27
Jun
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Today at Google I/O, I got some hands-on time with the brand-spanking-new Nexus 7 tablet.  We've been pretty sure it's coming for a while now. Now that it's been officially unveiled, along with the newest version of Android, everybody and their gadget-loving grandma is chomping at the bit to see if the hype has been worthwhile.

In a word, yes, it has. Mostly. While my time with the Nexus 7 was limited, Android tablets are a sort of beast that are rather easy to evaluate quickly, mostly because they're all pretty similar. Now, the Nexus 7 is by no means a normal Android tablet, it's much better than that. And that's mostly because it's the only Android tablet with Jelly Bean right now, but there are other characteristics that make it a stand-out device from the get-go.

Hardware

From an aesthetic standpoint, this thing isn't particularly pretty. Then again, for $200, what do you expect? The Nexus 7 makes up for what it lacks in beauty in the form of practicality. The rear cover is actually coated in a sort of rubberized silicone material, not just plastic, making it very easy to get, and more importantly keep, a grip on. And while it isn't not exactly a work of art, it's by no means disgusting to look at. And the grippy rear cover is one of several good design decisions ASUS and Google have made here.

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The next is the orientation and location of the power and volume controls - both are on the right hand side. A power button on top of a tablet doesn't make sense, especially on one you're often holding in portrait orientation with one hand. The Nexus 7 is light enough to manipulate with one hand and power off with one hand, and the volume controls are directly below the power button, with an adequate space between them to avoid confusion. So many tablet makers skip "ergonomics 101" on this.

Another practical idea? No proprietary multi pin cable nonsense. The Nexus 7 charges and transfers data via a microUSB on the bottom of the device - the same cable you use for these tasks on your Android phone. A commitment to openness or simply an economical implementation, whatever you want to call it, it makes sense. The headphone jack is on the bottom as well.

The Tegra 3 chip powering the Nexus 7 is most likely part of NVIDIA's Kai reference platform, as are many of the components. Everything seems to hum along nicely, and Google promises 9 hours of HD video playback, not bad at all.

The display, at 1280x800, is the right resolution for a 7" tablet. 1024x600 is just too low, and it's one of the reasons I hesitated on buying a Kindle Fire. Display technology is evolving so rapidly in this space, and a lower resolution just wouldn't cut it. Will the 1280x800 be "class-leading" in terms of DPI (215)? No, but it's more than good enough for a $200 device, and at least ensures you'll get true 720p video playback should you desire it. Aside from resolution, the display seems average. Viewing angles are decent, but impaired in some respects by what is a pretty glossy glass panel.

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Storage is a paltry 8GB in the $200 model, but Google is heavily pushing cloud-based media as part of the whole Android experience, so it seems they've decided to put their money on consumers not caring about gee bees. A 16GB version brings the cost up to $250, should you desire more. Still, without an SD card slot to expand these figures, Google will certainly incite extreme ire from those who believe leaving out such an option is basically tantamount to drowning puppies in a river.

We didn't really have time to mess with the camera, but let's be frank: it's a tablet, if you're using it as a camera for anything but taking photos of text or Google Goggles, you just look ridiculous. And neither of those things require a cutting-edge 8MP BSI sensor.

Software

This is the more interesting part of the Nexus 7 for most people, undoubtedly, and for good reason. Android 4.1's "Project Butter" has definitely improved the smoothness of Android by leaps and bounds. Ice Cream Sandwich was fast, but it was undoubtedly victim to the occasional stutter or frame skip during complex animations or intense operations. Jelly Bean has smoothed out a lot of this in a number of ways, and everything looks a lot better as it happens for it. But is it revolutionary?

I'd say the experience is a very noticeably better than it was before. But it's not like they still couldn't make it better. Two areas where Android has always shown lag are the recent apps menu and the widgets section of the app drawer. The recent apps menu still takes a while to come up, and when you reach the widgets section, the frame rate still drops. These are more likely limitations of the hardware powering the Nexus 7 than Android itself, but my point here is that it's not like Google has suddenly made Android lag-free. Animations are definitely much smoother and better-looking, and things do feel faster, but it's certainly not impossible to make Android trip over itself for a few tenths of a second here and there if you get aggressive.

