Android tablets, for the last year plus they've existed, haven't been anything to get excited over. At least that's my opinion on the matter. And even if you've wanted one (a good one), most of them have been sort of expensive. But now that Google has unveiled the first true Nexus tablet (XOOM who?), for a mere 200 of your dollars, you can get in on the computing revolution. At that price, Google isn't shooting for the premium market. It's targeting first-time tableteers, boldly going where only Amazon and various Chinese knock-offs have gone before - into the sub-$200 slate market.
So, how'd Google and ASUS do? Very well. Probably a little too well. The Nexus 7 isn't perfect, but I don't know of an Android tablet that is. The thing is, though, that the Nexus 7 is still more likeable than any other Android tablet on the market. Even the $500 ones. Unless you absolutely can't live with a 7-inch display, or require more than 16GB of internal media storage, this is the Android tablet to buy. Period. I honestly think Google and ASUS have created something of a monster here. And this monster eats other Android tablets of all shapes and sizes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
But it doesn't have a rear-facing camera! You might say. It's only 7 inches across! Yells the one guy with a Toshiba Excite 13. Now, everybody in unison: THERE'S NO SD CARD SLOT!
Get over it.
Welcome to the new Android tablet - it's a cheap, mean, lean, Kindle Fire-killing machine. And it works just as well as (if not better than) its larger, older cousins. Remember how Google set up a sort of hardware "blueprint" for manufacturers to follow with the Nexus One? The Nexus 7 is Google saying "This is our vision for Android tablets, and this is the experience we're going to optimize Android for from here on out." Which, for manufacturers relying on Android, translates to "make cheaper, smaller, more powerful tablets or perish."
So, why buy the Nexus 7 when everyone else is going to be getting on this budget tab train in the next 6 months? Because it's probably going to be at least a year before anyone does it any better, and you'll only be out $200 if I'm wrong. But I reckon that mythical device, the superior of the Nexus 7, will not come to be - because no one can do what Google has done with this device. Not for $200, at least.
Nexus 7: Specifications
- Price: $200 (8GB) / $250 (16GB)
- Processor: NVIDIA Tegra 3 at 1.3GHz
- GPU: NVIDIA GeForce ULP
- Operating System: Android 4.1 Jelly Bean
- Display: 7" IPS LCD 1280x800 (216DPI)
- Memory: 1GB RAM / 8GB (6GB usable) or 16GB (estimate: 14GB usable) storage
- Cameras: 1.2MP front
- Battery: 4235mAh
- NFC: Yes
- Ports / Expandable Storage: mUSB / none
- Thickness: 10.5mm (.41")
- Weight: 340g (12oz)
- It's fast. Really fast. Faster than any other Android tablet out there, by a lot. Most of this is probably owed to the fact that it's the only one running Android 4.1 at this point. Still, anything running faster than this is just sort of gravy - this kind of speed is more than sufficient 95% of the time.
- For me, the 7-inch form factor is tablet perfection. 10.1 is too big for anything but a living-room loafer device. This is a tablet you can actually take with you and carry around. It even sort-of fits in the back pocket of most jeans.
- The UI Google has chosen for 7-inch devices works. You'll get used to the notification bar. Really, they've sort of taken Apple's cue with the 'blown-up phone UI' here, but Apple did it because it's consistent and it works. It still works here. I like it a lot better than Android's previous 3.x / 4.0 tablet UI.
- The Nexus 7 feels incredibly solid for a $200 piece of hardware. The silicone rear cover also feels much more premium than glossy or textured plastic.
- It's a Nexus device. You get updates first, and can hack away courtesy of its easily unlocked bootloader.
- It's two-hundred effing dollars. And you get $25 of Play Store credit right out of the box. You will not get more value for money in any other tablet out there. Not even close.
