iPad mini vs. Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD: On display size and density

When Apple introduced the iPad mini, they spent quite a bit of time comparing it to the Google Nexus 7, especially when it came to the merits of the iPad mini's 4:3, 7.9-inch screen over the 16:10, 7-inch screen of the Nexus 7. Physical screen size is only one factor, however. There's also screen resolution to consider, something Apple often touts with their Retina display products like the iPhone 5, iPod touch 5, iPad 4, and MacBook Pro. But not the iPad mini. So, when we put everything on the table, how well does the iPad mini stack up not only to the Nexus 7, but the similarly screened Amazon Kindle Fire HD?

Apple's math highlighted the 35% larger physical screen size (29.6 square inches vs. 21.9 square inches). When Amazon announced their quarterly loss last week, however, they switched the topic to screen resolution, and measured the iPad mini's 1024x768, 163 ppi display against the Kindle Fire HD's (identical to Nexus 7) 1280x800, 254 ppi display. Amazon's math worked out to 30% more pixels (1,024,000 vs. 786,432 pixels) and 33% higher pixel density (216 vs. 163).

Here's how the iPad mini and Nexus 7/Kindle Fire HD 7 compare in terms of physical screen size (left), and in terms of pixel count (right). For the purposes of these diagrams, the iPad mini will always be represented in RED and the Nexus 7/Kindle Fire HD in BLUE. The squares superimposed on top will provide a constant, relative measure for the pixel sizes of of the displays (the lower the density, the bigger the pixel size.)

That means things will look bigger on the iPad mini (bigger pixels), but you'll see more things on the Android tablets (more pixels). The iPad mini also has greater height (in landscape orientation) and width (in portrait orientation), thanks to its 4:3 aspect ratio. That's great for anything that requires reading, including ebooks, web pages, and even multi-column interfaces. Here's an example of a popular website on the iPad mini (left) and the and the Nexus 7/Kindle Fire HD 7 (right), in both landscape (top) and portrait (bottom). I've highlighted the interface chrome to better differentiate active content areas.

Thanks to the greater height in landscape, you get much more visible content on the iPad mini, and much bigger content, though it's not as sharp as it is on either the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD. Because it isn't as tall in portrait, however, the iPad mini shows slightly less content, though Android 4.1 Jelly Bean's persistent control bar at the bottom mitigates some of the aspect ratio advantage.

Here's an example of a list-view based app, in the case the native mail apps, on the iPad mini (left) and the and the Nexus 7/Kindle Fire HD 7 (right), in portrait orientation. I've highlighted the interface chrome to better differentiate active content areas.

Where the iPad mini shares exactly the same, consistent tablet interface as the iPad, with multicolumn, tablet-class apps, the Nexus 7 combines aspects of Android smartphone and tablet interfaces on an app-by-app basis. That's likely a stop-gap on Google's part, however, and we'll hopefully see more tablet-optimized interface from Google in the near future. Likewise, Apple has over 250,000 iPad-optimized apps on the App Store, all of which will run pixel-perfectly on the iPad mini. Android is still severely lacking when it comes to tablet apps. Again, that should change as Google's tablet platform matures. (The Amazon Kindle Fire isn't really a tablet, it's a media appliance, so while it's interface is good enough for that, it's not really directly comparable to either the iPad mini or Nexus 7).

However, that media content brings up another difference between the small tablets. The Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire 7 HD have an aspect ratio of 16:10, closer to the 16:9 of the iPhone 5, which offers greater width (in landscape orientation) and height (in portrait orientation). That's better for HD video and single column lists. Here's an example of a popular movie on the iPad mini (left) and the and the Nexus 7/Kindle Fire HD 7 (right), in both widescreen (top) and full screen (bottom). I've highlighted the interface chrome to better differentiate active content areas.

The iPad mini shows the wide screen version of the movie at a larger size, but downscales it from 1280 horizontal pixels to 1024 horizontal pixels (and vertically downscales from 720p to 585p). Full motion graphics, like movies and video games, however, are extremely resilient when it comes to screen density (just look at the variety of sizes 1080p television sets come in). So, it won't look terrible, but it won't look as good as the pixel-perfect Android tablets. At full screen, the iPad mini is much bigger, but also cuts off much more of the picture on both sides, an absolute deal-breaker for movie fans.

So what does all this mean? Apple is right in that you do get both bigger content on the iPad mini and more usable display area for most types of apps and media. Amazon is right in that their display is better. For most people, for most things, bigger beats better. Add to that Apple's huge advantage in both tablet software and international content, and it makes for a compelling argument that in this case, the iPad mini overcomes the relatively lower pixel density to provide a more compelling product overall.

I'm one of those people, however, for whom display density does matter greatly. I'm used to an iPhone 5 and iPad 3 (same as iPad 4) and MacBook Pro all with Retina display. Chunky pixels are like sandpaper on my pampered pupils. While the iPad mini is better than the iPad 2, it's identical to the iPhone 3GS, and going back to that is going to be tough.

Design is compromise, however. You can't have everything and you certainly can't have it all now. The iPad mini is 7.2 mm thin, thinner by half than an iPad 3 or iPad 4. If Apple had crammed a Retina display in now, not only would battery life have suffered, but it would have become much thicker and much heavier. If they'd used a 720p display like the Nexus 7 or Amazon Kindle Fire 7 HD, they would have broken compatibility with those 250,000 existing iPad apps. Likewise If they'd switched to the iPhone and iPod touch interface -- they would have made a big iPod touch instead of a small iPad. And Apple made a small (concentrated) iPad.