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But for $200, the experience the Nexus 7 provides definitely belies its price - it runs like flagship hardware, certainly faster and smoother than the Transformer Prime or other modern Android 4.0 tablets. How Android 4.1's smoothness improvements will fare in those devices (and others) is really the bigger question. If a $200 tablet is just as fast as a $500 one, that spells trouble for the premium Android tablet market (small as it is).

So what else is new in Jelly Bean? Search is probably the standout change, as we've now got Google Now. The Google Now "home" page you get when hit the text search bar is brilliant. It's so, so pretty, I absolutely love it. It is a style that is, a bit funnily, more reminiscent of some of Microsoft's new products than it is Apple's. It's minimalistic, and presents information in tiles of sorts. It'll tell you all sorts of stuff when you sign in with your Google account, too, but that's for another article another day (eg, the full review). You can also bring up search at any time by swiping from the bottom of the screen at any point, in any app. It's wonderful.

The new voice search works great, accuracy seems noticeably improved. Even at the loud booth where we tried out the Nexus 7, it had no problem understanding my words, and that's probably in part thanks to Google's new predictive text engine. From what I can tell, this predictive engine is also applied to voice queries, with the algorithm determining based on some of the words whether others should be changed. The Siri-like direct answers Search can now give seem to be limited in variety at the moment, but they'll undoubtedly grow over time.

The overall look the Android 4.1 UI on the Nexus 7 is basically "really big Android phone." The pulldown notification bar feels really out of place, it's difficult to reach in portrait mode, and it just looks awkward. The action bar with the app drawer is something I actually like. The giant "Your Library" widget would probably be the first thing I'd get rid of on my Nexus 7. It looks pretty, but in terms of actual functionality? Useless. I know where my media is, and I can create shortcuts to the apps I get it from a lot more space-efficiently. Good try, Google, but icons are just too useful to sacrifice my primary homescreen for your artsy collage.

Conclusion

I'll say it again: for $200, Google and ASUS have made something very worthwhile here. Android 4.1 is a big step forward, and the Nexus 7 itself looks to be a potential market disruptor (look out, Kindle Fire). Google has done its homework (mostly) on what average consumers want, and is even going to dangle a $25 carrot in front of them to get them on the content purchase train (each Nexus 7 comes with $25 prepaid on the Play Store).

Today, it's clear from a hardware and software perspective, Google has one-upped Amazon. Amazon still beats Google for content, but I guess we'll see how much that really matters in the coming months. Begun, the cheap tablet wars have.

David Ruddock
David's phone is an HTC One. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, imparting a legal perspective on tech news, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • http://twitter.com/whoisajimmy Jim

    They showed off gaming as one of the major buying points of the Nexus 7, but with 8 GB of storage, you're only going to be storing close to seven Tegra-3-Optimized games. Definitely a big drawback for me.

    • http://twitter.com/Flippy125 Flippy125

      Unless they're like NOVA 3. Then you've got 4

    • fixxmyhead

      Don't buy it this tablet is not for u. For the rest of us its perfect. What were u expecting for 200?

  • Charlie Callow

    I'm very concerned that this appears to be running the phone UI. I hope this isn't an upcoming trend for devices to come!

    • Bariman43

      I think I know why they did the phone-style UI. If it was like the Honeycomb/ICS tablet UI the nav buttons would either be too small or they'd resize them and cause the status bar to be too small. It's actually not completely phone-like.

    • Zomby2D

      Actually, this UI make more sense for a smaller tablet. The "proper tablet UI" would have been akwardly cramped in this small space.

    • AppleFUD

      I'm there with you. . . not so sure about what's going on there with all that. Hopefully some of these guys will get more hands on and answers to this. 

  • Bariman43

    I'll admit, I hated the bezel and the phone-like UI at first, but I admit I'm growing to like it. In fact I really, really want one.

  • Not bad

    I do appreciate the full, written article...so thanks for that. Seeing a short post with all the details in a video always drives me crazy. 

    However, it would have been nice if you reviewed the camera a bit more. It may look silly to some people, but it's purpose isn't to replace a real camera (which is the silly looking situation people are imagining it being wrongfully used in). Skype is a big one. Also, I constantly record myself on video when I have new ideas to work on that need visual aid.

