Opinion: Google's Nexus 7 makes the case for a smaller iPad

The prospect of a smaller iPad—one with a 7- or 8-inch screen—has been the focus of rumors since…well, since even before the original iPad was released back in 2010. But the rumor mill has been heating up over the past couple months, with more and more pundits, and even news outlets, claiming that such a product is really, truly—this time—on the way, perhaps as soon as this fall.

These rumors have in the past inevitably stirred up just as many arguments against the idea of an “iPad mini.” The most compelling of these arguments can be summed up in a single word: “Why?” As in, “Why does Apple need to make a smaller iPad when the company already has the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch?” As in, put bluntly, “What’s the point of a device that isn’t as pocketable as an iPhone or iPod but isn’t as useful as an iPad?” (Usefulness, here, presumably being based on a device’s screen size.)

It’s a fair point. Though I’ve long thought a mid-size tablet could be an appealing product, most people haven’t seemed to find the idea very convincing. I suspect some might start to question their opinions, however, as the best argument in favor of a smaller iPad has just been made. By Google.

It’s called the Nexus 7.

Google’s Nexus 7

I’m not being facetious here. People have been rightfully wary of the idea of a downsized tablet that gives you only a taste of what a full-size model offers. And products such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 2, and Barnes and Noble’s Nook have, if anything, strengthened the argument against mid-size tablets. What we’ve needed is an example of a small tablet done right—or at least done well. And Google has delivered. The Nexus 7 isn’t perfect; in fact, it’s not even great, in my opinion. But it’s a solid product that shows the appeal of a device this size.

What’s the point of a smaller tablet?

What is that appeal? I love my iPad—it’s one of the most amazing devices I’ve ever used. But while its 9.7-inch display is great for many things, that size can also be a limitation. For example, the iPad’s 1.5-pound weight is impressive compared to the mass of a laptop, but when I’m reading a book in iBooks or the Kindle app, or watching a full-length film, I need to hold the device for an hour or two (or more). The iPad gets heavy—especially when trying to read or watch video in bed at night—and its large size makes it difficult to hold with one hand.

My Kindle 4, on the other hand, weighs just 6 ounces and is roughly the size of a paperback book—it’s a pleasure to hold for extended periods, and the screen is still large enough to read comfortably. But while the Kindle is great for reading books, it has a clunky interface and it doesn’t do much else. Imagine a device roughly the size of a Kindle Touch with a good interface, a full-color multi-touch screen, a powerful operating system, and a few thousand apps. That’s what the Nexus 7 offers—and what a smaller iPad could offer.

Similarly, as sleek and thin as the iPad is, its other dimensions are similar to those of a small laptop, so it requires a bag or case that’s not much smaller than what you’d need for a MacBook Air or Ultrabook. Some people just don’t want to lug that around. A smaller tablet, on the other hand, could be tossed in a purse, squeezed into the pocket of your cargo pants, or carried inconspicuously behind (or in) a notepad.

(Keep in mind that while 7.5 doesn’t sound much smaller than 9.7, screen sizes are measured diagonally. The iPad’s 9.7-inch display has an area of just over 45 inches. A 7.5-inch display with the same aspect ratio would have a screen area of approximately 27 inches—roughly 60 percent of the current iPad’s size. So a 7.5-inch iPad would be quite a bit smaller. Indeed, the Nexus 7, with its 7-inch screen, is essentially half the size of the iPad.)

Some will say, “But you’ve already got [an iPhone or some other touchscreen smartphone] for those kinds of things.” And to some extent that’s true. But I can tell you from experience that reading Kindle books or Instapaper is a lot more enjoyable on a 7-inch tablet than on an iPhone’s screen, no matter how great the iPhone’s retina display is. And while I rarely watch a movie on my iPhone, I’ve already watched two full-length films on the Nexus 7 this week—it’s not as nice as watching on an iPad, but it’s good enough to make me reach for the Nexus 7 over the iPhone every time. And it’s better enough than a smartphone that, just as many people own a smartphone and an iPad, there will be people who will have no problem buying a smartphone and a mid-size tablet.

A Nexus 7 and a Kindle 4 on an iPad

Speaking of purchasing, there’s the matter of price. Some people simply don’t want to—or can’t—spend $400 or more for an iPad, while $200 or $250 is within reach. For these people, a smaller tablet may be the only way to get a “real” tablet.

The price point is important to Apple, as well. As Ryan Jones explains with a great graph, a smaller iPad would help eliminate the current price umbrella in Apple’s tablet lineup. (A price umbrella happens when a dominant company leaves an opening for competitors at lower price points.) Apple currently offers the iPhone at prices starting at free (the 3GS with a contract) and increasing to roughly $850 (the high-end model with no contract); the company offers iPods from $49 (the shuffle) to $399 (the top-of-the-line iPod touch). But when it comes to tablets, Apple’s least expensive model is the Wi-Fi iPad 2 for $399, leaving room for competitors to go after those people I described in the previous paragraph.

