The iPad may be the biggest selling tablet in the world with 90% marketshare of all tablets, but Google is finally looking to change that in a severe way. Working with ASUS, at Google’s annual Google I/O conference, the company announced the Nexus 7, a new tablet that will be similar to the search giant’s line of Nexus phones (Nexus One, Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus). It will receive the latest updates first, ship with the standard Android OS with no overlay, and it’s going to be packed to the brim with the latest tech.

Does Apple have a competitor to worry about finally? Let’s find out.

Size

While the iPad isn’t the largest tablet, it is fairly big at 9.7″. The Nexus 7, as the name suggests, is a 7″ tablet, which is a very different class of tablets. There have been several popular tablets of this size, including my favorite the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7. The problem with a size comparison between these two is the disparity isn’t the typical “bigger is better” argument. No, it’s about personal taste, and how you plan on using the tablet.

In my experience, as an iPad owner and as someone who regularly has at least one Android tablet in testing at all times, the iPad is better for productivity, reading, viewing pictures, web browsing, and gaming. Android tablets are much better for general media like watching video or music (because of expandable memory), and generally Android functions simply not available on the iPad, like an IR sensor for using it as a universal remote like on the Sony Tablet S, or access to Google’s own services which either aren’t available or don’t function as well on the iPad.

As you can see, there’s a definite reason why the iPad is winning as the best tablet for users. But when I used a 7″ tablet, I mostly used it for watching videos comfortably on a couch instead of at my computer. For traveling, the smaller size is much more convenient all around, even if it doesn’t have the apps to match the iPad. In fact, on a recent trip I brought along the Galaxy Tab 7.7 and used it daily, as opposed to the iPad, which I only needed to charge after the initial flight in. It never got used after that.

Thus, what is the better size? It depends what you plan on using the tablet for, and how you plan on using it. I use my iPad in plenty of ways, and all of those ways work just the same for a smaller tablet like the Nexus 7. But the Nexus 7, as a smaller machine, is more convenient in plenty of situations, and the widescreen display is much better for watching any video.

Winner: Tie, because the size difference is so big it becomes a question of personal preference.

Appearance

While size may have been left to personal preference, appearance isn’t. The iPad looks good, but it’s big, it’s thicker and heavier than the iPad 2, and it hasn’t changed at all since last year. Meanwhile, the Nexus 7 is slim, sleek, smaller, and looks fresh. It has a bumpy back with soft dimples for a solid grip, a completely black frame, and a very small profile. It’s super light too, which just bolsters the idea of how small the tablet is overall. And while smartphones keep getting bigger and bigger, tablets that are huge are out. Tablets that are small and come complete with tons of great features? In.

Winner: Nexus 7, with a sleek, thin design that’s clearly well thought out and will embolden users.

Display

When Google announced the Nexus 7, I really hoped for just one thing: an AMOLED screen like on the Galaxy Tab 7.7. That display, while oversaturated and with inaccurate colors, produced some of the most vibrant video I have ever seen, and even with wrong colors made some of the 720p shows I watched on it look absolutely stunning.

That isn’t the case. In fact, the Nexus 7 uses a traditional IPS display found on plenty of ASUS tablets, and on the iPad. The difference is that the Nexus 7, according to early reports, doesn’t have the same level of brightness as ASUS’ own Transformer Prime or Infinity tablets, and instead is very very dim. Furthermore, as a 720p display, it doesn’t share the same sort of pixel density as the iPad, which makes both pictures and text look crisp and clear.

Winner: iPad, with a larger, higher-resolution display that is both brighter and produces better color than the Nexus 7.

Operating System

The Nexus 7 will ship with Android 4.1, Google’s latest update to the OS that will feature changes to just about everything. It will release within the next month to the public as well, and is available now for a developer preview. iOS 6 is also available for developers, and will likely ship within the next 2-3 months. While I can’t talk about the major changes to iOS 6 from personal use, both OSs will provide some unique updates. Which is better?

I believe that iOS as a whole has always been a cleaner, easier to use operating system for users as a whole, while Android has provided a more open environment for both developers and users. In this day and age, the former is more popular because people are less interested in making sure their phones or tablets work better than average. They just want them to work right. Apple provides that. I don’t doubt for a second that the latest updates to the OSs will steer both companies in the right direction, providing better ease of use and more user control, but Android is growing faster. That said, Google hasn’t caught up with Apple just yet, and it won’t with Android 4.1. But we’re really getting down to the wire here. In a year, maybe less, Android will be caught up, and then Apple will really have to worry.

Winner: iPad, which for the time being has a better OS.

Processor

The toughest comparison to make of them all, processors are a real charmer for us. The iPad is rarely beat because even though it’s A5X CPU is the same as last year’s A5, except with a seriously enhanced GPU, it actually processes typical data slower than the iPad 2. But with tablets and smartphones all using SoC’s (system on a chip), the CPU is only half of the equation. And while Apple’s A5 CPU has been beat, its GPU hasn’t just yet.

Google and ASUS worked with NVIDIA to create a higher-powered version of the company’s Tegra 3 processor. Clocking in at 1.3GHz, the quad-core CPU is a similar ARM-based A9 (note on nomenclature: the A5 from Apple is it’s own name; it’s based on ARM’s A9 architecture) is both faster and more powerful because of the higher clock speed and two additional cores. But the GPU is interesting: it’s a 12-core GPU clocking in at 416MHz per core, which is unheard of in the mobile space. With a total of 16 cores, one would think that it’s safe to assume that the Nexus 7 has won this battle.

