Review: Nexus 7

As a user of the first-generation iPad, and owner of the 3rd-generation iPad, I found myself using it more and more for consumption of media and news, but ultimately being dissatisfied with the 10-inch display–it’s too large. If only Apple made a 7-inch iPad, I kept thinking. Android tablets in the 7-inch market are available, but sorely lack in most respects.

When rumors of a Google tablet costing just $200 first surfaced, I was intrigued but skeptical. After all, the Kindle Fire had yet to be released, and competing Android-based tablets in the $200-range were preposterously poor devices. Still, with the release of the Kindle Fire, Amazon proved that a $200 tablet could not only be a decent piece of hardware, but commercially successful as well.

Days before the Google I/O 2012 conference started, reports that Google would announce a 7-inch tablet for $200 once again surfaced, this time with varying amounts of evidence to back it up. This time it was clear that rumor was turning into reality, and that Amazon would soon have some real competition in the 7-inch market.

With Google’s announcement of the Nexus 7, I was hooked. Here was a great-looking tablet, with the right size and form-factor, full Google experience, and not-underwhelming specs for only $200. I hopped on the bandwagon and pre-ordered, opting for the 16GB version, and the extra $50. My iPad went to my wife, who’s happily playing Angry Birds at this very moment.

So, once my Nexus 7 arrived, I was excited and anxious to put it through its paces. Did it live up to the expectations? Does it reflect true competition for the iPad? Is it worth plunking down the $200-250 to buy one? Read on for the answers.


Hardware

Manufactured by ASUS, the hardware itself is handsome and well-built. Measuring just 0.41 inches thick, it’s just slightly thicker than the 3rd-gen iPad (0.37 inches), but feels much nicer. The back is a dimpled-rubberized surface, which feels almost like leather. It’s a premium-feeling material, rivaling even the most expensive Android tablets available. I found the back preferable in feel to the iPad, whose aluminum was always cold, and in danger of being constantly dented or scuffed. There is no rear-facing camera on the Nexus 7, in an apparent attempt to cut down on costs. This is actually a good thing; after all, who really shoots video with a tablet (no matter the size).

The device also exudes minimalism, as there are only a power button and volume rocker switch, headphone jack, and micro-USB jack for charging/connecting to the computer. Though some would argue that it’s missing some necessary ports (such as HDMI, and a micro-SD card slot), I found it to be a nice balance, and believe it will make the Nexus 7 more accessible to a wider user-base.

The front of the device continues the minimalism as a flat black slate, interrupted only by the front-facing camera near the top. No buttons, no obvious border (with the screen turned off), and nothing else to get in the way of the screen. It really is an impressive piece of hardware, just looking at it. It’s also fairly eye-catching. Several people took notice of it as it sat on my desk, looking sleek and mysterious. One complaint here would be that the screen does not appear to be any type of Gorilla Glass, and has a standard coating, rather than Apple’s oleophobic one; as a result, fingerprints are much more noticeable than on the iPhone or iPad–so much so, you’ll find yourself cleaning the screen very frequently.

Still, the look of the tablet took a little while to grow on me. It was immediately clear that this product, while well-built, was intended to hit a very low price point. The packaging was austere, trying to be like Apple in simplicity, but failing to deliver the premium feel of their packaging. It’s difficult to describe, but it was clear that the materials used in the packaging were designed to be sufficient, and that’s all. This perhaps initially skewed by impressions of the Nexus 7, as I had grown used to opening Apple packaging, and being treated to an experience, rather than just an unboxing.

Specifications:

Rather than go down every single spec of the Nexus 7, I’ll refer you to the best place to get that type of information: GDGT.com

The specs of the Nexus 7 are rather impressive, actually:

  • That 7-inch, 1280 x 800 display is less dense than the latest iPad’s Retina display, but much higher resolution than the competing devices, such as the Kindle Fire. As a result, this screen looks beautiful, and more than serves as an adequate display for a tablet of this size.
  • As mentioned before, I went with the 16GB configuration, since the Nexus 7 lacks expandable memory of any sort. I don’t carry a LOT of media on my devices, but certainly would need more than 8GB to avoid having to continually manage my memory.
  • The Nexus 7 is WiFi-only, which isn’t really a problem, though it still would have been nice to have some type of cellular option (though of course this would have increased costs beyond the $200 base-point.)
  • The front-facing camera is a 1.3 megapixel, which looks significantly better than the iPad’s front-facing camera. For basic video calling, it’s more than sufficient.
  • The processor is the nVidia Tegra 3, which is a quad-core processor with 1GB of RAM. This means for a $200 tablet, it’s got one of the highest-horsepower chips available at the time.

