I get asked a lot about mobile and tablet gear recommendations from people because the choices are overwhelming and constantly evolving. My answer is often “it depends” (based on their needs/situation/money/context/etc.) as I wouldn’t recommend the same thing to my Mom as my journalism friends.
This winter when I started planning for my solo, 6-week “Bucket List” backpacking trip across Asia where I’d need to travel light, but have as much technology crammed into the smallest, longest-lasting battery, highest storage for the money (more than 16 gb, as my Apple IOS account has several games that are each 1 GB alone) and most universal hardware and software formats, it came down to a battle between the current titans of the mini-tablets: The iPad Mini and Google Nexus 7.
Below I’m going to run down the factors that affected my decision and lead me to purchase a Nexus 7 (32gb wifi) for this device will be my primary connection with the outside world. First, for a little context, I work regularly in both of the Apple IOS and Android ecosystems (among many others), use both frequently and have app ‘investments’ in both of them. I won’t get into the argument of ‘full sized’ vs ‘mini’ tablets and Steve Jobs’ fallacy of having to ‘file down your fingers’ to use it (how does this not apply to the iPhone and all mobile phones, Mr. Jobs? Anyway… I digress.)
Also, many of the programs I will need and regularly use are available on both platforms — Skype, Evernote, Google Hangouts/Drive/Gmail/Maps/All the Google Apps for that matter, Kindle, Pocket, Zite, Flipboard, Snapseed, most social media apps — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — Vine is the one Apple-only social media app and Outlook Exchange email support, but I can survive.
So with all of those factors being equal, here are the reasons I made my decision to go with the Nexus 7:
This is probably the biggest factor for people who are seriously debating the two, since it is a significant difference. I was willing to pay more for the Mini though, so it wasn’t that huge of a factor for me. I bought this Nexus 7 with 32 GB of storage for $243.79 (including tax!) at the local GameStop across the street from me, which is surprisingly cheaper than you can get it from even the Google Play Store — $278.77 (after $13.99 shipping and $15.78 tax for me). The iPad Mini with 32 GB of storage would cost $454.74 ($429, with $25.74 tax and free shipping), so the cost difference is substantial.
Offline Downloading of Languages for Google Translate
This might have been the nail in the coffin for me. I won’t have wifi or cell coverage the vast majority of the entire trip. Not only does the Android version have amazing support for more than 70 languages (with data connections) and just recently the Android app opened up offline downloading for the translation modules in more than 50 languages, including many Asian countries.
Offline Downloading of Google Maps
This was the second nail in the coffin for me and sealed the deal. The IOS version of Google Maps doesn’t offer this yet. After buying some Kindle Ebook versions of guidebooks and finding many of their digital conversions for maps were completely terrible and pixelated — absolutely unreadable and unusable — this was a life saver (that I found out after I’d already made the purchase). They won’t have the valuable tips on good restaurants and bars that the guidebook maps would have, but at least the streets will be available for me to navigate my way. Google saved me where Lonely Planet and Rough Guides failed to deliver on digital.
Social, Sharing & Productivity
The irony that many social media apps, like Vine, often launch on IOS, first is pretty rich since Android’s workflow for sharing between apps is millions of miles better than Apple’s integration. For this trip, time is the most important thing to me — especially keeping my time on electronic devices limited — so I need to be able to work efficiently, keep up on major news and be productive and quick in my digital interactions. Apple just added Facebook sharing last year. On Android, basically any app you have install can be shared with if they support it. This is a HUGE benefit for me.
General price of apps
“In general” Android apps are free, IOS apps seem have more of an expectation to charge users. This is changing slowly, but it’s still kind of what I see in the market.
Google Apps are generally better on Android than IOS
I use a lot of Google applications that will be critical for this trip — Google Maps, Contacts, Calendar, Docs, Hangouts, Voice, Chat. They are generally offered on both platforms but most of the time the most innovative features are available on Android first and they’re more tightly integrated than on IOS.
