Review: Nexus 7 Android tablet
By Nick Gilbert
July 31, 2012
The Nexus 7 is an innocuous looking little device. The unassuming face of Google's first foray into the tablet world has no hardware buttons aside from the power button and volume rocker, and the lithe 7-inch form factor means it can be slipped away into your bag or even jacket pocket. With prices starting at US$199 for the 8 GB model, the device has basically sold out on its first run in the U.S. So is this early success just a question of cost, or is it a genuinely good Android tablet? We take the Nexus 7 for a spin to find out.
The Nexus 7, especially for a tablet of this size, packs some serious hardware grunt. A quad core Tegra 3 processor provides the processing power, with 1GB of RAM providing enough memory, in tandem with Android's fairly robust multi-tasking abilities, to handle the variety of tasks a typical day of use can throw at it. The device itself comes with either 8 or 16GB of onboard storage, depending on how much cash you're prepared to splurge (we've been using the $199 8 GB variant, the 16 GB model costs $249).
Unless you want to store your entire music library or a collection of HD movies locally, either size will probably serve your needs, and Google is angling this as a cloud device "made for" its Play store. The lack of an SD expansion card slot, however, means that you're stuck with whatever you started with.
While were talking HD movies - the 1200 x 800, 216 pixels per inch display on the 7-inch screen delivers stellar visual quality on the go. The processing power means HD playback is as smooth as silk - in our time watching the included free copy of Transformers 2, we didn't notice any artifacts or dropped frames (and we can't really blame the tablet for the quality of the film itself). Viewing angles are great, but given the screen size you’re going to want to view this head-on as much as possible. We wouldn’t have minded seeing an HDMI slot on this for video output onto the big home TV screen, but it’s hard to complain given the budget price Google has achieved.
Battery life is certainly good for this form factor – moderate usage will still leave you with some in the tank at the end of a working day. The 4325 mAh battery (specced at "up to 8 hours of active use") is quite generous compared to the size of the tablet, but we suspect the battery life is mostly helped by the fact that the Nexus 7 doesn't carry a mobile data antenna, one of the main culprits behind low battery life problems amongst the 7's smartphone brethren.
In an interesting, though really not surprising move, Google has ditched the rear facing camera on this device, opting for a solitary 1.2 MP camera on the front face for video calling. Given the awkwardness of using a tablet as a camera this strikes us as a smart decision that no doubt allows Google to add more hardware grunt in other places while keeping the price down.
The main reason for buying a device of this size is that, unlike the iPad or any other 10-inch tablet, it can be held easily and comfortably in one hand, and the Nexus 7 certainly is built for that purpose. The screen bezel is quite large relative to the screen size, and we found it pretty easy to hold it in one hand and tap on the screen with the thumb on that hand - a definite positive given the device will probably find a lot of use as an e-reader.
If gaming is more your thing, the size means you can hold the tablet as if you were holding a Nintendo DS or similar. Particularly with a game like Minecraft, where you really need to be using two hands at once, the small size makes doing this with your two thumbs quite natural, where trying to do the same on a larger devices almost always feels unwieldy. Big handed folk, in particular, will enjoy the feel of the device when it comes to these applications. Again, performance, particularly in Minecraft's full 3D real-time rendered worlds, was as smooth as butter.
Speaking of butter, the Nexus 7 has grabbed headlines not so much for the hardware, but the software. Jelly Bean, the latest in a long list of tasty-treat flavored Android versions, is more an iterative update compared to its predecessor Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), with the key focus being speed. Project Butter is the official name given to the suite of changes made to speed up Android's user interface, and sitting our Nexus 7 alongside an ICS-powered HP Touchpad tablet and Nexus S phone, the difference was readily apparent.
Our observations of ICS, particularly on older hardware, were that the responsiveness of the interface would often be found lacking - screen presses would be missed, the app drawer would take anywhere up to five or six seconds just to load, widgets would occasionally disappear and then re-appear thanks to the burden on system resources ... but all of these instances of slowdown were nonexistent on the Nexus 7. It's hard to tell exactly how much of this is due to software optimization, and how much is thanks to the wealth of hardware power available to the OS (some have commented that installing JB on an older device doesn't provide quite the same level of snappiness), but we're happy to say that the update brings real, tangible improvements to the speed and general usability of the Android OS.
