Buying guide: iPad mini vs. Nexus 7

Summary:Which device to buy depends on what type of person you are as much as which one has the best specifications and price.

There are two kinds of technology buyers in the world: those who love the technology itself, and those that just want to get things done. Most tech analysts and bloggers, myself included, fall naturally into the first category. We have strong opinions about licensing, patents, openness, walled gardens, review processes, frequency of OS upgrades, and many other esoteric topics that are all unimportant to the second group. To us, technology is like politics. Some are more hard-core than others but we're all biased in one way or another. Or if you prefer: passionate.

The second category is much larger. These are people who see technology as a means to an end. When making their buying decisions they are looking at price, features, aesthetics, stability, and customer service. They tend to be much more practical than the first group, with specific needs such as reading, making calls, and web browsing that must be satisfied before anything else is considered. To continue with the political analogy, these are the independents. They'll support whichever side brings them the best results.

The reason I mention all this is because the decision between two devices such as the iPad mini and the Nexus 7 depends first and foremost on which type of person you are. Are you in it for the technology, or for the practical benefits? Do you want the tech to be in your face or to disappear into the background? The answer is much simpler for the first group so let's take them first.

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Technology focus

If you fall into this group then you have probably already made up your mind and just don't realize it. Look around at what other devices and computers you use. Do you regularly use a Mac? An iPhone? Do you closely follow Apple announcements of new releases? Did you mourn the loss of Steve Jobs, and feel the company might lose its way without him? Then go ahead and get the iPad. It'll be familiar to you. You'll feel good about yourself, like you're a part of something bigger. 

On the other hand, if you value openness over simplicity and you're not locked into the Apple world, then consider the Nexus 7. You get more cores, a higher clock rate, more memory, a higher resolution, a GPS, and a cheaper price. Spec-wise, the only advantage the iPad has is the physical size of the screen (7.9 vs. 7.0 inches). Some people prefer the iPad's square-ish aspect ratio while others prefer the more movie-friendly rectangular format on the Nexus 7, so that's just a personal choice. The iPad is a bit thinner but both will fit in a pocketbook or a big pair of cargo pants. 

Both the iPad mini and the Nexus 7 enjoy up to date OTA updates direct from Apple and Google, respectively. So there's no worry about having an old OS version. Both are jail-breakable if you're into that kind of thing, though the Nexus, like all Android devices, wins hands down in terms of the breadth and depth of its modding community. It's Linux after all.

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Functional focus

Before the Nexus 7, if you asked me what tablet to get for your non-technical family member I would have said iPad every time. Yes, that's right, me, author of a book on Android, writer of many articles espousing the benefits of Android, I was recommending iPads. Why? Well, for one thing I actually do own both Android and iOS tablets. I bought an iPad 1 as soon as it came out. But then something funny happened. It vanished. Stolen!

Ok, not stolen exactly. My wife "borrowed" it. You have to realize, this is a woman who eschews the same high tech devices that I get so worked up about. She won't use laptops because she hates the small screens and trackpads. She won't use a smartphone because the battery doesn't last long enough. When she's out and gets lost she calls me up so I can function as sort of a remote "Google maps viewer" for her. I love her to death, but in my mind she's something of a Luddite. But she. Took. My. Ipad.

My wife is strongly in the functional, practical camp. She practically defines it. For her, the iPad does exactly what she wants: It reads mail, it browses the web, and it plays games. Oh, the games. Whoever invented the freemium in-app purchase model of games owes me a lot of money, let me tell you. But I digress.

Another nice thing about all iPad models is the battery life. You can use it all day and it won't run out of juice. Or even nicer, you can *not* use it for a few days and you won't come back to a dead machine. For functional folks like my wife, there's nothing more frustrating than wanting to get something done but being prevented by the technology. That's true whether it's a tablet, an electric car, or a hand mixer. They want to rule the technology, not the other way around.

The Nexus 7 is different though. I know I'm biased, but I really like this device. It's small so it's easy to carry around. It does everything the iPad mini can do and more. It's fast and buttery smooth. It's easy to use and just works. Because it has a GPS you can use maps, and they work great. The thing that really pushes it over the edge for practical-minded users, though, is the price.

Consider two equally well equipped mini tablets: one Nexus 7 and one iPad mini. Both with lots of room for games and other content. Both with high speed cellular access for those times you can't get a WiFi signal. Look at the price difference:

Google Nexus 7, 32GB, WiFi, HSPA+, AT&T: $299

Apple iPad mini, 32GB, WiFi, HSPA+/LTE, AT&T: $559 ($659 for 64GB)

The iPad mini costs almost twice as much as the Nexus 7. That's incredible. I don't normally use the term "Apple tax", but according to hardware breakdowns the mini only costs about $15 more to make, mostly due to the larger screen. Do the math: you're paying a $249 premium for the Apple device.

Remember the old Hyundai ads where the car was so cheap the guy bought two of them, and then he had to drive both back home? It was funny because it was ridiculous; he would drive one a few feet, get out, walk back to the other one and catch up, then repeat. I'm sure somebody in the comments can find us a link to the video if you missed it. My point is that at this price, you could buy two Nexus 7's for a little more than the less functional Apple mini. One for you and one for your spouse or significant other, perhaps?

Conclusion

If the politics of technology is your main concern and you've intertwined your life with Apple, then just stick with the Apple iPad mini. It's a perfectly capable and fun device. If price is no object and there are other considerations like apps or games that haven't been ported to Android yet, or you just want that Apple status symbol (nothing wrong with that, let's be honest) then you might want to go with the Apple device. However, if you want cutting edge hardware including GPS, or if you're into customization and modding, or if you'd like to either save money or buy two for the price of one, then the Nexus 7 is the clear choice.

Topics: Mobile OS, Android, Apple, Google, Tablets

About

Ed Burnette has been hooked on computers ever since he laid eyes on a TRS-80 in the local Radio Shack. Since graduating from NC State University he has programmed everything from serial device drivers and debuggers to web servers. After a delightful break working on commercial video games, Ed reluctantly returned to business software. He... Full Bio

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