iPad mini vs. Nexus 7: The debate

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.

The screen

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.

Storage

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.

Cameras

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.

Input

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

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