One of the other notable software additions is Google Now, a perfect example of everything that is good-but-ever-so-slightly-creepy about Google. Holding down the home button and swiping up takes you to the Now page, where you can see a variety of "cards." These cards can do a range of things, such as telling you travel times to work or home or another destination, when you should leave home to get to your next flight, how best to get to your next meeting or appointment, the score of the last game involving your favorite sports team, and a host of others.
It also learns these things based on, for example, what you use Google to search for, your location, the time of the day and day of the week, doing so in a fairly organic way. Over time you can expect Now to get more and more useful as it becomes accustomed to your daily routine and starts notifying you when it’s time for the daily commute. It’s a bit like having your partner reminding you to get up and go to work, except Now can do so with the whole of the internet at its fingertips.
Most of Now’s functionality can be opted out of, so if it’s a little too Big Brother for you, that’s not a problem. But there is decidedly something cool about having your device essentially giving you information you need right when you need it, without being asked.
Notifications have also received a touch up, now giving you the ability to do more from the notifications panel without having to go straight into the app. Screenshots can be viewed directly, email headers can be read and pre-fab responses sent, Google + posts can be +1’d without even leaving the home screen. It’s not ground breaking, but it does make it that much easier and faster to interact with all your apps while on the move.
Search is now also backed up by enhanced voice to text functionality that takes Siri to task in terms of accuracy and pace. Voice Search now has a better grasp of context and language, meaning if it mishears something you’ve said, it will go back and look at the rest of what you said and then tries to work out what the misheard word should have been, doing so while still listening to the rest of what you’re saying. Most of the time it gets it right, or will at least get close enough that the error is corrected at the search engine level. You can also download the voice to text software to your Nexus so it doesn’t have to go online to make the transcription, making it an interesting free tool for, say, interview transcription. It also handles accents well thanks to a large number of international languages and various versions of English.
The one persistent niggle with the Nexus 7 OS, and this has been much observed elsewhere online, is the stubborn refusal of the home screen to rotate away from portrait mode when the tablet is laid out in landscape orientation. The screen is locked universally by default, but this is fixed by a single software button press. The Home screen, however, won’t shift short of installing an app specifically for this purpose, or rooting the device to get super user access, and then changing the dpi of the device to get the full tablet layout.
Neither option is particularly stressful - the first is a matter of a couple of dollars, the second a breeze thanks to the wealth of automated tools online (incidentally, we took the second route), but given Google locked the home screen as a design choice and not a technical problem, it’s an irritation that could have been avoided.
The Nexus 7 is a content consumption device designed to fulfill the same kind of role as the Kindle Fire, so it’s worth taking note of the app and content ecosystem standing behind this tablet. It’s no coincidence that Google added TV shows to its Play selection at the same time the 7 launched, and similarly it has pushed the service by giving users $20 of Play store credit when they ponied up for the tablet. The device is intended as a portal to the online world of Google and from the hardware perspective, it’s ideally suited to everything from e-reading to HD movie viewing to performance mobile gaming.
While the store revamp brings Google closer to Apple and Amazon in terms of selection, the fact that TV shows, movie purchases and magazines are currently only available to Google purchasers in the US will leave users from other regions feeling like they’re missing out. For international users, it’s a fact that should influence your buying decision.
But in the end, we’re reviewing the hardware, not Google’s content strategy, and there’s nothing to complain about in that department – quite the contrary. It’s hard to imagine packing more hardware into an entry-level-priced device like this one, and the Nexus 7 stomps on other Android tablets well above its price point. Battery life and raw processing power are standouts, and ideally suited for all the gaming and movie watching you’ll want to do. The screen is good without being Retina-quality, but at this size (and, for that matter, price) it hardly matters. And then there’s Jelly Bean - an important iteration, even if there’s nothing particularly game changing about it compared to what we saw with Ice Cream Sandwich.
If you’re looking at a cheap way into the tablet market as a first time buyer, there’s simply no other place to go. If you’re intrigued, but not sold, on the 7-inch form factor, the Nexus 7 could be the device that does it for you. If you’re a curious but dedicated iPad user, well ... you can just look on longingly and wait for the seemingly inevitable iPad mini.
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