A Look at iPad Competitors

I dropped my iPad mini about a month ago, cracking the screen. It took a couple weeks to get it repaired, because the local person I took it to ran into some unexpected difficulties. I used my first-generation Google Nexus 7 for those two weeks, and it was painful. It's a great device, and Android is great software. If I had never owned an iPad, I'm sure I'd love the Nexus 7. But it was inferior to my iPad. The screen was smaller, which made it less convenient to read web pages and email. Aspects of the user interface confused me. And I couldn't find apps that I needed. Overall, it just didn't seem as refined or elegant or friendly as my iPad.

Nevertheless, Android tablets are getting increasingly popular. In the third quarter, Apple had 29.6 percent of the tablet market and Samsung 20.4 percent. Of course, that was just before the new iPads were released, so everyone was likely holding off on buying an iPad. No doubt Apple will crush Samsung's share in the fourth quarter. Still, these other tablets are becoming more competitive.

Of course, the biggest advantage of the iPad is the software: over 475,000 apps engineered specifically for the iPad, compared to just tens of thousands for Android tablets.

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In any case, I was curious about the competition and took a look to see what's out there. 

Large-screen tablets

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 and Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 (10.1-inch display): The Galaxy Note 2014 Android-based tablet may be the iPad Air’s biggest competitor. It’s roughly the same price, but has more features. Most notably, it comes with a stylus that lets you draw or write on it by hand, and it translates your handwritten words into typed text. (Its conversion of handwriting is less than perfect, but the software has been improving.)

Unlike the iPad Air, the Note also comes with a MicroSD slot, so you can inexpensively add a lot of storage. It’s just slightly thicker at .31 inches compared to the iPad Air's .29 inches, and heavier at 1.2 lbs, compared to the Air's 1 lb. It comes with an 8-megapixel camera while the new iPads still have 5 megapixels, but megapixel count doesn’t always translate to quality. The Note has a 2560 x 1600 display, with a pixel density of 298 pixels per inch. This is greater resolution than the iPad Air's 2048 x 1536 display, which works out to a pixel density of 264 pixels per inch.

It's a bit more expensive for the base 16GB model, $549 compared to the iPad Air's $499, but the 32GB model is the same, at $599. There are no 64GB and 128GB options, as with the iPad, but it does have MicroSD for adding storage. Like the iPad, expect to pay an additional $100 for the cellular data model.

Also available is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1, which is lighter (1.12 lbs) and cheaper than the Galaxy Tab Note 3, but still slightly heavier and thicker than the iPad Air. The components are based on previous models and haven’t kept pace with other tablets. The screen is lower resolution than most, at 1280 x 800. Reviews say its performance is sluggish and that the older Google Nexus 10 is a better choice, with a better screen and faster performance.

The price for the Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 is $359 for the 16GB model. There’s no cellular data model.

Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 (8.9-inch display): This is the least expensive large-screen tablet. It’s actually lighter than the iPad Air, at 0.84 lbs compared to the Air's 1 lb. It’s only just slightly thicker than the iPad Air, at .31 inches compared to the iPad's .29 inches. The 8.9-inch display has a resolution of 2560 x 1600 resolution display with a pixel density of 339 pixels per inch, which is certainly higher than the iPad Air's 2048 x 1536 display and pixel desnsity of 264 pixels per inch. Like the Galaxy Note, it has an 8-megapixel camera compared to the 5-megapixel camera on the Air.

The Kindle Fire HDX runs a modified version of Android, and you can only download apps from Amazon’s app store, which has a more limited selection than Google’s app store. An interesting and unique feature on Amazon’s HDX models is the “Mayday” button that lets you immediately get live expert help 24 hours per day.

The 16GB WiFi version starts at $379, compared to $499 for the iPad Air. In fact, it's even cheaper than the iPad mini, which starts at $399. If you want more storage, you can add incremental memory upgrades (32GB and 64GB) for an additional $50 per increment, half the price Apple charges. The cellular data model will cost an additional $100.

Smaller-screen tablets

Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 7 (7-inch display): With a starting price of $229, this is cheaper than the iPad mini, even the first-generation mini, which Apple continues to sell at a starting price of $299. But there’s no rear camera, and again a limited number of apps. Also, the casing for both HDX models is made of plastic compared to the iPad’s unibody aluminum casing. The 1920 x 1200 display has a pixel density of 323 pixels per inch, almost identical to the new iPad mini with Retina display and much better than the original iPad mini.

I find that although on paper it doesn't seem like there'd be that much difference between the iPad mini's 7.9-inch display, and a 7-inch display, in fact the difference in usability is significant. There's actually 35 percent less viewing space, due to its smaller size and the fact that part of the display is taken up by Android's navigation icons.

The price is $229 for the 16GB WiFi model, with incremental storage being just $40 per increment up to 64GB. The cellular data model adds $100.

