Google’s Nexus 7 makes the case for a smaller iPad

Dan Frakes
28 July, 2012
View more articles fromthe author

The prospect of a smaller iPad – one with a 7- or 8in screen – has been the focus of rumours since…well, since even before the original iPad was released back in 2010. But the rumour mill has been heating up over the past couple months, with more and more pundits and even news outlets, claiming that such a product is really, truly – this time – on the way, perhaps as soon as spring.

These rumours have in the past inevitably stirred up just as many arguments against the idea of an “iPad mini.” The most compelling of these arguments can be summed up in a single word: “Why?” As in, “Why does Apple need to make a smaller iPad when the company already has the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch?” As in, put bluntly, “What’s the point of a device that isn’t as pocketable as an iPhone or iPod but isn’t as useful as an iPad?” (Usefulness, here, presumably being based on a device’s screen size.)

It’s a fair point. Though I’ve long thought a mid-size tablet could be an appealing product, most people haven’t seemed to find the idea very convincing. I suspect some might start to question their opinions, however, as the best argument in favour of a smaller iPad has just been made. By Google.

It’s called the Nexus 7.

I’m not being facetious here. People have been rightfully wary of the idea of a downsized tablet that gives you only a taste of what a full-size model offers. And products such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab have, if anything, strengthened the argument against mid-size tablets. What we’ve needed is an example of a small tablet done right – or at least done well. And Google has delivered. The Nexus 7 isn’t perfect; in fact, it’s not even great, in my opinion. But it’s a solid product that shows the appeal of a device this size.

What’s the point of a smaller tablet?

What is that appeal? I love my iPad – it’s one of the most amazing devices I’ve ever used. But while its 9.7in display is great for many things, that size can also be a limitation. For example, the iPad’s 660g weight is impressive compared to the mass of a laptop, but when I’m reading a book in iBooks or the Kindle app or watching a full-length film, I need to hold the device for an hour or two (or more). The iPad gets heavy – especially when trying to read or watch video in bed at night – and its large size makes it difficult to hold with one hand.

My Kindle 4, on the other hand, weighs just 170g and is roughly the size of a paperback book – it’s a pleasure to hold for extended periods and the screen is still large enough to read comfortably. But while the Kindle is great for reading books, it has a clunky interface and it doesn’t do much else. Imagine a device roughly the size of a Kindle Touch with a good interface, a full-colour multi-touch screen, a powerful operating system and a few thousand apps. That’s what the Nexus 7 offers – and what a smaller iPad could offer.

Similarly, as sleek and thin as the iPad is, its other dimensions are similar to those of a small laptop, so it requires a bag or case that’s not much smaller than what you’d need for a MacBook Air or an Ultrabook. Some people just don’t want to lug that around. A smaller tablet, on the other hand, could be tossed in a purse, squeezed into the pocket of your pants or carried inconspicuously behind (or in) a notepad.

(Keep in mind that while 7.5 doesn’t sound much smaller than 9.7, screen sizes are measured diagonally. The iPad’s 9.7in display has an area of just over 114cm. A 7.5in display with the same aspect ratio would have a screen area of approximately 69cm – roughly 60 percent of the current iPad’s size. So a 7.5in iPad would be quite a bit smaller. Indeed, the Nexus 7, with its 7in screen, is essentially half the size of the iPad.)

Some will say, “But you’ve already got [an iPhone or some other touchscreen smartphone] for those kinds of things.” And to some extent that’s true. But I can tell you from experience that reading Kindle books or Instapaper is a lot more enjoyable on a 7in tablet than on an iPhone’s screen, no matter how great the iPhone’s retina display is. And while I rarely watch a movie on my iPhone, I’ve already watched two full-length films on the Nexus 7 this week – it’s not as nice as watching on an iPad, but it’s good enough to make me reach for the Nexus 7 over the iPhone every time. And it’s better enough than a smartphone that, just as many people own a smartphone and an iPad, there will be people who will have no problem buying a smartphone and a mid-size tablet.

Speaking of buying, there’s the matter of price. Some people simply don’t want to – or can’t – spend $500 or more for an iPad, while $250 is within reach. For these people, a smaller tablet may be the only way to get a “real” tablet.

