Why everyone loves the iPad mini (even though the screen sucks)

iPad mini

I was hanging out in downtown SF the other day, and of course I had to visit the Apple Store to play with the new iPad Mini. Everyone pretty much ignored the all-new New iPad (let’s refer to it as iPad 4), while there was a 3-deep queue to play with the mini. I even seriously considered buying one on the spot (pending availability). So why are people going gaga over the mini, when the iPad 4 is actually a much bigger refresh in terms of hardware? (iPad 4 is a generational leap in both CPU and graphics performance).

So I’m pretty sure that cost is not the distinguishing factor. Last time I checked, you could buy a refurbished iPad2 for just $349, which is pretty close to the mini’s price. It’s likely that a lot of people don’t know about Apple’s refurbished models, but if cost were the biggest factor, people would be breaking for the Nexus 7 at over $100 less (and they are to some degree, but I’m guessing that Apple will sell a lot more iPad minis than Google sells Nexus 7s).

RETINA DISPLAYS AREN’T DISRUPTIVE

So when we look at the mini more closely, we can start to understand why it’s so great. It basically has the same guts as the iPad 2 (the 2011 model), but in a smaller and lighter package. The screen is about two inches smaller, but the same resolution as the iPad 2. Which gives it a higher pixel density (the dots are closer together) than the iPad 2, but a lower density than the new iPad 4. All of the reviews complain about this, but the reviewers proceed to lavish praise on the mini, and say that it will replace their other iPads.

So there’s a problem with these retina displays that Apple is gradually rolling out on their machines – they are a nice-to-have, but not really disruptive to what we already have. When you look at disruptive technologies (as defined in The Innovator’s Dilemma), they typically enable use cases that their predecessors didn’t (such as allowing devices to be smaller or lighter). There isn’t actually any new use case that a retina display enables, other than being prettier. It’s not like visible pixels in any way diminish the functional experience. Sure a lot of uber-geeks rushed out to buy the Retina Macbook Pro, but I’m actually waiting until retina displays become the default in a year or so (and they will, if you look at Apple’s typical technology adoption curve). Apple even went in sort of the wrong direction when they rolled out the retina iPad – it was a bit thicker and heavier than its predecessor, and the battery took longer to charge. This is not to say that iPad 3 was a flop, just that Apple has typically focused on size and weight above any performance specs. The iPad 2 has continued to sell briskly despite being almost two years old, and I think that part of the reason is that people don’t entirely get the retina display thing. The iPad mini corrects the big iPad’s deficiencies by offering an alternative scenario, one where size and weight are king.

THE IPAD MINI’S SIZE MATTERS

Here’s where the iPad mini wins over iPad 4. The iPad mini is small and light – actually shockingly so. It’s a lot smaller – the roughly two-inch difference on the diagonal translates into 50% less screen volume (and the area surrounding the screen is smaller as well. But the most amazing part is the weight – while the iPad was always uncomfortable to hold for any length of time, the mini can be held effortlessly with just one hand (and, if you look carefully, every press photo of the iPad mini includes a hand grasping it). I could actually use it for reading a book, much as I currently use the Kindle. I pulled out my new Kindle Paperwhite and compared it to the iPad – the Kindle has a significantly smaller footprint, but the iPad is noticeably thinner (and still fits comfortably in one hand. The Kindle weighs a bit less, but it’s actually less significant than you would expect.

Pretty much every reviewer lauds the mini for its size and weight – I think that’s the real disruption here. Much as the tablet is disruptive to the laptop, the 8-inch tablet is disruptive to the 10-inch tablet. My short-lived Nexus 7 (I sold it after a month) was a bit too small for comfortable reading, but 7.9 inches seems like an appropriate tradeoff. With the iPad mini, you can do everything you can on the iPad, pretty much without compromises. Text is still readable at that size, and the touchscreen isn’t any more difficult to use. I found the Nexus 7 to be slightly uncomfortable when compared to both a smartphone and a tablet – Google uses a slightly awkward version of the phone UI with the Nexus 7. Part of this may have to do with the aspect ratio – the Nexus 7′s screen always seemed a bit too narrow, while the iPad’s 4:3 ratio is just right (even though it has to letterbox movies).