The Not So Good
- The Android tablet app ecosystem still sucks. Hopefully it will suck less sooner rather than later. On the upside, many phone-only apps don't look terrible on a 7-inch display, even if they could use some minor tweaks for usability / stability's sake (COUGH TWITTER COUGH). Facebook's app looks great on a 7-inch device, for example.
- The Play Store content ecosystem (movies, TV, books, music) still sucks, too. There just isn't enough selection, and the storefront is in dire need of a rework with a lot more filters and sorting options. And better presentation. You just can't discover anything.
- App compatibility / stability on Jelly Bean is going to take catching up to, so the occasional crash or quirk is to be expected.
- It isn't 10.1 inches, doesn't have more ports than all but the techiest people will ever need, and won't have enough room to store your entire pirated movie / emulator / porn collection. It also doesn't cost $500.
The Bottom Line: Just pre-order one now. I can't think of a single reason you'd regret buying this thing, and for $200, how can you not? Even someone like me, who doesn't really see the need for tablets, wants something like this. ASUS and Google nailed it.
Design / Build Quality
For once, I don't really care how a piece of hardware looks - it's a cheap tablet. The wonderful thing about being a $200 tablet is you can avoid most of the aesthetic scrutiny a more costly device will face. This is a gateway to the web, apps, and content - not a status symbol (or an attempt to mimic one).
That said, the Nexus 7 for me lands somewhere in the middle in terms of appearance. It's not ugly, but it's not really anything to behold, either. In its retail graphite-ish color, it looks even more run of the mill than this special white edition. Which is sad, because I sort of like the piano color scheme. The big "nexus" logo on the back is good branding (I'm surprised there isn't a giant GOOGLE PLAY in rainbow colors scrawled across the whole thing), and the ASUS trademark is present along the bottom, but subtle enough not to cause a laptop-sticker-grade catastrophe. Thankfully, there is no branding on the front.
Google wanted function above all else to dominate on the Nexus 7, and that comes through in a number of ways in the design - some obvious, some not so much. One of them is the silicone rubber-like rear of the Nexus 7, which is the first thing you'll notice upon picking it up. It's grippy, but not as rubbery as the Kindle Fire. Basically, you're less likely to drop it, and it looks and feels much more premium than glossy or textured plastic. Fingerprints are barely noticeable on it, which will keep your OCD at bay.
A less obvious but very intelligent choice is the placement of the volume and power controls. On the upper right-hand side of the device, where they belong on a small tablet. Seriously, most people are going to hold this thing with their right hands, and this makes sure both controls are easily accessible with one hand on the device. The press action is easy, but long and clicky. Ergonomics, yay!
The microUSB charging / data port is on the bottom, so as not to disrupt landscape usage while charging, as is the headphone jack - meaning you know the top of the tablet will never be obstructed. The arrangement of these ports and controls also fits with the docking arrangement - there is a series of contacts on the bottom left of the device - so that all cables can be plugged in and controls used while the Nexus 7 is docked (though no dock has been announced).
Overall build quality seems strong - very strong for a device at this price point. Everything feels like it fits together nice and tight. No unsightly seam gaps or curves in the plastic here. Considering Google is basically selling these through at cost, it's not surprising the price belies the quality of construction.
Finally, the size itself. The 7" form factor has been tried by some (the original Galaxy Tab and successors, HTC Flyer), but has been successful for for just one - Amazon. This was the right call on size. In my mind, 7 inches is the optimal size for a tablet. It's perfect for reading and gaming, and adequate for watching movies. You can also use the software keyboard in portrait without looking like an idiot - and the new keyboard in Android 4.1 has me typing faster than I ever have on a screen. By comparison, my 10.1" Transformer Prime feels like a Lincoln Continental - big, heavy, and metallic. The Nexus 7 is a sprite little Volkswagen GTI - speedy, cheap, and versatile.