The price point is important to Apple, as well. As Ryan Jones explains with a great graph, a smaller iPad would help eliminate the current price umbrella in Apple’s tablet lineup. (A price umbrella happens when a dominant company leaves an opening for competitors at lower price points.) Apple currently offers the iPhone at prices starting at $449 unlocked and increasing to roughly $999 for the 64GB iPhone 4S; the company offers iPods from $55 (the shuffle) to $439 (the top-of-the-line iPod touch). But when it comes to tablets, Apple’s least expensive model is the Wi-Fi iPad 2 for $429, leaving room for competitors to go after those people I described in the previous paragraph.

This opening didn’t mean as much before the Nexus 7 because the iPad was so much better than the alternatives. Apple surely lost some sales to $250 products, but inexpensive tablets weren’t a huge threat overall. Now that there’s finally a good 7in tablet – and other smaller tablets are improving, as well – there are real options for people who want “good but not as expensive as an iPad.” Indeed, demand for the Nexus 7 has been high. Google’s 8GB model is currently on back order and the company has stopped taking orders for the 16GB model until it can catch up on existing orders.

Apple’s management is not dumb; they’ve seen this day coming for quite a while. Which is why the company has reportedly been working on a smaller, lower-cost tablet for a long time.

Consumption vs. creation

While ill-informed pundits continue to claim that the iPad “is for consumption, not creation,” I think that argument was handily disproved long ago. But when it comes to smaller tablets, the phrase fits a bit better: Thanks to the smaller screen, there’s less room for developers to work with, the onscreen keyboard is smaller and you just can’t see as much of your content while working. In this respect, the Nexus 7 is closer to an iPhone or an Android smartphone: You can type a 1200-word article or edit a movie or create music on it, but you probably won’t prefer to. You’d rather do it on a laptop or desktop computer or even on a full-size tablet.

Even when it comes to consuming content, the Nexus 7’s screen isn’t ideal. For example, although reading books and watching movies are good experiences, the 7in screen is too small for great web browsing. Similarly, games and kids’ apps made for tablets often feel cramped – in some cases, you get a better experience with apps originally designed for a smartphone that have been adapted to the Nexus 7’s larger-than-a-smartphone screen.

But I think most people shopping for a smaller tablet would go into the purchase knowing these limitations. As long as they know they’re getting a good small tablet, they’ll be OK with the tradeoffs.

What Google did right

What makes the Nexus 7 appealing when earlier midsize tablets weren’t? I’ve been using a Nexus 7 for the past week and, having tried a few earlier Android devices, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. The Nexus 7 is solid – albeit surprisingly heavy at 340g – and feels well built. Though it’s clearly inspired by the iPad, with a black-glass screen bezel and brushed-metal edges, the Nexus 7’s back is covered in a leathery-rubber material that makes the tablet comfortable to hold and a bit less slippery. In fact, for things like reading a book or Instapaper or watching video, the tablet is easier to grip and more comfortable over long sessions than the current iPad.

Google is also improving Android OS at a steady pace. Unlike early versions on tablets, the latest version of Android, known as Jelly Bean, is pretty impressive. It’s very iOS-like, it’s stable and usable and it even bests iOS in a few areas. Some of my favourite examples: The task manager is more accessible and capable than iOS’s double-press-Home task switcher; the notifications system is more useful; widgets let you put frequently accessed data (such as the weather or your Twitter stream) and settings (such as Bluetooth and brightness) right on the home screen; you can choose to hide infrequently used apps without deleting them from the device; and you get more-fine-grain options for many system settings.

iOS is still more polished and user-friendly than Android, in my opinion, but the combination of Jelly Bean and the Nexus 7’s hardware is close enough to the iPad experience to make some consumers consider the Nexus – especially given its $249 (8GB) and $299 (16GB) price tag.

Why an iPad mini would be better

The key word there is “consider” – I didn’t say buy. And that’s because for many people, the iPad experience is still much more compelling. Or, put more simply, the Nexus 7 still isn’t an iPad.

A better OS: As improved as Jelly Bean is, Android still feels at times like it’s a work in progress and at other times like it’s purposely trying not to be too much like iOS. Things Apple got right years ago – standard UI elements, scrolling acceleration, scroll to top, text insertion points, password-entry cues and many more – are either missing from Android or poorly implemented. The lack of a hardware Home button means some actions take an extra step and you also often find yourself whisked back to the home screen because you accidentally brushed the touch-sensitive home button. The always-available Back button (next to the home button) does different things in different apps and contexts. Because Android is Google-centric, you run into odd things like needing separate apps for Gmail and non-Gmail email. Browsing is noticeably slower than on an iOS device using the same internet connection. And multi-touch just doesn’t feel as natural or polished on Android. Overall, for me, the experience of using Android is a lot like using Ubuntu after being used to OS X.

