Google Nexus 7 Tablet Review: Solid, but Not Revolutionary
The Google Nexus 7 resets expectations of what an inexpensive tablet can and should be. Starting at $199, the Nexus 7 clearly guns for Amazon's same-priced but lesser-quality Kindle Fire, which runs Amazon's limited flavor of Android.
Make no mistake: Of today's 7-inch Android tablets, the Nexus 7 remains the one to beat, and it is handily one of the best-executed Android tablets of any size you can buy. In some ways, that's not saying much; for as much as it does well?it has a tremendous 10-plus-hour battery life, and it produces reasonably clear text and accurate colors?the Nexus 7 stumbles by leaving out an expansion slot.
When first launched this summer, the Nexus 7 came in 8GB and 16GB varieties. Now, Google has wisely scuttled the 8GB model (it had just 5.62GB and change of usable storage) and moved the 16GB model to $199, same as the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, and brought along a 32GB model at $249. The Nexus 7 still falls short of the ideal tablet, but it hits many of the high notes most consumers will seek. And, the Nexus 7 actually gets a lot right?far more than most competing Android machines.
The lack of a memory card slot hobbles Google's shiny new tablet before you can even get moved in and set up.
Android has always held a big advantage over Apple's iOS in its ability to expand on-board storage via a memory card; in fact, this is something that every tablet competing with the Nexus 7 except the original Amazon Kindle Fire and the newer Kindle Fire HD (and, of course, Apple's iPad, natch) has.
It's not clear why Google opted to leave out the card slot. Cutting it may be as much about Google's live-in-the-cloud philosophy and services as it is a cost-cutting measure adopted by Google and Nexus 7 manufacturer Asus in order to meet an aggressive price.
If Google's emphasis on cloud services is indeed behind this choice?and likely that's the case, given that Google bills the Nexus 7 as being "Made for Google Play"?that frankly makes Google's despotism no better than Apple's decision to keep users in its walled garden or Amazon's decision to force us to use its cloud services with the Kindle Fire.
Amazon, too, tried to spin its minimal on-board storage by saying that you could store media in, and stream content from, its cloud services. That approach is not rooted in consumers' real-world usage patterns, and it doesn't account for the vagaries of Wi-Fi availability and bandwidth. Consumers crave offline storage; we're still away from wireless connections often enough for local storage to matter. No one wants to have to keep managing their content on and off the tablet just to work around a space limitation.
Nexus?Light and Comfy
When you pick up the Nexus 7, you'll notice immediately that it isn't like other inexpensive tablets. Its construction has a high-quality look and feel; it doesn't generate that low-end vibe you get from handling other "value" tablets in the market. The side bezel is plastic, with a textured, rubberized finish on the back that feels comfortable in-hand, and yet won't attract dust or particles as some rubberized backs we've seen (though it does seem to scratch fairly easily).
Another thing you'll notice right away: This tablet is light enough that you can hold it in one hand for extended periods. At 0.75 pound, the tablet is still about 0.2 pound too heavy for no-thought-required one-handed operation?a major advantage of dedicated E Ink-based e-readers that now weigh under half a pound. Still, the Nexus 7 is among the lightest tablets we've seen, though Apple's iPad mini is lighter still. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 weighs about the same, at 0.76 pounds, and the Toshiba Excite 7.7(with its 0.7-inch larger display) weighs 0.77 pound.
The Nexus 7's footprint is about average. It's slightly thinner than the Kindle Fire (0.41 inch versus 0.45 inch), and it's the same thickness as the Excite 7.7. The Nexus 7 is a bit longer than some of its competitors, too: It stands 7.8 inches tall.
I found the Nexus 7's dimensions convenient and pleasing; with its 7-inch screen, the tablet was unobtrusive to use in cafes and on public transit, and its dimensions nicely accommodated thumb-typing on the on-screen keyboard in portrait orientation. Still, despite what the numbers say, I preferred the way the Excite 7.7 felt in my hands; it seemed thinner, lighter, and more balanced than the Nexus 7, the specs notwithstanding.
Other aspects of the Nexus 7's physical design are noteworthy, too. The power/sleep and volume buttons along the curved right-hand bezel are sturdy and easy to press. Along the bottom bezel sits the headphone jack and a Micro-USB port for charging the tablet and for transferring data from your PC.
Above the ports is an approximately 2-inch-wide stereo speakers port (the two speakers outlet from a single port, as on the Asus Transformer Infinity TF700). The speaker location along the bottom doesn't seem to hamper audio playback; your hands may cover it if you hold the tablet with both hands in horizontal mode, but not if if you hold it along the bottom edge, as opposed to the center.
At the bottom left is a four-pin connector that Google says could be used for a dock, though no accessories appear to be available for the Nexus 7 at this writing. Other hardware features include a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera and an NFC chip, which comes in handy for use with Android Beam if you happen to have another NFC-enabled Android device available.