PUTTING LIPSTICK ON A BULLDOG

The mini is also arguably prettier than the full-sized iPad, which hasn’t changed much in terms of looks since the second model. The mini looks (and feels) a lot like a blown up iPhone 5, which is actually a good thing. It’s likely that some of the interest is due to the iPad mini looking so different from the iPad – non-nerds definitely don’t care about what’s inside of the box (so long as the performance is reasonable).

So the iPad mini is better than the iPad 4 in all of the ways that matter (size, weight, and cost), and only lags in the ways that don’t (namely performance and screen resolution). Which gives it all the makings of a disruptive technology. I suspect that it will become Apple’s best-selling product, and the big iPad will become akin to the 15-inch Macbook Pro, which is vastly outsold by its 13-inch little brother. But that’s ok, because Apple is the most profitable company in the world, and they can afford to build two lines of products, one for technology nerds and the other for the mainstream.

iPad mini review

You’d find yourself hard-pressed to say the word without most people knowing exactly what you’re talking about.

It’s a device that made its debut less than 3 years ago, yet it’s had a profound impact on computing. A 9.7-inch multi-touch glass display capable of displaying anything your heart desires. A device that Apple has sold more than 100 million units of in just a few years. And now, there’s a smaller one.

The iPad mini is Apple’s attempt to create a tablet that is both more portable and more affordable. At first glance, it may seem like a shrunken-down version of the iPad 2, but after using it for more than a week, it’s clear that the iPad mini is not just a smaller iPad. It’s the iPad that was meant to be.

A brief look at Apple’s history tells us a lot about how the company loves to condense its products. Starting with the iPod, the Classic laid the foundation of Apple’s iconic music player in 2001. Three years later, Apple miniaturized the popular music player and called it the iPod mini. But it didn’t stop there. Just one year later, Apple further miniaturized its iPod mini with the iPod Nano – the iPod that went on to be the most popular music player on earth.

I can’t help but think that the same concepts are at work here with the iPad mini. When Steve Jobs took the stage in 2009, he called the iPad “magical.” Many brushed it off, and some even made fun of such a description, but it didn’t take long for people to get on board. You simply had to hold and use the device to know exactly what he meant. Now that the iPad mini has arrived, I believe it deserves the term “magical” even more.

The device has 7.9-inch, 1024 x 768 resolution display. Do the math and it comes to 163 pixels per inch (ppi) – a far cry from Apple’s retina display on the larger iPad (264 ppi). When I first picked up the mini, it was glaringly obvious how non-retina it was. Text is not as sharp and images are not as crisp. However, after a few days, my eyes adjusted and it wasn’t much of a problem.

ipad mini black3 iPad mini review

Another immediate observation I had when first picking up the mini was the incredible build quality and weight. The iPad mini feels like it was cut from the same cloth as the iPhone 5. It has all of the little design touches that the iPhone 5 has, including the chamfered edge and anodized aluminum back. At .68 lbs, it’s also dramatically lighter than its big brother, yet somehow it feels even more solid.

It’s also super thin. Apple is known to be somewhat obsessed with making its products as thin as possible, and the iPad mini exemplifies that ideal. At 7.2mm, the device is thinner than the iPhone 5.

Then comes software. If you’ve used an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch, you’ll welcome the iPad mini. It runs iOS 6 perfectly with no hiccups, and all of the 275,000+ apps tailored for the iPad, work perfectly on the iPad mini. This seamless operation, in my opinion, sets the mini apart from its competition.

When using the iPad mini, I often compared the device to the Nexus 7 (Google’s flagship Android tablet). On the surface, you may think there isn’t much of a difference, since both displays fall within 7-inch territory. But in real-world use, the differences are huge.

