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Why to Buy a Nexus 7 Instead of an iPad mini

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Thinking of buying an iPad mini? Chris Fehily, author of Google Nexus 7 Tablet: Visual QuickStart Guide, suggests you hold back a bit and consider the relative technical merits of the Nexus 7 and its operating system, Android.
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If you can’t decide whether to buy an Apple iPad mini or Google Nexus 7 tablet—and your internet research is yielding more noise than signal—then you might be leaning toward the iPad mini from the weight of Apple’s marketing budget, infatuated fanbase, and pervasive product placements. If your pointer is hovering over the “Buy” button for an iPad mini, hold back a bit and consider the relative technical merits of the Nexus 7 and its operating system, Android.

Note that I’m talking about the Google-branded Nexus tablet, which runs “pure” Android exactly how Google designed it, with no extra changes or add-ons. Plenty of third-party Android tablets are also available. Last year I bought a Samsung Galaxy Tab and found it to be loaded with user-hostile features like undeletable crapware, a nonstandard dock connector, and a Samsung-centric ecosystem. Rather than return it or root it (a cleansing but uninviting technical procedure for Samsung hardware), I gave it to my niece to build character. Such are the risks of buying for convenience and aesthetics rather than for technical specifications and core competency. Google’s Nexus 7 not only rights Samsung’s wrongs but serves as an example to other manufacturers of what a tablet should be.

Conceding the iPad mini's clear advantages—mainly, superior materials and build quality, thinness, a rear camera, and the Apple imprimatur—consider the Nexus’s superior features:

  • Price. The Nexus 7 starts at U.S. $200. Comparable iPad mini models start at U.S. $330.

  • Screen resolution. The iPad mini’s 1024 × 768 (163 pixels per inch) display is markedly worse than the Nexus 7’s 1280 × 800 (216 ppi) display. The iPad mini’s screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio, rather than the widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio used by the Nexus 7 and, notably, by Apple’s own iPhone 5 and iPod touch devices.

  • Processor. The Nexus 7 houses an up-to-date quad-core Tegra 3 processor. The iPad mini’s dual-core A5 processor—the same chip used in the iPad 2—should have been pensioned off by now.

  • Widgets. The iPad’s Home screen presents all installed apps as a dull grid of static icons. With minor exceptions, you must find and tap an icon to use an app, view information, or change a setting. The Nexus 7’s Home screen, on the other hand, can display widgets (single-purpose miniprograms) in addition to conventional icons. Widgets added to the Home screen appear as icons that you can tap to open or as tiles that you can resize to occupy part or all of the screen. Widgets display live info such as the battery level, a weather forecast, your email messages, or settings indicators. Widgets can also carry out common tasks—adjusting screen brightness or toggling Airplane mode, for example—with a single tap. Hundreds of widgets are available from the Google Play store.

  • Google Play store. All app stores are 95% junk. Wander off the bestseller lists and you’ll find thousands of me-too clones, cash-ins from fly-by-night developers, stripped-down versions of websites, crummy games, and other rubbish. I just searched Apple’s app store for “fart” and found 178 apps. The total number of apps available is a poor statistic for comparing app stores. Few people use more than a few dozen apps (even if they have many more installed), so store quality is more a matter of having the “right” apps. Apple’s strict store policies have lead to tentative developers creating unoffending apps. Google’s garden grows a bit wilder. The Google Play store contains plenty of apps that would be stomped dead by Apple’s gatekeepers: politically charged apps, superuser apps, file-sharing apps, adult apps, and much more. Users can use one of the Play store’s many free BitTorrent apps, for example, to download movies and music from file-sharing networks directly to their tablets. In my experience, the Play store also offers a better selection of free, ad-free apps for basic services.

  • Live wallpaper. The background wallpaper on the iPad’s Home and Lock screens is limited to static images. Nexus screens offer the option of live wallpaper that displays animated backgrounds such as nature scenes, holiday panoramas, abstract patterns, flight paths, clocks, erotica, and more. Hundreds of live wallpapers are available from the Google Play store. In general, the Nexus is far more customizable than the iPad. The Play store is loaded with alternate app launchers, ringtones, keyboards, and other tweaks.

  • Less landfill. Go to www.ifixit.com to see teardowns and “repairability scores” for the iPad and Nexus 7. The Nexus scores 8 out of 10, and the iPad scores 2 out of 10 (10 = easiest to repair). The Nexus’s replaceable battery and clip-fastened (rather than glued) case means that any PC shop can fix it.

  • Google Maps. In iOS 6, Apple replaced the Google Maps app with its own version of Maps, igniting a chorus of jeering critics and worldwide schadenfreude. At this writing, Google is rumored to be working on an iOS version of its Maps app but, for competitive reasons, it won’t be as good as the Android version. Note also that all Nexus 7 models include built-in GPS, whereas only the higher-priced 3G/4G cellular iPad models have GPS (lower-priced models rely on less-accurate Wi-Fi positioning).

  • Alternative keyboards. The native keyboards for the iPad and Nexus work in about the same way, but the Nexus lets you download apps that replace the built-in keyboards with custom ones. Third-party keyboards like SwiftKey and Swype have keystroke-saving prediction and correction features that let you type quite rapidly indeed. With iPad, you’re stuck with the native keyboard.

  • No iTunes. Not to put too fine a point on it, but iTunes is by now a lumbering piece of bloatware. I can’t recall helping someone with their iPad where iTunes wasn’t somehow involved. People who robotically click OK to dismiss dialog boxes regret learning that iTunes makes it easy to erase their iPad’s content inadvertently. On planet Nexus, no iTunes equivalent exists. All backups are synced to the cloud (online storage) and you can access the Nexus’s internal storage (file system) directly in a folder window by connecting your tablet to a computer via USB cable. In addition, file-manager apps let you copy, move, delete, rename, and manage files and folders directly on your Nexus, whereas file-system access on an iPad is quite limited.

  • Selecting webpage text. Trying to copy a bit of text in the iPad’s Safari browser often results in selecting a large and unalterable rectangular region of text. Grrrr. Selecting text in Chrome or another Android browser is precise.

  • Search and Voice. Nexus’s Google Search, Google Now, and Voice Actions features are like iPad’s Siri, but competent. Google’s great skill is search and its products return quick, relevant responses to succinct, keyword-heavy requests. Google doesn’t waste time, storage space, or bandwidth by giving its products a “personality” (“Siri, will you marry me?”) or by pretending that computers understand natural language (conversational speech).

  • Password prompts. The iPad’s wearying habit of asking for your password excessively—to shop in a store, to accept new license terms, or whatever—is not part of the Nexus experience, despite equivalent security.

  • Firefox. If you’re a fan of the Firefox desktop browser, you’ll find a faithful version of it for Android, including a touch-friendly user interface, add-ons (including Adblock), desktop syncing, and privacy controls. Apple prohibits WebKit-based browsers (like Firefox) on iOS.

  • Poweruser-friendly. If you’re the type of person who gets the shakes when deprived of a command line, you can root your Nexus, install rogue apps, access system internals, emulate a terminal, get superuser rights, and more. Apple, on the other hand, is antagonistic to jailbreakers: people who want to unlock and control their own computers. iPads are designed for the 90 percent of people who don’t (and don’t want to) understand computers.

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