I like tablets, and I love tablet apps. Don’t take that the wrong way - I love my Nexus 4, and I use it constantly, but there’s something different about tablets. A large, beautiful screen filled by an app that really shows off the functionality that comes with Android's design language is a great experience. Make that tablet super portable, fast, and priced right, and you’ve got my heart.
Okay, maybe that’s not all it takes for a tablet to win my heart. It takes a little more. In reviewing the new Nexus 7 (hereafter referred to as NN7), I wanted to find out for myself if Google’s newest seven-inch tablet is one that could win my affection - and use - both as a consumer and as a tech journalist.
That’s a tall order, but I’ve spent some quality time with the NN7 and I’m ready to dive into my honest thoughts.
In a Nutshell
To put it plainly, the Nexus 7 is a great tablet. Its few shortcomings are far outweighed by its superlative display, great sound, and overall design. If you're in the market for a seven-inch tablet (regardless of price), this is the one you want.
Before diving in, here's a quick rundown of the Nexus 7's primary strengths and weaknesses.
- The Display – The Nexus 7 has a dazzling, sharp, contrasty, bright, all around great display. I love it. I haven't loved a mobile display like this since the Nexus 10.
- The Sound – Audio is produced at reasonably loud volumes with clarity and depth.
- The Form Factor – In my mind, this tablet is just the right size and shape for something under 10". It's big enough to be differentiated from my phone's display but small enough to hold comfortably and work quickly.
- Performance – I'm not a huge gamer, but the day-to-day tasks that I use the Nexus 7 for are executed masterfully, and Android is buttery-er than ever.
The Not So Good
- Speaker Placement – Going into my purchase I didn't think this would be a big deal, but the rear-facing speakers are kind of a sticking point. Sound is excellent, but I still feel compelled to hold my tablet in a way I wouldn't normally hold a rectangle so that I don't block the sound. And it is blockable.
- Notification Light – Having an LED notification light is actually a great thing, but with the new Nexus 7 there's a hitch – it only seems to light up in one color. One of the things I love about the light on the N4 and N10 is that it is more functional and useful than a normal light, because different colors can alert you to different kinds of notifications.
- No SD Card Slot – This isn't a big deal for me personally, because I use very little local storage, but for a lot of people, the lack of SD support in Nexus devices continues to be problematic.
The Hardware (Outside)
The first thing anyone notices about a device is the hardware. The outside hardware, anyway. For the current Nexus line, the dominant visual feature is a black slab of glass. Shiny, elegant, and not just understated, but unstated altogether. Oh, and a notification light. The notification light is a good addition, but not as good as I'd hoped – it appears to only light up white, making an app like Lightflow useless. This is problematic because while a notification LED is good, it isn't as good as it should be if it can't actually differentiate between types of notifications.
Knowing what kind of notification you have without turning anything on is a lot better than just knowing you have some kind of notification.
Once you do turn it on, though, a bright, crisp, vivid, pixel-packed display will smack you in the eyeball. But more on that later.
But what about the reverse? The first thing you’ll notice about the NN7’s back side is that it has a soft touch coating that’s different from the old Nexus 7, the Nexus 4’s edge band, and the Nexus 10. If I had to draw a comparison to another existing Nexus though, I’d say the NN7 feels like a dry version of the Nexus 10. Still warm and comfortable, but just a teeny bit rougher. This is most likely due to the material the back is made of.
The back also shows off a glossy inset Nexus logo situated horizontally if you hold the tablet in landscape mode, and an ASUS logo perpendicular to that along the bottom. You'll also find the tablet's dual stereo speakers and a 5MP camera, but we'll get to those soon enough.
The only physical buttons on the entire device are the power and volume keys. Strangely, these few buttons are kind of a problem area. They, like the Nexus logo on the back of the device, are glossy plastic, but the power button seems a little lopsided. From what I understand, I'm not alone in this experience. It's a minor quibble, but it doesn't bode well for the future of the button. Personally, I'd be fine if there were no buttons on the device whatsoever.
Overall the build quality feels pretty good. The more slender frame gives the Nexus 7 a more solid, weighty feel, even though the tablet weighs 50g less than its counterpart. The tablet, as I've said before, is also extremely easy to hold in one hand.
