Do you remember the first Nexus tablet? OK, it wasn’t a Nexus by name - instead it was christened the 'Xoom' - but it was Nexus by nature, designed with Google’s input and the flagship product for a new Android release, in this case Android 3.0 - Honeycomb.
To say that the Xoom (and Honeycomb) were not the successes that Google hoped for would be putting it mildly. While the Xoom hardware was solid it wasn’t groundbreaking, it was expensive and Honeycomb proved it self to be a poorly performing ‘rush job’ that also suffered horribly from a lack of tablet apps - not least from Google themselves.
That was January 2011... fast forward to June 2012 and Google are taking another crack at the tablet market.
The mess that was Honeycomb has been mopped up with the release first of Ice Cream Sandwich and now Jelly Bean, the tablet market has changed in shape thanks to the Kindle Fire and, in a nutshell, Google have realised they want a piece of that pie.
Forget about the iPad for a minute (although Google dearly want to succeed in that space too) and focus on the Fire. A runaway sales success for Amazon, the Kindle showed that great specs and a sea of tablet ready apps aren’t necessarily what’s needed to be a hit in the market. Amazon achieved millions of sales with a keen price point and an ecosystem which provided a wealth of digital content for consumption on the device.
With the Play store, in the US particularly, Google’s media offerings are approaching that of Amazon... and here we have the Nexus 7, that low cost consumption device.
So is the Nexus 7 just a Kindle Fire wannabe or is it an accomplished tablet on other levels? Read on to find out.
As the retail devices are yet to ship, this review is based on the Google I/O model Nexus 7, which is an 8GB model. It has a white back and black rim but is otherwise identical hardware to retail units. The review is based on the 4.1.1 Jelly Bean software.
Edit: As I was finishing up the review I managed to get my hands on a retail device too.
In The Box
Super-minimalist! In the box you get the tablet, a small warranty leaflet, a mains to USB adaptor for your region and a USB cable. That's it!
Hardware - overview
It’s no secret that the Nexus 7 started it’s life as the Asus MeMO ME370T. Shown at various tradeshows originally as a Qualcomm CPU equipped device, it mysteriously disappeared off the radar as rumours of a forthcoming 7” Nexus tablet began to circulate. Little surprise then when the Nexus 7 broke cover as a repurposed version of the Asus tablet. That said, the hardware did change along the way to meet Google’s requirements and the Qualcomm chipset made way for a Nvidia Tegra 3 offering, part of Nvidia’s ‘Kai’ project, their assault on the lower priced end of the market (specifically aimed at hitting a $199 selling point).
A quick overview of the specifications...
- 7” 1280x800 HD display (216 ppi)
- Back-lit IPS display
- Scratch-resistant Corning glass
- 1.2MP front-facing camera
- 198.5 x 120 x 10.45mm
- WiFi 802.11 b/g/n
- 8/16 GB internal storage
- 1 GB RAM
- Micro USB
- 4325 mAh (Up to 8 hours of active use)
- Android 4.1.1 (Jelly Bean)
- Quad-core Tegra 3 processor
- NFC (Android Beam)
It should be noted that the tablet is WiFi only (no 3G option is planned) and, as is now typical of Nexus devices, there is no microSD expansion. You CAN effectively add removable storage via USB host, but more on that later.
The only real unfortunate omission from the specifications in my opinion is a vibration motor for keyboard feedback... something that was also true of the Xoom.
Hardware - around the device
Let’s go on a tour of the device starting with the front.
The front of the device is a sheet of black with no capacitive buttons (just on screen buttons on this Nexus device), the only distinguishable features being that 7” screen and the forward facing camera / light sensor which sit above the screen, centrally positioned when holding the device in a portrait orientation. This device is designed to be used in a portrait fashion, like a book. There is a fairly large bezel around the screen which, while adding to the size of the device, quickly becomes a useful feature for holding it!
The back of the device has a kind of ‘faux-leather’ feel to it’s plastic, perforated with small indentations, apparently designed to mimic ‘Steve McQueen's driving gloves’ so says The Verge. Branding on the back of the device takes the form of a large nexus logo near the top and an Asus logo near the bottom, both ‘carved’ into the device black. The microphone hole is at the top of the device and the speaker is at the bottom. The unit ships with the serial number, FCC certifications, CE certifications and the like printed on an easily removable sticker, which is a nice touch (these are also available in the 'About' menu in the latest update). The device curves around at the edges giving it a nicer profile than the Kindle Fire ‘slab’.
The bottom of the device has the microUSB port (which is ‘upside down’) and the 3.5mm port.
The left hand side of the device is home to the secondary microphone used for noise cancelling purposes and 4 pins for a forthcoming accessory connecting via pogo pins.