The 7-inch display has been popular with Google, Amazon, and others. Apple chose a 7.9-inch display, mainly because it would allow them to easily run all the iPad-tailored applications without any modifications. There is another benefit to the 7.9-inch display, though. As crazy as it sounds, that .9 inches makes a difference. Apple claims that you get about 35 percent more viewing due to that difference, and they’re absolutely right. When using the iPad mini, I could see much more content without having to scroll. The .9 inch display bump does come at a cost, though. I found the device a little bit harder to hold in one hand. Not a deal breaker, but definitely not as comfortable (for me) as the Nexus 7.

But there’s a much bigger difference between devices like the Nexus 7 and the iPad mini, and it doesn’t take much time to figure it out: Apps.

While the iPad mini really does feel like a concentrated iPad, the Nexus 7 feels more like an un-concentrated smartphone. Apps that were built for the larger iPad run seamlessly on the iPad mini, while apps for Android phones run well on the Nexus 7.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s a huge problem for the Nexus 7. You don’t want to run larger smartphone apps on a display of that size. You want to run full-blown tablet apps. The popular app Flipboard, for example, is a better experience on the iPad than it is on the iPhone. However, on the Nexus 7, the experience is actually worse than it would be on an Android smartphone. Why? Because most apps on the Nexus 7 are simply stretched smartphone apps. On the iPad, the experience is optimized for the larger real estate.

There is one thing that iPad mini has received a lot of criticism for, and that’s its price. At $329, the mini is $129 more than its two nearest competitors – the Nexus 7 and the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD. But I think it’s a mistake to compare these devices. Sure, if you lay them all on a table with their displays off, it’s hard to understand why one would be $129 more. But pick them up, feel them, use them, and it becomes obvious why the iPad mini is truly in a class of its own. It’s a combination of refined hardware and robust software; to me, those criteria encapsulate the difference between Apple and the rest of the tablet makers.

In the end, you have to make a choice between what you want a tablet for. Is it to just browse the web and check your email?  If so, the Nexus 7 is a great device for that. But if you’d like to do those things as well as play a game here and there, read a book, and do a whole bunch more due to the availability of of nearly 300,000 apps, then the mini is the clear winner. It’s not that these other tablets are bad – it’s just that the iPad mini is so good.

ipad mini white front back iPad mini review

The frictionless experience

Apple has released its iPad mini, Microsoft has unveiled its Surface RT, and Google has expanded its play with the Nexus 10 tablet. While there are many advantages to each of these devices, Apple remains unmatched with its ecosystem.

Time and time again, following descriptions of well-designed and built hardware, reviewers have been forced to add some form of, “But the ecosystem cannot compete with Apple’s 275,000 tablet-optimized application.” I think this trend underlines the power of Apple’s amazing developer advantage.

I use three distinct types of computing devices every day: my phone, my tablet, and my traditional PC (laptop and desktop). Sometimes, I use an application which is specific to one platform or the other. Dark Sky, for example, is incredibly useful on my iPhone, but would be pretty pointless on my Mac Mini or Macbook Air. This kind of platform-specific, quality application, is what most would consider the App Store advantage. Not me.

iphone 5 black angle The frictionless experience

Apple’s true advantage is when applications are available across all three platforms, offering a device-optimized and consistent experience no matter what I am using.

They offer a frictionless experience.

There is a good reason why people were so excited for Tweetbot for OS X and love to use apps like Reeder on their iPhone, iPad, and Mac. The consistency of the look, features, gestures, and even notifications makes them easier and more enjoyable to use.

nexus 10 full angle The frictionless experience

Google sells Android by offering the best mobile experience with their web products. As an early and voracious user of Gmail, Google Contacts, and Google Calendar, I do find this enticing. But Android apps are never going to be able to offer the frictionless experience offered by Apple across the mobile and desktop space. ChromeOS is Google’s best effort to push a frictionless platform, but it’s entirely limited to non-native applications; any non-Google products require major modifications and just won’t be the same.

