Update: We've now included new info on features within the Google Nexus 7, thanks to our longer-term tests, as well as a look at how the tablet was created in just a few months. We have also added in some commentary on updates and how the tablet performs over a longer period
Undoubtedly tired of watching OEMs make little headway in their uphill struggle against Apple's iPad, Google executives took the stage at this year's Google I/O developer conference to announce a branded 7-inch tablet of their own: the Google Nexus 7 by Asus.
Like other Nexus-branded devices, the Nexus 7 tablet isn't actually hardware manufactured by Google (as you may have noticed, thanks to the suffix). As the Mountain View company has done with Samsung, HTC and Motorola in the past, it paired with Asus to design and manufacture its slender tablet.
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It's a smart move: among Android tablets, Asus makes some of the best around, but matching the rock-bottom $199 price of Amazon's Kindle Fire while exceeding its meagre specs would be a challenge for any manufacturer.
And make no mistake: the Nexus 7 by Asus is more of an effort to stomp out Amazon's unwelcome (and forked) version of Android more than an attempt to dethrone Apple's reigning tablet champ.
The good news is that very little has been sacrificed along the way, unlike with Amazon's initial offering. According to Android boss Andy Rubin, Google's profit margin bears the brunt of any sacrifices made, from selling hardware at cost and from tossing in generous perks such as $25 of Google Play credit for every Nexus 7 owner.
But enough about why and how Google and Asus have released the Nexus 7: Is it worth even $199 of your hard-earned cash?
On paper, the specs for the Nexus 7 are quite impressive. Powered by a quad-core Tegra 3 processor with 1GB RAM and either 8GB (priced at $199 in US) or 16GB ($249) of onboard storage, this tablet runs circles around the Kindle Fire, rivaling many competing Android tablets at twice the price (or more).
The 7-inch 1200 x 800 HD backlit IPS display packs a respectable 216 pixels per inch onto the screen. Sure, it's not quite as impressive as a third-generation Retina Display iPad at 264ppi, but given the price, you will have little to complain about from the display.
The front of the Google Nexus 7 by Asus is devoid of hardware-based buttons, but a 1.2MP front-facing camera rests at the top of the tablet front, which is covered entirely by Corning glass (we're assuming Gorilla Glass, but Google isn't confirming).
Curiously, Google seems to buck the landscape trend made popular with most Android tablets.
While the Nexus 7 will indeed rotate for landscape use with apps, the home screen itself is fixed into portrait mode, as if Google wants to encourage users to hold it this way when not watching content designed for landscape views, such as movies or TV shows. Portrait mode even works when viewed with polarised sunglasses, while landscape mode goes black.
Unlike the Kindle Fire with its one lone button, Google has wisely opted for three basic hardware controls.
On the right side is a power/sleep button with a two-stage volume rocker just below; the rest is done using Android's on-screen software buttons for back, home and recent navigation, including rotation lock, which can be accessed via the notifications menu.
At the bottom of the unit is a micro USB port and 3.5mm headphone jack, while a thin speaker port is the only feature of note on the otherwise rubberised back, aside from Nexus and Asus branding. The top of the unit is devoid of ports entirely, although a small pinhole can be found here for the included microphone.
While the Google Nexus 7 is primarily made of plastic and glass, it certainly doesn't feel cheap. On the contrary, it feels almost as "premium" as one of Apple's tablets, with litte flex or other clues that Asus might have cut some corners in manufacturing - although we did notice some creakiness in our tablet sample between the bezel and the plastic cover.
Inside, the Nexus 7 packs the usual assortment of features, including an accelerometer, magnetometer and yes, even a gyroscope and GPS chip, nicely timed to take advantage of Google Maps' new offline mode for navigating when Wi-Fi isn't available.
It's almost hard to comprehend how small the Nexus 7 is until you hold its diminutive box in your hand. At a mere 198.5 x 120 x 10.45mm and weighing 340 grams, once out of the box, you can almost stack two Nexus 7 tablets side-by-side on one iPad, which is just one millimeter thinner.
