Apple has introduced their lighter, thinner, more "concentrated" iPad mini but they certainly weren't first-to-market with a small tablet. Most recently, Google and their partner, Asus, launched the Nexus 7, the best Android tablet to date.
Still, the Nexus 7 hasn't really caught on beyond Android aficionados and gadget geeks. And that's despite it's decent build quality, ultra-modern operating system, and the full-on Google support only Nexus-class devices enjoy. It remains to be seen if Apple's small tablet will fare any better in the thus-far completely big iPad dominated market, but if you're looking for an alternative, there's very few other places to look.
So what happens when you put Apple's iPad mini up against Google and Asus' Nexus 7? Apple's engineering precision up against Google's Android power? Let's take a look.
The Nexus 7 sports a quad-core Tegra 3 processor and a 7-inch IPS display at 1280x800 resolution, which translates into 216 ppi. It has NFC, Bluetooth 3.0, and GPS built-in, and they've just added an HSPA+ option to the high end model (but not LTE, and yes, that makes a difference). It's got a 1.2 megapixel, 720p camera on front, and the back is plastic, but soft-touch to make it easy to hold on to, even one-handed.
The speaker is stereo but Google doesn't make a big deal about it. The original Nexus 7 came with 8 or 16GB of storage, but that's just been bumped to 16 or 32GB. Battery life is rated at 9 hours for video, which is accurate in my experience. (Though standby time for me has been abysmal.)
The iPad mini blends an iPod touch-like casing and internals with a decidedly iPad 2-like 4:3 screen ratio, splitting the difference in side bezel almost down the middle. The back is aluminum and the front, a 7.9-inch IPS display at 1024x768 and163 ppi. How does that compare to the physically smaller but denser Nexus 7?
The iPad mini also has a die-shrunk, dual core Apple A5 processor inside, and while there's no NFC, there is GPS on the cellular model, and there are cellular models compatible with GSM and CDMA, including HSPA+, DC-HSPA+, and LTE around the world.
The iPad mini has stereo speakers but Apple likewise doesn't advertise them, and both a front facing 1.2mp, 720p camera and a rear-facing 5mp, 1080p camera. You can get the iPad mini in black or white, and in 16, 32, or 64GB versions. Battery life is rated at 10 hours for watching videos, and iPads have traditionally met Apple's battery life claims.
So when it comes to hardware, iPad mini wins on design, manufacturing, and elegance, and Nexus 7 wins on power and screen density.
The Nexus 7 runs Android 4.1 Jelly Bean but should be updated shortly to Android 4.2. Jelly Bean is a great operating system, but it's still better suited for phones instead of tablets. Google claims the Nexus 7 uses a mix of phone and tablet UI, based on what's best for the task at hand. My guess is they're still searching for the right way to translate Android to tablets and we'll see it in 5.0 or some other future version. Right now, however, it's much more like a big phone than a small tablet, and that's not a bad thing -- it might even be better for some users -- but it's a different thing. Also, while Google and Project Butter have done a lot to improve interface and performance, it's still not iOS-level polished, and things like the back button are still an exercise in frustration. That said, Android is even more powerful than ever, with features and functions far beyond those available to iOS. Google Now is more than a few steps ahead of Siri, notifications are actionable, and apps can actually communicate with each other. Imagine that.
iOS 6 comes loaded on the iPad mini, and Apple still leads the industry when it comes not only to polish and consistency, but to pushing out software updates for their devices (granted, they have much fewer of them and much more control over them than anyone else in industry). You still can't do a lot of things with iOS, and that will frustrate a lot of users, especially those with edge or very specific power needs, but what you can do you can do easily. iOS 6 also has a complete, optimized tablet interface with multiple columns and features beyond what you can fit on a single phone-style interface screen. Safari for iPad is still the best mobile browser (sorry Chrome), the Home button is an amazing escape hatch for non-technical users, and the accessibility features lead the industry.
So software is a similar story to hardware. Apple writes better code and creates more cohesive, consistent user experiences than Google. But Google makes code that does more things and is more customizable than Apple. Argue that all you want, but at the end of the day iOS in invariably smoother, more intuitive, more up-to-date, and more pixel perfect than Android, yet just as invariably misses out on a lot of features Android gets early and gets stock. If you want something that's accessible and just works, iOS has the advantage. If you want something configurable that just works the way you want it to, Android wins.
