Mobility has always been the target. Go anywhere. Connect anywhere to anything. Do what needs doing. Slide the Tablet in a pocket. Move on. We’ve wanted to escape from our desktops with laptops followed by netbooks and succeeded in doing that as far as those devices allowed us to. But in those escapes we always had to sit down at some sort of surface or use our laps. Smartphones gave (and give) us a chance to keep moving while we did (and do) what we wanted (and want) to do. But even with the rise of the larger smartphone screen, the small screens still leave many of us wanting. And then came the current crop of Tablets spawned by the iPad. As the iPad took off, most harbored lingering thoughts that the 10-inch variant was a bit too big for pure mobility and some still do. But it wasn’t long before we started seeing smaller variants centering around a 7-inch window into our online worlds.
UMPC adopters will remember what those pre-modern (and failed) Tablets promised. Some will say that the early 7-inch Android Tablets from Samsung and others came close to exceeding the promises of those clunky first 7-inch UMPC attempts. But they never caught fire. Amazon let the spark though, with the first Kindle Fire and came closer and generated some heat due to the low price point. Then came the Nexus 7 from Asus/Google, and now the iPad Mini from Apple. Amazon is still in the race with its newer Kindle Fire HD. These devices create touchable windows into our online lives in form factors that can truly be described as mobile in any sense of a word that has defined devices of all sizes for quite some time now. Touchable windows that provide enough screen real estate to actually present a quality viewing or reading experience. Touchable windows that don’t require the compromises that being mobile has always demanded.
So, here we are in the evolution of mobile with small, lightweight, reasonably high-powered Tablets that can let us do most of what we want, when we want it. It feels good. It actually feels really good.
My arsenal now includes both a Nexus 7 and an iPad mini. In reality I don’t need both and if I had to choose I’d go with the iPad mini for reasons I’ll state later. My choice to hang on to both centers on the fact that the Nexus 7 is my window into the world of Android. Quite honestly, I like the Nexus 7 quite a bit. I was really excited by the Nexus 7 as I mentioned in this review and still am. It was and is a game changer. So much so that I sold my original 16GB model and picked up a 32GB model when it was released. By the way, the 32GB model is a much smoother operator than the 16GB model, due, I’m guessing, to the increased memory and the opportunity for both Google and Asus to refine a few things. I still like the Nexus 7 very much, in fact, even more so in this iteration.
But I also really like the iPad mini. Let me rephrase that. The iPad mini is a wonderful mobile device, and I can see it becoming the small Tablet of choice for anyone willing to pay the higher price Apple is charging over it competitors. It too is a game changer. I loaded up the iPad mini I purchased (64GB, WiFi plus cellular) and am glad I paid the premium to do so after using it for a little over a week. The iPad mini is perhaps the current culmination of where we’ve been heading for quite some time. The fact that it has real competition from both the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fired HD will probably fuel further development for all three. But as a device on the market today, the iPad mini is what I’ve been hoping to see in a mobile device for quite some time now.
Let me also say that I owned the first version of the Kindle Fire and really enjoyed using that device, primarily as the consumption device it was intended to be. My need to stay with the Kindle Fire line of 7-inchers dissipated when the Nexus 7 came along. When Amazon released the Instant Video App for iOS, it was a no brainer to move away from the Kindle Fire line, given Amazon’s willingness to have some of its other Apps on competitive platforms as well. I used the original Kindle Fire to view Amazon video (I’m an Amazon Prime member) and also to tinker around a bit with Android. Had Amazon released the Instant Video App for Android prior to the release of the iPad mini, I might have passed on the first Apple 7-incher. But that wasn’t the case.
Obviously the iPad mini has a premium price point compared to its competitors, starting at $329. The Kindle Fire HD and the Nexus 7 can be had for much less. But does that mean there is that much of a quality difference? That all depends on what you need and want out of one of these Tablets. This may be where the luxury car analogy makes sense. You’re paying a premium for the iPad mini, but if you just want your Tablet to get you where you need to go, the Nexus 7 (starting at $199) and the Kindle Fire HD (starting at $199) might be just the ticket depending on your destination. I can’t speak for the newer Kindle Fire HD as I don’t own one, but if you can afford the step up to the 32GB model of the Nexus 7 I would certainly do so. The extra $50 bucks is worth it to have that extra memory based on how much smoother the 32GB operates over the 16GB model I had earlier.
If you measure what you pay by how much you can afford to spend the cheaper Tablets make a lot of sense depending on your needs. If you measure what you pay by how much value you anticipate getting out of a device the question becomes tougher to answer. Having used a full-sized iPad, I know what I expect out of the iPad mini and don’t feel that paying the premium is too much in my situation. Your scenario may be different.
For my money the iPad mini is a far superior piece of hardware design, but I don’t see that as the primary reason to buy the device. I actually prefer how I can hold the Nexus 7 in one hand easier (by gripping the device around the back). That said, the iPad mini is lighter and is easier to hold with one hand on the side. Using a Smart Cover folded over this feels quite natural. If you read my Nexus 7 review you may remember that I said that device left me feeling like I didn’t want to put a cover or case on it. That’s still my feeling today. The iPad mini feels like it needs some form of protection. Both devices pass the Pinky Test with Apple having a slight edge there. This may be a small thing, but with all the hue and cry that went up about Apple changing its dock connector from 30-pin to the Lightning connector, I do find it much easier to plug the cable into the iPad mini than I do inserting the micro-USB cable into the Nexus 7. Like I said, it is a small thing, but small things do make a difference.