Despite being so petite, Google and Asus managed to find space for a nice bezel around the screen itself (roughly 20mm top and bottom, 14mm on each side), making it plenty comfortable to hold without your fingers or thumbs getting in the way of the screen.
The pockmarked back recalls the same vibe as slipping on a pair of premium driving gloves, and this look and feel makes it quite nice to hold - and is devoid of camera. While our review unit arrived with a white back (similar to the ones gifted to developers at I/O this year), Google is only offering the black model to consumers.
Speaking of which, the Nexus 7 is available direct from the Google Play store, but the company has also rolled the tablet out at retail as well.
Display and interface
While Google and Asus have checked all the right boxes on the Nexus 7′s HD IPS display and it is indeed bright and rich in colour, we were disappointed to discover the overall contrast was somewhat muted on our review unit. (It's particularly noticeable on the home screens).
Maybe the iPad or even Asus's own Transformer has spoiled us, but the Nexus 7 seems to lack the kind of deep, rich black levels you might find on something like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus (which admittedly uses a more saturated, contrast-rich Super AMOLED display instead).
This quibble aside, viewing photos or other content on the Nexus 7 is quite enjoyable, with overall contrast faring much better while displaying such media. Without a second unit to compare it against, we're left to wonder if the brand-new Android 4.1 might be to blame for the lower contrast levels.
Which brings us to the other star of the show: Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, Google's latest version of its mobile operating system, which makes its debut on the Nexus 7. With Jelly Bean, Google has finally sanded down the rough spots in all the right places this time around.
Despite the modest point version increase from Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean introduces under-the-hood improvements such as "Project Butter," the company's new initiative to streamline the lag and general unresponsiveness Android has been notorious for in the past.
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While the Android 4.1 soft keyboard is one of the best around, we were also able to install our second favorite, SwiftKey 3 Tablet, which mostly worked aside from being able to type our Facebook username and password while setting up personalised predictions.
The main star of the Jelly Bean show is Google Now, a card-based information service that uses GPS in an effort to become one step ahead of the user. While the feature may be limited by Wi-Fi only connectivity on the Nexus 7, we've taken a deeper look at Google Now in our Android 4.1 review.
Coupled with the Tegra 3 processor and additional headroom afforded by 1GB of RAM, the Google Nexus 7 makes a great initial showcase for Jelly Bean.
Swiping through screens is fast and responsive – even on apps that haven't yet been updated for 4.1 – while flipping through one of the visually rich magazines now available from Google Play doesn't miss a beat. Ridiculous name aside, Project Butter delivers the goods.
Internet and connectivity
As you would expect from a Google tablet, the browsing experience is largely excellent, with the 7-inch screen feeling adequate for most sites.
The resolution means that zooming remains necessary at times thanks to text being too small, but double tapping is an effective way of avoiding the constant need to pinch, and the speedy processing power of the Google Nexus 7 means that the page renders smartly.
There are the usual problems that you get with most tablet browsing: when a page is still loading (nearly always an advert, of course) zooming can be inaccurate or laggy and there remains a slight delay in sharpness as the GPU re-renders what you are seeing.
If the page design includes a popover dialogue box, there are times when you simply can't hit the link that you need to - although this is more a failing of the Chrome browser than the tablet itself.
With many sites offering up mobile and desktop versions, the Nexus 7 is happy to serve up the former, but there is an option to 'request desktop version' that, in our tests, worked well for the majority of sites.
For people used to the frustrations of hitting the wrong link, the Nexus 7 has a familiar but still nifty trick up its tiny sleeve; if it is unsure if your sausage fingers meant to press a link that is next to another it will give a pop up zoom-in window of the section of the screen to clarify what you meant to press.
It's an elegant solution, especially if you are browsing something with lots of linked text close together, such as a forum or tags on a news page.
The Nexus 7 isn't exactly what we'd call pocket-friendly – although it certainly could be when compared to the iPad – the only downside of having a small, light tablet like this is that it's currently limited to Wi-Fi connectivity. We'd love to see one of these puppies equipped with 4G or 3G data connectivity, for example.