Microsoft sees the Apple advantage clearly, and they understand Google’s inability to fully compete. That’s why they are launching Windows 8, where in many ways they’re attempting to integrate the tablet and desktop even further than Apple. The release of the Surface and Windows 8 writ large is a bet that Apple made a mistake by grouping tablets with cell phones. The tablet, according to Microsoft, is about replacing laptops and should be grouped with the desktop.

surface rt table The frictionless experience

I think this is a smart play, regardless of some of the rough reviews of both the Surface RT and Windows 8. Version 1 has some awkward transitions on both devices – but that may be worth the cost to take advantage of a near-future where large tablets will have comparable computing power to laptop and even desktop computers. Just as the Macbook Air serves most consumers in the laptop market, soon tablets will be every bit as good as consumer computers are now. Microsoft believes that with that power will come more sophisticated and complex uses, better-suited for applications on the desktop. They’re betting the future is the present – a full multitasking enabled, file-system revealing environment. If that’s what users will eventually want from their tablets, Windows 8 will have these capabilities baked in from the start, while iOS struggles to pump out new features and APIs to mimic (or create) these capabilities.

The future is frictionless. Apple’s true advantage is that they can already offer one version of that future. If Microsoft plays its cards right, and if it is not too late, it can offer an equally compelling alternative. It won’t win over the real, dyed-in-the-wool Apple fans, but it may stem the tide carrying the consumer market swiftly away.

Is iBooks 2 really just Push Pop Press rebranded?

Following today’s Apple announcement, one that revolved around iBooks, Mike Matas — the designer behind much of Apple’s iOS UI and architect of Push Pop Press — took to Twitter in protest:

After inspecting several videos and pictures showcasing Apple’s upcoming iBooks 2, it’s hard to disagree with Matas. To even the untrained eye, there’s little doubt that Apple derived inspiration for iBooks 2 from Matas’s work on Push Pop Press. Superficially, at least. It’s unclear if Matas used HTML5 and Java to build Push Pop’s technology, as Apple did with iBooks 2, but the end result’s sure look the same.

ibooks pushpop2 Is iBooks 2 really just Push Pop Press rebranded?

Apple’s iBooks 2 has something over Push Pop Press, though: It’s not just theoretical. Push Pop Press, like iBooks 2, was conceived to create content, specifically books — but it never panned out. In fact, Push Pop Press was acquired by Facebook in August of last year, and it hasn’t seen any further development since then.

Whether Facebook saw Matas’s concepts and considered going the route Apple unveiled today is impossible to say. What is clear, though, is that Apple didn’t just see the opportunity, they created and have now marketed the opportunity to the public.

Update: AppleInsider has posted a rumor suggesting Steve Jobs may have scuttled Push Pop Press’s plans after it was discovered that its founder allegedly built the company’s physics engine using patented Apple technology, despite knowing about Apple’s parallel plans for advancing iBooks.

Update 2: Daring Fireball’s John Gruber says that according to his sources Steve Jobs essentially  warned Push Pop Press that Apple was going in the same direction, and that it was not a legal threat, but rather a competitive warning.

FBI looking to scour Facebook, Twitter and more for incriminating evidence

Don’t mind that panel van parked on your Facebook friends list, or the one following you on Twitter. It’s probably there to deliver flowers or repair someone’s cable. It’s definitely not the FBI scrutinizing your every keystroke. Really, it’s not. But it soon could be, according to NewScientist, which revealed today that the feds have been shopping around for a system to monitor social media sites.

The normally tight-lipped FBI tipped its hand in a job listing, posted January 19, where it expressed a desire for a surveillance system that could comb social networks for explosive keywords like pipe bomb, terrorist cell, or Tim Tebow.

NewScientist has more:

The bureau’s wish list calls for the system to be able to automatically search “publicly available” material from Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites for keywords relating to terrorism, surveillance operations, online crime and other FBI missions. Agents would be alerted if the searches produce evidence of “breaking events, incidents, and emerging threats”.

Agents will have the option of displaying the tweets and other material captured by the system on a map, to which they can add layers of other data, including the locations of US embassies and military installations, details of previous terrorist attacks and the output from local traffic cameras.