The Hardware (Inside)
Of course the most beautiful device is just as good as a really fancy paperweight if it doesn't actually perform. The Nexus 7, as detailed above, is packing 2GB RAM along with an S4 Pro chipset powered by a quad-core 1.5GHz Krait CPU and Adreno 320 GPU. (For a more graphic look at the NN7's insidey parts, check out iFixit's teardown).
It should be noted there has been some contention over the Nexus 7's SoC though – according to AnandTech's mini-review, the NN7 sports DDR3 RAM and appears/behaves "more like an underclocked or lower binned Snapdragon 600."
Knowing all of this, the question has to be asked – how does it perform? I won't spend time and space with a battery of benchmarks, but I will say that it shows solid performance. Granted I don't have a habit of playing games any more demanding than, say, Riptide GP2, but everything I do with the tablet is executed without effort, stutter, or the slightest hint of lag.
For those interested, we took a brief look at a couple of benchmarks shortly after the NN7's announcement.
This is probably my favorite part of the new Nexus 7. At 1920x1200, the display is no laughing matter – Google touted it as the highest resolution seven inch display in existence.
Whether or not you consider density to equal resolution, the display is impressive. It's a major improvement over the original Nexus 7 not just in terms of pixel density, but in color, contrast, and brightness as well – the NN7 is capable of displaying a 30% wider range of color than its predecessor, and is very noticeably brighter and more contrasty when compared in real life.
To help you get an idea of just how much more densely-packed the display is, here's a quick comparison under the microscope:
Left: Nexus 7 2012 Right: New Nexus 7
The only issue I've noticed with the display might be a nocebo – it seems like sometimes long press actions are very finicky, almost like the slightest wiggle of a finger might break the long press. Otherwise it's great.
The display has really driven home for me the idea that a seven-inch tablet is perhaps even more versatile than its 10" counterparts. Watching movies is a great experience, using apps, browsing the web, and working through emails are all pleasant, and – here's where a 7" slate has the leg up – reading is superb.
It's not that I hate reading on the Nexus 10 or other similarly sized tablets, it's just that a 7" tablet feels so much more… correct for the purpose. Maybe because it's closer to the size of an actual book.
Before I wax any further, let's move on to the speakers.
The NN7's speakers were one of the highlights of Sundar Pichai's breakfast get-together. Google was sure to point out that they worked with Fraunhofer to craft three-dimensional "surround sound" for the Nexus 7's dual speakers.
This sounds very fancy. While the sound on the NN7's speakers is good (comparable to the quality of the N10, plus some interesting effects that I might not necessarily describe as "surrounding" me), what we are essentially talking about is an added layer of software for digital audio processing that aims to make things sound better and more realistic.
The one complaint I have with the speakers, as I pointed out in my initial hands-on, is that they are on the back right in the middle of the curve. When using the tablet in landscape mode I feel like I have to hold it a certain way, instead of just letting my hands cradle it naturally. That's not an ideal experience, whether the sound blockage is real or imagined.
The camera, in short, is not fantastic. It's decent, and it reminds me very much of the camera on the Nexus 4, but with a different resolution.
If your desire for a camera on your 7" tablet stems from the need to scan barcodes, you're all set. It handles regular photos pretty well too, if you're careful. Scenes with both bright and dark spots likely won't come out as even exposures, but if the scene you're looking to capture is well-lit, you've got nothing to worry about.
Personally the camera is a very small consideration for me, as I can count on one hand the number of times I've reached for my tablet specifically to take a photo.
The front camera is precisely what you'd expect from a 1.2MP shooter. Passable for quick video calls, but don't expect to get a selfie printed at 11x14 for the mantle.
Video is much the same as still photography, but with motion and sound. The sound is kind of unpredictable, though. In the video sample below, listen carefully and you'll hear all kinds of weird blips and noises underlying the actual audio of the scene. In a scene that's not quite so quiet, this would likely be unnoticeable though.
The NN7 actually has a smaller battery capacity than the old Nexus 7 – 3950 vs 4325mAh. Whether this decision was made to keep the NN7 svelte, or because Google took a very ambitious bet on Android 4.3's powers of battery preservation is unknown.