This opening didn’t mean as much before the Nexus 7 because the iPad was so much better than the alternatives. Apple surely lost some sales to $200 and $250 products, but inexpensive tablets weren’t a huge threat overall. Now that there’s finally a good 7-inch tablet—and other smaller tablets are improving, as well—there are real options for people who want “good but not as expensive as an iPad.” Indeed, demand for the Nexus 7 has been high. Google’s 8GB model is currently on back order, and the company has stopped taking orders for the 16GB model until it can catch up on existing orders.

Apple’s management is not dumb; they’ve seen this day coming for quite a while. Which is why the company has reportedly been working on a smaller, lower-cost tablet for a long time.

Consumption vs. creation

While ill-informed pundits continue to claim that the iPad “is for consumption, not creation,” I think that argument was handily disproved long ago. But when it comes to smaller tablets, the phrase fits a bit better: Thanks to the smaller screen, there’s less room for developers to work with, the onscreen keyboard is smaller, and you just can’t see as much of your content while working. In this respect, the Nexus 7 is closer to an iPhone or an Android smartphone: You can type a 1200-word article, or edit a movie, or create music on it, but you probably won’t prefer to. You’d rather do it on a laptop or desktop computer, or even on a full-size tablet.

Even when it comes to consuming content, the Nexus 7’s screen isn’t ideal. For example, although reading books and watching movies are good experiences, the 7-inch screen is too small for great Web browsing. Similarly, games and kids’ apps made for tablets often feel cramped—in some cases, you get a better experience with apps originally designed for a smartphone that have been adapted to the Nexus 7’s larger-than-a-smartphone screen.

But I think most people shopping for a smaller tablet would go into the purchase knowing these limitations. As long as they know they’re getting a good small tablet, they’ll be OK with the tradeoffs.

What Google did right

What makes the Nexus 7 appealing when earlier midsize tablets weren’t? I’ve been using a Nexus 7 for the past week, and, having tried a few earlier Android devices, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. The Nexus 7 is solid—albeit surprisingly heavy at 12 ounces—and feels well built. Though it’s clearly inspired by the iPad, with a black-glass screen bezel and brushed-metal edges, the Nexus 7’s back is covered in a leathery-rubber material that makes the tablet comfortable to hold and a bit less slippery. In fact, for things like reading a book or Instapaper, or watching video, the tablet is easier to grip and more comfortable over long sessions than the current iPad.

Google is also improving Android OS at a steady pace. Unlike early versions on tablets, the latest version of Android, known as Jelly Bean, is pretty impressive. It’s very iOS-like, it’s stable and usable, and it even bests iOS in a few areas. Some of my favorite examples: The task manager is more accessible and capable than iOS’s double-press-Home task switcher; the notifications system is more useful; widgets let you put frequently accessed data (such as the weather or your Twitter stream) and settings (such as Bluetooth and brightness) right on the home screen; you can choose to hide infrequently used apps without deleting them from the device; and you get more-fine-grain options for many system settings.

iOS is still more polished and user-friendly than Android, in my opinion, but the combination of Jelly Bean and the Nexus 7’s hardware is close enough to the iPad experience to make some consumers consider the Nexus—especially given its $200 to $250 price tag.

Why an iPad mini would be better

The key word there is “consider”—I didn’t say buy. And that’s because for many people, the iPad experience is still much more compelling. Or, put more simply, the Nexus 7 still isn’t an iPad.

A better OS: As improved as Jelly Bean is, Android still feels at times like it’s a work in progress, and at other times like it’s purposely trying not to be too much like iOS. Things Apple got right years ago—standard UI elements, scrolling acceleration, scroll to top, text insertion points, password-entry cues, and many more—are either missing from Android or poorly implemented. The lack of a hardware Home button means some actions take an extra step, and you also often find yourself whisked back to the home screen because you accidentally brushed the touch-sensitive home button. The always-available Back button (next to the home button) does different things in different apps and contexts. Because Android is Google-centric, you run into odd things like needing separate apps for Gmail and non-Gmail email. Browsing is noticeably slower than on an iOS device using the same Internet connection. And multi-touch just doesn’t feel as natural or polished on Android. Overall, for me, the experience of using Android is a lot like using Ubuntu after being used to OS X.

Better, and more, apps: The iPad’s advantage is even more pronounced when it comes to apps. Android has several thousand “tablet” apps, but in my testing, some of those can’t be installed on the Nexus 7, and of those that can be installed, many feel more like scaled-up smartphone apps rather than true tablet-optimized versions. (Some notable exceptions, as you would expect, are Google’s own apps.) Apple says there are currently over 225,000 iPad-optimized apps, and it’s a good bet that most of those truly are iPad-optimized. In other words, the iPad has far more apps, and the best apps are on iOS—there are few Android “killer apps.”

Some might argue that a smaller iPad would require developers to revamp their apps, thus negating some of this advantage. I think Apple is savvier than that. If Apple were to make, as Macworld contributor John Gruber has speculated, a 7.85-inch iPad with a resolution of 1024 pixels by 768 pixels, that tablet would run any existing iPad app (at non-Retina resolution) without modifications—and it would do so at a higher pixels per inch (163 PPI) than the 132-PPI-display of the first two iPad models.