Google Music is actually pretty excellent and getting better
My mental check-out / comfort time on this trip is going to be my music and the Google Music “Play Music” app is actually pretty good for managing and syncing a massive library. The new version released yesterday at Google I/O is excellent so far. They also offer up to 20,000 songs of music matching — FOR FREE — which many other services (such as iCloud/iTunes) charge for. Offline downloading support — HUGE — for this trip. As well as their instant playlists (sort of a Pandora-generated play stream of your own content) is pretty nifty. If only I could find a good a Play Music-like, multi-platform ebook/pdf/epub cloud and offline-saving library system!
Micro USB plug
Using a universal hardware standard is very handy here. That means there’s less chargers to carry and it’s the same charger as my phone charger. They’re also MUCH easier to replace if I leave one at a hostel or hotel than having to try and find an Apple Store in rural Cambodia.
I love this true personal assistant/productivity tool on my Android phone and having it available on my tablet will be fantastic too. Siri is a gimmick Google Now is real, active help. Especially when I’m running around countries, need to have my own Pepper Potts assistant/love interest looking out for me for my schedule/flights/logistical meetings and other madness.
Google Voice to Text
Google’s Voice to Text keyboard works offline, Apple’s does not. Google’s is also vastly superior in accuracy compared to Apple’s, from my experience.
More Keyboards Supported
Android offers many different keyboard options, I’m probably going to be writing back home and answering work email a bunch. I need to be hyper-productive with this. I love Swype myself. Apple does not. The native Apple keyboard is very nice though, I must say.
Android offers a higher level of security — you can encrypt the entire tablet — which is handy in case I leave it somewhere or if it gets stolen or pick-pocketed.
Traveling solo in developing countries, it’s probably better to be more inconspicuous with your fancy tech devices. Apple’s products are often seen as a luxury item and might draw more attention of thieves and pickpockets.
This is a ‘nice to have’ but especially since I’m going to be reading a lot of e-Book versions of guidebooks, the higher pixel density of the Nexus 7 helps it’s case further. (They have 216 vs 163 pixels per inch for the Nexus versus Mini, respectively)
Now this isn’t all just peaches and cream, so I definitely want to acknowledge the big drawbacks and compromises I must make with this decision:
No rear camera, not the greatest front facing camera
Not a deal breaker for me as I’ll have my own separate camera for shooting photos, as well as an unlocked cell phone that I’ll be using for shooting more. It’d be nice to have a higher quality cam for Skyping or Google+ Hanging Out with people back home, but it’s not a deal breaker.
Outlook Exchange server for accessing work email
My current employer does not support Android yet for our work email Outlook Exchange access,
which is a big bummer and going to be a time waster, but hopefully I’ll get super efficient at the web version. UPDATE: Kind of fixed! There’s an app called Touchdown HD to get around this (with a free 30 day trial and a $20 licence key for longer use), thanks to Mark Young for the tip/reminder!
A metal body is better than plastic, I think?
The metal body of the iPad mini just feels sturdier and it’s thinner, it’s also a little larger, which is a drawback, IMHO. The weight remains about the same but the Mini just feels more solid. So if all things were equal, I’d probably take the Mini form factor, but I really don’t mind the finish and slightly grippy soft plastic backing of the Nexus 7.
NOTE: This information is all useless starting…. now.
I had to pull the trigger on something so I should make the caveat that this post is based on the information and current market conditions of what was available. By the time I finish writing it and hit publish, it will be out dated. In fact, I seriously hesitated to buy the Nexus 7 because Google I/O was happening this week and there was ALLEGEDLY going to be a new Nexus 7 released (This version was released last year at Google I/O), but that didn’t happen. In retrospect, I lucked out, Google didn’t release a new version and I don’t have buyers remorse (I couldn’t have bought one even if they released it yesterday because I’m leaving on so soon). So basically, buyer beware, do your research, hopefully these thoughts can help you start out.
I’ll also report back after the trip and the dust settles on how it went and what I wish I’d have known or done differently.