Review: Google Nexus 7 Android Tablet with Jelly Bean



Google’s Nexus 7 tablet has certainly been turning heads since its public unveiling at Google IO and not necessarily for all the right reasons. Barely days after its Mid-July UK release, the Google Play store had stopped taking orders for the 16 GB model amid a storm of criticism about delayed shipping on preorders and claims that the search giant had failed to adequately anticipate consumer demand.

Happily, Google seems to have solved its stock problem, so is the Nexus 7 tablet worth buying?

Well if like me you’ve been sitting on the fence about buying a tablet but have been put off by the high price of the iPad and been unimpressed by the performance of other budget Android tablets, the Nexus 7 is definitely what you’ve been waiting for. While some compromises have been made to meet the sub £200 price point, the Nexus 7 offers the best Android tablet experience money can buy.

Hardware and build quality


I was initially hesitant about the Nexus 7 after early reports surfaced of flickering displays, dead pixels and even screens coming unglued from the body of the device, but having had my Nexus 7 for a couple of weeks, I can confirm that the Nexus 7 is solidly constructed. This isn’t surprising as the Nexus 7 is built by Asus, a manufacturer with a pretty good reputation for build quality.

The body of the Nexus 7 is all plastic, with a dimpled rubberised finish on the back which gives the tablet the feel of a premium smartphone. At 340g, it’s quite light but still feels solid in the hand and the 7” form factor (making it about the size of a paperback book) definitely works to its advantage, making the tablet quite comfortable to use in either one hand or two, even for extended periods.

The Nexus 7’s 1200 x 800 IPS display is clear and offers good viewing angles, but at 216 PPI it’s not as sharp as the retina display on the new iPad. Where things fall down a little is in the colour balance and contrast. Colours appear a little washed out, which is noticeable when watching movies, with black levels being particularly problematic. Personally, I didn’t find it too distracting and it may be something that can be addressed with a software update - but it is worth bearing in mind.

On the other hand, sound on the Nexus 7 is first rate – the speaker grill on the back of the device pumps out clear sound at a volume that’s quite surprising given its size. What’s more, there’s very little muffling effect on the speaker if you put the device down on a surface.

Battery life is more than adequate – Google rates the Nexus 7 at 8-9 hours on a full charge. I haven’t benchmarked this figure but it seems pretty close to the mark. After putting the Nexus 7 through its paces with a few YouTube videos, web browsing and a couple of games, it easily lasted a day on a full charge.

This is pretty remarkable, given that the Nexus 7 packs a 1.3 GHz quad-core Tegra 3 processor and a 1 GB of RAM under its diminutive hood. Needless to say it’s lightning-fast, able to handle web browsing, HD video and Tegra-optimized games like Shadowgun with no lag whatsoever. This also due to Google’s Project Butter UI, one of the refinements made for Android 4.1 Jelly Bean (more on that later), which intelligently manages the tablet’s CPU and GPU cores to keep the operating system running at a smooth 60 fps.

So far so good, but if all this sounds a little too good to be true, there are a few limitations to the Nexus 7’s hardware which could be a deal breaker for many.

Firstly, there’s no rear-facing camera, only a 1.2 mega-pixel camera on the front of the device. This is fine for Skype calls, but it’s not going to be good for much else. There isn’t even a dedicated camera app on the Nexus 7, an unspoken acknowledgement from Google that you’re probably not going to use it much.

Perhaps the biggest issue is the lack of expandable storage on the Nexus 7. Even with the 16 GB model, you’re likely to find yourself struggling for space. With only a few apps and games installed on my Nexus 7, I’m left with less than 9 GB free – enough for a couple of movies and a bit of music, but that’s it. That being the case don’t be too surprised if Google releases a 32 GB model of the Nexus 7 in the coming months.

In its marketing for the Nexus 7, Google seemed to believe that customers would embrace the idea of storing content on the cloud rather than physically on the device. However, given that the only way to connect the Nexus 7 to the internet is via WIFI, you can only stream or download content when you’re in range of an access point, which limits the tablet’s usefulness as a portable device.

The other big limitation with the Nexus 7’s hardware is that there’s no HDMI out port, so there’s no easy way of connecting the tablet to your HDTV, which is going to limit the usefulness of the device for productivity users. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the Nexus 7 is designed primarily for the consumption of digital media not for productivity or content creation.