Google Nexus 7 (7-inch display): Google came out with the second generation of their Nexus 7 this fall, and like the Kindle Fire HDX, it has a 1920 x 1200 display with 323 pixels per inch, which is about the same as the iPad mini with retina display. Unlike the first Nexus 7, this one has a 5-megapixel camera for shooting photos and video. However, the processor wasn’t updated, and certainly won’t be as speedy as the iPad mini.

It’s a bit thicker than the iPad mini, at .34 inches compared to the mini's .29 inches, but is just slightly lighter at .64 lbs compared to the mini's .73 lbs. Unlike most tablets (including the WiFi-only iPads), the WiFi-only model includes GPS. It runs Google’s Android and can access the Google Play store, which has the largest selection of Android apps. Plus, being a Google tablet, you’ll be able to immediately update to the latest version of Android.

The Nexus 7 starts at $229 for the 16GB WiFi version, and jumps to $269 for the 32GB version — significantly cheaper than the starting price of the 16GB original mini's price of $299 and the cost of the retina mini at $399. The cellular data model comes with 32GB and costs $349, compared to $629 for a similarly configured iPad mini with retina display.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 (8-inch display): The Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 includes the same stylus feature as the Galaxy Note 2014, but overall the components aren’t nearly on par, nor is the software. It comes with a 5-megapixel camera and a lower resolution 8-inch display of 1280 x 800, which is only 189 pixels per inch. This resolution is similar to the original iPad mini and inferior to the 2048 x 1536 display of the retina iPad mini, which as a pixel density of 326 ppi. It weighs .74 lbs and is .31 inches thick, which is just a tiny bit more than the mini's .73 lbs and .29 inches.

The price begins as $399 for the 16GB version, similar to the retina iPad mini, and jumps to $499 for the no-contract cellular data model, which is cheaper than the retina mini's price of $529 for the base cellular data model. Reviews suggest the Nexus 7 may be a better choice.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 8.0 is actually thinner and lighter than the iPad mini, at .7 lbs and .27 inches, and has a similar-sized screen. The display is lower resolution, at 1280 x 800. It has a 5-megapixel camera, and MicroSD slot for adding more storage. This is pretty much the same tablet as the Note 8.0 but without the stylus.

The price starts at $279 for the 16GB WiFi model. There’s no cellular data model.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 7.0 (7-inch display): Finally, on the low end is the Tab 3 7.0 with a 1024 x 600 7-inch display. This is a lower resolution than the mini or just about any other tablet. It’s similar to the Tab 8.0 in other respects, including 5-megapixel camera and MicroSD slot. MicroSD is an inexpensive way to add storage, and a feature that's lacking in the iPads. The price is $179 for the 16GB WiFi model. There’s no cellular data model.

You can also find earlier versions of some of these tablets in the sub-$200 price range, such as the Amazon Kindle HD. But I focused on the latest models, since they have the best screens and best feature set.

Some additional thoughts

Note that even if you have an Android tablet, it may not be compatible with all the Android apps available. Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets, for example, only run a subset of Android apps. Also, tablets from companies other than Google may be delayed in getting the latest version of Android, or in some cases may not get it at all. Those wanting the best Android experience will do the best with a Google Nexus tablet. 

Those who use Amazon for movies, music, and books, and use a tablet mainly for consuming media, are the ones who are most attracted to the Kindle Fire HDX. It's completely integrated with Amazon’s shopping and media ecosystem.

The Samsung, Google, and Amazon tablets seem to be the leading competitors to the iPad right now. Microsoft just came out with the second generation of their Surface tablet, but the first generation sold so poorly that they had to take a $950 million write-down on the loss. It runs Windows 8.1 RT, and not much software is available.

These are worthy tablets, but in the opinion of many, the iPad is still the best. There's just no comparison in terms of apps. Even though Android may have tens of thousands of apps, compared to the iPads. over 475,000, many tablet apps for Android are simply phone apps stretched to fit the larger screen. In the case of iPad apps, developers typically give them a complete redesign for the larger screen.

Plus, the amazing depth and breadth of iPad apps is without comparison. You can do a level of video and music editing on the iPad way beyond what's available on Android. 

In addition, although the 5-megapixel camera of the iPads doesn't sound that impressive, the camera works in concert with the powerful 64-bit A7 processor to make a lot of automatic adjustments, significantly raising the quality of photos. And no other device can match the power of the iPads' A7 processor. It's robust enough that we'll likely be seeing desktop-level software on the iPads, making them an even more powerful tool.

Plus, in my experience iOS 7 is simply more intuitive and more elegant than Android.

Finally, there's Apple's ecosystem—a well integrated store for apps, music, videos, and books, and cloud services that make everything work together fluidly. Android has stores, and Google and Amazon have cloud services, but I feel that Apple's services are a step above. Everything just always works, and is always intuitive.

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Jim Karpen holds a Ph.D. in literature and writing, and has a love of gizmos. His doctoral dissertation focused on the revolutionary consequences of digital technologies and anticipated some of the developments taking place in the industry today. Jim has been writing about the Internet and technology since 1994 and has been using Apple's visionary products for decades.