In all, for $200, you really are getting a fantastic piece of hardware, which Google and ASUS are essentially selling for very little profit. It’s clear that Google must be subsidizing these somehow with ASUS, and hoping to get more people buying into the Play Market (more on that later) to help offset the costs.

 


Performance

General performance of the Nexus 7 is very good. The responsiveness is excellent, and it’s clear how far Android has come the past few years. I’ve played around with Honeycomb-based tablets before, and never really cared for the interface. Having last used Android on a daily basis with Gingerbread, I hadn’t had much experience with the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) release, so don’t have much comparison to provide. What I can say is that Android 4.1 Jellybean is very much more responsive than any prior version of Android I’ve seen. In fact, it really outperforms iOS on the 3rd-generation iPad, as far as snappiness and speed of operating. That’s not to say that the iPad still doesn’t feel superior, with its swooping animations, and graceful touch-responsiveness. The Nexus 7 feels great to use, but still doesn’t seem as quite smooth as iOS–just snappier.

After a few days of use, however, it’s clear just how fast this thing is. Apps open instantly, and the multitasking is just as fast. It really torches performance on the iPad, especially when attempting to navigate quickly between several apps. Swiping through the app drawer, or between home screens, or opening up new tabs in Chrome–all of them feel so much faster than the iPad, that it nearly relegates the iPad to a lower-class device. No, the responsiveness isn’t quite as fluid as the iPad, but I’m happy to trade the sheer speed for the just-better touch responsiveness.

During the course of my usage, I recognized one noticeable issue: the screen would flicker. This happens mostly when using the Chrome browser, but occasionally I see it in other scenarios. Ordinarily, I would be more concerned, but reading of similar complaints online seem to indicate this is a software bug, and that it should be resolved in future releases. It’s not all that noticeable, and isn’t particularly annoying, so I’m waiting for Google to release an update that will hopefully resolve the problem. Even Apple isn’t immune to these types of problems, as their just-manufactured devices often come with a yellowish tinge to the screen, while the glue continues drying. In today’s world, where companies seemingly can’t manufacture these electronics fast enough, there’s bound to be a few bumps in the road; that’s what warranties are for. I’m happy to give Google and ASUS the benefit of the doubt here.

Battery Life has been quite impressive. The Nexus 7 is rated for up to 8 hours of use, which I would say may actually be conservative. With heavy usage, I was still able to get through the entire workday, and most of the evening before needing to charge the Nexus 7. With light usage, I could see it lasting perhaps 2 full days without charging, but most likely, I’ll be charging it every night. With my iPad, I could go at least a couple of days, even with fairly heavy usage, without charging. I’m sure I could do some battery optimization to get the Nexus 7 to that point, but it should be more than sufficient for most users.

Webpage rendering is just as good, if not slightly better than the iPad. Since Chrome is not relegated to the restrictions of Apple, it’s able to run at full speed. Of course, everyone’s mileage may vary, as your Internet connection and WiFi signal strength have a lot of bearing on that performance as well. My Nexus 7 performs far better at home than at work, where I have weaker signal. Though as fast as Chrome is on the Nexus 7, since Flash is no longer supported with Android 4.1, there are times where a webpage wants Flash, but can’t find it. On the iPad, that same webpage would typically deliver HTML 5 video, giving the iPad the advantage (irony abounds here, I know). Until the web starts providing HTML 5 video for all browser, regardless of device, this is one disadvantage for the Nexus 7; it’s not a deal-breaker, but potential buyers should be aware of it.


