The iPad mini and the Google Nexus 7 aren’t the only 7-inch tablets on the market, but right now they’re the two that matter most: More buyers will be looking at those two models this holiday season than at any others, by a fair margin.
It’s hard—perhaps impossible—to compare them objectively; you can’t just compare the specs. You have to use them to truly appreciate their differences. That’s why we asked Macworld senior editor Christopher Breen and TechHive senior editor Melissa J. Perenson to have a little debate over the relative merits of Apple’s and Google’s little tablets. Both editors have used both of the tablets, and both experts have definite opinions about what’s good and not so good about them. Here’s how their conversation went.
Christopher Breen: Reading is one of the primary reasons I use a tablet this size, and to me the iPad mini’s wider display area—4.75 inches versus the Nexus 7’s 3.75 inches—makes it a more pleasurable device for that. In both portrait and landscape orientations, pages feel more natural and readable. The Nexus 7’s display seems too narrow, as if I’m reading a tall and skinny page. For reading in landscape mode, pages feel too wide and squashed from top to bottom.
Melissa J. Perenson: I appreciate the extra width of a larger screen too, but only for some specific uses—games with navigation controls overlaid on top of the action, for example. I actually don’t find it better for reading: It feels as if the page is too wide for books at an average font size. However, for large print, the iPad mini’s extra screen space comes in handy.
CB: Although I like the size of the iPad mini’s display, I have a hard time acclimating to its resolution, most likely because of my experience with the Retina display on the third-generation iPad. Pixels are evident in all text-based apps—small text in Web browsers is particularly annoying. My eyes get weary reading books on the thing because of the roughness of the text. Pixel-doubled apps look just awful. However, apps written for Retina displays and larger iPads—particularly games—can look pretty good. Photos and videos look quite nice on it, too. And here again, the wider screen makes that media feel less confined.
MP: In today’s market, I’d expect to find a relatively low-res screen like the iPad mini’s on a tablet that’s priced a lot lower—not on a major product from Apple. The market has evolved, and high pixel density—which Apple itself pioneered with the third-generation iPad—is now the norm. After using a display with higher pixel density on my phone for more than two years, I’m not willing to go backward and see all of those pixels on a tablet. The reason is simple: I spend a lot of time looking at my tablet’s display.
So there’s no getting around the fact that the iPad mini’s 163-pixels-per-inch resolution is not only paltry, it’s not even close to being competitive. The Nexus 7’s screen is 216 ppi; that’s not even the highest in this size class, but it is far superior to the iPad mini’s display.
Dimensions and weight
CB: The Nexus 7 is easier to hold than the iPad mini if you like to wrap your hand around your device. That’s because, again, it’s narrower than the iPad mini. If, however, you tend to hold the tablet by its edge, the iPad mini is (I find) a more comfortable device to hold, because it’s lighter. If I switch between the two, the Nexus 7 feels heavier—and, at 0.75 pound compared to the mini’s 0.68 pound, it is heavier.
MP: No question that the Nexus 7 is heavier; lighter tablets such as the iPad mini (and Barnes & Noble’s Nook HD) are friendlier to hold one-handed for long reading sessions. That said, I think the Nexus 7’s weight is still acceptable for such sessions.
CB: If you’re looking for the greatest possible capacity, the iPad mini has it at 64GB of storage; the Nexus 7 tops out at 32GB.
MP: The bigger question is whether you’ll want to spend $529 on an iPad mini to get that much storage.
It’s true that the Nexus 7 tops out at 32GB. And unlike most other Android tablets, the Nexus 7 has no MicroSD expansion slot, so you can’t add storage. But I will say that—like all Android tablets— the Nexus makes managing that storage space easy: Because your computer sees it as a mass storage device, you can just drag and drop content over to the tablet. (If you’re using a Mac, you’ll need to download the Android File Transfer application to access the Nexus’s storage, which doesn’t appear on the Mac’s desktop.) The iPad mini still relies primarily on iTunes to transfer content locally, as opposed to accessing it through the cloud, so I find the Nexus 7 easier to use.
CB: The front-facing cameras on the two tablets are both 1.2 megapixels. The rear-facing camera on the Nexus 7 is…well, missing.
MP: Yup, the rear-facing camera is missing. And that is an annoying omission, although at the moment most 7-inch tablet competitors (Amazon, Barnes & Noble) lack that feature, too. The reality is that it should be present—for use with bar-code scanning, if nothing else.
CB: I’m not sure either of these devices is something you’d want to type a novel on. The iPad mini gives you a bit more room. And I make more mistakes on the Nexus keyboard, although that could be because I’m more accustomed to the iPad’s keyboard. Both tablets support Bluetooth keyboards, so you can ditch the on-screen one altogether.
MP: For me, the Nexus 7 and Android get the nod here; I find the keyboard better designed and organized than the one on iOS. I agree that you’re not necessarily going to type a lot on a small tablet, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want the most functional keyboard you can get. And if you’d prefer another layout or keyboard design, there’s an app for that: You can buy a replacement keyboard, such as SwiftKey, for just a few bucks in the Google Play store.