Performance And Benchmarks
The Nexus 7 is crazy snappy - much snappier than my Transformer Prime and TF300. A lot of this is owed to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. And a good chunk of it also thanks to the quad-core Tegra 3 processor inside the Nexus 7. That Tegra 3 processor (part of NVIDIA's "Kai" platform) is downclocked from 1.5GHz to 1.3GHz (maximum), with a top speed of 1.2GHz when multiple cores are active.
Everything moves quickly, even the recent apps menu is a lot faster than it used to be. Swiping into the widgets section of the app drawer is no where near as painful as it was just a version of Android ago. Brand-spanking-new high-end games like Dead Trigger and Shadowgun THD are a breeze for the Nexus 7 - try that with a Kindle Fire. But what about more objective measures?
Here at Android Police, we look at the benchmark as one of those occasionally useful tools for certain scenarios, and rarely as good overall indicators of performance. However, they're a widely requested feature in our reviews (who doesn't like seeing something you bought beat something somebody else bought at numbers?), so I'm going to provide you a few.
Quadrant is something of a holistic test, combining processor, R/W, RAM, and GPU performance tests into one big, happy score. Taken with a massive grain of salt. Higher is better.
Your device = Nexus 7
CFBench is a community benchmarking tool that specializes in devices with multicore processors, and focuses heavily on generic computing performance, as opposed to GPU or R/W tests. Higher is better.
GLBenchmark, as you might have guessed, is strictly about GPU performance. It's a fairly popular benchmark, and the test I'm using is the 720p Egypt offscreen test, which provides a result that is independent of a device's screen resolution. Higher is better.
GLBenchmark 720p Egypt Offscreen (average)
- New iPad: 15372
- ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity: 8397
- Acer Iconia Tab A510: 7876
- ASUS Transformer Prime TF201: 7224
- Nexus 7: 7102
- ASUS Transformer Pad 300: 7018
- Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0: 3101
- Amazon Kindle Fire: 2575
It's better than anything you'll see on a tablet costing less than $300. The IPS LCD panel on the Nexus 7 isn't exactly a groundbreaking technical achievement, nor is it meant to be. The real story here is resolution. Google wanted proper HD-resolution above all else, most likely, and to avoid the dreaded 1024x600 panels infesting most devices in this price range. The resulting 216DPI is enough to take real advantage of Android's silky-smooth Roboto font, and viewing angles are also much better than I would expect. Compared to the 149DPI on the 10.1" Transformer Prime, it's much crisper. Colors are fairly accurate, but not particularly vivid or eye-catching - they wash out a fair bit when you really crank the brightness, too.
Sunlight performance isn't painfully bad, but it's obvious this device really isn't meant to be used outdoors. Black on white text webpages are readable in bright sunlight, but fingerprint smudges make them all that much harder to see. The Nexus 7's Gorilla Glass doesn't fare any better or worse than any other tablet in the smudging department, though its display is definitely quite glossy, perhaps making such smears a little more noticeable.
As a quick note, on a couple of our pre-production I/O units, we also noticed the Nexus 7's display produced an abnormal amount of image retention (a sort of ghosting imprint that happens on all IPS displays to some extent), but ASUS and Google can't reproduce the issue independently. So, it may be limited to some I/O units only. We mention it only because we both noticed it on ours.
Google claims you can get a whole 8 hours of HD video playback on the Nexus 7, and I'm inclined to believe them. The robust 4235mAh (an odd number, to be sure) lithium ion pack provides ample juice, and even under an intense 2-hour plus, 100% brightness barrage of Dead Trigger, I only managed to drain it down to about 40%. Considering the 1280x800 resolution and quad-core processor, Google and ASUS have managed to extract an impressive amount of battery life from this device.
Standby life seems good, but not great. Leaving the Nexus 7 sit overnight drains more juice than I imagined it would - around 10%. Still, as long as you remember to plug it in, that shouldn't be an issue. Again, for a casual-consumption $200 piece of hardware, the figures are impressive, certainly more than I would expect.
