Google’s Nexus 7 tablet, made by Asus, is built to take on the Kindle Fire. Photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired
Google I/O’s day-one keynote could be fittingly tag-lined “Android Reloaded.”
On Wednesday, Google unveiled Android 4.1, aka Jelly Bean, complete with revamped voice features that make Android a clear rival to Apple’s Siri. Also revealed was the Nexus 7, a tablet tailored to purchasing and consuming books, magazines, music, movies and TV shows. It’s a clear bid to challenge Amazon’s Kindle Fire.
It’s patently obvious that Google knows who Android’s biggest rivals are.
Google also unveiled Nexus Q, a streaming-audio device that’s entirely dependent on Android and Google’s cloud services. We have an exclusive look at it here. For now, let’s dig deep into the new 7-inch tablet and mobile OS.
The Nexus 7, built by Asus and designed in concert with Google, will be the first device to ship straight out of the box running Jelly Bean. The tablet, which we just received from Google and will have a hands-on with later, is impressive. It’s lightweight, it’s thin, it’s fast and it makes for a pleasant book- and magazine-reading experience. The home screen of the Nexus 7 features a “my library” widget that puts front and center all the content you’ve purchased from the Google Play online storefront.
Other widgets offer recommendations on apps, magazines and video that you might like — all these suggestions are based on what you’ve already purchased from Google Play. And, as always, all of your content is stored in the cloud to be streamed or downloaded at will. All of these Nexus 7 features deliver punch for punch what Amazon offers in the Kindle Fire, and at the same $200 price point.
But where Google and Asus one-up the Fire is in the level of hardware the Nexus 7 packs. Inside the device is Nvidia’s Tegra 3 quad-core processor, a 12-core Nvidia GPU, 1GB of RAM and a display sporting a 1280×800 resolution and 178-degree viewing angle. The tablet also supports bluetooth and NFC, and includes a front-facing camera — three features the Fire doesn’t have.
Google also made a point of noting that Google Play offers the largest online eBook store as well, with more than 4 million books for download.
Jelly Bean and Google’s Siri Fighter
While Jelly Bean is officially making its debut on the Nexus 7, the Samsung-built Galaxy Nexus smartphone won’t be left out either. Google is delivering Android 4.1 as a mid-July, over-the-air update to the Galaxy Nexus, which was reduced from $399 to $349 in Google Play on Wednesday.
Most of Jelly Bean’s upgrades are focused on polishing what Google started in Android 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich. A project called Butter is focused on speeding up the frame rate of the Android UI to 60 frames per second, about the speed of today’s top console videogames. Google achieved this by altering Android so that it can tap into a device’s CPU, GPU and display to get all three running in parallel, said Dave Burke, an Android product manager. What this actually results in is a much smoother experience in navigating and launching apps throughout the stock Android experience. Butter’s features are available to all developers in the Jelly Bean software development kit, which Google released Wednesday.
The most noticeable changes ushered in by Jelly Bean will definitely be in the search and voice side of things.
Google’s voice features have always been among the best on any phones, allowing users to place a call, rattle off a text message or email, listen to music, navigate to locations in Google Maps, set an alarm and, of course, search the web. But with Siri, Apple gave the iPhone (and soon the iPad) most of those functions in the form of a voice-activated assistant that spoke back to users, sometimes with a bit of humor.
In Jelly Bean, Google has a proper Siri fighter, but she has no fancy name a la Siri or Samsung’s S Voice. In Jelly Bean, the voice assistant simply emerges with a tap of the microphone icon in the ever-present search box on Android’s home screens. And she works well, understanding a decent amount of natural language. Before, in previous versions of Android, when you searched by voice you received simple text results. But now the unnamed assistant talks back in a smoother, less robotic-sounding female voice than Siri and S Voice. She also provides sports scores, weather information, historical facts, geographical facts, and image search results. And all of this information is delivered via a series of cards that Google is calling Google Now cards.
Google Now cards, brought up using Google’s Siri-fighting voice feature, are a much more attractive way of providing search results than a series of blue links. Photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired
These cards also appear whenever you use a new Google Now search feature. With an upward swipe from the bottom of the screen, a full-screen search app appears, and recent Google Now cards (whether found by this app or voice search) show up beneath a search box, with traditional Google blue-link web search results below that. The cards don’t necessarily present any information Google didn’t already deliver via its blue links, but surfacing information onto the cards in undeniably more attractive and better suited to the smaller screens of smartphones and 7-inch tablets.
We’re still digging into Jelly Bean on the Galaxy Nexus and all the Nexus 7 has to offer. Stay tuned.