s one key thing to keep in mind. Apple set the rules and customer expectations in this game of tablet apps. It would be wise for Google to take more ownership over their app experience, and make sure it comes up to par.
After a year of using Android a fair amount between three different tablets, I have one major gripe about apps. But it isn’t with Google. I wish more cross-platform developers would give their Android apps the same level of time and attention that their iOS versions receive, as well as following Google’s design guidelines. I also wish there was a way to mitigate compatibility issues with apps on Google Play. There are at least three apps that I paid money for on my Note 8 that I cannot install on the Nexus 7 because it is reported as an incompatible device. I’m sure sideloading is an option, but it certainly isn’t a perfect one. The bottom line is, this is an issue that I would never have on an iPad, no matter what kind of app we’re talking about. I hope that, at some point, there will be more parity in how developers treat Android users, as well as in app compatibility.
The new Nexus 7 is the ideal size and form factor for an Android tablet
While the Note 8 does a good job of duplicating the feel of the iPad Mini, I still think the new Nexus 7 is the best Android tablet experience. I know I’m not an expert, since I’m not a full-time Android user, but I still have a fair amount of experience with the platform. In my opinion, the 7 does such a good job of bridging the gap between tablets and big screen phones. As such, any app that works well on an Android phone is going to look good here, as well. And the 7 costs less money than all but the cheapest smartphones with no contract worries. It’s also thin, light, has that spectacular screen, and solid battery life.
What about the other 7″ Android slates out there? The ones I’ve tried just can’t compare with the new Nexus 7. Samsung’s various iterations of the Galaxy Tab 7 are fine, but none of them can touch the screen of the Nexus, and then there’s TouchWiz. Ugh. That was one reason I had no issues unloading the Note 8 after I tried the Nexus 7.
Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD is even worse, having a completely forked version of Android and Amazon’s ecosystem superimposed in place of Google’s. And then there is a world of other 7″ slates that simply pale in comparison. Getting stock Android and knowing that updates will come to you first are the icing on what is already a darn good cake. Put it all together, and the new Nexus 7 is unquestionably the current flagship of Android tablets. For any Android-curious iOS users like myself who want to take the platform for a spin, look no further. This is the one to get.
Despite strong iPad Mini sales, the 9.5″ version is the ideal size for iOS
There. I said it. Many Apply fans will disagree with me, but after 9 months with the iPad Mini, I truly believe it. It’s not that I dislike the Mini. As I already said, I got rid of my iPad 3 because I loved the form factor and battery life. However, while I still love the design and feel of the Mini, it has lost some of its luster over time.
This is where I get to the crux of the difference between the Nexus 7 and the iPad Mini. I said earlier that I think the Nexus 7 is a very different device and experience than a full-size iPad or 10″ Android tablet. Not inferior, mind you. Just different. As for the iPad Mini, I agree with a lot of iOS experts and bloggers in believing that it is more of a “traditional tablet” experience, just shrunken down.
However, after my time with the Mini, I find that I don’t personally prefer this experience. That shrunken down tablet feel actually makes it a very poor replacement for how I used my full-size iPads. I took job notes and drafted most of my earlier posts at iSource with a Bluetooth keyboard case. I played high-resolution games that took advantage of the iPad 3’s Retina display. I used it as a second-screen for my laptop. I would remote into my office’s server from offsite. I do NONE of these things with my Mini. The screen size and resolution just aren’t as well suited to these tasks.
The iPad Mini seemed like a good idea back in November. I didn’t like the extra size and shorter battery life of the iPad 3, and saving a few bucks seemed like a smart move. The Mini’s form factor and battery won me over, but the screen of the iPad 3 ended up being harder to leave behind than I originally thought. However, the 3 had so many of its own weaknesses that Apple replaced it after just six months. With that said…..
Apple’s best designed and executed iPad model to date is the iPad 2
I can honestly say that my favorite iPad to use has been the iPad 2. In fact, the contest isn’t even close. It had the best mix of size, weight, battery life, and speed. It didn’t have the best screen in the world, especially compared to the Retina displays of today, but looks aren’t everything. I found that out when I upgraded to the iPad 3, and was ultimately disappointed by the added bulk and reduced battery life.
I never owned an iPad 4, but even though it has improved battery life, I it doesn’t match how thin and light the iPad 2 is, or how efficient the battery is. If 9.5″ is the ideal screen size for an iOS tablet, and I personally think it is, then the iPad 2 has been the best representation of that size so far.
That is why this upcoming iPad announcement is so important. After two shots at delivering a Retina screen iPad, Apple still hasn’t quite nailed it. Not in hindsight. However, if the rumors are true, that will be changing soon. Supposedly, Apple will be taking the thinner side bezels and thin, flattened aluminum back of the iPad Mini, and bringing it to the next full-size iPad. If they can pull this off and pair it with battery life close to that of the Mini and iPad 2, then the next iPad will instantly become the one to have. The true and rightful heir to the iPad 2’s high standard.
What about a potential Retina iPad Mini? I’m sure it will appeal to users who prefer iOS and are more focused on content consumption. However, for those who are looking to use the iPad as a productivity tool and gaming device like me, the new full-size iPad will still offer the best iOS tablet experience.
Where does this leave the Nexus 7? Last year, I ended up with an iPad Mini, and at least for a short time, a Nexus 10. Neither ended up being what I wanted. Neither was the right fit on their given platforms, at least for me. This year, I think I will be much, much happier with my tablet arsenal. I’ll most definitely be keeping the Nexus 7. When it comes to social networking, basic email, Flipboard, reading, and all around basic content consumption, it has no peer. It is by far and away the top tablet in that role. For die-hard iOS users, the iPad Mini may remain the better choice, but for anyone with a little more flexibility or cross-platform curiosity, the Nexus 7 is my current small tablet recommendation.
If the coming 9.5″ iPad is as good as reports say it will be, then I think it will be the best tablet for productivity tasks and high-end mobile gaming. iOS’s tablet ecosystem was originally geared around that size, and I still think that’s where the platform’s best experience is. I know one thing for sure. I’m really looking forward to October, when it looks like I’ll finally have the best of both worlds at the same time.
Do you own an iPad or Nexus 7? Have any thoughts on which you prefer and why? If so, feel free to let me know in the comments below, in our forums, on Twitter @jhrogersii, or on Google+. I would love to hear from you.