The right hand side of the device has the power button and volume rocker.
The edge of the device has a metallic strip on retail devices and is black on the Google I/O tablet.
So how does it feel? Great. It doesn’t feel like a budget tablet at all. It’s extremely solidly built with very well chosen materials and fit and finish that is second to none. It also feels like it will be very durable, important given the role it’s likely to play in people’s lives as a very multi-purpose tablet.
The Nexus 7 of course runs Google’s new Jelly Bean software in pure, unmolested fashion. As we know, tablet and phone experiences have been unified since Ice Cream Sandwich... so which version does the Nexus 7 use? Actually, it runs something of a hybrid... the resolution is ‘tvdpi’ which means you get a phone style UI at first look (e.g. a pulldown notification bar and the 3 soft buttons at the base of the screen) but applications generally display in a more tablet style mode. To learn more of the intricacies, you should have a read of Dianne Hackborn’s post on Google Plus - https://plus.google.com/105051985738280261832/posts/6eWwQvFGLV8.
From an application perspective, the stock Google experience is pretty simple.
Included apps are...
- Ears (music recognition widget)
- Email (with Exchange support)
- Google Now
- People (Contacts)
- Play Books
- Play Magazines
- Play Movies
- Play Music
- Play Store
- Voice Search
Your first port of call on the Nexus 7 - the launcher - presents 5 homescreens with icons on a 6 x 6 grid (with a persistent search bar at the top) and 7 places in the dock area. When the device is rotated to landscape... the launcher doesn’t rotate! A very strange decision in my opinion... something that is easily rectified with a patched or third party launcher, but an omission from the stock build. Opening the launcher presents the normal ‘paged’ application view also including widgets as first seen in Ice Cream Sandwich.
So, let’s talk about those preinstalled apps. The eagle eyed amongst you will notice that this is the first Android device to ship with Chrome as the default browser. In fact, Chrome is the only browser installed on the tablet! This is good (Chrome is excellent) but also has a downside - no Flash support. Even though Flash is not official supported on Jelly Bean it works, but not in Chrome, another browser is required. The Chrome implementation on the Nexus 7 gives a tabbed UI that is very similar to the desktop implementation and easier to use than the UI we see on phones.
Also new to the standard build is Currents, Google’s application for viewing ‘beautiful magazine-like editions for high speed and offline reading’. As you’d expect, it looks rather glorious on the Nexus 7.
As always, if you use Google as the hub for your digital life you’re set. Calendar sync, Chrome sync, Gmail sync and People (contacts) sync continue to work exceptionally well and with the advent of Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean, the apps look good too. ‘Corporate’ (Exchange) connectivity is included and the non-Gmail e-mail client will connect to just about any service you throw at it.
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A departure from Android devices of old is that Facebook and Twitter are no longer preinstalled. Can you guess why that is? It’s to push Google+ of course, which is pre-loaded and, admittedly, looks gorgeous on the Nexus 7. Google+ is one of the apps that, together with YouTube, received a facelift just as the Nexus 7 was announced.
As previously mentioned, ‘Play’ content is central to the Nexus 7. You’ll find Play Store of course as your download hub with Play Books, Play Magazines (in US), Play Movies (& TV in US) and Play Music. If you’re in the UK you’ll miss out on Magazines, movie purchase (only rental is available), TV episodes and Music streaming / purchase and if you’re elsewhere in the world you might find you get very little Play content at all.
Although the Gallery application is installed on the device, the Camera component is hidden, meaning you can’t just snap images / videos with the front facing camera out of the box. A very strange decision by Google, I think this is a useful feature (and with that in mind I uploaded a Camera Launcher for Nexus 7 to the Play Store!)
Google Earth runs very slickly on the device and, again depending on territory, the Google Maps offline download feature comes into it’s own on the Nexus 7. The inclusion of GPS is a clear bonus over it’s competitor - the Kindle Fire - and with an application like CoPilot installed, the Nexus 7 makes an awesome Sat Nav device.
When you take your device out of the box and start it up with the power button on the top right (which, like the volume rockers, has a reassuring click), you’re met with the same ‘simplified’ Nexus logo seen on the Google Nexus Jelly Bean update. Boot time is impressively fast before you are launched into the setup wizard.
Upon configuring your WiFi connection (it should be noted that if you don’t have WiFi available, you can’t even get past the setup wizard!) you are prompted for your Google account in the usual way and after a few short steps you are ready to go. If this is your first Nexus 7 tablet (and you are the first owner of the tablet) you will receive your £15 / $25 free Play Store credit at the end of the setup wizard. This credit can be spent on anything in the Play Store (except hardware) and appears as an additional payment method when completing a transaction. Note that purchases using the credit must be paid for in full using the credit. That means that when you have 19p left, you can't spend that on a game by topping up the remaining cost using another payment method.
