REVIEW: The Nexus 7

It’s time to talk Nexus!

Asus is on a roll right now. Having just recently wrapped up our long term review of the Transformer Infinity, they’ve rightly cemented their place as the premier manufacturer of Android slabs.

When it came time to build a proper Google tablet, Goog did not turn to the premier smartphone manufacturer Samsung, nor did they shop it in-house with Motorola–they turned to Asus.

Now that we’ve had our sweaty little paws all over it, let’s chat Google branding and pure JellyBean goodness!

Google’s timing couldn’t be any more precious. The iPad still dominates tablet sales, the most popular Android tabs tend to be locked down eReaders like the Kindle (which doesn’t use Google Play), and Microsoft is about to launch an all-out offensive with Surface. It’s critical for Google to lead the way on what the Android experience should be on larger screens, and to get hardware in people’s hands as quickly (and inexpensively) as possible. Lock people into the Play ecosystem now, before more competition drops.

The Nexus 7 is Google’s example of what a media consumption device should be.

Build and Hardware
If you’ve ever handled an eReader you’ll be very familiar with this kind of build. At 7 inches, the Nexus fits in your hand incredibly well. Make that, fits in ONE hand incredibly well. The build is very well finished, and the rubbery plastic on the backside of the device is comfortably grippy to hold. It’s eminently holdable, and much easier to use without propping it up on a stand (or my chest). Hell, if you wear baggy jeans, the Nexus almost works as a back-pocket device.
The layout is very simple. Power and volume rocker switches on the right, headphone and USB port on the bottom, camera on the top, speaker and microphones on the back. Google wants you focused on touching the screen.

It’s a touch thicker than an iPad, but as iFixIt proclaimed, that millimeter thickness makes the difference between a device which is glued shut and a device which can opened and repaired. Here are the guts of mine. I only needed a guitar pick to pop it open.

The internals are formidable for such a small device. In less than a year, seven inch tablets have moved from single core over-sized phones, to devices which feature a unique experience. The Nexus 7 uses a Tegra 3 quad core processor clocked at 1.2Ghz paired with 1GB of RAM driving a 720p screen. It’s not quite as powerful as a Transformer Infinity, but the screen resolution is lower, so it doesn’t have to work as hard to drive UI elements.

Wifi, Bluetooth, GPS, and NFC are all on board for your connection and location needs. That’ll be important to you as the Nexus only comes in two storage flavors, 8GB and 16GB, and you can’t upgrade the storage through an SD card (more on that later), so you’ll want to be able to stream and manage content on your device.

Screen
This is a fantastic screen. It’s higher resolution than the iPad 2 and the Kindle, and the same res as last-generation 10 inch android tablets. The higher resolution in a smaller form factor gives this device a pixel pitch very close to the Retina display in the new MackBook Pro. Text and fine photo detail look great, and you’ll be hard pressed to see individual pixels farther than six inches away.
Screen brightness is great for indoor use. It can’t hold a candle to the outdoor readability of the Infinity’s SIPS+ display, but it’s a very good display. Black levels are very dark, not quite AMOLED ink, but it helps overall contrast. The screen is nicely saturated, even if it isn’t calibrated for professionals.

Asus touts a new panel manufacturing process which cuts back on the amount of air and glass between the LCD and the top layer; it helps keep the device thinner, but has the added benefit of improving the viewing angles on the device. Icons look like they’re almost floating on top of the glass. It’s not what I was expecting from a “budget” device.

It doesn’t take long to get used to the smaller screen. After a number of nine and ten inch displays, you don’t lose much view on websites. Updates to the OS and browser have done a phenomenal job of utilizing the screen to its maximum potential. Funnily enough, watching video content is almost the same as watching it on an iPad. If your movie is widescreen, then the seven inch display is just a touch smaller than the letterboxed window you’ll see on 4:3 devices.

The only benefit I’ve found to using a larger screen is being able to sit a little farther away from the device when I’m using it to write or watch videos. It affects the usage of the Nexus, but like I said, you adapt pretty quick.

Performance
This thing is snappy. There is no smoother Android experience available on the market. The hardware is partly responsible. Tegra 3 is on board, but the chip allocated for the Nexus 7 is not the top-of-the-line Tegra which is found in the Infinity. Instead, it’s a lower binned chip which is clocked about 400MHz slower.

You’ll never be able to tell.

