updated 10:18 pm EST, Wed December 18, 2013
Apple Retina iPad mini versus Google Nexus 7
The iPad mini with Retina display has arrived in time to challenge the Google Nexus 7 (2013) in time for the hotly contested holiday season tablet sales. Technically speaking, the iPad mini is closer to an 8-inch tablet, than a 7-inch tablet, although most people see the two devices as going to head in the same market space. Apple actually points out on its website that its 4:3 7.9-inch iPad mini has 35 percent more screen real estate over 16:9 7-inch displays. Screen size is not the only major point of difference for consumers; price is. Starting from $399, the Retina iPad mini is at the high-end for a smaller tablet, while the Nexus 7 starts from $229. So do you let pricing rule your decision making, or is it worth spending the extra dollars on the what is widely considered to be the gold standard of tablets?
When Apple introduced the iPad in 2010, the late visionary Steve Jobs said that it tested prototype iPads with numerous different display sizes. Ultimately, Apple settled on a 9.7-inch display with a 4:3 ratio, which continues in its recently launched iPad Air. It opted for this size as it offers both content consumption and creation opportunities, and was properly differentiated from its then 3.5-inch iPhone display -- even then, some people initially saw it as 'just' a larger iPhone as it ran the same operating system. Apple also highlighted that not only could iPhone apps run on it, but desktop-class apps could also be created for it, making the most of the additional screen real estate. Despite the naysayers, the iPad is an outstanding success.
The rise of 7-inch tablets, by comparison, has been a happy accident for Android. It was the default size for early Android tablets as it took Google some time to develop a version of Android that was suitable for larger displays. The norm was for 7-inch tablets running stretched versions of smartphone apps, but they became popular as some people find them easier to hold. However, even today, where there are a wide range of sizes that Android tablets (some as large as 18-inches), there are still far fewer tablet optimized apps for Android tablets. As a result, 7-inch Android tablets remain very popular as smartphone apps still look quite good on them, and they also still tend to be lighter and cheaper than larger tablets. The advantage the iPad mini offers though, is that it is large enough that tablet-optimized apps still run on it and look and work great, but it is also much more portable than many larger tablets.
Display and sound
The headlining feature of both the Retina iPad mini and the Nexus 7 is undoubtedly their respective displays. Google beat Apple to the punch in bringing a super high-resolution display to a small tablet. The Nexus 7 centers on a 7.02-inch IPS display with a 1920x1200 resolution with a pixel density of 323ppi. Importantly, it also supports the full sRGB color spectrum with 100 percent accuracy, which helps to ensure that images and text not only look crisp, but also color accurate. By comparison, the Retina iPad mini centers on a 7.87-inch IPS display with an even higher resolution of 2048x1536 and a pixel density of 326ppi. However, independent tests have shown that although text and images look razor sharp, it is not as color accurate as either the Nexus 7 or the Retina display in the iPad Air. Compared to the Nexus 7, however, the larger Retina iPad mini display offers a more immersive viewing experience.
While both the Retina iPad mini and the Nexus 7 sport stereo speakers, the Nexus 7 incorporates these at either end of the device. The Retina iPad mini speakers are both at one end of the device, but they are quite loud and powerful. Heard in isolation, the produce excellent sound more than loud enough for sharing. Still, the sound from the internal speakers on the Nexus 7 offers a little more clarity by coming from either end of the device and gives the Nexus 7 an edge. This difference may only be significant if you share your device for viewing movies, for example, otherwise, it is negated completely if you mainly listen through headphones. In this use scenario, Apple has long been a leader in audio quality and the audio through headphones on the Retina iPad mini is outstanding. The Nexus 7 is good, but it lacks volume, depth and punch. Apple hasn't revealed the technology behind the audio quality of devices running the A7 chip, but to our ears, there are few devices that come close.
Design and construction
The design of the Retina iPad mini is the pinnacle of style, form and function. Its anodized chamfered edges look beautiful, while its anodized aluminum body is both rigid yet also relatively light. The Apple logo on the rear has also undergone further refinement and looks stunning, but is also robust. It weighs in at 0.75 pounds (341g) and is .29-inches thin (7.5mm), making it very comfortable to hold in either one or both hands. In stark contrast, the Nexus 7, while handsome, just can't hold a candle to the Retina iPad mini for its materials or design. Its focus is almost entirely on function, and to this extent, it does a very good job. As it centers on a smaller display, naturally it comes in lighter at 0.64 pounds (290g). However, it is noticeably thicker at 0.34-inches (8.65mm) that makes it feels slightly chubby by comparison, but this is no doubt the result of packing in a large battery.
The performance of the Retina iPad mini is stellar thanks to its advanced 64-bit A7 chip running Apple's custom 'Cyclone' architecture and the new ARM v8 instruction set. Apple has stolen a march on the competition and introduced chip technology that won't be seen in Android or other ARM-based mobile devices until the first half of 2014 at the earliest. Our Geekbench 3 tests show that the Retina iPad mini scores an astonishing 1391 on the single-chip test, 2511 from its dual-cores on the multicore test, despite being clocked at just 1.3GHz. Comparatively, the Nexus 7 does not fare anywhere near as well. It runs a 2012-era quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro clocked at 1.5GHz and scores just 580 on the single-core test and 1857 on the multicore test even with its additional two cores. Similarly, the next-gen PowerVR G6430 GPU in the Retina iPad mini comprehensively outguns the 2012-era Adreno 320 GPU in the Nexus 7. In terms of real world differences, the Retina iPad mini blows past the Nexus 7 in web browsing speeds, in launching apps, in multitasking and game play. For the most part though, the Nexus 7 is perfectly adequate for web browsing, checking email and content consumption in general, helped greatly, by running the latest version of Android. It just happens to have brought a knife to a gun fight.
