Google Nexus 7 Heats Up Mini-Tablet Battle

Jul 25, 2013 (08:07 AM EDT)

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Tablet Buying Demystified: 10 Tips
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Tablet Buying Demystified: 10 Tips
Tablet versus PC? Try tablet verses tablet.

Much has been made of tablets' deleterious effect on PC sales, but the tablet market has become fragmented in its own right. On Wednesday, Google made things even more interesting by debuting the second generation in its 7-inch Android tablet line, the Nexus 7.

The Nexus is more expensive than its $199 predecessor, but sets several important cost thresholds, including a screen that blows away those of comparably priced alternatives. Nothing is certain until reviews come in, but for now, the Nexus 7 looks like the low-cost tablet to beat.

Android and iOS have dominated the tablet space so far, but Intel and Microsoft hope to jumpstart Windows device sales with a fleet of 8-inch Win8 tablets. Microsoft also hopes to resuscitate its flat-lining Surface RT line with recent price cuts.

[ Thinking about integrating tablets into your workforce? Read The Good And Bad Of Tablets At Work. ]

Future 8-inch Windows 8 tablets will run on modern processors, and should boast slimmer form factors, longer battery life and snappier performance than the category's only current representative, the Acer Iconia W3.

The forthcoming Win8 devices could shake things up, as could Apple's inevitable iPad Mini refresh. But Microsoft and its partners face the tougher path. Apple has a built-in user base, but Windows 8 is still searching for momentum. With one more compelling option in the mix, the Modern UI could have that much more trouble attracting users.

Does the Nexus 7 trump what other tablets have to offer? Here are eight considerations.

1. Nexus 7 Makes Windows 8 Devices Look Even More Expensive

The base Nexus 7 offers 16 GB of storage and Wi-Fi connectivity for $229. The 32-GB model is only $40 more, and a 32-GB option that includes 4G LTE support is $349. This compares quite well against Apple's iPad Mini. Apple's 16-GB model is $329, but adding cellular support boosts the price by $130. Storage increases are also more costly.

The Windows 8 tablets, however, aren't budget-friendly either. The 32-GB Surface RT is $349, and the 32-GB Acer Iconia W3 is $379. Relative to iPads and Android tablets, Windows slates are arguably more reliant on keyboards, which add accessory costs. Neither the Iconia nor the Surface RT offer LTE support.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich has said forthcoming Windows 8 tablets will cost less than $300, and a cheaper iPad Mini is rumored as well. But with the Nexus 7's attractive price and head start, the Android ecosystem is only poised to grow.

2. Nexus 7's Screen Sets A New Standard

The Nexus 7 boasts a 1920 x 1200 pixel display. This density is greater than that of Apple's Retina-equipped iPad, let alone what other mini-tablets offer. The iPad Mini's 7.9-inch display offers only 1024 x 768 pixel resolution. The Acer Iconia's 8.1-inch screen is 1200 x 800 pixels, but plagued by poor contrast and color. The Surface RT also has a lackluster screen. At 10.1 inches, it's bigger than other budget tablets, but it only offers 1366 x 768 pixel resolution.

3. For Most Users, The iPad Mini Arguably Offers The Best UI

The divisive response to Windows 8's Modern UI is well established. It's less intuitive than the alternatives, but enjoyable once mastered. Still, users are trading the polish of iOS and the diversity of Android for the ability to run Microsoft Office. So far, that value proposition hasn't worked well for Microsoft.

The Surface RT can't run any other legacy apps, but the Acer can. However, given the size of the Iconia's screen, it's hard to know how many users will care.

Android is less rigid than iOS, which will appeal to some users. This fall, though, iOS 7 could change that, just as Windows 8.1 could give tablets such as the Acer a lift. For now, Android is the most popular tablet OS by market share, but some of that has to do with the platform's abundance of low-cost devices. A variety of measures say iPad and iPhone owners use their devices more than owners of other products do, suggesting that Apple's UI is the most engaging.

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4. None Of The Mini-Tablets Is A Processing Champ

The Nexus 7 runs on a 1.5-GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro, a much nicer chip than the one in its predecessor. With an embedded Qualcomm Adreno 320 GPU, the tablet should provide much better graphics support, especially for gaming. Still, it's still not as powerful as the Snapdragon 600 or 800 chips, the latter of which has factored into rumors about the next Surface RT.

The current Surface RT runs on an NVIDIA Tegra 3, and its performance lags. The Acer's 1.8-GHz Intel Atom processor runs the full version of Windows 8, but it can't support 64-bit apps, and it won't support Windows 8's snap feature until Windows 8.1 rolls out this fall. The iPad's A5 processor is aging, but Apple still milks a surprisingly responsive performance from it.

5. Nexus 7 Provides Good Build Quality For The Price

Manufactured for Google by Asus, the Nexus 7 is slimmer and lighter than its predecessor. Like the iPad Mini, it weighs less than a pound. Both the Surface RT and the Acer Iconia weigh twice as much.

The Surface RT still feels solid, thanks to a sturdy chassis, but the Acer's plastic components feel comparatively cheap. The iPad Mini features a typically excellent Apple design, and early reports say the Nexus's soft-touch finish is easy to grip.

6. Unless You Need Microsoft Office, Nexus 7 Offers More Ecosystem For The Money

With more than one million apps, Google Play is the largest app marketplace, and Google's online services make it relatively easy to connect devices via the cloud. Apple's app store isn't quite as big, but it's still the top draw for developers. Its 300,000 tablet-optimized apps also lead the field.

The Windows Store has more than 100,000 titles, but the current user interface makes it unnecessarily difficult to find the best ones. Windows 8.1 will fix this, but Microsoft's main selling point is still access to Microsoft Office. If this appeals to you, the Surface RT and Acer Iconia offer some of the cheaper ways to do so, but better devices should be available by the fall.

For others, Windows 8.1 will enable some intriguing app experiences, such as tie-ins to 3-D printing. And over time, Microsoft's app economy will become more competitive. The company is also nicely tying things together with SkyDrive. Still, with devices such as the Nexus undercutting Win8 models by so much, Microsoft will need to persuade average buyers.

7. All Mini-Tablets Feature Good Battery Life

Both Windows tablets manage around eight hours of battery life, and Google says the Nexus can go more than nine hours between charges, depending on usage. Apple claims the iPad Mini gets 10 hours of battery life, though some users have experienced less. Essentially, all of today's premier budget tablets offer excellent battery life. By early next year, new devices should be even better, across the field.

8. Apple Is The Least Interested In Tablet Peripherals

The iPad Mini and Nexus 7 are pure tablets, but Windows slates such as the Surface RT and Acer Iconia have some laptop DNA in their design. As such, both are equipped with a useful variety of ports, including USB and microSD slots. Despite being less PC-like, the Nexus 7 also includes a micro-USB port, as well as wireless charging, with a Qi-compatible charger.

The iPad Mini can connect to USB drives and SD cards, but only if users buy additional connectors.