… the bureau wants to use social media to target specific users or groups of users. It notes that agents need to “locate bad actors…and analyze their movements, vulnerabilities, limitations, and possible adverse actions”. It also states that the bureau will use social media to create “pattern-of-life matrices” — presumably logs of targets’ daily routines — that will aid law enforcement in planning operations.

iPad productivity gets a shot in the arm courtesy of OnLive’s Windows 7 app

OnLive, architects of a burgeoning cloud-based game service that renders demanding titles remotely and beams them to gamers, announced that its latest effort will deliver to iPad users a “no compromise Windows 7 experience,” for free.

Not to be confused with existing remote desktop applications, which tap into a user’s PC, the company said its forthcoming OnLive Desktop app, due Thursday, will host popular Windows applications in the cloud. iPad users need only download the app to have “full access to Windows 7 applications including Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint” from their tablets.

In a press release, available below, OnLive said the app will support multi-touch gestures, offer an on-screen keyboard and hand-writing recognition, and be capable of seamlessly handling anything a powerful PC could, including games and HD video.

So what’s the catch? There isn’t one, assuming you’re content with 2 GB of online storage and access to a limited number of programs. If that sounds a little too restrictive, you can spring for OnLive Desktop Pro, which promises a 50GB locker and even more apps for $9.99 a month.

OnLive’s press release:

Palo Alto, CA – January 9, 2012 – OnLive, Inc., the pioneer of instant-action cloud computing, announced that it is bringing the first no-compromise Windows desktop to iPad® through its free OnLive™ Desktop app, available Thursday in the iTunes® App Store. OnLive Desktop provides instant access to full-featured, media-rich Windows 7 applications, including Microsoft® Word, Excel® and PowerPoint® software, remotely hosted on powerful PC servers in the cloud. Based upon OnLive’s instant-action cloud gaming technology, OnLive Desktop delivers a seamless Windows desktop experience, with instant-response multi-touch gestures, together with a full on-screen Windows keyboard and handwriting recognition, enabling complete and convenient viewing and editing of even the most complex documents. Rich media, such as video, animation, slide transitions and even PC games, never before practical via remote desktop delivery, run fluidly and dynamically with instant-action interactivity. OnLive Desktop makes remote feel local.

“OnLive Desktop is the first app to deliver a no-compromise, media-rich Windows desktop experience to iPad, opening up powerful new possibilities for consumers and businesses,” said Steve Perlman, OnLive Founder and CEO. “iPad users will now be able to simply and securely view and edit cloud-hosted documents with full-featured Windows desktop applications like Microsoft Office, just as if they were using a local high-performance PC. Multi-touch gestures respond instantly and smoothly, while HD videos, animations and PC video games—never before usable on a remote desktop—play seamlessly.”

The FREE* OnLive Desktop app comes with 2 GB of secure cloud storage and as-available access to a cloud-based Windows 7 desktop pre-populated with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, plus several utilities and touch games. Using instant-response touch gestures such as pinch and zoom, flick to scroll, drag, drop and Aero snap, users can quickly and easily navigate files, open, edit and save the ones they need, and store them securely in the cloud for access from any device through a simple Web interface. PC apps have full desktop functionality: Word documents can be created and edited with full redline and commenting capability, using a full Windows touch-screen keyboard, handwriting recognition or Bluetooth keyboard. PowerPoint presentations can be created with rich graphics, videos and animated slide transitions, and even presented directly from the iPad, either onscreen or via an external monitor.  Data can be updated and analyzed instantly in Excel, translated into graphs and transferred into presentation documents. With OnLive Desktop, work is now possible anywhere you have an iPad and Internet connectivity, with the immediacy, functionality and responsiveness of a local PC.

The Free OnLive Desktop app for iPad is just the tip of the iceberg. Android®, smartphones, PC, Mac® and monitor/TV support (via the OnLive MicroConsole™ thin client with Bluetooth keyboard/mouse) are coming soon, with your same OnLive Desktop available by login from any device. Your OnLive Desktop can be accessed anywhere, on any device, at any resolution.

