Small tablets are tailor-made for road warriors. They’re easy, light, portable, and have all the power you need to access the internet or write an email on the go. More functional than smartphones, less bulky than laptops, they’re quickly becoming a must-have in every go bag. Now the only question is: Which smaller tablet should you carry? For me, there are two serious contenders �" the Nexus 7 that’s already in my go bag and the iPad Mini Apple shared with me to review.
Mini comes with a legacy advantage. Apple is the market leader in
tablets, selling more than 100 million iPads in fewer than three years.
By one recent analysis, iPads account for 98% of all web traffic
originating from tablets �" and 54% from all mobile devices, including
smartphones. It’s not as if no other tablet comes close: It’s more like
every other tablet combined doesn’t come close.
Still, the iPad
Mini was only introduced last October, which meant that competitors
could beat it to the small tablet market. The Nexus 7 was released
earlier in 2012, and, for all intents and purposes, introduced the
category*. Cheaper worthy tablets like the Kindle Fire and Barnes &
Noble Nook also joined the fray, creating need for Apple to create the
iPad Mini, and the appealing chance for price pressure on the iPad
So, which one is a smarter choice to toss in my go bag?
one level, it comes down to the software, specifically the iPad’s iOS
versus the Nexus 7′s Android platform. To note the obvious, app
selection is vastly superior for Apple devices. The total number of apps
available isn’t necessarily make or break, if the ones you need exist
on your platform of choice. But the extent to which you need to be
future proof is a factor. The Apple and Android development communities
are both robust.
One of the simplest hardware decisions is one of
the most powerful on the iPad: The placement of the iPad’s home button
makes it possible to wake the device with one hand when it’s lying on a
surface. On the Nexus 7 the wake-up key is on the recessed side and
cannot even be accessed when laying flat. I often use a tablet right
next to my laptop for quick reference, and being able to work it with
one hand is big plus.
That home button is also your quick access
to Siri. With a press of that button, you can access any app and conduct
any web search. You can dictate and send SMS and IM messages. As a
second screen �" say you’re working at your laptop �" hitting the home
button and saying “open IMDB” doesn’t require nearly the level of
disengagement from your main task as navigating for the app. It’s akin
to hitting an intercom and having an assistant play a crucial supporting
role as you stay focussed on the task at hand. Semantic search is still
a work in progress, but don’t hold that against this technology, which
in addition to providing reliable command and control is also a powerful
dictationist. I use Siri to take notes all the time, and it’s usually
the way I start writing anything. The Nexus 7 equivalent requires first
navigating to a Google search prompt (after using two hands to unlock
the device). A painfully long time passes at is processes the request,
then tells you (verbally) it is opening the app, then opens the app.
It’s a novelty to the point of being worthless. Add to that, in my
far-from-scientific tests, word recognition was vastly superior on the
There other important differences. Google search from the
home screen is unexpectedly better on the iPad than on the Nexus 7. IPad
also has the clear edge in the PIM Department: both the mail and
calendar clients are more usable.
I also prefer notifications on
iPad �" the Nexus 7 status bar can get clogged with icons, when all I
need to know is that I have something awaiting my attention. Both reveal
the entirety of waiting messages with a swipe down from the top, and
Android notifications can all be closed with a single swipe �" on the
iPad, only each app’s notifications can be cleared en masse. Another a
small improvement in iOS would be single icon indicating unseen
I didn’t want to like the new iPad charging
interface �" the lightning connector. Actually, I wanted to hate it,
partly because of the inconvenience of potentially rendering my vast
collection of “old” adapters obsolete and partly because Apple (almost
certainly for revenue reasons, I imagine) chose to move to another
proprietary standard and not micro USB. But after using thunderbolt for a
while, I’ve become a convert. It’s superior to USB because it’s
“reversible” �" it can be plugged in either way. It also provides very
satisfying haptic feedback that it has been inserted properly, unlike
the analog plug or USB. And, hey, didn’t Palm change their connector
more than a couple of times?
I also want to hate 4G models of any
kind, not because of the extra hardware cost but because data plans
aren’t rational �" I would pay more than twice as much for AT&T’s
“Mobile Share” for less data than I contract for now using three iPhones
on my family plan. Under Mobile Share, if I added a tablet with only 1
GB of data that would increase the share plan by $25 a month. As it
stands now, dropping my personal hotspot and adding 3 GB for an iPad a
la carte would increase increase my bill by only $5 for that same 1
Paying a la carte for connectivity on your phones and
tablet is maddening, but it’s hardly the fault of the tablet makers. The
iPad’s implementation of 4G backup was perfect in my tests, which
included above-ground rail commuting. If you happen to be in a 4G-LTE
zone, the speed is breathtaking. If your phone can connect, so will your
iPad, whenever you do anything which requires Internet, with no special
setup. It’s like a hybrid automobile that starts using the standby gas
on its own initiative: it is a non-event for you, just as it should be.
cabling is also not a fair fight between the iPad and Nexus 7. An
optional thunderbolt-to-HDMI cable means that an iPad can be your
entertainment hub in most hotel rooms, patched right into that massive
flat screen TV. At home it can substitute for a Roku or Apple TV for
downloaded video �" and it operates with the cover closed so there is no
mirror image you have to hide under a pillow. At present, there is no
equivalent on the Nexus 7.
The iPads �" more accurately, iOS 6.0.2
�" does lack one powerful feature found on the Nexus 7: Gesture typing.
This input technique allows you to skate across the keyboard to form
words rather than tapping individual keys. It’s a surprisingly effective
way to type, especially when standing and holding the tablet in one
hand. There is no equivalent for Apple devices. (Swype, a third-party
app, has been available for Android devices for some time but gesture
typing is now part of the OS of the latest Android update, Jellybean
That one winning feature may not be a deciding factor. But
while I have defaulted to my review iPad Mini for most everything in
recent days, I continue to grab my Nexus 7 when I want to jot something
down (and can’t, for ambient reasons, use Siri). But adding gesture
typing would be an easy fix for Apple, one which would make their 7″
entrant virtually unassailable. I hope the company isn’t adamantly
against it, as it seems to be regarding NFC �" also ubiquitous on
Android devices and nowhere to be found in the Apple universe.
battery life, iPad Mini seems a clear winner as well. It charges more
rapidly and discharges more slowly than the Nexus 7, in part because the
Android device tends to like things running in the background. That’s
addressable, but a nuisance task.
For the truly mobile �" those of
it who intend to lug it around to use it at home, at work, and
everywhere in between �" the iPad Mini is the clear choice for a smaller
tablet. A Mini is destined for my go bag, probably this spring. There
are rumors that a second generation is coming out as early as March, so
I’m holding off on making the purchase until that clears up. But as soon
as Apple makes its move on the iPad Mini, one will move into a
permanent place in my go bag.