Software

  • Android 4.1 (JellyBean)
    The Nexus 7 comes with Google’s latest version of the Android operating system, 4.1, also named Jellybean. This version is really an incremental upgrade from 4.0 ICS, and continues refining the Android experience into a truly unified operating system. Many of the improvements are targeted more toward smartphones, however, rather than tablets. Since the Nexus 7 is the first tablet to use Jellybean, it will be interesting to see how larger tablets work with this new version.
  • Project Butter
    Android 4.1 includes ‘Project Butter’ which is designed to provide smoother animations and performance when scrolling, tapping, etc. For the most part, it seems to work very well, as I’ve noticed no problems with scrolling, or any lag while using the device. It really is amazingly fast and smooth.
  • Google Now
    Google Now is a new platform that tries to provide helpful information at a glance, based on your Google search history, location, etc. Google’s announcement of this platform seemed to promise more than it actually delivers–though it’s very promising.The idea of Google Now is that it acts as a personal assistant, providing you with the information you’ll need before you have to ask for it. For example, after searching for Houston Astros scores, Google Now began showing me scorecards for Astros games. It even sends me a notification when a game is starting.After searching for local restaurants, Google Now provides me with driving directions to said restaurant (whether I asked for them or not). Perhaps the most intriguing aspect so far is Google Now alerting you when to leave for an appointment, based on the commute time to get there. Though it promises to provide public transit times as well, I have been unable to test that, not really being a mass-transit commuter.Where Google Now falls short is in a few areas. For example, the route it suggests for my commute to work is not the one I would prefer to take, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to modify it. It’s too bad, as it could really be useful, if it could be made to use my preferred route.It’s clear that Google Now is a very early incarnation of the platform, but it shows a lot of promise. For those who travel frequently, the cards that it provides could potentially be much more useful–such as the flight information card, and translation cards–but for day-to-day use at home, it’s far too limited at this point to be genuinely helpful. Hopefully Google will rapidly expand this platform, and provide added functionality. It would also be nice to see it integrated into a home screen widget somehow, to avoid having to actually launch it manually.
  • Improved Voice Capabilities
    The Voice Search in Android 4.1 is truly impressive–rivaling that of Siri on iOS. You can ask the Nexus 7 plain-english questions, and get feedback much like Siri would provide–though the voice is much more natural-sounding in Android 4.1. Questions like “Who’s the Prime Minister of France” will respond with the correct information, as well as a picture, and Google search results beneath.Technically part of Google Now, this new search also allows for some voice commands. For instance, you can ask it to set an alarm for 7am, or set a timer for 20 minutes (timers are treated as an alarm.) Sadly, there’s no calendar integration, so you can’t ask it to set appointments, or move them around, and it won’t yet support updating Facebook or Twitter, though it appears to be coming (see screen shots above). With improvements, Google Voice Search could one-up Siri, and become an invaluable tool for Android users.The accuracy of speech recognition is far better than Apple’s as well, especially with the ability to download an offline dictionary, and use voice-to-text without an Internet connection. Since the Nexus 7 is a WiFi-only device, this makes a lot of sense, and becomes a very nice feature to have.
  • Improved Notifications
    Android 4.1 improves the notifications significantly over previous iterations of Android. There are now much more useful interactive notifications, such as small previews of the email messages received, the ability to quick-respond to meeting attendees if you’re running a few minutes behind, and seeing Google+ pictures right from the notifications window. Android has always had one of the better notification systems, and Jellybean only serves to continue improving on that system.
  • Improved Widgets
    Jellybean also improves on what has always been an annoying and sometimes frustrating experience with Android widgets. If you tried moving a widget to a screen that didn’t have enough room, you’d be forced to drop it on another screen. 4.1 improves on this by automatically re-sizing widgets for the available space, or shifting other on-screen widgets to another location to allow room. It doesn’t always work, and often times, you still have to clear space before-hand, but once widget-makers adapt their widgets to this system, it should dramatically improve the use of widgets in Android.
  • No More Rotating Home screen
    Whether this will be the case for all Android 4.1 tablets, or just the Nexus 7 and other 7-inch tablets remains to be seen, but the lack of home screen rotation on the Nexus 7 is somewhat frustrating. Nearly every single app allows for rotation, but when jumping back to the home screen, or going into the multi-tasking screen, you’re forced back into portrait mode, only to then go back to landscape once you’re into the app you want. It’s clear that portrait mode is the preferred orientation by Google, but a large amount of non-reading apps will naturally want landscape mode. I would hope–and imagine–that Google will update this at some point, to allow for a rotated home screen (especially since installing a 3rd-party launcher can already accomplish this), but for now, it’s a bit annoying to have to constantly rotate the Nexus 7 back and forth.