Better and more, apps: The iPad’s advantage is even more pronounced when it comes to apps. Android has several thousand “tablet” apps, but in my testing, some of those can’t be installed on the Nexus 7 and of those that can be installed, many feel more like scaled-up smartphone apps rather than true tablet-optimised versions. (Some notable exceptions, as you would expect, are Google’s own apps.) Apple says there are currently over 200,000 iPad-optimised apps and it’s a good bet that most of those truly are iPad-optimised. In other words, the iPad has far more apps and the best apps are on iOS – there are few Android “killer apps.”

Some might argue that a smaller iPad would require developers to revamp their apps, thus negating some of this advantage. I think Apple is savvier than that. If Apple were to make, as John Gruber has speculated, a 7.85in iPad with a resolution of 1024 pixels by 768 pixels, that tablet would run any existing iPad app (at non-Retina resolution) without modifications – and it would do so at a higher pixels per inch (163 PPI) than the 132-PPI-display of the first two iPad models.

The Apple and accessory ecosystems: The iPad would also have the Apple ecosystem going for it. There are thousands of accessories already on the market that would work immediately with a smaller iPad model. And if a tablet buyer already has a Mac or an iPhone or an iPod touch, the integration between – and the growing similarities between – Macs and iOS devices and iCloud means he or she would be up and running in no time, using a product that’s instantly familiar. The same can’t be said for a buyer who’s already got an Android phone or even a Chromebook – every Android device has different hardware and software and few work exactly like (in some cases, even remotely like) others.

Storage capacity: Smaller size doesn’t have to mean smaller storage capacity, as the iPod touch, available with up to 64GB of storage, shows. Yet the Nexus 7’s standard configuration, for $249, offers a meagre 8GB of flash storage; the most you can get is 16GB for $299. For a device that’s good at letting you consume content, it’s a disappointing limitation. I’d be very surprised if Apple were to offer a smaller-size iPad with less than 16GB and I suspect such a device would be available in even larger capacities.

Cellular wireless: As someone who’s used to a mobile-data-equipped iPad, as well as a smartphone, I’ve been frustrated by the Nexus 7’s Wi-Fi-only data capabilities. Being limited to Wi-Fi doesn’t bother me with my Kindle, because I don’t use it for anything that requires an always-available connection, nor do I require internet access more than a few times each week. The Nexus 7, on the other hand, is a full-fledged computing device. I often found myself away from home or my office and in need of a connection.

I suppose a person moving to the Nexus 7 from something like an iPod touch won’t find this limitation to be as troublesome as I do, but for others like me, the Nexus 7 isn’t even available with mobile data. I think this is one area where a smaller iPad could stand out. True, Apple could restrict a smaller iPad to Wi-Fi to further differentiate it from the full-size models, but I think Apple sees always-available internet connections as a key feature going forward. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple offered a carrier-subsidised model, letting the company fill even more gaps in the aforementioned price umbrella – imagine a smaller iPad with mobile data selling for, say, $99 with a data contract. (People have been complaining for years about the lack of an iPod touch with cellular data. Maybe this is how Apple’s going to do it – not with the iPod touch, but with a smaller iPad.)

Price: There’s been a lot of speculation that Google is selling the Nexus 7 at a loss (or at least for no profit) and for good reason: It’s a well-made device with good specs, yet it’s selling for the same price as products that are significantly inferior. As a result, some people are claiming that Apple couldn’t compete with the Nexus 7 on price. I don’t agree.

When the original iPad debuted with prices starting at $499, many people were shocked – they knew Apple had been improving its manufacturing and operating efficiency and had made some good deals when buying components, but they didn’t realise how effective the company had become in these respects. With several years of premium-quality-but-price-competitive, products – the iPhone, the iPad, the iPod touch, the MacBook Air – as evidence, it’s clear that Apple can make great stuff at decent prices. Given that the company sells the iPad 2 for $439, if Apple does release a smaller iPad, I think it will be priced at $349 or less for a model with 16GB of storage. Even if the rumoured product were $50 more than Nexus 7 models with comparable storage, plenty of people would pay that premium to get a superior device and experience.

iPad mini on the way?

Like the original iPad, which many people doubted until they experienced it first-hand, I think mid-size tablets are proof-in-the-pudding devices – once you’ve tried a good one, you can see the appeal. And the Nexus 7 offers some of that proof.