The front face is composed of smooth, scratch-resistant Corning glass (but not Corning's Gorilla Glass). The glass is optically bonded to the 7-inch, 1280-by-800-pixel display, which makes a tremendous difference in the device's image quality. With no air gap in play, text looks crisper, contrast is better, and glare is mitigated (although not eliminated). At 216 pixels per inch, the Nexus 7 is clearly far ahead of other 7-inch tablets' pixel density of 170 ppi, and the difference is palpable.
This tablet remains one of but a handful of 7-inch tablets with a 1280-by-800 display. Oddly, Google appears to have tweaked, yet again, the fonts in Android; now shipping with Android 4.2, text looks slightly clearer than in 4.1. Nonetheless, text rendering in the Chrome browser differs substantially from text rendering in the original Android Honeycomb (3.0) and Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0) browsers. The Nexus 7's tweaks yield text that is far superior to what we see on say, the Galaxy Tab 2; but it remains very jaggy and lacks the smoothness of the Retina displays on Apple's most recent iPhone and iPad (which has a pixel density of 264 ppi), or even the smoother text rendering seen on Android 3.2 and Android 4.0 tablets. I'd have to say that Nexus 7's display bests that of Toshiba's Thrive 7 and T-Mobile's Springboard; both shipped last year with the same-resolution display, but each had a noticeable air gap and produced poorer colors. But the higher-resolution Barnes & Noble Nook HD tops all current 7-inch class tablets when it comes to text rendering.
I was impressed at how well the Nexus 7 handled test images in our image quality tests. Color reproduction was pleasing and fairly accurate, though Android still appeared to struggle with accurately reproducing skin tones.
High Performance: Inside the Nexus 7
The Nexus 7 is the first tablet to use Nvidia's Kai reference platform. Kai was designed specifically to reduce the cost of producing a tablet without sacrificing performance. It would appear that the Nexus 7 achieves this goal, based on its performance on our tablet benchmarks.
Inside, the Nexus 7 carries a 1.2GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 T30L processor; it runs at 1.3GHz in single-core operation. Those are the same frequencies as found on the new Acer Iconia Tab A700, but Nvidia can't comment on whether everything about the Tegra 3 inside the Nexus 7 is the same as on the A700. The tablet also has 1GB of DDR3 memory.
The Nexus 7 lasted an astounding 10 hours, 12 minutes in our video playback test, with brightness set to 200 cd/m2 (candelas per square meter). That's 39 minutes shy of the Apple iPad mini, and it tops all other competing 7-inch tablets by a mile. The Amazon Kindle Fire HD lasted 8 hours, 41 minutes; the Barnes & Noble Nook HD lasted 8 hours, 46 minutes; the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 lasted 6 hours, 20 minutes; the Toshiba Excite 7.7 lasted 7 hours, 32 minutes; and the Sprint ZTE Optik lasted 5 hours, 51 minutes. The Nexus 7's battery life is even competitive with 10.1-inch Android tablets; Acer's Iconia Tab A700 lasted 8 hours, 11 minutes; Toshiba's Excite 10 lasted 7 hours, 5 minutes; the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 lasted 11 hours, 41 minutes; and the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity lasted 7 hours, 58 minutes.
Unfortunately, the Nexus 7 also took a long time to recharge, requiring 3 hours, 49 minutes to fully juice up, compared with the Galaxy Tab 2's 3 hours, 32 minutes and the Toshiba Excite 7.7's 3 hours, 21 minutes (Apple iPad mini required 5 hours, 9 minutes). This result might reflect the fact that the Nexus 7 charges via its Micro-USB port.
The Nexus 7 excelled on our benchmarks. It was the best performer of any of our 7-inch class Android tablets; and was competitive on some tests with the top 10.1-inch Android tablets. Its performance on Geekbench, for example, was nearly four times better than that of the Galaxy Tab 2 7.0; and it bested Toshiba's Excite 7.7, too. Interestingly, though it was close to the Acer Iconia Tab A700 on this test, it outperformed the Acer on some of our metrics and fared worse on others. Both tablets run an Nvidia Tegra 3 at the same clock speed, so these variances could be due to tweaks in the Tegra 3 chip or other unknown variables.
On our two GLBenchmark 2.5.1 tests (updated from version 2.1.4 we used previously in July 2012, when Nexus 7 first launched), the Nexus 7 was an average performer, if that. On Egypt Classic Offscreen, it logged 31 frames per second. By comparison, iPad mini achieved 49 frames per second and 14 frames per second, respectively. And the Nexus 10 achieved 78 frames per second and 34 frames per second, respectively.
The Nexus 7's performance on our Web browser-based tests was mixed. It was an above average performer on Sunspider, requiring just 1.71 seconds to complete that benchmark; but it was among the slower performers on a custom, media-heavy Web page load test.
In use, I found the Nexus 7 fast and responsive. I especially liked the dramatically improved keyboard, which seemed better able to keep up with my flying fingers.
