Nexus 7 vs. iPad Mini

Thanks to my new job at Cornershop Creative, I now get some company-provided devices for use in testing responsive websites across different platforms. It’d be unreasonably costly for everyone to get everything, so we’re sort of divvying up who gets what. I got the Nexus 7 in mid-September, and on Friday the new iPad Mini. Obviously I haven’t had much time to play with the Mini compared to Google’s popular Android tablet, but it’s been enough for me to form a pretty solid impression such that I’m comfortable writing up a showdown.

So how do theses two petite-class tablets compare? Let’s see:

Hardware

Don’t let any tech journalists who bemoan the “plastics” of the Nexus 7 fool you: It’s a well-built device that feels sturdy and solid, not like a cheap toy. It’s quite nice and I rather like the textured backing. The screen has a nice high pixel density (216ppi), there’s a full gig of RAM, and the processor is a quad-core Tegra 3 (which is apparently good). At the time I got mine, it was only available in 8gb and 16gb versions, with no mobile data, just wifi — that’s since changed, which is a good thing as 8gb would be nigh-useless (I have the 16gb). So the quantitative internals are great. There’s no rear camera, but if you’re taking pictures with a tablet I hear they’ve added a new circle of Hell just for you anyway. What I really don’t like about the the Nexus hardware is the weight and the screen size. It’s just a bit too heavy for extended one-hand use (0.75 lbs), and the 7″ screen at 16:9 just feels cramped.

If the Nexus 7 feels like “quality,” then, the iPad Mini feels like opulence. It’s over-engineered, really. Beautiful to see and touch metal and glass. Weighs less than the Nexus (0.68, which is noticeable), is skinnier than the Nexus (0.28 vs 0.41). The screen isn’t quite as high-resolution (only 163ppi), which is definitely not Nexus-level — but it’s honestly not a significant dropoff. Noticeable, yes, but not bothersome. Other than having a lower-resolution screen, though, I’d say the iPad Mini beats the Nexus 7 in pretty much all the ways that matter. Sure, the processor is older, and it has half the RAM, but I’m not sure how much that really matters in everyday use. I mean, the Mini boots up in under 30 seconds and my Nexus takes almost exactly a minute. Maybe that’s the OS’s fault and not the hardware’s, but I’ll take real-world performance over arbitrary processor benchmarks any day. And the nearly-40%-more screen real estate, despite the lower pixel count, is a major win for the iPad. The smart cover is also way nicer than anything I could find for the Nexus.

Advantage: iPad

OS

The Nexus 7 ships with Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean,” Google’s latest and greatest. And it’s really nice — less laggy and more user friendly than previous versions of Android I’ve used. It’s really a nice OS, and it’s refreshing (for me) to not have any vendor skin on top of Android here, like Sense UI or TouchWiz.

Android’s strength is its configurability. Don’t like the software keyboard that ships with the OS? Get Swype or SwiftKey. Dislike the home screen and app drawer? Get Nova Launcher and configure as you please. (No, seriously, get it. It’s fabulous.) Apple’s locked-down iOS just can’t compete with how well you can tailor an Android device. iOS also lacks home screen widgets like Android offers. Seriously lame.

But what iOS lacks in configurability, it makes up for in, well, pleasurability. The Nexus is great if you like to tinker; iOS great if you want something that’s just sorta fun to use right out of the box. It’s tough to explain, really, but something about using iOS is just more enjoyable to me. I also feel like the UI design of iOS calls less attention to itself than Android: while Jelly Bean is definitely attractive, it feels like it’s going out of its way to say “I’m slick and high tech!” whereas iOS is just friendly and kind of unremarkable. That’s a good thing — it’s sort of like the officials in a sporting event: you want them to be there and get the job done, but you don’t really want to notice them. Android, to me, is very noticeable, and iOS isn’t. Maybe that’s because I use a Mac, though.

It’s tough to call a winner here. If you like control, configurability, tinkering, the ability flash on different ROMs and all that stuff, the Nexus is clearly for you. If you want “Android for Dummies,” you want iOS. Personally, I prefer iOS, but really it just depends on your mindset.

Advantage: Push

Consumption

Tablets in this 7-8″ screen size range, while useable for creation, are really in my eyes primarily for consumption: reading email, surfing the web, watching movies, reading e-books, and so on. For this reason, I think judging the devices on their relative merits for these kinds of activities deserves its own section here.

The Nexus does some things fabulously well. For example, reading email on the Nexus is better than on the Mini, without a doubt — largely because it supports Gmail’s totally-awesome “priority inbox,” whereas with iOS you’re stuck with Apple’s shitty “VIP” implementation. The Nexus also wins for watching videos, largely due to the hardware: the 16:9 screen and higher resolution are much better for movies than the iPad’s 4:3 letterbox hell. I’ve also been impressed with Google Play Music — it does a really transparent and seamless job of keeping what’s in iTunes on my Mac in Google’s cloud for playback on the Nexus, including playlists. Of course, this was until recently rather a necessity, since it maxed out at 16gb of storage (where I really love it is actually on my Android phone).