But in reading many Nexus 7 reviews over the past couple weeks, I’ve been struck by a sentiment expressed in a good number of them: In one way or another, many a reviewer has said, “It’s good, but more than that it makes me want a smaller iPad.” In some ways I feel bad for Google that the company’s best hardware product yet inspires people to want to buy a hypothetical similar product from its biggest competitor. But having used a Nexus 7, I agree with those reviews: Every time I used it, I was impressed by how much I liked the size for particular tasks. But every time, I also wished it was a smaller iPad instead – and I don’t think it’s just because I’m a longtime iOS user. The iPad is simply a better combination of hardware, software and ecosystem than the current crop of Android tablets, including the Nexus 7, regardless of size.

Comments from Apple’s current and former executives notwithstanding, I think Apple knows there’s demand for smaller tablets and the company knows that demand is only going to get bigger as more and more people are exposed to the idea. Combine that with a growing number of inexpensive tablets from competitors and it’s obvious that there’s both a good market and a strategic need for an “iPad mini.” I think we’ll see just such a device, possibly as soon as this year. And if it becomes wildly popular, though the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch will have each played a role in priming the pump, so to speak, the Nexus 7 will deserve some credit, as well.



8 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Daniel says:

    Just a heads up. You have incorrect amounts on the pricing. Its 199 for 8 GB and 249 for 16 GB.

  2. John says:

    I have an ipad 1 and just got the nexus 7. The nexus 7 is simply better than it and I chuckle at those who think otherwise because I see NOTHING about iOS that stands out over Android as iOS is so basic and constricting. I personally think people who go on about iOS being better simply do so because they are Apple fans. Well I know of one way iOS is better- deleting apps. That to me doesn’t trump everything else Android does better

    The only thing the iPad has in its favour is the greater number of apps and if that changes (and logically one would figure the nexus 7 will improve tablet app development) then I see zero reason to buy an iPad over an Android tablet.

    As for the screen size, I am actually liking the 7″ screen more than the 9.7″ though I think the ideal size would be about 8.5″.

    I also don’t think the Nexus 7 is heavy for its size.

  3. Jack N Fran Farrell says:

    Management by walking around, stand up briefings in hard-hats with instant synch of today’s action items, these are the natural uses of handheld devices. With enough pixels, next year’s iPad will support blueprints and not just MS Office. Windows 8 is in for competition from Apple on the job.

  4. mystilleef says:

    “The iPad is simply a better combination of hardware, software and ecosystem than the current crop of Android tablets, including the Nexus 7, regardless of size.” – Dan Frakes

    Can you expand on this a little? Are you comparing the iPad3 to the Nexus 7?

    Most reviews indicate that with the exception of screen resolution and size, the Nexus 7 has the best hardware for reading, gaming and media consumption. In fact, the hardware is what has many iOS/iPad fans reluctantly confessing that the Nexus 7 might give the iPad a run for its money. This is easily a $400 beast prices at $199.

    With regards to software iOS has 650 thousand apps while Android has 500 thousand. Chances are that for 99% of the population, you’ll find the software you’re looking for on either platforms. Both platforms have as many great software as they have terrible ones.

    If by ecosystem, you mean purchasable media content (e.g. tv shows, music and movies), then the iPad has an edge. How much of an edge, however, has never been quantified as far as I know, so it’s largely a matter of opinion. However, I still give the iPad the edge here.

    I’ve concluded that unless you’re heavily invested in Apple’s ecosystem and services, you’ll have to be a complete idiot to purchase an iPad over a Nexus 7.

    Why? Let me explain. You’re most likely buying a tablet PRIMARILY for portability and media consumption. It turns out these are the 2 areas where the Nexus 7 handily beats the iPad especially when you take price into consideration. Quite frankly, it’s a no brainer, today, the Nexus 7 is the most attractive Tablet on the market for consumers. The Nexus 7 is portable in every sense of the word. So portable it makes the iPad look clunky and big. Heck, even iOS fanatics, including you, who have used it all agree. While leads us to the second reason, media consumption. The hardware of the Nexus 7 is a monster optimized for just that, media consumption. In theory actually, the hardware on the Nexus 7 is actually more powerful than anything the iPad has to offer. So not only is the Nexus 7 more powerful for media consumption (reading, streaming, gaming, movies, music, etc), its portability (smaller form factor) actually makes it a more enjoyable media consumption device to use compared to the now bulky iPad.

