The Asus manufactured Google Nexus 7 tablet is a $199 tablet that runs a stock version of Android v4.1 (Jellybean), and is by all accounts the flagship tablet for Android. It is the standard by which all other tablets should now be judged. That said, the Nexus 7 is quite atypical of Android devices.
We purchased a 16GB Nexus 7 for $249 which I’ve been reviewing for a week or so now, and I’ve really grown to love the little thing. We’ll be giving it away at the end of this review, so if you’re keen to own a Nexus 7, read on and join the contest to be in the running!
At the same price point and form factor is the hugely popular Kindle Fire, but the Nexus 7 outperforms the Fire in every way. There is therefore very little competition worth mentioning; alternative Android tablets are either significantly more expensive, or vastly underpowered.
Before we begin, I’m going to warn you: I own an iPad 3, so I’m going to be comparing this to the iPad where I feel I need to. Obviously, the iPad is a larger device in a different price class – I understand that. Until now, I’ve never touched an Android before, but I think a lot of new Android owners are going to be coming to the platform for the first time on this device, so it’s important to get a fresh owners persepctive.
If you’re already an Android owner, I proabably don’t even need to tell you to buy this device, because you’re going to anyway – it’s so good. Even so; read the review for a fresh perspective, enter the competition and you might get this 16GB Nexus 7 for free!
First Impressions And Unboxing The Nexus 7
The packaging feels Apple-inspired, but black; a sleek, slide-out compartment revealing just the device, inset in a cardboard cutout. A quick start guide, charger, plug adapter and USB cable was also supplied, and that’s it.
The plug supplied with this giveaway unit is for the UK; you will need to source your own plug adapter to change the physical pin shape, but the charger will work with any voltage globally from 100-240v.
The initial setup was incredibly simple: turn on, connect to your WiFi network, done.
In terms of documentation, a user guide comes pre-installed to your Google Play account accessible from the homescreen widget. I glanced through it, but didn’t feel the need to read it at length. A Transformers movie is also included once your Play account is activated, so you can jump right in and show off the movie playback capabilities if you like.
Making Use Of The Nexus 7
With a powerful NVidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor, there’s very little this device can’t do. The Nexus 7 will handle any Android application you throw at it, from Gmail to advanced 3D games; it has both the power, and a gorgeous screen to show them off.
The device is ideally suited to anyone embedded in the Google ecosystem; the native Gmail app is very similar to the web client, for instance. As someone who has never used web clients and pulls everything through IMAP to Mail.app, not having a unified inbox was frustrating. My attempts to find a better email client on the Play store were fruitless; until fellow write Christian Cawley tipped me off that there’s actually another app – called Email – included in the OS (though other Android owners appeared clueless about this!)
The Nexus 7′s Screen
The 216 pixels per inch IPS LCD display on the Nexus 7 is certainly not as high resolution as the Retina Display on the iPad (which is 264 ppi), but it comes as close as you’re going to get and more than enough; it’s bright and clear, with crisp and vibrant colours and text, even outdoors. Like most devices though, the screen is highly reflective.
If you look really closely, you can see the pixels; but at normal reading distance, the text is incredibly crisp. If you’re purchasing this with the intention use it as an eBook reader, you certainly won’t be disappointed with the sharpness.
Multitasking, I have to say, is really done well. On the right of the home button is the multitasker icon: two tiles, on top of each other. Tap that for a list of running apps; swipe them left or right to instantly close them – again, intuitive without needing to read a manual. Yes, apps do quickly collect as they are left in a running state just as iOS does; but closing them and flipping between them is so much easier, and simply faster. If you’re a heavy multitasker, this is clearly the better way to do it.
A universal back button is another feature I loved; this works between apps, so if it’s just opened a browser window, tapping back will go right back to the app you were in before. Genius.
Other things feel a little inconsistent for a first time Android user; there’s a thing called the Notification Shade. According to the provided digital user’s guide, swiping down from the top of the screen in any application will open it. Only, it doesn’t even work while reading the handbook; you need to tap from reading mode to reveal the buttons and status bar, and from there you can bring down the shade. You can’t simply swipe down from anywhere, it seems – the application has to support it.
