Revisiting the Nexus 7 (2013): Still one of the best tablets?
February 10, 2014
It's been more than six months since we reviewed the 2013 Nexus 7. Since then it's received a big software update, along with some new competition. Join Gizmag, as we revisit the 2nd-gen Nexus 7 half a year later.
When the latest Nexus 7 launched, it was without peers as the first mini-tablet with a high-resolution display. We knew that its rivals would show up soon after, but we still appreciated Google's and Asus' giving us a "Retina Display" (to borrow Apple's marketing) on a small slate a few months before the rest of the herd did.
Now the Nexus 7 has a growing gaggle of competitors. The most prominent is Apple's own iPad mini with Retina Display, but there's also the 7-in Kindle Fire HDX, LG G Pad 8.3 (including the preferred Google Play Edition), and Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4. These tablets all pack 270+ PPI screens, and fall within that 7- to 8.4-in compact size range. With so many strong rivals breathing down its neck, can we still, in good faith, recommend the 2013 Nexus 7?
You bet. The biggest factor in the Nexus 7's resilience is the overall value it provides. Starting at US$230, it's tied with the Kindle Fire HDX for the cheapest in that bunch. If you just want a basic media tablet, then the Fire gives you a faster processor and longer battery life. But if you're looking for a more versatile operating system and a more robust app selection, the Fire's software can be a deal-breaker. The Nexus 7 gives you the latest version of stock Android (4.4.2 KitKat) along with the Play Store and all of Google's services. The Fire HDX has none of the above.
As for the others? Well, the G Pad 8.3 starts at $350, and the Retina iPad mini and the Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 start at $400. That's a $120-170 savings that the Nexus 7 gives you. Of course it also has a smaller screen, but if you can live with its 7-in display then its balance of hardware and software is hard to beat.
Six months later, that screen size is still the biggest compromise that the Nexus 7 begs of you. In the standard configuration, with navigation bar (like you see above) firmly planted on the bottom of the screen and status bar living on top, it's pretty cramped. I personally find this too small to use as my main tablet – especially with all of these great 8-in tablets with razor-sharp screens now sitting next to it.
But if you're comfortable with a little hacking, you can vastly improve the Nexus 7's available real estate. I rooted the tablet (fairly easy if you're familiar with these things, pretty difficult if you aren't) and added a few tweaks that let every app use 100 percent of the screen. I use pie controls (familiar to anyone who's ever run a Cyanogenmod or Paranoid Android ROM) for navigation, which I find to be quicker and easier to use than the stock navbar. Swipe up from the bottom of the screen, slide your finger towards the home, back, or recent apps button on the small half-wheel that pops up, and enjoy the best of both worlds: easy navigation and ample screen real estate.
If you're considering such a tweak, then there are several ways to go about it. The best and easiest way I found was, after rooting, to install the device-liberating Xposed Installer along with a feature-filled Xposed module called GravityBox. GravityBox let me set the status bar to immersive mode (it stays hidden until you swipe down from the top of the screen) and hide the standard navigation bar completely. That's also where I set up that aforementioned pie launcher.
All in all, it's a terrific setup. And though rooting isn't for the faint of heart, if you proceed carefully it can basically take all compromise out of the Nexus 7's smallish screen. If you aren't comfortable with such hacking (and the warranty-breaking risk that always accompanies it) then you might want to first play with a Nexus 7 in a store to see if its available screen area – after accounting for the navbar and status bar – is too small for you.
The Nexus 7 is very light (290 g) and pretty comfortable to hold. My biggest beef is that it has very thin side bezels (similar to the iPad mini), but Google didn't add any code that rejects accidental touches on the edge of the screen. Apple did that with both the iPad Air and iPad mini and it makes a huge difference. You can get a good grip on the side of the tablet (in portrait mode) without any worry. On the Nexus 7 you have to hold onto only the bezel, or end up registering your grip as a touch on the screen.
A huge deal? No way – and you can always hold it in landscape to avoid this problem altogether. But I think it's still significant enough to note.
As for the update to Android 4.4.2 KitKat (it ran 4.3 Jelly Bean when it launched), I don't think it makes a huge difference on the user end. KitKat's most obvious experiential upgrade, the Google Now launcher, isn't yet on the Nexus 7. And Android's new immersive mode, similar to the full-screen hack I mentioned, only pops up in a short list of select apps (Google Play Books, YouTube, and Instapaper, to name a few). KitKat also gives you some performance tweaks, as well as some nice features like built-in cloud printing. But don't expect a radically different experience from the Jelly Bean-running Nexus 7 we reviewed last July.
Battery life still isn't amazing, though it's probably going to last long enough for most typical use. We ran it through a test where we streamed video with brightness set at 75 percent, and it only lasted about three hours and 20 minutes. That's way off the pace set by the Retina iPad mini in the same test (it lasted almost 11 hours). Fortunately the Nexus 7's screen is very bright – significantly brighter than the iPad mini's – so that likely accounts for some of the discrepancy. I usually find about 30-50 percent brightness on the Nexus 7 to be plenty light, even during daytime. This lower setting really extends those uptimes. Even with my heavier-than-typical use, I rarely have any problems getting through a full day with the Nexus 7.
Performance wasn't an issue when we originally reviewed the Nexus 7, and it still isn't. Sure, its Snapdragon S4 Pro is a generation behind record-setting Snapdragon 800 devices like the Kindle Fire HDX and Nexus 5, but in terms of experience I'd say they're both well past the point of concern. I've never noticed any lag, choppiness, or frame rate issues in any app I've used on the Nexus 7.
So to answer the question we posed in the title – is the 2013 Nexus 7 still one of the best tablets – the answer is still an unequivocal "yes." It has a terrific, sharp, and bright display. It's very compact and light. It runs the latest version of Android – with no custom skins or bloatware in sight. Its battery life could be better, it could be more comfortable to hold in portrait mode, and if left unhacked its screen can be cramped. But there are ways around all of these minor issues. And with a $230 starting price, it's really hard to be too picky. Six months later the 2nd-gen Nexus 7 is still a high-end tablet with a low-end price tag. Still great, still highly recommended – with only a few minor caveats.
You can pick up the Google/Asus Nexus 7 (2013) from Google's product page below, or from a variety of online and brick & mortar retailers.
Product page: Google PlayShare
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