Tablet Apps vs Phone Apps
The iPad mini offers more info on the screen and there is a big distinction between how Apple and Google treat Tablet Apps. Apple chose to downsize its Tablet Apps (based on the iPad 2) and picked a screen dimension (7.9 inches diagonally) that meant developers didn’t have to do much, if anything, to see their Apps display or be used properly. Google’s approach is to allow developers to adjust for any screen size. This sounds like a good plan, but there are far too many App developers that rely on this leaving their creations as Smartphone Apps that size up. This makes many Android Apps look inferior even on a 7-inch screen like the Nexus 7. Obviously iOS developers have cranked out more Tablet optimized Apps and the depth of that selection is far superior to what you find in Android Tablet Apps. That said, there are a good number of Android Apps that have been optimized for the Tablet experience (Flipboard, Netflix, Evernote, Pocket, Instapaper, some games and others) that make you wonder when Android App developers will finally get the message. On the other side of that coin looking at most iPhone Apps on an iPad of any size makes you wonder why those developers haven’t caught on either. That includes Apple. It’s Apple Store App looks hideous on a Tablet.
Much has been made about the lack of a Retina display on the iPad mini. Quite honestly, to my eyes this isn’t an issue. It may be for you, but given the size of screen and what that does to pixel density, the iPad mini screen doesn’t suffer in my view. Is there a difference? Yeah, if I’m looking for one. In practical usage, I don’t see it. Last night sitting in bed I fired up the same video on both the iPad mini and the Nexus 7, and felt the experience on both was just fine for my viewing tastes when it comes to video. Reading text I feel much the same. I’ve also gone back and forth between a Retina iPad and the iPad mini without feeling like I’m sacrificing clarity.
I was concerned when I heard that Apple was equipping the iPad mini with an A5 processor instead of the A6 processor it uses in the iPhone 5. The iPhone 5 is so snappy that it makes just about any other device I touch feel slow. But that concern about the iPad mini is not an issue. The iPad mini stands up well in performance. No, it isn’t iPhone 5 speedy, but it is more than sufficient for a small Tablet and I don’t feel it to be compromised at all. Not having to push a Retina display probably helps here. Looking at the real world practical usage of both the iPad mini and the Nexus 7, let me say that I’m very satisfied with the performance of both Tablets. In fact, they both operate as I expect they would, which means I don’t pay any attention to how fast or not they are operating. I just do what I do on both devices.
Battery Life is a Non-Issue
As regards to battery life, there isn’t an issue with my practical usage of either device. This is a good thing. Both devices run for more than a full day the way I use them. With Tablets I think we might have reached the point that for practical usage we don’t have to be concerned about this anymore.
One area where Google is way ahead of Apple and might be worthy of some pre-purchase thought, is with Internet services. There is no doubt that Apple hasn’t quite figured out the Internet thing just yet. While it may have improved iCloud, Apple still has a ways to go before it can be taken as seriously as it wants us to. Google’s services just seem to work. Apple’s seem to work, some of the time. I find Google’s voice search and Google Now better than Siri. In fact, I find Google’s voice search on iOS better than Siri. Sharing (photos, documents, calendars, etc…) is so much better on Android than it is on iOS. If these things, and Internet services in general, are important to you than you might want to seriously look at the Nexus 7 over the iPad mini. Apple needs to devote some serious investment of thought and resources into how it is going to go forward in this realm. In my opinion, ease of operations and Internet interoperability are going to be big keys for Tablets in the future.
All of these very mobile devices can certainly be improved upon. Given how much more mobile they make the Tablet experience, it would be nice to see some advances in screens that make outdoor use in bright sunlight easier. Perhaps the designers and builders of these devices spend all their daylight working hours indoors, but now that we have devices we can truly be mobile with, it would be nice to be able to use them more outside when the weather is nice. While all Tablets include fingerprint magnets free of charge, it would be nice to see some work on eliminating some of that as well. Fingerprints and bright sunlight just don’t go well together.
Summing It Up
As I said earlier, if I had to make a choice between the Nexus 7 and the iPad mini, I would choose the iPad mini. The reason for that is simple. I’m invested in Apple’s ecosystem at home and at work. The other Apple devices I use work well in concert with the iPad mini. Although some Android Apps are catching up, iOS has a much deeper selection of Tablet optimized Apps. Those Apps, for the most part offer a richer App experience as well.
I’m actually glad I don’t have to choose because I do like both devices very much. While I’ve mentioned the Kindle Fire HD here, I can’t directly compare it to either the Nexus 7 or the iPad mini because I have no direct experience with that device. That said, depending on what you want to do with a Tablet and your budget, I don’t think you could go wrong with a purchase of either of these three 7-inch Tablets. If you’re locked into or prefer either Google or Apple’s ecosystem, that choice becomes an easy one. If you’re really looking for just a reader or a video player or to play some games, the Kindle Fire HD could easily serve. It is a wonderful thing that we’ve reached this point this holiday season, because I imagine that we’ll see good sales of all three of these devices. That will spur further competition and that makes where we are today not only look bright but promises a brighter future as well.