  • VonLaserface

    I want the hell out of one but the storage is a huge issue considering some games push 1-2 gbs. Then again this isn't marketed to that crowd so i can somewhat understand why they did what they did.

  • AppleFUD

    OK. . . everyone bitching about NO SD. . .

    We've all heard you. . . enough, give it a frickin' rest. It's just the way it is and the choice Google made, let's all move on.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1745689461 Hal Motley

      Apparently Google don't like external storage at all. This at least partially becuase they don't like average users messing about with file management.

      This would explain why Android Honeycomb didn't officially support MicroSD cards and that all the Nexus devices lack them. In my honest opinion, as long as the internal storage is generous enough I don't need a MicroSD.

      • AppleFUD

        There was a long explanation in an interview with Google engineers about how MicroSD was handled in ICS. . . can't remember the details any more, but at the time it sounded reasonable.

        IMHO I think Google is simply looking at the competitive landscape along with their vision of cloud services and those two combined = no expansion. Maybe they feel that apple and Amazon can get away with it thus they can as well? Who knows?

        The reality is, this is what the device is. 8GB or 16GB. Just like apple's choices for an ipad — you only have a limited selection.

        And the main reality is this, what sells the best? Right now, it's the ipad 16GB WiFi & Amazon 8GB WiFi — neither have expansion and one offers higher memory options but people opt for the lowest memory possible or they go whole hog for 3G+64GB thus, it appears Google is looking to hit that low price sweet spot, and they don't have the leverage apple does thus the wide range of memory options has to be kept to a minimum in an effort to keep costs down.

        It seems that people reading these sites (tech sites) often forget they are NOT average users and these companies need to make cost/benefit decisions based on the average user which at times sucks for techies. . .  such is life, no need to get all butt hurt over it as many comments seem to be — maybe they are just apple shills spewing FUD.

        Nonetheless, one can find a way to work with the device or choose something else or nothing at all. . . no need for butt hurt comments.

    • FrillArtist

      SD cards make devices slow and buggy.

      • ElfirBFG

        I have a UHS-I card, I would have used it in this tablet, and it would have worked fine. This thing is sized to be portable, yet gives you no cellular radio and extremely limited storage. I can't stream from Netflix or the 'cloud' outside of wi-fi and I can't bring any of my shows or movies from home. Can't tether because I can't get more than 1.5GB on my mobile plan. Even the 16GB is too small. 

      • BrianBreniser

        When I get the chance I use SD cards for music/movies (not so much music because I also stream from the cloud using google music). Its good for large files that don't have to play as fast. Movies look good at the slower speeds because even mobile processors can handle them well. But a good phone or a processor hog app will work better on internal storage.

        It's the equivalent of having an SSD for my PC boot up, OS, and important apps, but using an HDD for mass storage, slower speeds yeah, but you would never know the difference anyway because the speeds of the HDD are 100% sufficient for music/movie playback.

        I also see it like this.. $200 gets you 8gb, $250 gets you everything in the first device plus 8gb more. thats $50 for 8gb storage!?!?!? let me pay $32 for 32gb sd cards (when deals are going through) or at least less than $20 for 16gb card...

        Also if you are nit-picky most apps don't need the speed of the internal and an SD card is fast enough. The apps you use most are internal of course, but leave the rest on the SD card, its cheap mass storage... but that's if you pay attention to app usage/speed (and not all apps go to SD anyway...)

  • http://twitter.com/TheGermian Germian

    Question: Can you add calendar events through Google Now, the voice thingy?

  • Roboguy12

    Jelly Bean looks really awesome, except I don't know why Google decided to eliminate the "tablet" layout mode for tablets...it makes it seem less optimized and more like one of those cheap Android tablets running a magnified version of Froyo or something.

    • Zomby2D

      They didn't eliminate the "tablet" layout for tablets, they chose the phone-like ui for smaller ones where it made more sense.

  • Guest

    "Anyways" Ugh!

    There is no such word as "anyways"; rather it's a bastardization of "anyway" that has been used so many times it has found its way into some mainstream dictionaries despite not being a real word.