Connectivity: HSPA+ Option
At the upper end of the Nexus 7 line sits the Nexus 7 with WiFi + Mobile Data. This 32GB model costs only $50 more than the regular price of the Wi-Fi-only version, and it provides an unlocked multi-band cellular radio that supports more than 200 GSM providers worldwide?including AT&T and T-Mobile in the United States. The inclusion of an HSPA+ version catapults the Nexus 7 with WiFi + Mobile Data into a unique vantage point among tablets. So far, no other tablet from a mainstream manufacturer has come out with an unlocked Micro-SIM card slot. This means you can pick up a SIM card as needed, wherever you may be; assuming, of course, that the service offers a Micro-SIM, or that you can buy your SIM card at a shop that can cut a regular-sized card down to fit the smaller Micro-SIM slot.
Software: Jelly Bean tweaks Android again
The Nexus 7 is the first 7-inch tablet with Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, an upgrade from its launch OS of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. While the differences between 4.1 and 4.2 are more subtle and represent extra features more than interface tweaks, the differences between Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean on tablets is a lot greater. For my comparisons with ICS tablets below, I used Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2 (which also has a custom overlay), Asus's Transformer Pad Infinity TF700, Acer's Iconia Tab A700, and Toshiba's Excite tablets (7.7, 10, and 13).
The changes are evident as soon as you start up the tablet and see the Welcome screen. The Android 4.2 Welcome screen and its ensuing setup walkthrough and first-time-use pop-up explanations are incredibly friendly for newcomers, with big, bold lettering and a clean design. That clean design continues with the Android 4.2 home screen,
which reflects numerous changes to the Android experience on a 7-inch tablet.
For one thing, Google has refreshed the home screen with changes both minor and dramatic. A nifty dock runs along the bottom, with five basic Google app icons?for Play Books, Play Magazines, Play Movies & TV, Play Music, and the Play Store?and a folder packed with 11 other native Google apps, including the Chrome Web browser which now replaces the previous "Browser" app. At the center of this dock is the new menu icon, which is the only one of the seven icons that's fixed; you can swap out the others for other apps of your choice, or for folders of apps you choose.
Google has shaken up the design of its core navigation and status buttons, ostensibly for consistency with how navigation is handled on its smartphones. The three nav buttons (back, home, and recent apps) have moved from being clustered together flush left to being spread out along the bottom center of the display. The clock and notifications, meanwhile, move from the lower right of the display to the top of the screen. To gain access to the notifications or settings, you must slide down the "shader" from the top of the display. I preferred the earlier clean simplicity of the notifications pop-up on the lower right of the screen. But at least this new design in 4.2 separates notifications (pull-down shader when you drag from the left side) from several quick settings (drag down from the right side). And, you now get to see the percentage of remaining battery life at a glance?a small, but useful tweak.
I like the new set of Play widgets for surfacing content from My Library, My Books, My Magazines, My Movies, and My Music, but I was less satisfied with the recommendations widgets which recommend Play store content based on previous downloads. The beauty of Android is that you have the choice to customize the home screen, and you get customization in spades. Widgets are more resizable now; and in addition to the Google Play widgets, you get a handy new widget for quick access to wireless, rotation, and brightness controls?plus another one for using Android 4.1's new music identifier. The music ID worked successfully with most of the music I threw at it, struggling only with beat-heavy areas of dance tracks and some obscure world music choices from Croatia, Japan, and Poland.
At the top of the home screen sits the Google search bar, which ties in with the company's Google Now service and allows you to perform voice searches. Other improvements include the reintroduction of battery life percentage left (visible in the settings shader); vertical and horizontal home screen support; the ability to place widgets on the lock screen; and the addition of multiple users.
One more change for the better: The Google Nexus 7's native image gallery has improved image rendering as compared with Android 4.0 and 3.2. I noticed that images regained full sharpness more quickly than before, a critical feature when you actively use the gallery to show off your pictures.
Unfortunately, Nexus 7 also shows one of Android uglier sides?the pain of OS and device fragmentation. I encountered some tablet apps that wouldn't work on the Nexus, raising the old issues involving Android's app availability and compatibility. Android 4.2 goes a long way toward improving Android's usability?in spite of the aforementioned portrait mode and nav button mess?but it doesn't solve some of the underlying problems, either.
Google succeeds at shooting Amazon's Kindle Fire out of the sky; the company has delivered a superior piece of hardware at the same starting price. The Nexus 7 remains one of the best Android deals you can get, and among pure Android tablets, it is the best deal, bar none. I like the feel and design of the Toshiba Excite 7.7 better, but that model typically costs twice as much as the 32GB Nexus 7. The Nexus 7 performs well, but its mixed display performance and lack of a MicroSD card slot prevent it from eliciting unequivocal enthusiasm. At 16GB, the Nexus 7 is an affordably priced starter tablet that provides terrific battery life, solid performance, and the latest full-court version of Android. But beware of the storage limitations; they might be a deal breaker for anyone with a large media collection or a desire to download movies and TV shows from Google Play.