Apple’s iMessage and the death of texting as we know it

A recent New York Times article suggested that Apple’s iMessage, which enables free messaging between iOS 5-equipped devices over data networks, could be putting a sizeable dent in AT&T’s bottom line — a phenomenon with serious implications for an industry that cashes in on costly texting plans. If AT&T’s feeling the pinch, after all, surely other carriers are too, which could sound the death knell of texting as we know it.

iMessage, if you didn’t know, is the Apple equivalent of BlackBerry’s proprietary BBM. It empowers iOS 5 users to message one another over Wi-Fi or 3G networks, for free. Well, technically you’re subjected to data charges for messages sent over 3G, but the point is you’re not boxed in by a pricey plan.

And Apple’s entry has another SMS-killing feature: It’s more immediate than sometimes-laggy texts. What’s more, it puts to rest the question that’s crossed every frustrated texter’s mind: Why haven’t I gotten a response? With iMessage, you’ll know if your life-and-death message has been read or gone unnoticed, thanks to optional read receipts. And you’ll see, in real time, when the other party’s responding. It’s an insecure texter’s dream.

It’s not, however, revolutionary. Similar services exist, like BlackBerry’s BBM and standalones Whatsapp and KIK. But iMessage is seamless. It’s not a separate app, as are Whatsapp and KIK. Rather, it’s folded into the iPhone’s familiar SMS app, making iMessages indistinguishable from their traditional, costly cousins.

That same seamlessness led me to overlook my own migration from texting to iMessaging. I’ve never been an especially prolific texter, and haven’t approached the 7,000 messages per month claimed by Jenna Wortham in her New York Times article, but when I pulled up a PDF of my recent usage, iMessage’s impact was clear as day. After the service’s October introduction, my SMS habit dropped off abruptly, which you can see for yourself in the picture below.

imessag data Apples iMessage and the death of texting as we know it

This trend, one not limited to me or Jenna, hasn’t gone unnoticed by AT&T. The nation’s second largest carrier is in damage-control mode. Gone are the tiered texting plans of yesteryear, which allowed users to pick their poison — 1,000 texts for $10, for instance. In their place is an all-or-nothing proposition: You can fork over $20/mo for unlimited texts, or you can go without and risk 10 cents per message.

Clearly carriers are desperately clinging to what’s been one of their biggest money-makers. And what a money-maker text messages are, with a nearly 7,000 percent inflation rate (that’s not a typo). In fact, I’d wager texts command a higher profit margin than any other product carriers offer, which explains the shameless way they’ve promoted text-friendly feature phones for years. It’s their bread and butter.

But don’t expect them to board up the windows just yet. According to the same New York Times article, text messaging is still on the rise globally, particularly in Finland and Hong Kong. But that growth is slowing significantly, and soon carriers will be confronted with a choice not unlike the one mulled by finally-retired Brett Favre: Accept that the glory days are over and adapt, or stubbornly persist with a product everyone’s grown tired of, risking it all in the process.

An Android fan’s take on the Galaxy Nexus

Before I begin, a warning: In this review I’ll gloss over the Nexus’s specs — they’ve been covered countless times in other reviews, not to mention the widely publicized spec sheet put out by Samsung/Google. Rather, I’ll devote the bulk of the review to my thoughts and opinions about the Galaxy Nexus, which are those of a long-time Android user and self-described power user.

But first, some backstory: My experience with Android began way back in October of 2008, when the initial T-Mobile G1 (known internationally as the HTC Dream) was released. It wasn’t my first smartphone, but it was well beyond the Windows Mobile 6.1 and Nokia Symbian OS devices I had used prior to it. I knew what I wanted from a smartphone, and I decided that Android could get me most of that. Although the iPhone had been out for some time, I never found it to my liking and felt that it wouldn’t satisfy my needs. After the G1, which I rooted and reflashed, I switched to an HTC Incredible on Verizon and am still on that device — and I’ve given it the same root-and-reflash treatment. I also picked up a Motorola Xoom around summer of last year. But enough about me…

Hardware

My first thought when I laid eyes on the Galaxy Nexus, still in the box, was wow, that’s big! I had my much-smaller HTC Incredible in my hand, which is almost exactly the same size as an iPhone 4/4S, and it looked comically tiny in comparison. Needless to say, I was worried about how the device would feel.