That said, Wi-Fi isn't exactly hard to come by these days, and the Nexus 7 is ready to take on almost any wireless network you want to throw at it, even if it's being tethered from a mobile hotspot.
The tablet comes standard with 802.11b/g/n, although regrettably it's only of the 2.4GHz variety, rather than the superfast 5GHz band. No matter, it's plenty fast enough for modern broadband speeds (and then some).
Bluetooth is also on hand, although Google doesn't reveal which version.
Regardless, it's a nice feature to have, and one notably absent from rival tablets in the same price range (Amazon, we're looking at you).
Of course, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have become standard features these days, and the Google Nexus 7 goes one step beyond by including a near-field communication (NFC) chip, supporting both Android Beam for pushing files between compatible devices, as well as Google Wallet for contactless payment.
We didn't have much luck using Android Beam to transfer a photo between the Nexus 7 and a Samsung Galaxy Nexus running Android 4.0.4 – the tablet just threw up an error claiming the smartphone doesn't support "large file transfers." Switching over to a Galaxy Nexus running Android 4.1, however, got things working just as magically as Google claims.
Despite already receiving a free $10 prepaid card on our Galaxy Nexus after registering for Google Wallet (not available in the UK), our Google Nexus 7 review unit happily granted us a second bonus after initialising the app there.
Oddly, even though we used the same Gmail account on both devices, the remaining balance on our Galaxy Nexus didn't carry over to the tablet; Wallet users with multiple devices should be careful, and top up prepaid cards on the device they plan to shop with.
Wireless connectivity otherwise worked exactly as you'd expect, and running the SpeedTest app with Wi-Fi actually produced slightly higher numbers from our AT&T U-verse broadband than either the new iPad or the Samsung Galaxy Nexus on the same network.
Camera and gallery
With the Nexus 7, Google and Asus have abandoned the notion of offering a rear-facing camera on an Android tablet. It's probably a smart move – after all, how many of us have actually used the generally crummy cameras on our tablets anyway?
Instead, the Nexus 7 features a more practical 1.2MP front-facing camera, although Google chose to eliminate the dedicated Camera app from the device itself. It's understandable, especially with so many third-party candidates available from Google Play, but it does make the camera somewhat worthless for those just taking it out of the box. (Google Talk does come preinstalled, and a third-party Camera Launcher app is already available for restoring the Camera app).
To test drive the camera, we installed the free Skype app from Google Play. Although it complained about the app not being certified for our device at first launch, we had no problem signing in and making a few video calls, connecting with other users on a MacBook Air and an iPad 2.
Unfortunately, you're likely to have far less luck with popular photo-taking apps such as Instagram. Browsing that title on Google Play throws up an error that "your device isn't compatible with this version," and we're waiting for Facebook to tweak the app accordingly.
The stock Android Gallery app looks quite nice on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, with large, gapless tiles of images that can be viewed as a slideshow with just a tap. Images load quickly and the Nexus 7 displays them in all their vivid, rich colour and detail.
The Gallery app also offers a wide range of editing and crop tools to enhance photos before sharing them, which includes the aforementioned Android Beam for tapping two devices together to make the transfer, no Wi-Fi or Bluetooth required.
Last but not least, Nexus 7 makes life easy on developers, tech journalists and even support folks by allowing screenshots to be taken simply by holding down the power/lock and volume down buttons at the same time. All Android OEMs should follow their lead and make it this simple.
Battery life and storage
By now you might be thinking a tablet this thin and light with a gorgeous display and high-powered, quad-core processor must have an Achilles' heel – and it's probably poor battery life, right?
Such an assumption would be wrong. Google and Asus packed a generous 4325mAh battery into the Nexus 7, which promises up to eight hours of "active use." Yeah, not terribly scientific, we know, but considering we're not dealing with 3G/4G data connection here, eight hours for something this small and thin is quite impressive.
To get there, the companies had to seal the battery – you won't be popping the back off to slap in another one when that last bit of juice is gone, but since few tablets offer swappable batteries to begin with, we're OK with this.