We're not reviewing the quality of the front-facing camera - the Nexus 7 doesn't even have a camera app. It's for video chat only, and for that function, it serves its purpose. Just know that it's there, and that it works properly. Could you use it as a normal camera with an app? Sure. Would you want to? No. You have a phone for that, silly.
There are 6GBs of internal storage available for use on the 8GB version of the Nexus 7, and probably around 14 on the 16GB version. There are no options to expand these figures. Google wants you and your less tech-savvy friends to start using the cloud more, and that's the tradeoff you're making here. You get a cheap tablet with minimal local storage, Google gets to nudge you in the direction of its cloud-based content services. They even give you $25 to encourage you. Need more storage? Buy the 16GB version. Need more than that? Buy something that Google isn't essentially subsidizing for you.
Wireless, Bluetooth, NFC
Wi-Fi connectivity works great, range is good (yay plastic), and I had no issues maintaining a connection. The fact that I have nothing else to say about that is a good thing. Bluetooth also seems to work just fine, I connected to an external speaker with no issues. I tested NFC through the Nexus Q pairing process, and that seemed to work as well.
Audio / External Speaker
Audio from the headphone jack on the Nexus 7 is pretty crappy. I don't expect much from a budget device like this, and the Nexus 7 doesn't deliver much. Music sounded quiet, muted, and lacked a lot of dynamic range (almost no bass or highs). Given that this is probably the DAC (digital to analog converter) and headphone amp NVIDIA recommends for its Kai platform, that isn't too surprising. For the casual $30-earbud and Pandora listener, it's not unbearable. And if you're using Bluetooth audio output, it sounds considerably better.
The rear speaker is surprisingly good - in some ways. The speakers on ASUS's Transformer tablets have all delivered decent audio, so it appears they brought some of that know-how to the Nexus 7. Let me put it this way: I've heard much worse. For YouTube videos or games, it's perfect. Voices come in clear and crisp. However, it is really quiet - don't expect to use this anywhere but a small room. Preferably without any fans. Or people talking. Or breathing too heavily.
Software (Android 4.1)
General UI / OS
The first thing you'll notice about the software on the Nexus 7 is that it looks a lot more like the phone UI from Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) than it does a dedicated tablet experience. So, what happened to the other tablet-specific UI?
Presumably, it's not gone entirely, but Google has decided not to use it in the 7-inch form factor. And for good reason, actually. Speaking to people at Google I/O about the Nexus 7 and Android, I heard the word consistent used no less than a dozen times. Why? Google wants the Android user experience to be similar across devices, regardless of whether you're on a phone or a tablet. Android didn't come up with this idea. Apple did. And we were all quite happy to have a laugh at the original iPad's "giant iPhone" UI when it came out. But it seems they were on to something with it.
I can see the merits of the consistency argument, given that at $200 a lot of less than hardcore tech enthusiasts will probably be picking up a Nexus 7 some time in the next few months. If they own a relatively modern Android phone, they'll probably feel pretty at home on the Nexus 7 - more so than they would on the newest Transformer, at least. In fact, it's probably a bigger deal for mass market adoption than we're all willing to admit. People generally don't like having to learn anything new on their computing devices, so Google is trying to make its tablet as similar as it can to the phones so many people already own.
The pull-down notification bar is one of those things that took getting used to for me. I hated it at first. I wanted to keep hating it. But then I stopped. I started to like it, and then realized it's probably better that way in the first place. The new expandable notifications make great use of the added screen real estate, and the 7-inch form factor means it isn't exactly a reach. Don't fix what isn't broken, I guess. That said, those expandable notifications are collapsed or enlarged via a 2-finger swipe, and that has to go now. Find another way, Google, because that will never feel natural to anyone but people with two tips on a single finger.
The keyboard is great. The prediction engine is great, the accuracy is great, and the speed is phenomenal. Best keyboard I've ever used on Android, hands-down. The fact that the Nexus 7 is pretty much the perfect size for typing in portrait orientation probably helps, too.
