Up until now, the question "should you buy an iPad or [blank]?" was almost always answerable with "iPad unless you don't like Apple." The Amazon Kindle Fire tried to change that equation, but Amazon has been coy about sales numbers, and beyond the U.S. border its content is so anemic it's still closer akin to a paperweight than a tablet. Now Google is taking its shot with the ASUS-manufactured, Google Nexus 7.
The Nexus 7 doesn't bring a compelling reason to "go Google" when considering a tablet purchase like we were hoping. But the hardware and software on the Nexus 7 make it a very interesting piece of gear, and when the price is factored into the equation, there's simply not a better tablet for the money available from anyone, anywhere. Stock Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and updates direct from Google are icing on the cake. I would recommend the Nexus 7 to anyone and feel good about handing out that advice.
And here's what we had to say in our new iPad review:
Judged in a vacuum, the new iPad is incredible technology wrapped in gorgeous design at an unbeatable price. Taken in context, the new iPad will appeal most to “firsts.” First-time tablet buyers, first-generation iPad owners looking to upgrade, and first-adopters who simply want the future in their hands today. If any of those describe you, get the new iPad.
With that in mind, does the introduction of a Google branded tablet running the latest, greatest Android 4.1 Jelly Bean software stack still offer a better alternative answer to iPad?
The iPad is 9.7-inches with a 2048x1536 IPS Retina display at 264 ppi. The larger size makes it heavier to hold for long periods of time, and harder to carry around without a bag. It also allows for a more powerful class of software, and the larger interface makes it easier to use.
The Nexus 7 is 7-inches with a 1280x800 IPS display at 216 ppi. The smaller size makes it ideal to hold for longer periods of time and easier to carry around in jacket pocket if needed. However, 7-inch apps can sometimes be closer akin to smartphone apps than full-sized tablet experiences. And, in fact, Google's using a mix of the two on the Nexus 7; some apps use combinations of smartphone and tablet layouts.
Both are powerhouses, graphically and otherwise, though the iPad can be purchased with up to 64GB of storage while the Nexus 7 maxes out at 16GB.
The iPad currently runs iOS 5.1.1 but will be updated to iOS 6 this fall. It's a mature operating system with most features that most users need. It's designed for the mainstream, however, and what concessions it makes for power users are carefully hidden away from that mainstream. That means, while powerful and easy to use for just about everyone, iOS isn't as flexible or customizable as Android, and not as much fun for geeks.
The Nexus 7 runs Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, which keeps all the power and flexibility of previous generations yet promises a new, more "buttery" user experience. It's built by geeks for geeks, with concessions made to the mainstream. That means things can seem simple at first, but there's complexity if you go looking for it. Arguably it's still not as polished or friendly as iOS, but it's far more powerful and customizable.
Both are stable, rich operating systems with more than enough features to fill the needs of any consumer, though iOS still skews towards the mainstream and Android, the power crowd.
Media and apps
The iPad has access to Apple's iTunes ecosystem, which includes iTunes Music, Movies, TV Shows, iBooks, and the App Store. Hands down, iTunes provides the most content, in the most countries, and to this day no one else even comes close. The iPad also has access to a several of the Google Play services, including Books and Music, a lot of Amazon services, including Kindle, and other services. This all adds up to make the iPad unmatchable when it comes to content.
The Nexus 7 is a front end for the Google Play store and is optimized to help you buy and enjoy that content in the best way possible. Google Play offers a robust set services, but is still missing major studios in the U.S. and is perhaps even more anemic than Amazon outside the U.S. If you live in America and are heavily invested in Google, you'll be okay. But you'll probably be okay on the iPad as well.
Both have software markets with hundreds of thousands of apps and games, and both have media stores -- only Apple's media store has more content and is available in many, many more countries.
The iPad starts at $499 for 16GB. If you don't need a Retina display, for $399 you can get last year's iPad 2 at 16GB.
The Nexus 7 is at $199 for 8GB of storage, $249 for 16GB.
The iPad is a good value for the price, but the Nexus 7 has the lowest price.
So which should you get, the Apple iPad or the Google Nexus 7?
Unless you really want something smaller and more portable, or already have a huge investment in Android apps, get the iPad. If you're outside the U.S., it's almost a no-brainer.
If you want a small, inexpensive tablet, or if you just want a tablet that's not made by or connected to Apple, the Google Nexus 7 is the best, most modern option.
Note: If you don't need a tablet today and the smaller form factor interests you, wait until the fall. Apple might just be releasing an iPad mini around about then, and if they do, it'll definitely be something to consider.