    #EnglishTeacherRant

    • FrillArtist

      The English language is always evolving. Deal with it.

    • AppleFUD

      You do realize that all "words" are made up?

      Words become words because people make them up and then they become commonly used. Maybe you need to look up the definition of "word" and see that anything can be a "word."

      Did you know that 'dove' was spelled 'duv' and 'love' was 'luv' less than two hundred years ago? But now that isn't acceptable? Why? Because someone said so? Who & why? And who in the hell made them THE 'authority'?

      It's all made up! Grammar is constantly changing. Forty (or fourty) years ago a semicolon was used differently than they teach you to use it today — how is that possible if, according to what you seem to be putting forth, there are actual "laws" to language?

      First thing all you "English teachers" ought to learn is that language is a very fluid thing and it's all made up in the first place. Your rules are just as much BS as the guy making up the new word you think is wrong — it's all a piss poor attempt at translating spoken language into written, and spoken language is a piss poor attempt at communication in the first place. . . but it's the best we got for now.

      /rant

    • Shane

      I ain't know what yur talkin bout.

      • AppleFUD

        That made me truly laugh. My 5th grade teacher would get on me for using "ain't" and I would say something like, why isn't it a word? To which should would say, it isn't defined in the dictionary and a word is something defined in the dictionary. 

        Well, wouldn't you know it, but that very year Webster's Dictionary included the word "ain't" for the very first time. I felt so vindicated LOL

      • AppleFUD

        That made me truly laugh. My 5th grade teacher would get on me for using "ain't" and I would say something like, why isn't it a word? To which should would say, it isn't defined in the dictionary and a word is something defined in the dictionary. 

        Well, wouldn't you know it, but that very year Webster's Dictionary included the word "ain't" for the very first time. I felt so vindicated LOL

  • Jake

    A 7 inch device looks okay in portrait orientation, so the phone UI isn't so bad. However, a 10.1" widescreen tablet is very awkward in portrait orientation, so I hope they maintain the landscape tablet UI when they get 4.1.

    • AppleFUD

      The look reminded me of WebOS — I had a couple TouchPads and you had your "favorite apps" at the bottom and your notification at the top. This seems to add a notification bat at the top, favorites at the bottom, and softkeys at the bottom — seems someone wants to use up the entire screen for OS bits & peaces. I much prefer the consolidated approach myself. . . we will see what is what soon enough, and I hope don't go down that road WebOS was on with forced bits and peaces here and there — one "task bar area" seems to be enough IMO.

      • aiden9

        Considering Matias Duarte helped design webOS before coming over to Google its not a big surprise there would be similarities.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/wwickedd wicked

    Pre-ordered a 16GB today, can't wait!

    Check out 
    http://www.nexustablets.net  guys n girls. Forum dedicated to the Nexus 7!

  • aplusjimages

    The speed optimization is my biggest concern. It always seems like my phones run great when I first get it, but a month later I start to get lag when doing things like typing this message on my nexus.

  • http://yanminhong.blogspot.com Yan Min

    My Kindle Fire went on craigslist this morning after the Nexus 7 announcement.  After it sells its preorder time :)  The KF is actually a great tablet, but its missing a few key features that I really wanted (Bluetooth, GPS, FFC, microphone, a WORKING LIGHT SENSOR).  The Nexus 7 is the same price and can do so much more, not to mention being completely open and hacker friendly.  Now I just gotta rig up a car dock as my map pocket will fit a 7" tablet rather nicely...

  • liamz

    I can't imagine pulling down a notification bar from the top of a tablet being anything but awkward. Trying to figure out why they didn't think of a more graceful solution. I could see where the HC-style notification area could get weird with the new expandable notifs but still...

  • ins0mn1a

    since nobody is mentioning it (including n7 specs list on google play), i take it there is no HDMI out (via micro USB port, obviously)? what a shame.

    • AppleFUD

      They had them hooked up on stage so maybe it is MHL? I've also read other commenters that said that it did indeed have video out and seen that in one chart as well. . . however, please don't take my word on it as I've seen nothing official.

      This is something that does need to be specifically clarified.