The iPad mini will likely go Retina with the second or third generation, and all of these concerns will disappear, like the pixels on the display. Until then, check out the example above and see if the difference in size and content area make the iPad mini a good compromise for you, at least for now.

Have something to say about this story? Share your comments below! Need help with something else? Submit your question!

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

iPad mini vs. Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD: On display size and density

26 Comments

the mini is a bit on the weak side side. By the mini 3 it will finally have a rents display unroll then I'm poop on this mini ytp king of the hill collaboration 2

I made an account here just so I could ask if what you wrote actually makes any sense at all to you - because it doesn't make a damn bit of sense to me.

Here's a very simple question: how will it go retina? Is apple willing to match the iPad 3/4 pixel density on a much smaller screen? That might put the normal iPad display to shame, so I don't see apple doubling the pixel count on such a small device, not without increasing the bigger iPads one too, which would go way beyond current retina standards.

You wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the two. The mini would not outclass the iPad just because its a higher pixel density.

ok DUDES...as RENE pointed out : HD fire/Nex7 has 30% more pixels than iPad mini... ok but iMini has a 35% bigger screen ... right... so because retina judgment of our eyes depends on the distance of the device from the eye-pupils... this does result in a actual 5% plus for the iMini.... because U could increase the viewing distance by 35% by keeping the same size of the viewed area... so that literally means the iMini is 5% more dense or more retina (if U wish) than a fireHD/Nex7 .... hope even all the retards in the back row could follow
: )

Dude... that's some pretty crude maths right there! ;) You can't just mix area (35% increase in two dimensions) and distance (one dimension) willy nilly; the 'apparent' size of the tablet to an observer will diminish greatly over distance. To achieve retina-ness with an iPad mini, you'd need to hold it about 21 inches away from your face. Contrast that with 16" for the Nex7/FireHD. At these distances, the Nex7/FireHD screens will appear 25% longer but about the same along the width.

What... U're not happy about the back "R"ow... DUDE ..... SORRY.... just couldn't resit on this one : )

I suppose they have a couple options, they can straight up double it. That will be the easiest thing to do. And, I think that will be the way to go. Or, they could introduce some other scale factor, say 0.8 of iPad's Retina resolution, then scale all the graphics dynamically. This would not be that difficult, but would probably take a smidgen more compute power.

Well, if Apple is using the same sheets of screen (they come in larger sheets and are cut down to iphone size, or ipad size) as they do on the iPhone 3 (163ppi) — to double this, they can simply use the iPhone 4/5 retina to double on the mini when the time comes. Incredibly efficient… and probably part of the reason the iPad mini is 7.9 inches.

Makes perfect sense from an operations standpoint — Tim Cook's specialty.

"Pampered pupils..." That's great. I'll wait too. But I'm sure others can benefit from iPad mini. Nice comparison review.

Not sure how the mini is not better for watching movies. Even with letter boxing, you are still getting a bigger picture with the mini. How is that a bad thing?

The Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 7 have the same width and ratio, and less than the 4s/5 different in height. While it is not "pixel perfect," it is close enough that claims of things being "blown up" - at least in terms of pixels - are disingenuous.

That is because pixels are not the whole story, either on Android or iOS. Yes, the dev will not have to make new assets from the iPad 2 vs the iPad mini, but that does not mean the app will translate well. My finger does not care if an icon is 72x72, or if a touch target is 12 pixels wide. My finger cares that it can hit the target, accurately and repeatedly, without frustration. The pixels that form a perfectly comfortable 10mm target on an ipad 2 might create a frustratingly difficukt to hit ~6mm on an ipad mini. That difference in size yields different experience constraints, and it is off that, after years of slamming Android for not recognizing this, suddenly it is a non issue now that iOS has a similar case.

Hey... Andro-dev.... a target on iOS can never be 12pix wide only on andrOS... DUDE because of the developer rule, which request minimum target size 44x44 pix... also a target of 10mm on the iPad would mean a 8mm target on iMini... got it or its too *difficukt* for ya... next time consult Ur math teacher before posting something... ait

Step back from the d00dspeak and realize that touch target does not refer only to Apple's stated guidelines and standard widgets. Anything that can be manipulated is a touch target. That Yellow Angry Bird, for example, is not 44 pixels wide, but it is a touch target in the context of the game. On the iPad, it may be 20mm wide, which would be a hair ~15mm wide. Yes, I am pulling those specific numbers out of thin air, but the point is that a target that was width X on an iPad 2 is a 0.738X on an iPad mini, and that has implications for UX. There is zero evidence to suggest scaling down in that sense is any better for a touch-based UI than scaling up is.

Hey Rene. I was wondering what the side view of that small phone looking thingy is? Is that supposed to be the iPad Nano ? I have not seen an iPhone that shape for a few generations.

I'm just happy to get something that's both bigger and smaller in my hand. This iPad Mini will replace my first GEN iPad. Thanks for the report Rene.

On release day I was like "The mini's cute, but I want a big higher-res screen". Then I got the store and held the mini: "Oh man! Wow, sooo light! This is what the ipad should have been from the start!".

I bought the mini and 'saved' $170. Maybe I'll buy a Nexus 7 with it, for symmetry. I think the complaints about the "low res" screen are from those who haven't tried the mini, or made up their attitude before specs were even released.