Software and ecosystems
The Retina iPad mini runs the completely revamped iOS 7, which is also offers full 64-bit support with backwards compatibility for 32-bit applications. Apple has reengineered just about all of its iOS apps for iOS 7 including all of the built-in apps as well as its iOS iLife and iWork apps - as an added bonus, these are now also available for free. These are already high quality apps and best in class applications; in making these creativity and productivity applications free, it has made an already highly attractive platform even more enticing. The value-add benefit here is considerable and should not be underestimated. The Google Nexus 7 is also available with the latest version of Android 4.4.2 'KitKat,' which is the most refined and polished version of Android yet. Functionally, it is more difficult to fully master, but it is on par for general usability. Technically, however, it is now lagging as it running on what has suddenly become legacy 32-bit underpinnings on a legacy 32-bit processor.
When it comes to entertainment ecosystems, there is Apple iTunes and then there is daylight, and then there is Google Play. A big part of the reason for this is that iTunes was created as a key pillar in Apple's strategy to sell more hardware, namely its mega selling iPod line. It wasn't created after the hardware as an after thought and has consequently evolved to define what it means to have content seamlessly purchased and either downloaded or transferred to its customer's iOS devices. There is simply nothing that comes close to the quality, depth and breadth of the content on available through the iTunes and App Stores. When it comes to apps, even today, there are still plenty of apps that are released either exclusively to iTunes (such as Infinity Blade) or are made for iOS devices first. This is not to say that users of the Nexus 7 will be left wanting for content. The Android Market, and now Google Play, has evolved into a very competitive offering and is easily the best alternative ecosystem. However, Apple has such a lead over the competition, that it is unlikely ever to be headed in this area.
Wireless connectivity and storage
Both the Retina iPad mini and the Nexus 7 support dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11n, but not the latest 802.11ac standard. The Retina iPad mini does, however, incorporate dual-antennas as well, with one dedicated to downlink and the other to uplink. At 150Mbps, Apple says that the Retina iPad mini can transfer data twice as fast as the non-Retina model. Both the Retina iPad mini and the Nexus 7 come with the option of cellular connectivity too, although the Retina iPad mini supports more LTE networks in the US and abroad. Bluetooth 4.0 is standard on both devices although the Nexus 7 also supports NFC. Countering this, Apple has implemented Wi-Fi Direct and Bluetooth 4.0 in AirDrop for iOS to iOS sharing between all of its Lightning Port-equipped devices.
As far as storage goes ,the Nexus 7 is limited to 16GB or 32GB Wi-Fi models with the cellular-equipped model coming in the one 32GB model with no option for adding more storage. The Retina iPad mini comes in 16GB, 32GB, 64GB and 128GB versions, although the privilege will run you up to $799 for the Wi-Fi only model or $929 for Wi-Fi + Cellular model. For most people, the 32GB variants will provide ample storage for a variety of apps, some music and videos, although it is possible to get by with 16GB in many usage scenarios. Only people with large content libraries will be angling for devices that also support microSD expansions or 64GB or 128GB devices. According to reports, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak will only be happy when Apple releases a 256GB model so he can hold every season on the Big Bang Theory to keep him entertained on the road.
The Retina iPad mini, like the iPhone 5s and iPad Air, incorporates Apple's M7 Motion Coprocessor. It helps to conserve battery power by handling all motion sensor data and reducing network pinging when it detects the device isn't being used. This, coupled with the more efficient A7 chip, helped Apple keep the Retina iPad mini to 7.5mm thin despite adding a larger capacity battery to handle powering the much denser Retina display. Apple claims that they Retina iPad mini will deliver at least 10 hours of battery life with active use, although a number of independent tests have shown that it can exceed this by up to two hours. Google claims 9 hours of battery life from the Nexus 7 with active use, which we find to be a good guide as to what you can expect depending on brightness settings and when browsing the web and checking emails. Although, like the Retina iPad mini, we have seen the Nexus 7 comfortably exceed its rated battery life by 1-2 hours.
The Apple iPad mini with Retina display is the best smaller tablet on the market. The price of admission is relatively steep by comparison with the Google Nexus 7, but you are getting a much classier device with bleeding edge technology. It is also loaded with great built-in apps with the option of installing the iLife and iWork suite of apps completely free. Added to this is its unbeatable content ecosystem and Apple's renowned customer support, more than justifying your initial outlay. If your budget is limited, the Nexus 7 at $170 less is very good buying. It's major shortcoming, though, is that it is running a 2012 chip in a 2013 device leaving it well behind the Retina iPad mini in the performance stakes -- it is effectively running a 2014 chip in a 2013 device. You are also losing out on an additional 35 percent of screen real estate, even if the Nexus 7 display is excellent. Google Play is not a match for iTunes or the App Store, but it is still a formidable offering and will offer Nexus 7 owners plenty of entertainment. If the iPad mini with Retina display is the gold standard of smaller tablets, the Nexus 7 picks up a bronze.
By Sanjiv Sathiah