The standard homescreen loads with widgets presenting your Play Store content front and centre - there’s no doubting that Google are pushing the content story with this tablet. If you’ve used a Honeycomb or Ice Cream Sandwich tablet what you see may surprise you - as mentioned previously you don’t get the tablet experience, rather a user interface that is more like a phone. Notification bar at the top, 3 buttons at the bottom (with a soft menu button appearing as required for legacy applications).
Being a Jelly Bean device, pulling down the notification bar reveals the enhanced notifications and sweeping the home button up launches Google Now. Strangely, when the notification bar is pulled down, it doesn’t fill the full width of the screen, and it doesn’t drag all the way to the bottom. I kind of understand the width, but the fact it kind of ‘hangs’ half way down the screen sometimes makes it a bit hard to ‘grab’ when you want to close it.
At the launch of Jelly Bean, much was made of ‘Project Butter’, Google’s effort to ramp up the smoothness of the Android user interface. Have they succeeded? Oh yes! Admittedly the Nexus 7 does have a considerable amount of power driving it but the UI is noticeably smoother than Ice Cream Sandwich and, of course, it makes Honeycomb look rather embarassing. Envy iOS no more, this thing is SMOOTH!
So the device is smooth, but such fluidity would be worthless if the screen itself wasn’t up to scratch... but thankfully it is. The 1280x800 panel eclipses the more common 1024x600 used in this size of tablet to provide pin sharp images and the IPS panel has excellent brightness. When I first started using the Nexus 7 I thought the colours were a bit washed out, but I realised that I had simply been using too many OLED devices with their super-saturated colours... the Nexus 7 actually has good colour representation. Out of the box the auto backlight on the Nexus 7 is somewhat aggressive, so this could do with some tweaking (I’ve installed Lux to manage the auto brightness myself).
Although as previously mentioned the device doesn’t support rotation in the launcher itself, it does everywhere else across the device. Unlike on Jelly Bean phones however, the button bar is always at the bottom of the screen and doesn’t move to the right in landscape orientation. This is somewhat wasteful when it comes to valuable vertical real estate and it seems something of a strange choice.
Text input on the device works very well thanks to the ever improving stock Android keyboard. The keyboard layout is slightly different in tablet mode to the phone layout, adding some additional punctuation keys on the right hand side. I have to say, i’m not a huge fan of this layout as it effectively ‘shifts’ the main keys to the left, making the keyboard feel offset. It is an excellent keyboard though (i’m even using it on my device over and above 3rd party alternatives), the only downside being the lack of haptic feedback as dictated by that missing vibration motor.
The new keyboard also brings improved speech to text, including the ability to use it when not connected to a network, which is particularly useful on tablets. The accuracy is indeed much improved, albeit still not perfect...
I’ve owned a Kindle Keyboard, a Kindle Fire and a host of tablets and I am a big proponent of e-ink technology, BUT... if you are reading books on a tablet... the Nexus 7 is probably as good as it’s going to get. As well as the flexibility of having multiple libraries (Kindle app, Play Books etc.), the device feels pretty light in the hand, is well shaped and isn’t uncomfortable to hold for reading. The brightness ramps up to a high level for reading in direct sunlight and while it’ll never be as well suited for reading as e-ink, the device versatility might just be a worthy tradeoff.
So, the reading experience is decent, what about video? Wow. I’ve played some movies from internal memory and, using the Stickmount and Vplayer applications, from a USB stick (requires a rooted device). Videos look fantastic on the device (i’d have loved a kickstand mind) and while the inbuilt speaker isn’t super loud, it’s not bad (as you’d expect of course, there’s negligible bass!). 3.5mm headphone port wise, the only headphones I have kicking around right now are my Ultimate Ears Triple-Fis, which can make anything sound very loud but, they also make it easy to identify poor audio output. I’m no audiophile so YMMV, but i’m happy with the sound output from the Nexus 7.
Music is the same story. I’m a Google Music with streaming user, having jumped through the various hoops to get it working here in the UK, and with my headphones plugged in, the Nexus 7 is a good music player. Just remember that 8GB / 16GB won’t last long when you start downloading your tunes!
With a quad core CPU and 1GB RAM you’d expect the Nexus 7 to be a good gaming device and it is. I’ve been playing some of my old favourites - Sonic 4 Episode II THD, Need for Speed Hot Pursuit and a couple of Zynga titles to name but a few - and they run great (although the Zynga apps look monstrously huge until you get used to it!). The CPU in the Nexus 7 is clocked at 1.15GHz per core in general use, slightly higher when running on a single core. With 12 graphics cores at it’s disposal, the Nexus 7 really should excel in graphics intensive tasks and it does.