The main home interface of the Nexus 7 is locked to portrait mode, even with orientation lock off. It’s not a big deal, but if you’re heavily into using a tablet in landscape mode, you’ll probably need some kind of hack.
Interface speed throughout is superb; everything responds instantly; there is no lagginess and apps boot with very little wait. I’m tempted to say it’s even faster than the latest iPad, but that could just be a freshness from not having installed huge amounts of apps yet. Regardless – this thing is fast.
I have to admit, 7 inches is a good size. With an iPad, you’re effectively tied down an awkward position; you can’t hold it longer than momentarily with just one hand. Yes, bigger screens give more immersive experiences, but you need to sit down or set the device up somewhere and that’s a limiting factor. For size comparison, here’s an iPhone, Nexus 7, and iPad:
At 0.74 pounds (rougly half the weight of an iPad), the Nexus 7 is perfect for standing up, reading or any other task needing one hand, and is truly portable.
With a beveled metal rim, the front of the Nexus 7 is sheer glass, punctuated only by the front facing camera in the top center. There’s about 1cm of space around the screen to the left and right, and just less than an inch on the top and bottom; so it’s not uniform all the way around.
The back is rubberized plastic, but does feel a little too smooth for me to trust it entirely when holding in one hand. Despite being plastic, it certainly doesn’t feel cheap in the slightest. It feels very solid and well made.
The buttons are posititoned a little awkardly for me – slightly recessed on the underside plastic frame; power, and a volume ‘rocker’ switch. On the bottom right side are 4 surface contacts for what I assume is a cradle, though one isn’t supplied with the package.
On the bottom is also a micro USB port used for charging and data transfer.
The stated life of the 4,326mAh, 16Wh battery is 9 hours and 50 minutes.
With moderate use, I squeezed about a day and half of life out of the Nexus 7. With light usage – it held out about two and half days. This puts in roughly in the same league as the iPad 3, maybe even a little longer. Outdoor use with a bright screen, heavy downloading and movie playback is going to reduce that length as with any device.
One interesting feature that’s new to me is the battery usage breakdown; when your battery is low, check the battery settings and you’ll be able to see exactly what burned through it; perhaps one app in particular is draining in the background.
In general though, the battery life is just right. It neither felt particular short, nor extradinarily long.
Hardware and expansion
In many ways, the Nexus 7 is completely atypical of Android. With 8GB and 16GB models, expansion is not possible – the Nexus 7 has no ports other than the charger. You can’t add SD cards, and you can’t plug in that random USB device or thumbdrive.
There’s a 1.2 megapixel camera on the front of the device, mainly used for video conferencing. It’s the equivalent of a Facetime HD camera, and the quality is excellent. There is no rear, higher resolution camera.
As someone who has come from the caged Apple environment where everything needs iTunes to transfer files, being able to simply browse the files on the device was almost disconcerting. Just drag and drop movies, music, pictures; although a helper application is required for OS X.
The WiFi was snappy, with similar Speedtest.net results as my iPad — 25MB down and 5MB up. However, I should note that the app didn’t scale on the Nexus 7; it seems to depends on app-specific support to scale apps; while on iOS, this is a core function. It’s a minor issue, but something worth pointing out.
The lack of 3G connection is going to be a deal breaker for many of you though. I’ve grown so accustomed to this on the iPhone and iPad that when I took the Nexus 7 out and about to test the GPS and directions app, I had trouble getting home — it was unable to find my address — obviously, since it didn’t have an internet connection. This won’t be replacing your GPS anytime soon unless you can tether a data connection from your mobile phone.
Flash is no longer included on 4.1 JellyBean, and visiting the BBC iPlayer site for example, will result in a message prompting you to install Flash. On the Android Market, you can’t install Flash, because it isn’t supported on this device. Furthermore, there’s no specific Android version of the BBC iPlayer app like there is on iOS. The upshot of this is that some things are distinctly missing, this being a prime example.
Yes, there is a hack to get around this, but it involves installing developer APKs on the PC side, and using an alternative browser. If that’s how you like to spend your weekend then go ahead, I’d rather it just work without having to hack the system and use various workarounds. Hopefully, the BBC will eventually produce an Android app, but until then, there isn’t going to be a solution simple enough for the average user.