I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up the Nexus, though. Although it was obviously large, it didn’t feel obnoxious in my hand. The thin profile of the phone allows one to hold it quite comfortably, actually. The other thing the device has going for it is that although it has a massive 4.65-inch display, it’s not much wider than many other Android phones on the market. In fact, it’s quite similar in width to phones with smaller, 4.3-inch displays.

side An Android fans take on the Galaxy Nexus

The Galaxy Nexus gets its larger display by being taller. That means that certain elements on the display are even further away from the user’s thumb, forcing him to use his second hand. While it’s possible to reach almost any point on the display with a single hand, it’s definitely not comfortable to reach, say, the top-most section, and I’d recommend against it lest you lose your grip of the phone, resulting in a costly drop.

Having said that, most tasks can be accomplished by just one decent-size hand. For example, once an app has been launched — the phone dialer, for example — the elements and controls specific to that app will most likely be reachable by the thumb on the hand holding the phone. People with smaller hands will have a harder time.

The only physical buttons on the Nexus are the volume rocker on the left and the power button on the right. Typically I prefer the power button to be on the top of a phone, but the Galaxy Nexus’s side placement is much more appropriate because, again, reaching the top of the phone with just one hand is quite awkward.

The feel of the phone is just okay. To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for the Nexus, and I’ve never been especially fond of how Samsung devices feel in my hand. The Nexus didn’t do a lot to change that opinion. Although the hollow plastic feel of the Nexus S is no longer an issue, the latest Nexus still doesn’t feel as nice as my almost-two-year-old HTC Incredible. That said, it’s acceptable, and there isn’t much wrong with its build quality — but there isn’t much that’s impressive or enticing about it, either. For a device that costs this much and is meant to be top-of-the-line, the Nexus is disappointing.

Speaking of disappointing, the phone’s simply not loud enough. Although one might expect video consumption to be a show-stopper judging by the beautiful display (discussed later), the lack of a decent speaker makes viewing videos without headphones underwhelming and a bit annoying. The speaker could also pose an issue during video chatting. If, for example, there’s a TV on in the background, hearing the other party could prove difficult. Admittedly, my testing was done in a quiet location, so I can’t report any issues.

Camera

As an amateur photographer, a decent on-board camera is very important to me, so you can imagine my excitement when I got my hands on a Galaxy Nexus. I’d heard talk about the upgraded camera app, and I hoped that that software focus carried over to the actual hardware. Again, though, I was slightly disappointed. Although the camera is not bad by any means, it failed to impress. For most users, the Nexus’s camera will probably be adequate, but if you’re keen on photography, like me, then the quality of its pictures leaves something to be desired.

The big marketing point for the Nexus’s camera is its “zero shutter lag” performance, but it too was lost on me. I rarely, if ever, need to be able to take pictures at a moment’s notice, or taken a dozen action shots in a row. I would much rather a “normal shutter lag” camera that takes better-quality pictures.

One bit lived up to the hype, though: The camera app is very nice, and I like the simplified look and feel. More importantly, I like how easily you can view and change the camera settings. The digital zoom, front/back camera swap, and settings menu buttons are all laid out in a circular, intuitive fashion surrounding the “take picture” button. Upon touching the settings icon, the circle rotates and the settings themselves move onto that circle. Once that happens, the settings can be quickly accessed. Switching between the still, video and panorama modes is equally easy and is accomplished by clicking on the appropriate icon below the circle.

Display

The phone’s display does a lot to redeem the Nexus. In fact, if it weren’t for the sizeable display, I probably would have written off the Nexus. But the Samsung’s 4.65-inch screen didn’t guarantee a good experience, either. With such a massive display, any faults would have been magnified and made all the more glaring. Lucky, then, that I didn’t find any.

top angle An Android fans take on the Galaxy Nexus

The Nexus’s Super AMOLED HD screen is thoroughly impressive. Despite its large size, the display has a surprisingly high resolution (1280×720), which delivers incredibly sharp images and text. It’s not only pretty, it’s functional, too. For instance, the screen allowed me to take in full desktop websites at a glance, without the need to scroll around. And I could even make out some of the sites’ text while fully zoomed out, which made navigation a cinch.