The Apple and accessory ecosystems: The iPad would also have the Apple ecosystem going for it. There are thousands of accessories already on the market that would work immediately with a smaller iPad model. And if a tablet buyer already has a Mac or an iPhone or an iPod touch, the integration between—and the growing similarities between—Macs and iOS devices and iCloud means he or she would be up and running in no time, using a product that’s instantly familiar. The same can’t be said for a buyer who’s already got an Android phone, or even a Chromebook—every Android device has different hardware and software, and few work exactly like (in some cases, even remotely like) others.

Storage capacity: Smaller size doesn’t have to mean smaller storage capacity, as the iPod touch, available with up to 64GB of storage, shows. Yet the Nexus 7’s standard configuration, for $200, offers a meager 8GB of flash storage; the most you can get is 16GB for $250. For a device that’s good at letting you consume content, it’s a disappointing limitation. I’d be very surprised if Apple were to offer a smaller-size iPad with less than 16GB, and I suspect such a device would be available in even larger capacities.

Cellular wireless: As someone who’s used to a mobile-data-equipped iPad, as well as a smartphone, I’ve been frustrated by the Nexus 7’s Wi-Fi-only data capabilities. Being limited to Wi-Fi doesn’t bother me with my Kindle, because I don’t use it for anything that requires an always-available connection, nor do I require Internet access more than a few times each week. The Nexus 7, on the other hand, is a full-fledged computing device. I often found myself away from home or my office and in need of a connection.

I suppose a person moving to the Nexus 7 from something like an iPod touch won’t find this limitation to be as troublesome as I do, but for others like me, the Nexus 7 isn’t even available with mobile data. I think this is one area where a smaller iPad could stand out. True, Apple could restrict a smaller iPad to Wi-Fi to further differentiate it from the full-size models, but I think Apple sees always-available Internet connections as a key feature going forward. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple offered a carrier-subsidized model, letting the company fill even more gaps in the aforementioned price umbrella—imagine a smaller iPad with mobile data selling for, say, $99 with a data contract. (People have been complaining for years about the lack of an iPod touch with cellular data. Maybe this is how Apple’s going to do it—not with the iPod touch, but with a smaller iPad.)

Price: There’s been a lot of speculation that Google is selling the Nexus 7 at a loss (or at least for no profit), and for good reason: It’s a well-made device with good specs, yet it’s selling for the same price as products that are significantly inferior. As a result, some people are claiming that Apple couldn’t compete with the Nexus 7 on price. I don’t agree.

When the original iPad debuted with prices starting at $499, many people were shocked—they knew Apple had been improving its manufacturing and operating efficiency, and had made some good deals when purchasing components, but they didn’t realize how effective the company had become in these respects. With several years of premium-quality-but-price-competitive products—the iPhone, the iPad, the iPod touch, the MacBook Air—as evidence, it’s clear that Apple can make great stuff at decent prices. Given that the company sells the iPad 2 for $399, if Apple does release a smaller iPad this fall, I think it will be priced at $249 (or, at most, $299) for a model with 16GB of storage. Even if the rumored product were $50 more than Nexus 7 models with comparable storage, plenty of people would pay that premium to get a superior device and experience.

iPad mini on the way?

Like the original iPad, which many people doubted until they experienced it first-hand, I think mid-size tablets are proof-in-the-pudding ("proof of the pudding is in the tasting," for you purists) devices—once you’ve tried a good one, you can see the appeal. And the Nexus 7 offers some of that proof.

But in reading many Nexus 7 reviews over the past couple weeks, I’ve been struck by a sentiment expressed in a good number of them: In one way or another, many a reviewer has said, “It’s good, but more than that it makes me want a smaller iPad.” In some ways I feel bad for Google that the company’s best hardware product yet inspires people to want to buy a hypothetical similar product from its biggest competitor. But having used a Nexus 7, I agree with those reviews: Every time I used it, I was impressed by how much I liked the size for particular tasks. But every time, I also wished it was a smaller iPad instead—and I don’t think it’s just because I’m a longtime iOS user. The iPad is simply a better combination of hardware, software, and ecosystem than the current crop of Android tablets, including the Nexus 7, regardless of size.

Comments from Apple’s current and former executives notwithstanding, I think Apple knows there’s demand for smaller tablets, and the company knows that demand is only going to get bigger as more and more people are exposed to the idea. Combine that with a growing number of inexpensive tablets from competitors, and it’s obvious that there’s both a good market and a strategic need for an “iPad mini.” I think we’ll see just such a device, possibly as soon as this year. And if it becomes wildly popular, though the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch will have each played a role in priming the pump, so to speak, the Nexus 7 will deserve some credit, as well.

[Dan Frakes (@danfrakes) is a Macworld senior editor]

Updated at 5:54pm to correct price prediction from "$249 or less" to "$249 (or, at most, $299)"—the latter was accidentally reverted to the former during editing.

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