The tablet market has been a difficult realm for Google to conquer. While the iPad remains the immovable king, Amazon and Barnes & Noble usurped Google by delivering successful mini tablets that rely on Android as a foundation but not an ecosystem. Even Samsung, Google’s most prolific and commercially successful partner, has expressed disappointment in its tablet efforts.
The Nexus 7 probably won’t be the commercial hit that Google has sought, especially if rumors of a smaller iPad and a Kindle Fire prove true later this year. But whether Google succeeds isn’t the consumer’s primary concern. What matters most is if the Nexus 7 is good enough, versatile enough, and impressive enough to become the next tablet you buy.
At a cost of only $199, the answer is probably yes.
HARDWARE: Pocket sized power
ASUS partnered with Google to build the Nexus 7, and the pair produced solid results. The 7 isn’t very impressive visually because it’s just a black rectangle with Corning Gorilla Glass and a hard plastic rim. The tablet gets higher marks when it comes to touch because it’s incredibly comfortable to hold. The Nexus 7 has smooth round edges that nestle in your palm, and the back material is very soft. Factor in the 0.75-pound weight and smaller stature thanks to its 7-inch screen, one-handed operation is not cumbersome at all. And that’s the primary reason to enjoy the Nexus 7. It’s bigger than a phone and capable of doing more, but not so large that portability or weight becomes an issue.
The Nexus 7 has a 7-inch IPS screen, which makes it less desirable to people who want the power and size that the average 10-inch tablet offers. However, don’t take that to mean that the 7 is weak. On the contrary, it sports the same NVIDIA Tegra 3 quad-core processor found in favorites like the ASUS Transformer series, only it’s clocked at 1.3 GHz. Teamed with a 12 core GPU and 1 GB of RAM, the Tegra 3 processor allows the Nexus 7 to access a library of Tegra-targeted games with better graphics. It also means that the 4-plus-1 architecture can drop to lower speeds when watching video or performing less-intensive activity, allowing the device to conserve energy. Google promises 8 hours of continuous use for the 4325 mAh battery, and depending on your activities and brightness settings, you should get close to that.
A significant amount of memory is set aside, so there’s only 5.9 GB of usable space on the 8 GB model. The lack of a microSD card makes the storage pinch sting a little more
The IPS display is very reflective in direct sunlight and lacks the superiority of IPS+ displays. However, it does a solid job of color displays and brightness indoors or with moderate light, so you shouldn’t have many issues otherwise.
A 1.2 MP front-facing camera enables video chat, but there’s no rear camera, which may be a negative for users who want a camera on every device.
No MHL or HDMI-out means you can’t connect it to a larger screen.
SOFTWARE: Jelly Bean is bittersweet
The Nexus 7 is the first Android device to launch with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. That means it’s privy to the amazing and just-getting-started Google Now, a voice search and relevance engine that’s going to be a major part of Android very soon. It also has a new home screen launcher with clever tweaks like auto-arrange, a smarter and more feature-rich notification drawer, and offline voice typing.
Most important for tablet owners, Jelly Bean is visually the fastest Android device yet. Google stamped out much of Android’s perceived lag with Android 4.0, but that wasn’t enough. Android 4.1 included “Project Butter” to launch apps and switch between tasks 3x as fast as it previously did. It’s not so much that Android is that much faster (we’re talking a difference of milliseconds), but new animations and buffering techniques make a noticeable difference. The stuttering and pausing when switching between apps is dead and buried. Heck, even the lag time when switching between portrait and landscape has been significantly shortened.
Jelly Bean delivers a much improved experience on the phone and tablet, but Google curiously decided to showcase more of the phone aspect with the Nexus 7. You’ll notice the difference on the home screen, which forces portrait orientation rather than auto-rotating like on Honeycomb/ICS tablets, and the lack of settings toggles. Rooting the phone and a build.prop edit will enable the traditional tablet UI, but this is a disappointment for folks who opt not to root their devices. Apps should still recognize the Nexus 7 as a tablet and display their tablet UI (Evernote, Google+, and a few others I tested did), but some developers like Mint.com may opt to introduce 7-inch tablet-specific apps. The inclusion of Jelly Bean means that some apps aren’t yet compatible, Amex and Bank of America tablet apps for example, but this is a growing pain of all platform changes that should be fixed soon.
SOFTWARE: The Play Store means business
Amazon launched the Kindle Fire to be nothing more than a gateway to the company’s content services. The Nexus 7 is of a similar purpose, although there’s more wiggle room for consumers. The Nexus 7 is a Google Play box built with the explicit purpose of making a more portable and affordable device that can access the apps, books, magazines, music, movies and shows that populate the Play Store. That mostly plays out to great results.
Google Play is great, but it still has a lot of work to do when it comes to music, movies, and TV shows. The Music app is beautiful and can stream thousands of personal songs uploaded to the cloud just as easily as it can sell music. The Movies app recently added the ability to own rather than just rent, and the inclusion of TV shows has added thousands of hours of entertainment. The newly-added magazine app zooms quickly and can switch into a Google Currents-style text and photo format rather than the PDF-like default display. However, not all content creators have signed on to these programs, so there’s a big gap of missing content in every section. The utility of these services is also limited to a handful of countries. Only the United States can lay claim to having full access to Google Play, so international users can’t view the Nexus 7 as a one-stop shop.
On the bright side, Google Play has over 600,000 apps, so there are plenty of options to fill the gaps. Can’t get Google Music? That sucks, but there’s still Spotify and other music apps. You can also access Netflix, YouTube, and all your other favorite apps because there are enough sensors included (WiFi, Bluetooth, NFC, accelerometer, etc.) to ensure compatibility with most apps.
The Nexus 7’s low price and similar size automatically draws comparisons to the Amazon Kindle Fire, but there is no comparison. The Nexus 7 has better hardware, better software, a larger ecosystem, far more app choices, and an equal price. The Nexus 7 also has the flexibility to load Amazon’s apps, as well as that of Barnes & Noble or anything else you wish.
I’m sure the Kindle Fire will outsell the Nexus 7 because of Amazon’s retail power, but there’s really no reason to buy any 7-inch tablet other than Nexus 7 unless you are an Amazon diehard. I’d go one step further and say there’s a good chance that you’ll be happier purchasing the Nexus 7 over a number of the larger tablets. Someone who wants a tablet mainly to read and browse the web will find this to be the lighter, more comfortable solution. The Nexus 7 is the best value on the market, and unless you need a larger screen size, it’s arguably the best tablet for you to buy.