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Google Nexus 7 Tablet Expert Review

Google Nexus 7

Rating: ★★★★½

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 seven-inch tablet of their own, which the search giant is offering direct through its Play store.

Like other Nexus-branded devices, the Nexus 7 tablet isn’t actually hardware manufactured by Google. As Mountain View has done with Samsung, HTC and Motorola in the past, the company paired with Asus to design and manufacture its slender tablet.

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 meager specs would be a challenge for any manufacturer. And make no mistake: The Nexus 7 is more of an effort to stomp out Amazon’s unwelcome (and forked) version of Android more than it’s attempt to dethrone Apple’s reigning 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, both from selling hardware at cost but also from tossing in generous perks such as a $25 Google Play credit for every Nexus 7 owner.

But enough about why and how Google has released the Nexus 7: Is it worth even $199 of your hard-earned cash?

Hardware

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 ($199) 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 seven-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, users will have little to complain about from the display.

The front of the Nexus 7 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, such as movies or TV shows. (Portrait mode even works when viewed with polarized 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 rubberized 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 Nexus 7 is primarily plastic and glass, it certainly doesn’t feel cheap. To the contrary, it feels almost as “premium” as one of Apple’s tablets, with no creakiness or other clues that Asus might have cut some corners in manufacturing.

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.

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. 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 with preorders shipping in mid-July, but the company has ambitions to roll 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 color, 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’ 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).

Google Nexus 7 Tablet

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. We’ll have a full review of Jelly Bean coming shortly, but suffice it to say that Google has finally sanded down the rough spots in all the right places this time around.

Despite the modest point version increase, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean introduces under-the-hood improvements like “Project Butter,” the company’s new initiative to streamline the lag and general unresponsiveness Android has been notorious for in the past.

Google Nexus 7 Tablet  Google Nexus 7 Tablet

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 personalized 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’ll be taking a deeper look at Now in our upcoming Android 4.1 review.

Coupled with the Tegra 3 processor and additional headroom afforded by 1GB of RAM, the Nexus 7 makes a great initial showcase for Jelly Bean. Swiping through screens is fast and responsive – even on apps which 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 & connectivity

Although 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 Verizon’s fast 4G LTE data network, for example.

Google Nexus 7 Tablet

That said, Wi-Fi isn’t exactly hard to come by these days, and the Nexus 7 is ready to take on most 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 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.

Google Nexus 7 Tablet  Google Nexus 7 Tablet

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 Google Wallet, our Nexus 7 review unit happily granted us a second bonus after initializing 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 & 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 1.2 megapixel 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.

Google Nexus 7 Tablet

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,” although we suspect Facebook will tweak the app accordingly once it starts getting delivered to customers.

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 color 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 & 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.

Google Nexus 7 Tablet

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 quite okay 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.

The dilemma is amplified by the fact that Google and Asus have chosen to leave out the micro-SD card slot that’s become a staple of many Android tablets, which makes the only way to expand available storage 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 Hulu Plus or 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 & 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 seven-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.

Google Nexus 7 Tablet  Google Nexus 7 Tablet

All in all, it’s a great deal that makes the $199 Nexus 7 (or even the $249 16GB model) one of the best values in the tablet market. Savvy users can even keep the free stuff coming by side-loading the competing Amazon Appstore and taking advantage of the e-tailer’s Free App of the Day offering.

For the most part, apps work as expected on the Nexus 7. The newly tabletized 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 seven-inch screen, others suffer from being chained to the smartphone. For example, SpeedTest.net appears as a small, phone-sized block in the center of the screen, surrounded by black (think of iPhone apps viewed on the iPad without 2x mode).

Ironically, Amazon Mobile wouldn’t install at all from Google Play, but Amazon Appstore allowed us to install it without complaint (neither store would let us install the company’s Price Check app). Other branded apps such as Kindle and Amazon MP3 worked fine.

Speaking of Amazon, 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 the e-tailer 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 which allows 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.

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.

Final thoughts

We’ve fondled our fair share of tablets since the iPad redefined the category back in 2010. While the Google Nexus 7 doesn’t quite stack up to Apple’s media darling – nor should it, considering the iPad sells for at least twice the price – it’s most certainly the tablet we’d recommend for users who can’t afford an iPad.

We liked

Hey, we’re a sucker 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 seven-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.

We disliked

Although the Nexus 7 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 LTE, 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 quite stellar IPS display; while it’s not a total deal breaker, 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.

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Pros

  • Quality hardware
  • NFC support
  • Android 4.1 Jelly Bean
  • Bundled Google Play freebies

Cons

  • Weak IPS display contrast
  • Limited storage options
  • Too few Android tablet apps
  • Some content hard to read (magazines)

Verdict

Perhaps the best compliment we can pay to the Nexus 7 is that it makes us want an iPad mini. Not because Google‘s tablet is bad, because it 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.

Yes, there will be plenty of average folks who can’t afford to drop $399 and up for some casual tablet fun, favoring the less expensive Nexus 7 over the iPad – but Apple has little to fear given their commanding market share over the tablet market.

That leaves the Kindle Fire with the most to fear from Google and Asus. Instant Video aside, Amazon has flat out been smoked in the sub-$200 price range it pioneered, by a more appealing, 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 a couple hundred bucks can buy.

Google Nexus 7 Tablet Expert Review

 

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