    There’s one exception, the iPad has a higher, and thus better, screen resolution. As far as, I’m concerned Google messed up with regards to screen resolution. If the Nexus 7 had a Full HD resolution instead of half, and had a dpi above 300, I think the Nexus 7 would have unquestionably been the best Tablet in the market. And screen is VERY important. In a tablet everything should be designed around screen size and resolution. The average consumer will judge tablets by price and what they see on their screens. This is the reason that before the Nexus 7, the general consensus was that compared to the iPad, Android tablets sucked. Yes, it sucked because screen resolution on Android devices are bad. A screen with a higher resolution (iPad) WILL ALWAYS look better than one with a lower resolution (Android tablets). Thus, subconsciously, users perceived the iPad as better. This is one of many tricks Apple has up its sleeves with regards to product presentation and design. This is also the trick Samsung is using successfully against Apple in the smartphone arena and having great success with (The most popular Android phones have larger screens and higher resolutions than the iPhones).

    Google has its work cut out for it though in terms of marketing and hype. The iPad is well hyped, established and known. Also it doesn’t seem Google is aggressively marketing the Nexus 7. If they do, especially during the holiday season, I’ll be surprised if the Android Tablet market share isn’t close to 50% by the end of next year. I guess Google doesn’t want to piss off its partners. Grass root marketing can only take you so far.

    Let me conclude, if you want a Tablet today, buy a Nexus 7. It’s a no brainer. The price, hardware, software and ecosystem all combined is unmatched by anything in the market today. If you’re heavily invested in Apple’s software and cloud services (itunes and icloud), then you’re better off paying for the premium of the iPad. This is the ONLY reason you should get an iPad. Hypothetical comparisons to the iPad mini are silly. There’s no iPad mini until Apple formally releases specs.

  5. z9yaya says:

    Why are you even doing a review of the nexus 7 if its too dis every single part of it, android is a much more stable os than it was in the past, unlike ios which since i upgraded my iPod touch 4g 32gb to 5.1.1 or later, it keeps freezing randomly and lagging all the time when browsing and listening to music. Its easier to write a bad review, everything comes easily, not like a good one.

  6. Macworld Australia Staff says:

    The Google Nexus 7 costs $249 (8GB) and $299 (16GB) in Australia. We are an Australian site, not US.

  7. Macworld Australia Staff says:

    I think if you trialled the third-generation iPad against your Nexus 7, maybe you would have a different opinion. Testing it against the first iPad isn’t a comparison.

  8. fishman says:

    I’ve got an iPad 3 and a Nexus 7, and while I think the reviewer has made an effort to be fair and deserves cudos for trying to be objective, a slant to apple is obvious (and not surprising give the website).

    My take on it is that there’s a place for both sizes – the 7″ is much better on the move due to size, and for long time hand held use (gaming & reading books etc); whereas the ipad is a better device for around the house, where the larger screen size outweighs portability. For commuting the Nexus 7 is a no-brainer.

    For browsing I find chrome on the Nexus to be a much better experience than safari on ipad, and chrome on the ipad is hobbled by ios restricting the engine.

    For apps, I find I’ve got everything I want on the Nexus 7 – there are some specialty speech therapy apps on the ipad my son uses, but otherwise apart from Infinity Blade there’s nothing missing, most that I use are tablet optimised, and the couple of apps that aren’t (verge & guardian) look fine on this 7″ tablet (10″ android is a different story).

    For the OS, the flexibility of android blows away iOS, which isn’t much more than an app launcher, and now jellybean has sorted out the lag its as immersive as the ipad has always been. Thats my personal preference, so each to their own.

    They both have fantastic displays – the Ipad retina is the benchmark and blew me away when I first used it; the Nexus 7 is the first competing tab Ive seen that comes close, and again for the price is very impressive.

    So my summary is that no question the Nexus 7 is the best value at the moment, but the ipad is also a fantastic device, and it depends on your use case (or ecosystem preference) as to which is better.

    IPad mini will be interesting – one issue I see is the 4:3 aspect ratio doesn’t suit this size as you won’t be able to get your hand round the device like you can the 16:10 Nexus, whereas 4:3 is perfect on the 10″ size where you hold it 2 handed. Pricing will also be critical; if it’s more than $50 over the 16GB Nexus, then it will lose a lot of potential customers, and I think apples will struggle to get to this price point. At the much lower dpi (216 v 163) than the Nexus 7, the screen will also be a major issue – and you can’t wow about the retina ipad display and then pretend that it isn’t.

    Finally tablets get interesting :-)

Leave a Comment

Please keep your comments friendly on the topic.

Contact us