But in just about every other way, I find consuming media on the iPad to be better, particularly surfing the web. The 4:3 screen, while a detriment for videos, makes web pages appear much larger due to the extra width. The demo Schiller gave during the Mini reveal that highlighted the vastly larger amount of viewable area on a page when in landscape was no joke — you barely get a sliver on the Nexus. There’s just no contest here. The larger screen more than compensates for the dearth of pixels.

Reading ebooks — not something I do a ton of, but I do do some — is also better on the iPad. Part of it’s due to the broader screen, but I think part of it is due to a larger library: on the iPad you have access to Apple’s, Google’s and Amazon’s libraries. On the Nexus, you only get two of those. Not a huge difference, but still… it’s sorta like a Mac in that regard: On my Mac, I can run Windows or Linux if I want, in addition to OS X, but on a PC I can’t run OS X. Likewise, on the iPad I get all three content universes; on the Nexus I only get two. I can also run both Chrome and Safari on the iPad.

Really, they each have strengths and weaknesses, but on the whole I just find the iPad’s larger screen to make a startlingly large difference in its useability compared to the Nexus for just about everything other than movies.

Advantage: iPad

Third-Party Apps

The Google Play store has made a lot of strides, and it’s really got a pretty expansive selection of apps. Pretty much anything super-popular for Android has been ported to iOS, and vice versa. If you’re using Android, you’re not getting the short end of the app stick.

But there’s a qualifier there: if you’re using an Android phone. Tablets are another matter entirely. While I think Android’s approach to tablet-ifiying apps designed for phone screens is better than Apple’s clunky “show it small in the middle” approach, Android’s expand-to-fit technique obscures the fact that there just aren’t that many apps that really take advantage of the extra screen real estate. There are definitely some, and lots of the major ones do, but not all. Flipboard, for example, is pretty much the same — just bigger — on the Nexus as it is on my HTC One S. I had no idea it wasn’t really tablet-optimized until I ran it on my iPad…. which was a complete revelation. It’s so much better on iOS, where it’s been rejiggered specifically for tablets.

There are also phone-specific apps in Android that you just can’t get on your Nexus. I don’t know how many, and I’ve just come across one so far, but they exist. My one? NFL 2012, the official app of my favorite sports league. Can’t be downloaded to the Nexus; refuses to appear in the Play Store when you’re on the device — presumably so you don’t know what you’re missing. At least with iOS you can use all the phone-specific apps, even if the experience totally blows (which it does).

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is this: there’s plenty of good software for the Nexus, and a good portion of it has been tablified, but there are gaps. For iOS? There’s more good software, and draconian App Store review process be damned, there’s more good tablet software.

Advantage: iPad

Value

Right now, a 32gb Nexus 7 will set you back $249. A 32gb iPad Mini runs $429. In case you suck at math, that’s a difference of $180 or about 73%. Sure, the iPad is made from unicorn flesh or whatever Jony Ive has dreamt up, rather than plastic, but that’s just ridiculous. This is no-brainer.

Advantage: Nexus

Conclusion

My finally tally from the above is iPad Mini 3, Nexus 1, with one push. And I’d say that’s about right, really: since getting my iPad Mini I’ve barely touched my Nexus 7, and I’ve found the Mini to be just generally more enjoyable and useful for the lightweight sort of consumption-oriented tasks I’ve thrown at it. I think the nearly-40%-larger screen (despite the lower pixel count) contributes heavily to this, but there’s also something I can’t quite describe about iOS that just makes it feel more welcoming to me. If these two devices cost even approximately the same, I would recommend the iPad Mini over the Nexus 7 without hesitation.

But they don’t. In fact, depending on your configuration, you can get nearly two Nexuses (Nexii?) for the price of a single iPad Mini. Which, honestly, is ridiculous. The Nexus 7 is a great device and most of the comparisons the iPad doesn’t win by a big enough of a margin to justify the added expense. Now that I have an iPad Mini, I see my Nexus mostly being used for what it was expressly purchased for, testing, and little else. But before I had the Mini, I used the Nexus and found it quite good and worthy of recommendation. The iPad Mini is better, but very overpriced in comparison.

So I guess it comes down to this: If you’re in the 1%, buy an iPad Mini. If you’re not, buy a Nexus 7. Unless, of course, you already have an iPhone, an Apple TV, and a Mac and so get greater benefit from staying in the Apple ecosystem than those who are a bit more neutral.

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