In that respect it’s a mistake to compare the Nexus 7 to the iPad, which is for all intents and purposes an alternative to a full spec PC. Rather it’s really intended as an alternative to e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle, or more specifically, Amazon’s much-delayed Kindle Fire (finally set for its UK debut later this year).

Software


The Nexus 7 is one of the first devices to ship with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, the latest version of Google’s Android operating system. Jelly Bean is a refinement on Ice Cream Sandwich but offers some exciting new features. There’s a lot been written about Jelly Bean elsewhere so I won’t go over it here, but for the uninitiated, all you really need to know is that it’s the best version of Android currently available.

If you’ve used an Android device before you’ll know that lag has been an issue with previous versions of the operating system. Not anymore. Google’s Project Butter UI has effectively eliminated lag from the Android experience and the whole experience of using the Nexus 7 is very slick, with none of the freezing or app crashes I get on my HTC smartphone running Ice Cream Sandwich. In short, this is the first version of Android that offers a user experience on a par with Apple’s iOS.

Swiping up from the virtual home button opens the much-hyped Google Now interface. On the surface Google Now allows you to send emails and browse the web through voice commands, but it also actively predicts information it thinks you need, based on your search history, presenting this information in the form of cards. So if you commute regularly to work, Google Now can tell you whether there are any delays on your route and even give you up-to-the minute times for buses and trains.



It’s a cool feature but I can’t help thinking that it probably won’t be too useful on the Nexus 7 with its WIFI only connectivity. Still the voice recognition is pretty good, on a par with Apple’s Siri, although the device wasn’t able to decipher a post code, so if you’re searching say for film times in your area, you’re better off doing it the old fashioned way.

User Experience


I found the Nexus 7 a joy to use but if you’re considering buying one, there are a few things that will drive your decision. The form factor is one and it’s worth remembering that this is a 7” tablet which is significantly smaller than premium 10” tablets like the iPad. As such, the form factor will either work for you or it won’t.

The web browsing experience on the Nexus 7 is perfectly adequate but it isn’t significantly different to what you’d find on an Android smartphone, albeit with a bit more screen real estate. Chrome is now the stock browser on Android and while it doesn’t support Flash, it’s still a fluid experience – even if you still have to do a fair bit of pinch zooming on some sites.

Content delivery for the Nexus 7 is handled through Google’s Play store and it’s worth pointing out that Google specifically designed the Nexus 7 with content delivery in mind. There’s just one problem – there isn’t a lot of content out there for it.

In the US if you buy a Nexus 7, there’s a whole library of digital content out there for you in the form of books, movies and magazine downloads. In the UK, the experience is cut down because Google released the Nexus 7 in Europe without securing rights for content distribution from content providers. It means that while the Nexus 7 still represents good value for money, UK customers don’t get as good a deal as their US cousins.



Even without the full Play store experience there is still a fair amount of content available in the form of movie rentals, apps, games and (some) books. That said, while many of Google’s own apps are now tablet optimized, the same still can’t be said of many third party apps, so you’re going to have to make do with scaled up versions of apps for mobile phones.

One thing the Nexus 7 excels at is gaming, which is something of a surprise. There are now some pretty good games out there for Android devices and the Nexus 7 shows off its Tegra 3 hardware to great effect with some great graphical effects and fluid animations. In fact, the Nexus 7 is almost a perfect size to be a portable games machine and on paper it beats both the PS Vita and Nintendo 3DS in screen size, resolution, battery life and overall performance. There’s also none of the expensive proprietary hardware that comes with either of those systems.

The downside of course is that the selection of Tegra 3 optimised games is a bit limited, but considering that Nvidia is behind the technology, it won’t stay that way for long.

Summary


The Nexus 7 is something of a watershed in tablet computing. It’s a quality device that offers high spec hardware, a great new version of Android and a solid user experience for a bargain basement price. You’ll have to live with a few compromises – but for barely £200 these are minor quibbles.

As to whether you should buy one – you probably should, although if you’re prepared to wait a few months, you can expect to see a flood of new tablet models with similar (or better) specs being rushed out to compete with it. Amazon is already developing a new version of its Kindle Fire, due for release later in the year and even Apple reportly has a 7" iPad in the works.

Plus points
  • 1.3ghz quad-core Tegra 3 processor
  • Lag free Android
  • Premium build quality
  • Price point
  • Android Jelly Bean
  • 8+ hour battery life


Negatives
  • Lack of expandable storage
  • WIFI connectivity only
  • Poor contrast screen
  • Few tablet apps for Android
  • Google Play store lacking in content

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