Thanks to the lower resolution screen and the newer version of Android, when put side-by-side the Nexus smokes the Infinity while navigating the UI. It’s just no contest.

Where you might feel the difference in clock speed is in loading graphics intensive games. Side by side, the Infinity will win almost every race when “LOADING” is on the screen. From Plants vs Zombies to ShadowGun, the Infinity got me into every game faster, but usually only by a couple of seconds. In-game performance was indistinguishable–again, probably due to the resolution differences between the two tablets.

JELLYBEAN!
It’s delicious. How nice of Google to name such a great update after one of my favorite candy snacks. Ice Cream Sandwich was a major change from the 2.X Android OS, so JellyBean is a more modest update. 4.1 is largely the same code base as 4.0, but smooths out the user experience while offering a few new tricks.

You’ve no doubt heard about Project Butter, which aims to speed up UI performance. It manages to keep your homescreen and app drawer running at 60fps for an extremely slick experience. All puns aside, the reaction to swiping is “wet bar of soap” smooth. It really is a thing to behold, and gets Android very close to the experience found on the iPad. It makes ICS feel sluggish. No small feat there.

New functionality is on board for Google Search, and Android’s new voice assistant is pretty terrific. Being able to ask your device questions, and get meaningful responses, might feel old hat to iOS users, but it’s fresh for us Droids. It’s a happy plus that Google Search makes Siri feel like a BETA piece of software. Side by side, Google search was faster and needed fewer commands to arrive at similar results across the board. The digitized voice sounds more realistic than Siri, and you can also type in your query if you have to ask about something embarrassing. It’s a generational improvement over what Cupertino delivered on iOS, and you wont have to wait for it like iPad users currently are.

Of course improving search is old hat for Google, and if any company can make sense of user info to provide services, it’s Goog. Which of course brings us to Google Now. Now attempts to feed users relevant information BEFORE they have to search for it. It’s a very interesting addition, if a bit creepy. It’s creepy because it happens to work surprisingly well. After only one voice search for the Boston Red Sox, I now get game updates pushed to my device automatically. After setting my “home” in Latitude, whenever the tablet detects it is far from “home,” it gives me traffic updates and estimates for how long it would take me to get home.

GPS & WIFI
All good here. Plastic is a hell of a material. Unlike metal-backed devices like the Transformer Prime, radio signals have far fewer problems permeating good old plastic.

WIFI passes my “stairway” test, and the Nexus 7 will connect to my Asus router through two floors. That’s good enough to reach my apartment’s gym. Woot for Netflix while working out. Data speeds are very fast, and using SpeedTest, I’m able to get bursts maxing out my theoretical limit on cable internet. Unfortunately, like every other Asus tablet, the Nexus omits a dual band radio to support 5GHz, so you’ll only be able to connect at 2.4GHz, which is becoming increasingly cluttered airspace in my home. It’s one of the few obvious compromises in this low cost affair.

GPS is also very responsive–indoor location lock occurring in about a minute, even faster if you’re near a window or outside. People might doubt the need for solid GPS on a tablet, but giving my Nexus 7 to a friend while I drive makes for a PHENOMENAL turn by turn solution.

Camera
And here’s the obvious compromise.
The Nexus 7 has no rear facing camera, and a 1.2MP front-facing camera. I still think it looks ridiculous watching people hold up their tablets to take photos and video, but after using the rather good camera in the Transformer Infinity, I would rather have an infrequently used good camera than no camera at all. It’s almost certainly a cost savings measure, and if I had to pick anything to scrimp on, might as well be the camera.

The front facing camera is serviceable, but nothing to write home about. It’ll get you through video chat, but that’s about it. Google doesn’t even include an icon to the camera app, so you’ll need to download an “installer” from Google Play just to use the camera on its own, outside of Google Plus or Skype.

Audio
Over headphones it’s great…
The speakers built into the Nexus are small and a little underpowered. There’s just not a lot of room to build in quality hardware. Compared to the stereo speakers in the HP Touchpad, the Nexus is crushed, though it fares much better against other anemic speakers like those in the Transformer Infinity. Since I’m more apt to hold the Nexus closer to my face, it’s technically “louder” than the Infinity. If open air playback is really important to you, consider some external speakers.

One side note, and perhaps the last bummer of the build, is that the headphone jack on the Nexus 7 does not support headset microphones. The 3.5mm jack only supports playback, so if your environment is noisy or windy, the mics on the Nexus are probably gonna pick it up.