While our casual use over a couple of days supports Google's battery claim, would-be buyers might have more to fret about with the relatively modest amounts of storage offered: The Nexus 7 is sold in both 8GB and 16GB capacities for $199 or $249, respectively.
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The dilemma is amplified by the fact that Google and Asus have chosen to leave out the microSD card slot that's become a staple of many Android tablets. This means the only way to expand available storage is through Wi-Fi-enabled hard drives or removable flash storage such as AirStash.
In practice, however, 8GB of storage on our review unit was hardly an issue. Google designed the Nexus 7 to work hand in hand with Google Play, meaning that movies, TV shows and music can be streamed right to your device instead of being stored locally.
Subscribers to the likes of Netflix as well as home media server lovers who use Plex will be able to get by just fine with the default 8GB. This leaves plenty of space for apps, books and magazines from Google Play, which clearly benefit from being stored on the device for when an internet connection isn't available.
Bottom line: If you're concerned about storage, fork over the extra $50 now for 16GB of storage, especially if you download plenty of large games or prefer to sideload your own content.
Apps and Play
Speaking of content, Google offers a generous selection from its Play store, absolutely free after activating your Nexus 7 with a Google account. Most key Google apps come preinstalled, but others such as Reader or even Google Voice can be installed from Play with ease.
In addition to a $25 Google Play credit just for buying a Nexus 7, you'll find a selection of magazines, including current issues of Popular Science, Family Circle, Condé Nast Traveler, Food Network Magazine and Esquire waiting for you.
Magazines are new to Google Play, although in our opinion, the 7-inch display is a bit small for comfortably reading such content without switching to text-only view.
Google is also trying to encourage Play Books reading by throwing Nexus 7 owners a free copy of Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Dominion, the latest chapter in Jason Bourne's spy saga first released last summer. There's also free content waiting in your Google Play Music account, while Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon is included to celebrate Google's newfound ability to purchase film and TV content rather than renting it.
All in all, it's a great deal that makes the $199 Nexus 7 (or even the $249 16GB model) one of the best value tablets on the market. Savvy users can even keep the free stuff coming by side-loading the competing Amazon Appstore and taking advantage of its Free App of the Day offering (although this isn't available in places like the UK).
For the most part, apps work as expected on the Nexus 7. The newly tablet-ised Google+ app actually makes us want to use that social desert more now, while Google Maps – complete with its excellent (and free) Navigation – looks quite slick on the larger display, and actually quite usable in the car for turn-by-turn directions, assuming you save maps for the areas you're traveling in before leaving home first.
While most apps adapt well to the 7-inch screen, others suffer from being chained to the smartphone. For example, SpeedTest.net appears as a small, phone-sized block in the centre of the screen, surrounded by black (think of iPhone apps viewed on the iPad without 2x mode).
It's worth noting that the only competitive advantage of the Kindle Fire over the Nexus 7 is its ability to purchase and view movies or TV shows – an advantage that seems to be exclusive to that device, given that Amazon has yet to offer an Instant Video app on any other platform.
One pleasant surprise was GrooVe IP, a paid third-party app from Google Play that enables free VoIP calling over Wi-Fi. Not only did it install without a hitch, but we were able to make clear calls to landline and cell phones for free right from the tablet.
As an ebook reader the Nexus 7 is surprisingly useful, although for those with a Kindle or similar there are inherent advantages to the e-ink technology.
Using the Kindle app or Google's Play Books app means that you can download and sync your books quickly and efficiently and the text is nicely displayed.
Google responded to being dropped from iOS devices by updating its maps - and the latest version works beautifully with the rather large proviso that this is not a 3G device and therefore is only really useful if you plan ahead and download a section of maps.
In fact, time with Apple's maps highlight just how good Google Maps are; you certainly won't be looking enviously over an iPad user's shoulder unless it's to ask if they can set up a WiFi hotspot.
Its diminutive size means that holding it in one hand is practical, and that makes it an effective option for those looking to carry lots of books around with them. Obviously the fact that it's backlit means that you don't need a separate light or light case to read in the dark.