Android 4.1 is oh so very smooth. We're getting to iOS levels of butteryness here, and probably surpassing it for sheer speed. It is fast. While the benchmarks in the hardware section tell some of the story, they probably don't do the Nexus 7 justice. Everything is just so unbelievably smooth.
Some of Android's worst performing-features have even been turbocharged. The recent app menu comes up much more quickly now, and scrolls without a single stutter. The widgets section of the app drawer doesn't cause the Nexus 7 to spontaneously combust. The notification bar never hesitates. The things that you want to be fast are fast - you never feel like you're really waiting for the Nexus 7 to catch up with you. These are all very, very good things.
There are a few niggles, though. The lockscreen doesn't feel as fast as it should. When you hit the outer ring of the circle, it hesitates for a moment before going to the homescreen. This might be intentional - I'm not sure. Either way, a transition animation could probably make this minor delay much less noticeable. Bringing up Google Now via the bottom swipe always elicits some level of stuttering, too. That said, I'm on what is technically prerelease software, so some of these bumps could be ironed out by the time retail devices ship.
The next keynote feature you're probably curious about is Google Now. If Apple's response to Voice Actions was Siri, then Now is Google's rebuttal. At present, Google Now's welcome splash doesn't do a lot unless you're a religious Latitude user or constantly travelling. It does provide useful information like travel time to a location you set as Work or Home (in Latitude), flight information, and if you put events in your calendar at least a day ahead of time with a recognizable location, Now will give you reminders and estimate how long it's going to take you to get there - including a reminder shortly before it estimates you can no longer make it to your appointment on time.
Now also allows you to ask various questions that will provide answer cards. Unfortunately, most of the queries that actually yield cards aren't very intuitive. For example, if you ask Google Now what the tallest building in the world is, you get a list of web results. If you ask it how tall the Burj Dubai is, you get an answer card. If you ask Now "who stars in Breaking Bad," you get web results. If you ask "what is the cast of Breaking Bad," you get an answer card. Clearly, Google Now has the ability to pull out useful bits of information very intelligently. It just requires a fairly specific path to get to that information. And this is where natural language recognition suddenly becomes important - while it's very easy to remember a dozen or so "call" functions for specific activities (eg, text, navigate, map, email, alarm), it'd be impossible to memorize all the answer card question formats. At present, Google Now has some level of natural language recognition, but it has a ways to go yet.
Various answer cards
Also, recognition of some proper nouns is absolutely atrocious. I have a pretty flat, unaccented speaking voice, and I have tried a dozen times to get Google Now to recognize the name "Marie Curie" (which, when searched for, gives you a knowledge graph person result). I've gotten "who is very curious," "who is mary curious," "who is very careful," "who is Mary cura a," "who is married today," and a litany of other useless responses. Overall, though, I'd say accuracy has improved significantly, so don't let that example put you off too much.
As you'd guess, the full gamut of Voice Actions Android has always had are present, too. And if you're on the Google Now splash page, you can just say "Google" and it will start listening. The Now splash page is summoned by one of the coolest ideas ever to grace Android - a simple swipe up from the bottom of the screen. Any app, any time - just swipe up. Never again will you need a search button.
Unfortunately, this is probably the Nexus 7's biggest downfall. Android still doesn't have a lot of tablet-optimized apps. The worst offenders are almost unilaterally the most popular publishers of apps on Android. Here are a few highly popular apps by major publishers without any sort of tablet optimization:
- Amazon MP3 / Amazon
And then there are the ones that are optimized poorly, like Netflix. If you use Google's suite of services, you're shielded from a lot of these deficiencies. Gmail, Maps, Google+, Google Music, Chrome, Talk, and Calendar all assure that your basic functional needs are met. But not everyone uses those things. And many of those people will buy this tablet.