Storage
I normally wouldn’t comment on storage capacity during a review beyond just telling you how many geebees you get–but there was much gnashing of teeth when it was discovered that the Nexus 7 would only come in 8GB and 16GB storage sizes, and that you would not be able to expand storage through SD cards. “CONSPIRACY!” the angry nerds amongst us cried. “GOOGLE IS FORCING TEH CLOUD ON US!” they screamed from hallowed forum halls.

Stop it. Seriously.

No Nexus since the Nexus One has had removable storage. Google designs their devices to streamline the experience and try and minimize the amount of support they have to field. To support USB Mass Storage, storage used to be partitioned. You’d have a chunk of storage for software (usually very small) and a chunk for media. If you installed an app to the “Media” chunk, that app would cease to function if you plugged it into a computer to transfer files. This makes the device more complicated, slower, and more prone to failure. By switching to one large storage area, and using the MTP protocol instead of Mass Storage, the experience is smoother and easier for the OS to manage.

I do have to warn folks that the 8GB Nexus is VERY lean. The Dark Knight Rises game is 2GB in size, so installing it would mean you would lose 30% of your available storage with one game. The 16GB also comes with a slightly faster memory controller, so performance is technically a touch faster on the larger Nexus, though I couldn’t see any difference in side by side testing between an 8GB and 16GB unit.

Lastly, if you’re comfortable with rooting your devices, you can install an app called Stickmount which allows for USB Host control of Mass Storage devices like USB flash drives. I keep a $5 USB Host cable and a 32GB flash drive in my tablet bag. The connection is fast enough to stream 720p video.

Battery Life
Not bad. Not great.
The 16w-hr battery is tiny compared to the ten inchers we’ve been dealing with. For general purpose web surfing, email, and writing, this little tab will last you most of the day. Even video playback is decent. Streaming “Immortals” over Netflix with 50% brightness only resulted in losing 25% of my battery capacity. That’s better run time than what I got on the Transformer Infinity with a battery only 65% as large.
Gaming is another story entirely. That Tegra 3 is mighty powerful, and it takes quite a bit of juice to achieve that fluid gaming experience. A couple hours of Sentinel 3 and my poor little Nexus had dropped from fully charged to about 35%. Thankfully I have an external battery which is capable of fully charging the Nexus while I’m on the go.

Price and The Wrap Up
$200

The price of admission is only $200, though I would probably recommend fronting the extra $50 to double the on-board storage.
This is a fully realized Android experience, with full access to Google Play apps, books, and media using a cutting edge quad-core chipset. This a clear shot at other branded Android-based tablets like the Nook or Kindle Fire which don’t have access to Google Play and use proprietary app stores.

It’s also our first Nexus device in the tablet space, meaning updates should arrive directly from Google with no manufacturer interference. It feels really good being ahead of the curve, especially as my last Android tablet is still stuck on Honeycomb, and JellyBean is genuinely a joy to use. Turns out, the “pure” Google experience is as much of a joy to use on a larger screen as it is on a phone.
The Nexus just “feels” better than any of the current crop of ICS tablets; smoother, more responsive. Newer tabs like the Galaxy Note 10.1 and Infinity will get there eventually, but I want instant gratification for software these days. Waiting bums me out.

I’ve been swamped with questions as to how the Nexus compares to the iPad, and my abbreviated answer is: it doesn’t–they’re two different classes of device aiming at two completely different markets. If you twist my arm I’d go with the Nexus because I like Google’s ecosystem better, and I think the form factor is more convenient to use in public. What the Nexus 7 does accomplish however, is an utter destruction of the “phone-sized” PMP market. For $200 you can get an iPod Touch or a Nexus 7. That’s a damn easy choice for me to make. Apple would be foolish not to introduce an iPod Max or iPad Mini soon.

Google’s timing couldn’t be more aggressive. The current crop of Android tablets have only made a small dent in the iPad’s superiority, and Goog is about to face an onslaught of glowing rectangles from Microsoft and partners. They need to get the Nexus 7 in as many hands as possible now. It’s a happy victory considering how quickly this device was brought to market, and is a joy to use.

There are a few compromises to make, but unless you absolutely require something this lil tab lacks, I would highly recommend putting this near the top of your “tablets to purchase” list.

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