Software

Among the Galaxy Nexus’s selling points is, of course, the new-and-improved Android 4.0 OS, otherwise known as Ice Cream Sandwich, or ICS for short. But I’m reviewing the Nexus, not Android, so I’ll mention just a few standouts and move on:

  • Roboto font.  This is probably the most subtle of the changes in ICS, but one that I feel has made a profound impact on the entire OS. Some might not even notice the new look, but I, for one, appreciate it. It offers a very clean feel that reduces eye strain, to boot.
  • OS control buttons as on-screen soft keys instead of capacitive keys or physical buttons. ICS ditches the typical Home, Back, Menu, and Search keys beneath the display in favor of on-screen controls. The primary controls are now “Back”, “Home” and “App Switch,” and they’re usually found at the bottom of the display. However, because they’re soft keys, they can be either dimmed or removed completely, which comes in handy when you’re browsing a picture gallery (the buttons get replaced by dimmed dots) or viewing a full-screen video (the keys are removed completely, allowing for a true full-screen viewing experience). I really liked this change and had a hard time going back.
  • Use of horizontal swipe gestures. In ICS, the simple swipe gesture makes easy a number of tasks, including:
  1. Dismissing notifications. Those using Cyanogenmod might already be familiar with this, but ICS’s take is much better, thanks to its fluidity and reliability.
  2. Removing specific apps from the recent apps list. Although this doesn’t close the app, it makes navigating the recent apps list more efficient.
  3. Switching between different messages. It just feels natural to swipe forward or backward from a message list.
  • Face unlock. After encountering complaints about ICS’s face unlock feature, which uses facial-recognition technology and the phone’s front-facing camera to unlock the phone for its user, I figured it was likely a half-baked gimmick. Well, I was pleasantly surprised to find out how useful it really is. The phone was able to pick up my face in even dimly lit conditions, and the speed with which the feature could unlock and access the OS impressed me. How fast? In ideal lighting conditions, it took less than a second. All I had to do was press the power button and look at the phone like I normally would while using it, and bam, the phone was unlocked. It even looked past my varying facial hair.

Final thoughts

I won’t sugarcoat it: The Samsung Galaxy Nexus was underwhelming and unimpressive, and this is coming from a long-time Android user who has a contract-renewal credit waiting to be applied (I use Verizon, which offers the Galaxy Nexus). That’s not to say the Galaxy Nexus has no strong points. Positives include the unfiltered version of Android 4.0 ICS, the ability to receive Android OS updates in a timely fashion, and the amazing display.

Unfortunately, I expect more from a phone that would set me back a few hundred dollars and follow me around for two years. As much as I enjoyed ICS and look forward to having it on a future phone, I can’t overlook some of the Galaxy Nexus’s hardware issues. Until they’re sorted on a later device, I’ll get my ICS fix from my Motorola Xoom tablet and modified HTC Incredible.

Apple has 7.85-inch iPad in its labs

Today, on The Talk Show, a podcast that features John Gruber of Daring Fireball and 5by5′s Dan Benjamin, Gruber revealed that not only is Apple mulling a smaller version of its iPad, it has a 7.85-inch iPad in its labs. Gruber, who said a public release is far from certain, speculated that Apple could launch such a tablet at WWDC.

MacRumors weighed in on the possibility of a pint-sized iPad last week, deciding that it would make sense for several reasons: The smaller tablet could go head to head with Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Tablet, and with a 7.85-inch display and 1024×768 resolution, which works out to roughly 163 PPI, the iPad’s little brother would have a pixel density in common with the pre-Retina iPhone and iPod touch, making it a breeze to work with.

But don’t get your hopes up. Gruber said he “wouldn’t be surprised if it never ships.”

The podcast isn’t yet available for download, but once it is, we’ll link to it.

Update: The Talk Show podcast is now available to listen or download.