What I do know, however, is that the battery on the NN7 is decidedly decent. Though smaller than the old Nexus 7, and though it powers a dense display, the battery seems to last about a day and a half on a charge in my use case, or even longer if my use is lighter than normal. While I'm still waiting for that major shift in battery technology to bring me days and days of use, a couple of days on a charge is pretty good – in recent memory, I haven't been away from a power outlet for more than a day.
The Nexus 7 is rated for 9 hours of "active use," but in my experience, streaming a half hour of video drained about 9% of the battery, putting its longevity at about five hours in that use case. Obviously when users are performing other tasks, the battery usage becomes a bit less formulaic.
When idle, as expected, the tablet will last much longer. Just how much longer is as yet unknown – during my time reviewing the Nexus 7, I haven't left it alone long enough to get an accurate picture. That said, battery drain overnight is negligible.
Of course, your mileage may (and probably will) vary.
A lot of people were surprised to find out that the new Nexus 7 doesn't have pogo pins like the old one. Of course, the old Nexus 7 dock won't work with the NN7, but that's okay (right?) because it supports Qi wireless charging!
But um… don't plan on using the NN7 with the Nexus 4 charging orb without a slight hassle.
While the device fits, it has to be in landscape orientation, and if you have any desire for the tablet to rest at a straight angle, you'll be fiddling with it for a while. The grippy ring on the orb is obviously meant for smoother surfaces – it just doesn't hold as tightly to the textured back of the NN7.
If you don't mind all that, though, it'll certainly charge the device. I'm left wondering if Google plans to release a larger, perhaps grapefruit-sized charging orb (fingers crossed).
Since the NN7 is Android 4.3's launch device, it's worth taking a minute to look at the latest version bump. Probably the most important enhancement Google brought to Android in the latest release, as far as tablets like the NN7 are concerned, is restricted profiles. Basically this feature expands on existing multiuser functionality by opening up the possibility for restricted user profiles, whose access to apps, settings, or features can be limited.
This was an important move because it makes it far easier for parents to feel comfortable giving their child a tablet, or for anyone considering a tablet to share with the rest of the family. This, along with Google's moves to improve the Android tablet experience for education (both primary and beyond) will make the devices more appealing to new groups.
As Jeremiah rightly pointed out, restricted profiles really is the most user-facing new feature in 4.3, but other small tweaks, like the new Wi-Fi location scanning feature, Bluetooth Low Energy, and OpenGL ES 3.0 make the user experience better from behind the scenes.
While 4.3 isn't the dessert some may have been hoping for, it's definitely a respectable OS bump and does add to Android's overall experience.
The Content Elephant in the Room
Something that most outlets love to hate about Android tablets is the lack of specifically tablet-friendly apps.
It is true that my mind is not boggled by the number or quality of tablet oriented, optimized, or even compatible apps, but maybe we're looking for the wrong thing.
Matias Duarte, in an interview with the Verge following the introduction of the original Nexus 7, explained that experiences should be uniform but adaptive across screen sizes, using Twitter's iOS app as an example of how changing the experience between form factors has the potential to be disruptive to the user's overall experience with the product (and, if I may extrapolate, their experience of the brand).
Rather than searching high and low for apps that specifically call themselves out as being made for tablets, we should instead be looking at apps that adapt to the tablet screen. This means considering how to move away from large phone interfaces and toward something that provides the same experience at a different size. The Google+ app is a great example of this, across phones, 7" tablets, and 10" tablets.
I think the other thing to consider is what you'll be doing on the tablet. Besides apps and games, a huge portion of my time with the Nexus 7 is spent consuming media, be it music, movies, tv, or other videos.
Media content is an area where the Play Store has really grown up fast lately, and while it still has some catching up to do, you will absolutely not be at a loss for content on the new Nexus 7.
In the end, is the Nexus 7 worth its $229 price of entry? In my opinion, it absolutely is.
If you're in the market for a seven-inch slate, or if you're just looking for an all-around great tablet, the Nexus 7 won't disappoint. It's got a sharp design, a great display, and it runs like a champ. In pretty much every category, it beats the seven-inch Google-branded tablet that – at the time – beat all other Android tablets.
As I said earlier, its few shortcomings are far outweighed by its strengths, and a low price point doesn't hurt it, either.