Next page: Controls and ports, the software environment, and pricing
Controls and ports
CB: I often pick up the Nexus and can’t tell which way is up. Partly that’s because feeling for the on/off and volume buttons is difficult. The lack of a Home button on the bottom throws me. A Home button makes sense, but the Back button’s behavior seems inconsistent. I expect a Back button to be restricted to the app I’m currently working with; in this case, I tap Back and suddenly find myself in an app I was using a couple of hours ago.
MP: The Nexus 7 may lack a Home button, but it does have a Micro-USB port at the bottom, so I think it’s pretty clear which side is up. I’ve never had an issue with the power and volume buttons’ locations: They are clearly located along the upper-right edge, and have a solid, distinctive design (unlike the flat, annoying buttons on the Amazon Kindle Fire HD).
CB: Hmmmm…I think that’s a stretch. That tiny port isn’t obvious to the touch, at least not as clearly obvious as an iOS device’s Home button. On the other hand, I think the universal nature of the Nexus 7’s USB port is a good thing. It means that you don’t have to purchase expensive connectors and cables if the one included in the box won’t do. However, Apple’s new Lightning connector is more flexible. With the Nexus 7 you can’t do wired video-out (with or without an adapter), for example, and there’s no HDMI-out, either.
MP: I echo that. Micro-USB is heaven-sent. Having Micro-USB means that you don’t have to give up universality—just grab a cable and go. I’m surprised that the iPad mini has no native HDMI-out; even the inexpensive Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9 has that (though you can add HDMI-output capability to an iPad mini with Apple’s $49 adapter).
The software environment
CB: Here’s where the iPad totally rules the roost. Google is trying with Google Play, but a lot of Android apps I’ve looked at are pretty subpar. I’ve yet to find an Android Twitter client that gets anywhere near Tweetbot. The built-in ebook reader is okay, but you can’t sideload ePub files from your Mac and read them on the Nexus; you have to download those files from within the app. I found the ePub-compatible ebook readers for Android that I’ve tried (Moon Reader and Aldiko) to be clumsy.
Apple’s head start in the app arena continues to show. Additionally, some of Apple’s apps—GarageBand and iPhoto in particular—are remarkable. (The iWork apps are pretty good, too.) Google has done really well with information-specific apps that use Google’s services, but in terms of “creation” versus “consumption,” the iPad wins.
The Nexus’s interface seems goofy to me. For example, I’m working on what I believe should be my home screen. I shut down the device and restart it. Now I’m on a different home screen, one that’s cluttered with huge images. When I swipe to the left, Google is pushing recommendations at me. Leave me alone. Let me see a predictable home screen.
And moving files around seems clumsier than with iOS. Apple was on to something when it hid the file system from users. File management is clumsy enough with a mouse, but nested folders on a touch device seems like a step backward. Mostly it doesn’t seem to be through-composed—that there’s no single thought about how users will interact with the thing but rather gimmicks piled on top of a hierarchical file structure. Again, it may be because I’m used to the iTunes/iOS device ecosystem, but the Nexus and Android don’t seem to be as thoroughly cemented.
MP: It’s true to say that Apple’s tablet ecosystem has a wider app selection—and in many cases, better apps, though both sides have a fair amount of garbage in their respective app stores. The trick is finding apps on Android that aren’t just blown up from the phone to the tablet. Find those, however, and you’ll discover many apps that provide a high-quality, satisfying experience.
Google’s own moviemaking app is a work in progress, but it’s a step in the right direction. And in my experience Google’s own Gallery app—with built-in editing, the ability to move files around, and a view of your image’s metadata—is infinitely better and more functional than the Photos app in iOS. Google at least has a straightforward file system, something Apple lacks, and that makes using and manipulating files far easier.
Pricing and value
CB: At $249 for the 32GB Wi-Fi model and $299 for the same model with cellular connectivity (compared with the iPad mini, at $429 and $559 respectively for the 32GB models), the Nexus 7 wins on price. But you make some sacrifices: no rear-facing camera, no LTE, no video-out, a smaller display than on the iPad mini.
MP: I agree, I think the Nexus 7 is the far better value. The difference is still quite clearly in favor of the Nexus 7 when you consider the 16GB models: $199 for the Nexus 7, versus $329 for the iPad mini.
The bottom line
CB: I have both a Nexus 7 and an iPad mini. I pick up the Nexus more often than the mini when I want to read, despite the more confining screen, because I find its display easier on my eyes. For everything else, it’s the iPad mini, largely because it just makes sense, from hardware to software. If the mini had a Retina display, the Nexus would be relegated to the sock drawer.
MP: I find it impossible to recommend the iPad mini, except for two sets of shoppers: people who want an iPad because of the brand’s cachet or those who want one because they’re already committed to the Apple ecosystem, and in both cases want the least-expensive model they can buy.
Otherwise, to me the Nexus 7 is superior to the iPad mini. Its display is better, I can find most of the apps I want or need on Android, and I prefer the open flexibility of the Android ecosystem.