When it comes to services that bring the internet fully to your iPad mini, Apple has iCloud, which includes iTunes in the Cloud, iTunes Match, Photo Stream, Documents in the Cloud, Find my iPhone, Find my Friends, and more. As a service goes, it's... serviceable. It backs up and syncs your data and gives you access to all of the your iTunes content. But Apple is still new to the cloud and they aren't as strong at it as they are hardware and software. At least not yet.
Google was born in the cloud. They're the biggest cloud services provider in the world. Android, in many ways, is a localized front end for Google's cloud. Now the localized part traditionally wasn't as good as Apple -- they just chucked web pages inside of apps -- but Google has been getting better code as well. Now their services not only work well, but look better and perform far better than ever before.
The twist here is that you can get almost every single Google service on the iPad mini that you can get on the Nexus 7. Now, Android has by far -- by far! -- the better Google integration of course, but the iPad mini has a surprising amount as well, including the brand new Google Search. And that's also including Gmail, Google+ YouTube, Drive, Google, etc. That's a full, robust, and increasingly good set of offerings available in Apple's App Store. (For reasons that involve the difference in business models between Apple and Google.)
So, going with the Nexus 7, you get the best Google can offer, but nothing from Apple. Going with the iPad mini, you get everything Apple and almost everything Google, but there's one more kind of service to consider -- customer service.
The Apple Store is unmatched. From buying your iPad mini, to being taught how to use it, to easily getting help with it when something goes wrong, Apple has hundreds of stores in dozens of countries. If you live anywhere near an Apple Store and your iPad mini stops working, you can go in and get it fixed, or get it swapped out for a replacement, in a matter of hours. With the Nexus 7, all you'll have is lost time and patience as you wait for Google's notoriously non-human mechanisms to process you.
If you live in the Google cloud, Nexus 7 is undeniably the better choice. If you don't, go with the iPad mini. What Apple lacks in online services, Google makes up for, and you get the best customer service in the business.
Apple has a tremendous advantage when it comes to content. iTunes started earlier and is now in more countries and provides more content than anyone else on the planet. Moreover, like with the services above, even if you don't like iTunes books, movies, TV shows, etc., you can also get Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, and all the other content companies right on your iPhone.
Google provides a lot of its own content now with Google Play, and you have access to enough third party content that there's no real difference. If you live in the U.S., you're almost certainly good to go. If you live outside the U.S. it can literally be the difference between being able to get legitimate content onto your phone and not (if that matters to you).
When it comes to apps, Apple used to win by default based on the sheer magnitude of numbers. That's no longer true for phones, but it is for tablets. Apple has over 275,000 tablet-optimized apps. Google has a handful. Sure, you can run the 700,000+ Android phone apps on the Nexus 7, just like you can run the 700,000+ iPhone/iPod touch apps on the iPad mini, but that's a second-class experience. Do you want a big phone or a tablet?
Apple has also become slightly more open over time, and Android apps have become much better looking and better working. You can still knock Apple for being more controlling, both in terms of what apps you can get and how those apps can interact with each other (or not), but for some users the simplicity and security of that model trumps any neck-bearded annoyance.
Now, if you already have an iPhone or iPod touch or iPad, and a lot of iOS apps that work on the iPad mini, or if you've already bought a lot of iTunes media, that can make it easier and cheaper to stick with Apple. Likewise, if you already have a lot of content from Google Play, you'll find it easier to stick with Android.
Otherwise, if you're in the U.S., you're good to go with either, and if you're outside the U.S. and really care about buying your media, check and see what's available, but Apple and the iPad mini is your safer bet.
The Nexus 7 is $199 for 16GB, $249 for 32GB, $299 for 32GB + HSPA+.
The iPad mini is $329 for 16GB, $429 for 32GB, and $529 for 64GB, and you can get HSPA+/LTE on all of those for an additional $130.
So, while the iPad mini is much better built, uses aluminum instead of plastic, includes extras like LTE and a 5mp rear-facing camera, etc., the Nexus 7 absolutely wins on price.
If you want to run Android, absolutely have to have a slightly higher screen density, or don't have more than $299 in your pocket, get the Nexus 7. Otherwise, get the iPad mini. Cost isn't the same thing as value.
The iPad is almost synonymous with tablets for most people, most of the time, for very good reason. If you want a Nexus 7, you specifically want a Nexus 7. If you want a tablet, you want an iPad mini.