If you want a tablet, just buy Google’s Nexus 7 already

Just imagine there’s an Apple symbol on it, or better yet, get over the fact that there isn’t.
Just imagine there’s an Apple symbol on it, or better yet, get over the fact that there isn’t.
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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Full disclosure: Google loaned me a Nexus 7 in the hopes I’d say this.

Google’s Nexus 7 tablet is one of those things of which I can say: This is the thing you want at the price you want it.

And contained in its low-priced wonderfulness are the seeds of Apple’s unraveling.

What tablets are for

I’ve never owned an Android anything. I was handed a review copy of a Nexus 7 at a Google press event. By necessity I’m an early adopter of (some) technologies, and when I was ready to buy a smartphone, Android was so immature that only people with an ideological aversion to Apple were on it. Apple locked me in early, and its first mover advantage in mobile is the reason the company continues to be a cash factory. Once you’ve bought into an ecosystem, whether it’s Google’s, Apple’s or (possibly) Amazon’s, there are strong incentives to stick with what you’ve got.

But tablets aren’t phones. For most of us, we’re not locked into anything in particular on a tablet.

I realize this depends on what you do with a tablet. But most of us are streaming movies, browsing the web and using a handful of apps to read things or check up on social media. Nothing mission critical, and mostly with apps that are free. Tablets are for those lean-back hours we spend consuming media by ourselves while our other family members are each in their own media bubbles, because that’s what this world comes to.

Unless you are hugely invested in your library of games or need a specific piece of productivity software that’s only on iOS, the notion that the iPad Mini is noticeably better for the tasks that we really use tablets for is absurd. The Nexus 7 has a gorgeous screen, as good or better than the one on the iPad Mini. And the Nexus 7 is more portable. For a walk down to the coffee shop, I can slip it into my back pocket and leave the man purse at home. It’s just big enough to display media as most of us would like. Yes, I realize some people like the larger screen of the Mini. But is it a deal-breaker?

The Nexus 7 is now less than half the price of the iPad Mini Retina

If you’re in the US and you live near an Office Depot, you can pick up a Nexus 7 for $180, while the iPad Mini Retina is $400. Even if you’ve never touched an Android device before, the $220 you’ve saved versus the iPad Mini Retina offsets many times over the few shekels you might spend buying apps for your new tablet. You could also buy a regular iPad Mini, but once you’ve become used to a high-resolution display for reading and watching videos, I suspect you’ll never want to go back.

What it all means for Apple

Android versus iOS really is PCs versus Macs all over again, only this time Apple’s foe is vastly more interested in user experience than Microsoft ever was. There are some subtle things I don’t like about the Nexus 7, including, for example, the seemingly imperceptible but actually important difference between Apple’s tablets and phones and Google’s in terms of responsiveness to touch.

But the gap has closed. Android is the equal of iOS in the one way that matters: It just works. Tech pundits can sit around stroking their beards and debating whether or not they prefer the aesthetics of iOS 7 or Android KitKat, but these distinctions are lost on the public. Apple continues to sell iPhones and iPads because that’s what people have bought so far. Google will rent you movies and sell you music and all the apps you care about are on both platforms and work equally well on either. Plus, if you’re a Google Apps user (gmail, calendar, etc.), the ability to mainline these on a Google-native device is a nice bonus.

Apple is now asking us to pay a 100% markup for a device that, for most people, simply isn’t all that different from the competition. The tablet and phone space has been conquered and commodified. Apple can remain a luxury brand, but considering how many other gadgets out there are worth putting your dollars toward, like a really great phone or a wearable that could change your life, it’s hard to see why we should spend more on a tablet. At this point, the differences between tablets just don’t matter that much—they’re the televisions of the mobile world. And the precipitous drop in Apple’s market share of tablets reflects that.

Coda: Today’s the day I switch off my review Nexus 7 and ship it back to Google. The fact that I’ll be buying one for myself—and that it’s the one non-Apple device in my personal tech ecosystem—tells you what I thought of it as an experience.