As someone who has come from the iOS model of screens and folders full of homogenously sized app icons, I was excited about the premise of widgets. Sadly, the actual implementation left me irked. When it works, it’s fantastic; but more often than not, it’s an inconsistent experience — even with the default Google apps.
When you first launch the device, you’ll notice the home screen is prepopulated with the Google Play widget; showcasing a Transformers movie and the cover of a user guide. You can resize the widget and elements inside will dynamically adjust to suit, or showcase more of your recent purchases. This is how widgets really should be done, and it’s gorgeous. I love having one-tap access to my book or movie downloads; it’s a little customization that anyone who touches your Nexus 7 will instantly see. In usability terms, the Google Play widget is spot on.
The pseudo 3D tiles of the Reader widget however, are utterly devoid of use, since only the front tile can be read.
The Google Plus widget is just buggy. Scrolling through my stream, I come across a video, with an obvious play button. Tapping it opens the Google Plus app rather than playing inline. That would be fine it if then autoplayed, but it doesn’t. It’s another thumbnail, with a play button. Tapping that then opens Chrome, to a Vimeo page, which I then have to tap again to play the video. Four taps to open the video. Not all images in the stream are displayed either; some just show the accompanying comment, which reads quite silly as it’s taken out of context. On the other hand, the actual Google Plus app is gorgeous.
I hope Android can standardise the whole widget experience as Windows 8 seems to have; a familiar visual style, a flat interface. There’s no need for pseudo 3D, and it’s is just as bad as the skeuomorphic leather and stitches of Apple apps.
Should You Buy the Nexus 7?
If you’re already a fan of the Android system; if you have all your favourite apps and are simply looking for good hardware to run them on, the Nexus 7 will do you proud. It’s a very capable device, with a gorgeous screen, a high resolution camera for Google Hangout and Skype, and a high pixel density for beautifully clear text.
If you’re new to the mobile OS and tablet world and you’re looking for something that won’t break the bank, I think you’re ultimately going to be very pleased with the Nexus 7. However, I would urge you to make a list of essential functionalities first, and look closely through the list of positive and negative points below, in addition to browsing the Google Play app store for specific apps you might want, or have heard about. Having experienced both the iOS App Store, and the Google Play app store, I can honestly say the selection from Google is both limited and of lower quality. I’ve almost taken it for granted that “there’s an app for that”, no matter how odd my needs. It appears on Android, there isn’t always an app for that, or least it’s not easy to find. I should note that the Amazon App Store – a rival to Play – seems to offer a far better selection, but unfortunately getting the thing installed is a hassle, and even then I was unable to actually download free apps due to not having a US credit card. The Amazon App Store will apparently be launching in Europe soon.
- Standard Android 4.1 install, no need to load special ROMs to replace manufacturer customized nonsense (though you could, if you want Cyanogenmod or such)
- Superb screen, crisp text and bright colours
- Excellent front-facing camera for video conferencing
- Good battery life
- Capable hardware for 3D gaming
- Solid design and build quality
- Affordable: $199 for the 8GB model, and $249 for the 16GB model
- Fixed memory – no expansion via SD or USB.
- No rear camera
- Limited app selection
- Hardware is locked down just like the iPad
I’m not qualified to definitively say this is best Android tablet ever, because having only touched this one, it would be a rather small sample size. I do feel like it’s a fantastic device though, and I’ll definately be buying one after this one is prised out of my hands to give to you, our dear readers (unless it conveniently goes missing in the meantime). As a portable entertainment, gaming, and reading device – it ticks an awful lot of boxes.
That said, the inconsistencies in the interface and incompatibilities are annoying for those of us who just want things to work. Specific apps that I really want just aren’t available for Android.
If Apple are going to release a 7″ iPad this fall, they’ll have a tough act to beat in terms of hardware – and the Nexus 7 is here now. The Google Nexus 7 is now the new midsize Android tablet to which all others are held accountable. The tablet market used to be a two horse race between the iPad and the Kindle Fire, but I’ll be shocked if I don’t see this little dark little beauty running behind to grab second place.
MakeUseOf recommends: Buy it, now.
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