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What the next iPad Mini can learn from the Nexus 7

A week of living with a Nexus 7 shows some of what the Mini needs to do to catch up, and also what the Mini is still doing right.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's August, and Apple hasn't released a new iPad or iPhone in 2013. That should change soon, but to what degree? Yes, we're expecting at least one new iPhone, and maybe a redesigned Retina iPad...but what about the iPad Mini?

For the past week, I've been using a Google Nexus 7. Until that point, I'd largely been an iPad Mini user. Apple's smaller tablet is easy to love. It's very portable, very versatile, doesn't have a Retina Display.

The new Nexus 7 has a far superior resolution for its size, is a smaller tablet, and costs less, plus it has a faster processor and better graphics. It also catches up with the Mini on some of its other features: a rear-facing camera, for instance, Bluetooth 4.0, and optional LTE.

So, should Apple's next Mini be worried about the competition? In some ways, yes, but the Mini does have some inherent advantages. Here's what the next one should address.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Drop pricing, particularly for storage
The 2012 iPad Mini starts at $329. The 2013 Nexus 7 starts at $229. That $100 matters when it's nearly a third of the entire price. But the bigger story is the configuration "bump-up" cost: you'll pay another $100 for a 32GB iPad, while the Nexus 7 only costs $40 more for its 32GB model.

I'd love to see a cheaper iPad Mini -- at least go to $299 -- but, more importantly, I'd like the 32GB model to not be $429. The same is true for iPhones: in 2013, we shouldn't be paying $100 for 16GB of flash storage.

Retina Display would be nice, but not at the expense of battery life
The Nexus 7's display looks great. I'm a big e-book reader. The Kindle app feels crisp and fun to use. And the Mini absolutely needs to go Retina, the sooner the better.

I'm not sure I'd take a Retina Display in exchange for less impressive battery life. CNET's battery life rating for the Nexus 7 is not as great as the iPad Mini's, but it's close (Editor's note: it is also better than the original Nexus 7's). Then again, that's exactly the trade-off I made buying a third-gen Retina iPad after owning an iPad 2. The Mini could afford to get a little thicker and heavier: it's miraculously nearly the same weight as the new Nexus 7 (0.68 versus 0.66 pound) despite being a larger device, and is about the same thickness. But I wouldn't want it to deviate too far off the mark. And the new Nexus 7, at least, proves that a higher-res display can be achieved without great cost.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Also, how much do those extra pixels matter in the immediate present? Going back to the iPad Mini after the Nexus 7, I expected to notice the pixel difference more...but it's not as bad as I thought. The Mini is very usable. The extra pixels add fidelity more than actual content. I showed my mom, a non-techie but a big Kindle user, and she really couldn't even appreciate the difference in letter crispness. But she did notice that the Mini fit more same-size words on a page than the Nexus 7.

So: get Retina, and make sure battery life is still OK.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Bigger is actually better (for screen), so don't sweat the smaller Nexus
Line the iPad Mini and Nexus 7 up and play HD video in landscape mode, and the effective post-letterboxed picture size ends up the same. You're just adding more black-bar space on the Mini.

So, advantage Nexus 7 for that. And for games, you may prefer the more conventional aspect ratio of the Nexus 7 tilted on its side if you like holding it in your hands.

But the iPad Mini's wider screen, as Apple has often stated, has a huge advantage for other things. Typing an article on an onscreen keyboard, Web browsing, and reading magazines all feel a lot more natural on the Mini. It's still the better productivity tool, and feels a lot more versatile. That extra 0.9 inch amounts to 35 percent more effective screen real estate, even if it is less pixel-rich.

For certain games like strategy or board games, the bigger effective area makes more sense, too, even if the overall pixel count is lower.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I do love the easy one-hand feel of the Nexus 7. It's reminiscent of my Kindle. But it's not that much smaller than the iPad Mini.

Both tablets, weirdly, are the same length. Both the Mini and Nexus 7 fit awkwardly in my jeans, which probably just proves I have extremely large jeans pockets.

I wouldn't give up that screen width for a narrower device, though, unless I was dead set on the Nexus 7 being mainly an e-reader and video player.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Add a kid-friendly mode and multiple user accounts
I've wanted iOS to be multiple-profile-friendly for years. Android 4.3 introduced it, and the new Nexus 7 has it. New iPads need it, too. The iPad is a far more sharable device than an iPhone, and I hand my 4-year-old son the Mini all the time. I don't want him deleting work e-mails or full-out Web browsing. This is a software feature more than hardware, so it's up to iOS 7 to surprise us and introduce this in a near-future update. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Software: Better keep staying ahead of the pack
Google Play has made great strides, and there are a ton of apps to play with on Android tablets. But it's still not as good as the App Store for iPads, especially for games.

I discovered that certain apps, like HBO Go, are out there on Google Play but aren't yet compatible with the Nexus 7. That available-but-not-for-your-device phenomenon haunts Android a little. iPads eventually become incompatible with software, but new devices can play everything right away.

The Nexus 7's superior gaming graphics look stellar, should you find a game you want to play. I downloaded Riptide GP2, but many of the awesome iPad games I've been playing lately don't seem to be around on Android yet.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Find a way to stand out, and keep aggressive
Last year was an incredibly busy time for little tablets, and 2013 has been even crazier. You can buy a 7-inch tablet for $99 (although it may not be very good).

I use the iPad Mini as my everyday travel computer, too, and I'm not sure the Nexus 7 would fare as well in that regard. But Apple needs to keep emphasizing the versatility of the Mini versus its competition. Unfortunately, other than that different aspect ratio and a superior assortment of apps, the gap is narrowing. Tablets are becoming commodity devices, too, and the next Mini either needs to be superaffordable or extra-special. Maybe, via Retina and non-Retina devices, it could be both. The Mini definitely needs a power boost over its existing A5 processor, at the very least.

I just know that the iPad Mini, one year later, blends into the crowd more than it did before. And the Nexus 7 is a far more formidable rival than it was a year ago. But I'd probably still choose the Mini.