The most annoying part is that so many of the apps I listed above don't need total overhauls to make perfectly good use of a 7 inch tablet. Twitter, for example, just needs the font size stepped up and maybe a few more details put into each tweet - the single column feed is fine. Facebook actually looks good as is on the Nexus 7, it just needs to run smoother. Pandora and Amazon MP3 need higher resolution interface elements and album art. Yelp just requires a little more information in each result listing and larger buttons on the main screen. These changes aren't hard to make.
But no one makes them, and that's mostly because there wasn't a single piece of hardware or display size for developers to rally around and focus on. Now there is. Let's hope they get moving quickly. Paid app developers even have a bit of motivation, considering every Nexus 7 owner is getting $25 to spend on the Play Store right out the box. The downside here is that this will probably mean even less attention specifically for much larger 10.1" devices. Can't say I'm in tears over that.
In terms of non-apps, the addition of TV shows and Magazines to Google's growing digital content warehouse is a step in the right direction. But Google is still so many steps behind Apple and Amazon in this arena that it's going to be a while before the Play Store can truly challenge iTunes or Amazon Instant Video / MP3. The selection just isn't there. Beyond that, Amazon MP3 beats Google on whole album pricing. iTunes has full TV show season discounts, Google Play doesn't. Amazon and Apple have gotten to the point where they're not even competing over content selection anymore - they have it all.
There is a bright spot in this barren content wasteland for Android tablets, though. Games. The Nexus 7 is the perfect size for a dedicated touch gaming device, and there are a growing number of good titles out there. 10.1 inches is far too big without a controller, and even a 4.5"+ superphone can get cramped for shooters or complex strategy games. I played Dead Trigger for about 3 hours on my Nexus 7 the day it came out and loved it. I then tried it on my Transformer Prime, and couldn't last 15 minutes before getting bored and frustrated with its ridiculous dimensions. It just feels silly after using the Nexus 7.
Anyway, content is, without a doubt, the weakest link in the Nexus 7's chain. Hopefully the $200 price point, $25 Play Store credit, and the fact that it's generally pretty awesome will help fill in this glaring hole. It's definitely going to be the make-or-break point for Google's experiment here, and if Android users continue to avoid paid apps and other content like the plague, that experiment will fail. Google is relying on average users to purchase digital goods through its storefront in order to make this whole thing financially viable, so let's hope they've got their wallets ready.
The scary thing about the Nexus 7 is that I can't think of a good reason not to go out and buy one. Seriously - if you're on the fence, just do it. The Kindle Fire had flaws - no Play Store, low display resolution, a questionable custom OS running on an outdated version of Android. The Nexus 7 doesn't have any of those problems. There's no Android tablet out there right now that holds a candle to it - it's not even worth the comparison. I can't say I see a reason to buy any other Android tablet at all, frankly.
Why? This is the first 100% pure, distilled, quintuple-filtered commitment to tablets by Google. What started as a $250 ASUS econo-slate has been fine-tuned and delicately honed into something that makes even the $500+ super-premium devices look sluggish. And sure, they'll speed up when they get Android 4.1 - but they'll always be a step behind the Nexus 7 thanks to Google-sourced software updates. In fact, there really isn't much of a reason for those tablets to exist anymore. At the very least, we now know their prophesized ubiquity will not come to pass.
Sure, there are fancy keyboard docks, larger displays, and greater internal storage to be had if you start getting into the premium segment of the market. And those devices will probably persist for a while yet. But they'll never be the stars of the show that their manufacturers so very much wanted them to be. Much like the cheap Android phone shifted the smartphone tides, the cheap Android tablet will finally get Google's foot in the iPad's door. But make no mistake, the Nexus 7 isn't out to kill the iPad. Google already tried that (XOOM, you will not be missed). The Nexus 7 is out to kill the Android tablet, and assume its position at the throne of a new cheap-slate kingdom.
And with software updates directly from Google, a development community bound to be massive, and value for money that just won't be beat, it probably will. The Android tablet is dead, long live the Android tablet.