While the surprise launch of the Microsoft Surface caught the attention of the entire tech industry, Google’s long-rumored Nexus tablet has caused nearly as much speculation within the Android community. iPad customers are likely to miss the news entirely, but for anyone hooked on Android phones and looking for that elusive killer tablet, or for the millions of e-reader owners who are feeling left out of the fun of running apps on their device, the Nexus launch is an attention getter.
Google has picked a somewhat curious size for its first co-branded tablet. Seven inches is mostly uncharted territory in the tablet wars. Apple has avoided the topic, and almost all Android tablet vendors have focused on 10-inch products — except for Amazon. Holding the Nexus 7 in my hand, it is hard not to believe that it is as much an “in your face” response to Amazon’s Kindle Fire sort-of-Android device as it is a direct attempt to compete with Apple or even the crop of larger Android tablets.
Serious hardware value
For the $200 price of an 8GB Nexus tablet, or the $250 the 16GB will set you back, you get a 7-inch 1280×800 pixel screen, powered by a quad-core Tegra 3. This is a powerhouse compared to the Kindle Fire’s dual-core processor and lower resolution display. The Nexus 7 also features a 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera for conferencing, while the Fire doesn’t have a camera. Remember though, that the Kindle Fire was unveiled nine months ago, so expect Amazon to upgrade it before too long. So the Nexus tablet will have to compete with the future Fire version, not just the current one.
Like the Fire, the Nexus tablet makes plenty of compromises, lacking HDMI and a microSD card slot. As a result users will have to limit their appetite for the HD video the device is capable of displaying.
As you should expect from a direct-from-Google device, the Nexus 7 is well-designed, and well-thought-out to work with Android. It features the modern no-button face of most recent Android tablets, with only the front-facing camera breaking the view. Power and volume buttons are both on the same side, making it clear which way the device is designed to rest in landscape mode. On boot up, it was cool to see the friendly Google logo first, letting me know that this is indeed a Google device, one-stop-shopping for my content experience, with no carrier madness in the way. For good or bad, Google will get the credit, blame, and support calls on the Nexus 7.
Most of the operations on the Nexus 7 are very familiar to anyone with a tablet or phone running Android 4.0 (ICS). The home screen is very different, with media front and center. Some preloaded content is featured, making clear that the 7 is all about media and consumption. Scrolling was smooth, although it didn’t feel any faster than my overclocked S2 Skyrocket or HP Touchpad running ICS, so the extra two cores clearly didn’t come into play. The Google Books reader is super-smooth (buttery smooth?), and video plays without a hitch. Unfortunately, the Google Play Movies & TV app kept crashing on me, so clearly there are still some bugs to be worked out.
Welcome, Jelly Bean
Out of the gate, the Nexus 7 sets itself apart by being the first — and so far the only — device in the marketplace that runs Android 4.1, named Jelly Bean. Jelly Bean comes with a number of exciting new features, as Ryan explains in his Android 4.1 explainer. Curiously enough, the tablet didn’t change from portrait to landscape when on the home screen, but did instantly once I launched an app. Hopefully that is just an early release glitch that will be fixed soon.
Chrome is the new default browser, a welcome upgrade. Full cloud sync with the desktop version of Chrome was available, as you’d expect. Web pages appear incredibly quickly, which makes hunting for content that much easier. Netflix loaded and streamed content flawlessly, with great color. Personally, I found the Auto Brightness setting a little dim for watching movies and needed to bump the Display Brightness setting up to its maximum in a regularly lit room.
Jelly Bean also sets the Nexus 7 way apart from its other closest competitor, the Samsung Galaxy Note. The Note offers a high-powered combination of an excellent 5.3-inch screen, 8MP camera, microSD slot and some very powerful, unique stylus-based productivity applications. Its big wart, though, is that it only runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread, a practically obsolete phone-only version of the OS. Unless Samsung has already been hard at work with Google on a Jelly Bean port for the Note, this new OS release will just put the Note further behind in app support.
The Nexus 7′s secret weapon — Google
If it was only Jelly Bean that the Nexus had going for it, its advantage would be short-lived. Even the drag-your-heels-at-all-costs carriers will eventually get on the bandwagon. By then, though, Google will have pumped out another OS version or two, which will smoothly fly out over the air (OTA) to Nexus 7 customers — ensuring that they’ll always have the latest Google-goodness on their device, uncluttered by confusing OEM modifications and carrier bloatware.
Unfortunately for Google, customers looking for a 7-inch e-reader replacement are mostly not the people who care about Google goodness. They are consumers who respond to promotions and end-user demand creation — neither of which is Google particularly good at. So, while the Google Nexus 7 is an amazing combination of hardware and software, and I expect it to find its way into many loyal Android households, don’t hold your breath waiting for it to overtake the Kindle Fire — and it’ll take a big brother, a Nexus 10, to even go nearthe current iPad.
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