Google Play Market

The Play market has expanded with the release of the Nexus 7 to include magazines. Not only can single issues be purchased, but subscriptions are also available. While Google is quick to promote their specialized reading mode, I was never able to locate it, therefore magazine reading required a lot of pinching and zooming, and far more scrolling than was comfortable. This is one area where the iPad–with the larger screen–has the advantage. Magazine selection is actually rather decent, and the pricing isn’t bad at all, however, Zinio still seems the better model, as it’s cross-platform availability allows you read titles on devices other than just an Android tablet. It may cost a tad more, but it’s nice to be device-agnostic when it comes to the ability to read what you’re paying for.

Unfortunately, where the Play Market falls truly flat is in movies and TV shows–movies most especially. With the higher-resolution display, users will undoubtedly want to watch movies and TV shows in HD, however, the cost of a movie in HD in the Play market is outrageous, running somewhere around $15-20 on average. Not all movies are available for purchase, either, with a large portion being rental-only. Even with the $25 Google Play credit one receives for purchasing the Nexus 7, it’s difficult to squander a vast percentage of that credit on just a single film.

Books are something I can’t really commit to with Google’s market. I’ve been a Kindle owner for far too long to switch systems now, and the fact that Kindle apps are available for every conceivable platform make it much too easy to continue buying from Amazon. Indeed, the Nexus 7 has caused me to consider dropping my standalone Kindle altogether, as it’s an excellent reading device on its own–if only the Kindle app would do the text-to-speech like the Kindle devices, I’d dump Amazon’s hardware.

Another unfortunate drawback to the Nexus 7 (as of launch time) is the lack of available tablet-specific apps. Even those that are tablet-specific may not work with the Nexus 7. One example of this is the new Rovio game Amazing Alex, which for about a week claimed it was incompatible with my Nexus. Finally, it allowed me to install the game, but it took some time to become compatible. The Square Reader app still refuses to install, though I can’t think of any reason why it would be incompatible. This just compounds the Android problem: there are not enough tablet-specific apps. Many apps have updated to be compatible, but simply offer a scaled-up version to fit the larger screen; Android needs more quality tablet-based apps, in order to more effectively compete with Apple.

It would be unfair to say that the Android app ecosystem lacks variety, however, as I was able to find nearly every single app I used on my iPad for Android as well. A few minor exceptions aside, the app options are nearly identical. One disappointing app, however, is Flipboard for Android, which looks ridiculous when blown up to 7-inch proportions. It’s unfortunate that Flipboard has no current plans to update their Android app to match the iOS version. Still, for my purposes, I’ve found plenty of amazing apps–maybe more than for the iPad, in fact.


Summary

In the end, the Nexus 7 is a pretty fantastic tablet–one that’s drawing no small amount of envy by those around me. Many stalwart Apple fans have pledged their intention to buy one for themselves, and the smaller form factor seems to have won over quite a few skeptics of the size. At $200, it’s nearly an impulse purchase.

The smaller 7-inch screen not only works better for reading, but also for playing games (it’s the perfect size for holding in landscape mode), and watching videos while kicked back in bed. The fact that it fits in pockets (albeit wide ones), makes it much more portable than the iPad.

For most, it’s difficult to say if this would compete directly with an iPad. In my case, it does, but for others, they may not be comfortable with the smaller size. For those who have held out on buying an iPad, due to the cost, it may be an affordable option. However, with an iPad Mini rumored to be coming up soon, it’s difficult to say whether it’s worth waiting to see what Apple has cooked up.

For those considering the Kindle Fire, the Nexus 7 is a no-brainer. The only function missing from Google’s version is the ability to watch Amazon Prime Video; if Amazon makes that available to standard Android users (and they should), there’s really no reason for the Kindle Fire at all.

The Nexus 7 is most certainly the best $200 tablet available on the market today, and is actually one of the best tablets period. The more-than-reasonable price also makes it absolutely the best tablet value around, and one impossible not to recommend.


– Reviewed by Bradley K. Brown