Page turning is done with a swipe or tap on either side of the screen, and through the Play Books app this is niftily animated (the Kindle app offers a more clunky sliding solution, but it doesn't really detract from the reading experience).
When reading, the familiar Android home, back and multitasking shrink to dots, giving you more space to see the all important words.
Overall, Android still has a tablet problem, with many apps attempting to adapt to the tablet screen rather than being expressly written for it. Apple clearly has the upper hand here, but now that Google has gifted Nexus 7 tablets to 6,000 of its most adoring developers, we're hoping that situation will improve in the months ahead.
It's also decent as an ebook reader, which is handy given its size - we're just not sure it's really got enough to sway people from a dedicated Kindle though.
We've fondled our fair share of tablets since the iPad redefined the category back in 2010. The Google Nexus 7 by Asus doesn't quite stack up in terms of specs to Apple's media darling – and nor should it, considering the iPad sells for at least twice the price. It's most certainly the best tablet for the budget-conscious, and thanks to that it's a match for the Apple offering.
Long term thoughts
In fact, having spent months with the Google Nexus 7, we're delighted to tell you that this is a tablet that just keeps giving.
Having the option of the Nexus 7 when out and about is a major boon. At its price point, the Nexus 7 brings not only impressive specs, but also the knowledge that it is replaceable, making it a device you can throw in your bag without any major worries.
Google Now remains infuriating, particularly outside of the US where the company cannot provide train information or adequate coverage of sports teams, but the potential for the service is massive and we are hoping it will continue to improve.
Even with some fairly casual treatment, our device is scratch-free and working as well as it did out of the box, and the 7 inch screen and low weight makes it a versatile media player, backup ebook reader and mini-gaming machine on the go.
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Hey, we're suckers for free stuff, so the goodie basket Google includes with the purchase of a Nexus 7 is definitely worth another mention here. We also can't wait to see an army of Nexus 7 owners marching to local stores, where they'll whip out a 7-inch tablet to pay for goods using Google Wallet.
Like many recent Asus tablet products, the build quality is on par with Apple. Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is exactly the right step for Google at this stage, focusing on enhancing the existing user experience – especially given the low penetration of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich – instead of throwing cool new features against the wall to see what sticks.
Although the Google Nexus 7 by Asus has very good Wi-Fi and we were able to tether from a mobile hotspot with ease, we'd love to see a slightly more expensive model with 4G or 3G, accompanied by sweet month-to-month data plans, in the near future.
Android is still playing catch-up when it comes to tablet-friendly apps, but we're hopeful those kinks will start to get ironed out if and when consumers gravitate to the Nexus 7.
Our biggest lament is the muted contrast of the otherwise stellar IPS display; while it's not a total dealbreaker, we're holding out hope that Google might push out a software update to bring the gamma levels in line with competing hardware, assuming it's not simply a glitch with our review unit.
One compliment we can pay to the Nexus 7 is that it makes us want an iPad mini too. Not because Google's tablet is bad, because it very much isn't – we just think there's a lot of potential for something between an iPod touch and a 9.7-inch iPad, and the Nexus 7 finally validates that.
The 7-inch market has been criminally under-served since the launch of the original Samsung Galaxy Tab (Kindle Fire excepted), so some competition between a new iPad and this stellar tablet from Google would be warmly welcomed.
Yes, there will be plenty of average folks who can't afford to drop a few hundred dollars or pounds for some casual tablet fun, favouring the less expensive Nexus 7 over the iPad – and perhaps for that reason Apple will have a little more fear over its commanding market share over the tablet market.
In the short term, though, the Kindle Fire has the most to fear from Google and Asus. Instant Video aside, Amazon has flat out been blown away in the low budget price range it pioneered, by a more appealing and capable device.
Like a bucket of water being used to douse the Kindle's flames, Google appears poised to reclaim any tablet ground lost since the introduction of Amazon's forked version of Android. It may not tread a lot of new ground, but the Nexus 7 is a solid performer and easily the best tablet around for the thriftier buyer.