Search / Google Now
Search has been given a facelift for Jelly Bean and now works much better as well as looking prettier. Voice search results are much richer and more accurate. I’ve never really had much luck with voice search, but on Jelly Bean it seems to be able to understand me! Once again - and I know it’s the same old story - if you set your Voice Search locale to ‘US’ you get richer results.
Google Now is another new feature of Jelly Bean that is present on the Nexus 7. Again, the experience you’ll have with Google Now is very much dependent on where you live, but Google Now is about presenting relevant information to you at an appropriate time in the form of ‘cards’.
In Google’s own words ‘It tells you today’s weather before you start your day, how much traffic to expect before you leave for work, when the next train will arrive as you’re standing on the platform, or your favorite team's score while they’re playing. And the best part? All of this happens automatically. Cards appear throughout the day at the moment you need them.’
This sounds a little far fetched but actually, it seems to work. I imagine the number of cards available will grow with time but i’m already getting relevant weather information, information on how long it’ll take me to get home taking into account traffic conditions when i’m out and about and bus information when I stand near a bus stop. That’s pretty neat. Not only that, I searched for directions on how to get somewhere and when I headed out, that journey appeared in a Google Now card. Next appointments also appear in Google Now.
You can learn more about Google Now at http://www.google.com/landing/now/
The Nexus 7 includes NFC, which has a couple of uses. The first is Android Beam - the ability to transfer content between NFC enabled Android devices, the other is for Google Wallet. Yup, Google Wallet is pre-installed and works fine on the Nexus 7, even if you do look a little strange using it in a store. Google Wallet is of course officially US only at the moment.
There are two aspects of battery life that are important to me in a tablet. The first is how long it’ll go for - i’ve gone days and days of general use without charging and watched 3 films on it without it running down, but also how it fares in standby. I set my tablets to turn off WiFi when screen is off and not plugged in and, i’m pleased to report, the power drain is negligible. There’s nothing more annoying than picking up a tablet to find it flat, thankfully those situations should be reduced with the Nexus 7.
Rooting and hacking, the Nexus factor
When you buy a Nexus device you buy the reassurance that not only are you likely to be among the first to get future Android version upgrades directly from Google, but you can unlock the bootloader and hack around to your hearts content. The Nexus 7 is no different! It’s easily unlocked via fastboot, easily rooted via our Superboot and easily flashed back to it’s shipping state if everything goes wrong via factory images made available by Google.
For many people this is a considerable plus point when considering the Nexus 7 purchase!
Pricing and availability
The Nexus 7 is available from both Google directly and a raft of retailers (generally speaking including anyone who usually sells Asus devices), priced at $199 / £159 for the 8GB model and $249 / £199 for the 16GB model. The device includes $25/£15 of Play Store credit and $10 of Google Wallet credit.
To start with let’s leave price and potential limitations of content due to location out of the equation. Is the Nexus 7 a good tablet in it’s own right? In my opinion, it is! It’s a great size, it’s well built, it has an excellent version of Android that finally stands in it’s own right as a cohesive (and attractive) user experience and it has a near perfect set of specifications which excels in many areas. It is, quite simply, a joy to use.
It’s fair to say that the content story doesn’t really work so well if you are outside the US, but, actually, that doesn’t matter so much. This is Android. If you can’t get books from Google? Install the Kindle app. If you can get’s music streamed from Google? Install one of the other multitude of services from the Play Store. Google are providing a great tools for consuming content from wherever it may come and as Google finally rolls out these services to where you live, it’ll only get better.
So the price. Wow. At the price point, it’s the bargain of the century. Forget those fire sale HP Touchpads, forget those discount Playbooks, the Nexus 7 - especially at $199 / £159 for the 8GB model (which, let’s be honest, will suit most mass market users) with $25 / £15 Play Store credit thrown in is incredible. You’re not buying and end of life, dying machine either... you’re buying the latest and greatest, one of only 2 devices in the world featuring an official Jelly Bean release.
I predict the Nexus 7 is going to fly off the shelves - a fantastic product at an amazing price that’s going to have a big retail presence too.
Android Tablets may finally have turned that corner.
Pros and cons
- Great specs
- Jelly Bean is excellent
- Amazing price
- Free Play Store credit
- Nice build quality
- Excellent screen
- Light enough and comfortable to hold
- Inferior content experience outside the US
- A 7” tablet isn’t for everyone, some people will prefer 10" for their use case
- E-ink is still king for reading
- The white one isn’t on general sale
Do you have an Nexus 7? Do you agree / disagree with my review? Post below!
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