But that isn’t a safe assumption to make. Apple’s GPU is the same one, with some slight variations, to what Sony is using for the Playstation Vita, and it’s an extremely powerful processor. The first benchmarks from the Nexus 7 don’t beat the iPad, not by a longshot. But as NVIDIA would say, and the company would be accurate for saying so, those benchmarks are geared towards typical processing standards. NVIDIA is offering a more powerful chip that follows different programming standards that, if taken advantage of, will provide a better end-user experience than the iPad.

That’s good and all, but remember that most programmers and developers follow specific standards, and that likely won’t change quickly, let alone overnight. Apple’s path is the one of least resistance: offer what everyone knows how to use. NVIDIA is providing a different sort of architecture that may be more powerful, but just like it took Sony game developers years to adjust to the Playstation 3′s 8-core Cell processor, it’s going to take developers time to adjust to the Tegra 3′s 12 cores.

So which is the best? For CPUs, the Nexus 7 is the winner. But for the GPU…very difficult to say. Apple provides a very high-power quad-core chip that plays some stunning content, and we’ve yet to see the power of the Tegra 3 on the Nexus 7. It may indeed be more powerful, but will anyone be able to take advantage of it? I think so, and even if not right away the access to additional cores means that developers should be able to spread around the processing weight better. I think it’s more of a question for developers whether they have an audience using Tegra 3 that’s big enough to warrant making a game on the system. With the iPad, there’s no question; there are millions of iPads out there.

Winner: Nexus 7, with a better CPU and a 12-core GPU which has more potential, if developers ever make use of it.

Storage

The iPad comes in three sizes: 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB. The Nexus 7? A puny 8GB and 16GB, with no room for expandable storage. It’s a real shame, because if it did support SD cards of any sort, the Nexus 7 would instantly have a large following.

Winner: iPad, which offers significantly more memory.

Wireless Connectivity

Google hasn’t announced wireless services for the Nexus 7, and isn’t expected to. Chances are there won’t be any cellular service for the tablet. Meanwhile, the iPad is supported by both AT&T and Verizon over LTE.

Winner: iPad, which does support cellular data plans.

Camera

The iPad comes with both a front- and rear-facing camera. The Nexus 7? Just one in the front. As much as I say that camera’s on tablets are ludicrous, having one and not needing it is better than not having one and at some point in the product’s life realizing it would be nice to have.

Winner: iPad, which actually has a rear camera.

Battery Life

The battery story is another tough one. The Nexus 7 only has a 4325mAh battery, less than half of the monstrous 11,560mAh battery of the iPad. Yet the huge battery in the iPad has made it thicker and heavier than it’s predecessor, which actually has better battery life than the newer model. The Nexus 7, alternatively, doesn’t need as much power to run the smaller display, nor does it have such a top-heavy processor that demands such serious processing power.

According to Google, the Nexus 7 can provide up to nine hours of continuous video playback, compared to Apple’s reported ten hours. However, the reality is that the iPad can muster anywhere from 7-8 hours, depending on how demanding the video is (resolution, scaling, etc.), and likely the Nexus 7 will have even less lifespan, especially once applications start taking full advantage of the SoC. However, NVIDIA has made a much more power-conservative GPU than PowerVR chip in the iPad, so maybe it will have better battery life.

Until then, we’ll have to stick to the numbers we’re given.

Winner: iPad, which has a larger battery, and according to both company’s numbers has a better battery life.

Price

The iPad starts selling for $499, and goes all the way up to $829 for LTE and 64GB. The Nexus 7 sells for $199, or $249 for the 16GB model. That means you can buy two Nexus 7s for the same price as one iPad. That’s huge.

More importantly, the next greatest tablet by sales is Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which uses a very unique version of Android and only really has access that Amazon makes available. The processing isn’t great, the display is so-so, and comparatively speaking they are like night and day. Sure, Amazon is expected to talk about the upcoming Kindle Fire 2 in the coming month, but the point is simple: for this price point, you’re getting something more powerful than the iPad for half the price. Incredible.

Winner: Nexus 7, which at it’s most expensive is still half the price of the iPad.

Overall Winner

The iPad remains the victor, beaten still only by Microsoft’s surface. The main reason for Apple’s victory? More and better options. The Nexus 7 is an incredibly limited tablet in scope. No expandable memory, no unique display, no cellular option…these are things that sell tablets by the tens of thousands. If I didn’t own a Kindle Fire, I’d seriously consider buying the Nexus 7 on day one. But the older, significantly older tablet offers one thing that, as a media-centric tablet, the Nexus 7 should but does not: expandable storage.

Pricing at just $200 is remarkable, but I’d have spent $250 for the 8GB model, or $300 for 16GB, if I could throw in an SD or MicroSD card in. I, like many users, wouldn’t mind actually owning two tablets (or giving up the iPad for a media-ready tablet) if it could provide the space and screen. That’s true with Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 7.7, but it isn’t with the Nexus 7. I really wish it was.

I still see the tablet going far and doing well, but not as well as it could be. Then again, I suppose if you’re after the most media possible you could always buy two instead of one iPad, and still spend the same amount.



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.