      • ins0mn1a

        yeap, it would have to be MHL since there is no dedicated HDMI port for sure. it seems silly to make a device quad core and content consumption oriented and *not* enable it for HDMI output, but anything is possible when you are trying to make it this cheap.

        and i also wonder if hoping for USB host mode is too much... 

  • Turkeys

    I wonder if the headphones can be used as a Line In or microphone input?

  • Elias

    Seriously, Google had better ditch the internal storage and include a 8gb microsd card. It would solve the dual storage problem, people won't complain it has "no memory" AND they would also be able to upgrade the storage, should they feel 8gb isn't enough.

    Also, considering you'll get only 8gb more for another $50 on the other model, the price is totally ridiculous. I'd rather buy the $200 model (if it came with 8gb microsd) and replace it with a 32gb microsd from amazon, which I can get at about what the extra 8gb would have cost me. I'd end up with 32gb storage and a spare 8gb microsd for the same price of the 16gb model.

  • BrianBreniser

    Sweet device for $200. And i'm not complaining here, but asking questions...

    Why the heck does it look like an over sized ICS phone? here is what I see:

    1: The notifications are at the top (not the bottom right in like on ICS)

    2: The navigation dock is centered (and not to the left like ICS, although for 7" centered is probably best...)

    3: The google search bar is hogging the top part of the screen (ICS has it to the left, out of the way, including voice search, also out of the way)

    4: They brought the apps button back as an icon (ICS has it on the right side of the top, also out of the way and its in line with the search bar, so it doesn't take up extra space)

    5: And a static dock (only phones do this, tablets do not, well some custom skins/downloadable do, but not ICS stock. But its kinda a waste of space... o.O)

    These all seem like a step backward. I'm sure project butter will be a big hit, and other developments to follow will take my mind of of these reverse changes. I'm sure this is the best 7" tablet at $200 available, but why the backwards Google?

    okay, So on a widescreen 7" in portrait mode this isn't that bad. It does look like a large phone UI but we get that with the ipad anyway (lolz). But my 10.1 better not look like this, I use it in landscape and by the way even a 7" would look good in landscape too. Again, it just seems backwards. The way stock ICS handles screen real estate on tablets is much better (bottom dock includes both navigation and updates/clock/etc. The top has both the search/voie AND apps button... there isn't a static bar always hogging a line of apps on each page...). But i'll update my opinion when I get to handle on in person.  

    --
    One Note: My opinion about how to make ICS even better is to add the search/voice search to the bottom bar so that its close to the navigation buttons again (that was kinda nice before they pulled the search button out from the bottom IMOP), then put the apps button somewhere in there too... then you can get the top part of the screen blank and simple so its easy to organize. Plus then your apps icon/search/voice are always available to use in any app. This was not my expectation in JB, but maybe some customizability would be nice. let me put the buttons where I want, eh?
    --

  • Tim Sheppard

    Imagine a one2touch nfc keyboard case with this and office suite pro with gdocs and a couple of floating apps! Ordered mine :-)

  • jeffrey evans

    This isn't meant to compete with the iPad, it's meant to compete with the Kindle Fire.  With that in mind, I think Google nailed it.  They will also help drive tablet pricing lower, which we can all agree is a good thing.  I'm looking forward to getting my 16 GB model I ordered yesterday, my OG Tab is ready for retirement.

    The only question for Asus that still remains is whether the Memo 370T is going to be a reality.  If so, that'll be the high end 7" tablet for power users while this one remains the average Joe tablet.

  • Wjgeorge7

    It's really $250, since the memory isnt upgradeable

  • dextersgenius

    I'm guessing the main reason why they left out and have been leaving out the microSD card slots is to push their cloud-based services, especially now that GDrive is here. And for $200 you really can't complain. I just hope other OEMs don't follow suit, like HTC did.

  • Andy

    This is the best Android tablet you can buy at any price. When you factor in the low price, it's probably the best tablet for the money you'll find as well. If you can live in the cloud, and Google Play has enough of the content you're looking for, go buy one. And if you have decided to become a proud owner of this device, perhaps you’re in the market for a solid and beautiful protection case as well.

    http://9cases.com/2014/05/best-and-cool-google-nexus-7-cases/