Review: Google Nexus 7

Review: Google Nexus 7

Can Google's own Nexus 7 tablet challenge the dominance of Apple's iPad?

The Google Nexus 7 costs significantly less than the new iPad making it an enticing proposition in terms of value for money.

Design and display

From the moment you take the Nexus 7 out of its box it's clear that this device is going to be a significant game changer in the tablet market. It sells from just $249 in Australia but its build quality compares to rival and in most cases, inferior, tablets that retail for well over $500.

In fact, there's no real evidence at all that the Nexus 7 is a budget device. It's impressively constructed, with no signs of poor craftsmanship. It doesn't creak or rattle when you apply force to its case. It's not easily scratched or marked. The buttons and ports are well laid out, comfortable and easy to access, regardless of how you hold it. The screen doesn't handle fingerprints any worse than the iPad. Although it's a little reflective, the Nexus 7's display performs no worse in direct sunlight than most other tablets.

We particularly love the soft feeling plastic on the back of the Nexus 7. The small indents printed all over the rear make it look and feel a little like leather. More important than looks, the material makes the Nexus 7 very comfortable to hold. This is a tablet that's easy to use single-handedly without the risk of it slipping out of your hands. Further, its light weight makes it a perfect device for reading books and the smaller form factor means it can fit in places where bigger tablets can't, such as the inside pocket of your suit jacket, or in a ladies handbag.

The Nexus 7 has a 7in LCD display with a resolution of 1280x800, which is quite impressive for its size. Despite the difference in size and price, the screen is going to be compared with the iPad. It stacks up relatively well, but the display of the Nexus 7 lacks the true clarity of the iPad when it comes to super fine text. It has a pixel density of 216 pixels per inch (ppi) which leaves it behind the iPad (264ppi) but ahead of most other Android tablets on the market.

However, the Nexus 7 doesn't display blacks as well as many rival displays, even though its viewing angles are good. It lacks the true colour vibrancy of super AMOLED screens, like the one used on the Toshiba Tablet AT270, for example. However, these imperfections are easy to overlook when you take into account the low asking price.

There will be an ongoing debate between the validity of 7in tablets versus larger 10in tablets. In our opinion, however, the Nexus 7 is near perfect for portability. It's a great size for reading books and magazines, playing games and browsing the Web. For more productive tasks, like editing documents, or taking long sets of notes, you'll likely prefer a larger screened tablet.

Software and performance

The Nexus 7 is one of the the first devices to run the Google's new version of the Android OS, 4.1 Jelly Bean. The Jelly Bean 4.1 platform is a minor upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich, hence the version number jumping from 4.0 to 4.1, rather than leaping up to 5.0.

The main feature of Android Jelly Bean is what Google calls "Project Butter", which centres around making the software smoother, faster and fluid. The company claims using Jelly Bean feels a lot smoother than previous versions of the platform and we have to agree. This is by far the best version of Android yet. Using it on a day-to-day basis is smooth, intuitive and fast. There is no sign of any evident lag during everyday tasks. Home screens are butter smooth to swipe through, even with multiple widgets on the screens. Apps open quickly, with no delay. The default browser, Google Chrome, is fast, renders pages efficiently and offers good performance.

Games, too, run effortlessly and we didn't experience any performance issues during testing. The Nexus 7 handled graphically intense titles like Shadowgun, FIFA 12, Dungeon Hunter 3 and Dead Trigger with relative ease.

Jelly Bean has a similar look and feel to the previous Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android, but Google has made some tweaks and added plenty of new features. The notification centre has been revamped, now showing more information if you swipe down with two fingers. You can also action various notifications, like snoozing a calendar reminder or sharing a screenshot, without having to leave the notifications window. The notifications screen can get cluttered though, and for this reason we would have liked the option to not expand notifications by default. We also found the two finger swipe a little fiddly to action.

An improved keyboard that offers shortcuts, a new transition screen when switching between apps, a new actions menu to open apps and the ability to auto-organise widgets or app shortcuts when adding new widgets are other notable usability improvements. The widget implementation is a small but much appreciated feature, while the ability to create keyboard shortcuts is a long requested default feature.

A big advantage of opting for the Nexus 7 over rival Android tablets is software updates. Regardless of what model Nexus 7 you own, you'll always receive the updates as soon as Google makes them available. Other Android tablets, like Samsung's Galaxy Tab 7.7, the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime and Toshiba's Tablet AT270, for example, are currently stuck on older software versions of Android. Some of these models may not ever see the latest Android updates and if they do, it will be months after the Nexus 7.

Google Now

The most significant feature of Jelly Bean, however, is Google Now. It's best described as a contextual aware assistant. Swipe up from the home button or the lock screen to open it and it will present you with a range of "cards" that display relevant information. Google Now uses voice recognition to answer queries and questions, reads back responses like Apple's Siri service and provides information to you in these cards based on your location and your Google search history.

It will quickly work out where you live and where you work, providing a constant weather forecast in each of these locations. When you have a meeting saved in your calendar, it will notify you when you should leave to get there based on your location and using Google Maps to navigate there. It will show traffic along these routes. If you've just searched for pizza restaurants in North Sydney, the next time you open Google Now it will present you with a list of nearby pizza places in this location. Google says the service will naturally improve over time as it learns your daily locations and search habits.

In our experience, Google Now is far from perfect, but definitely interesting. Sadly, not all of its features, such as displaying flights, sports results and public transport currently work in Australia which is a disappointment.

What also lacks in Australia is Google's multimedia content. Where US users can purchase magazines, books, music, TV shows and movies in the Play Store, Aussies can only buy books and rent movies. There are plenty of other ways to load content on the Nexus 7 but the lack of options in the Australian Play Store is a black mark on a device specifically designed for consuming Google content.

Battery life and other features

The Google Nexus 7 isn't a perfect device. The home screen won't rotate into landscape mode, even though many Android apps will. Google seems intent on encouraging users to hold the tablet in portrait mode, except when viewing multimedia content. While the natural tendency is to hold the Nexus 7 this way, we would have appreciated a bit of flexibility.

There's no rear facing camera to take photos on the Nexus 7, and the front-facing camera for video calls is of very poor quality. It works in apps like Skype and Tango Video Calls but the quality is best described as lacklustre. There's a very handy app in the Play Store called Camera Launcher for Nexus 7 that allows you to use the front camera to take photos, but again, the quality is extremely poor.

There also remains an issue with many Android apps. Many apps haven't been designed specifically for tablet use. This means they won't work as well as they should on the Nexus 7. Some don't work at all. There are examples both ways. The excellent Flipboard media aggregator, the Pulse Reader app, Pocket and Evernote all work fantastically well on the Nexus 7. On the other hand, the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Spotify work, but there are instances where it is painfully obvious these apps were designed for a smartphone rather than a tablet. Spotify, for example, does not rotate into landscape mode, a hugely annoying oversight.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of the Google Nexus 7 is a lack of expandable memory. The tablet comes in either 8GB or 16GB models with no expansion option, a disappointment for those who may have wanted to store vast amounts of media content on the device. Curiously, it isn't the first time Google has relied on internal memory only for its Nexus devices — the Google-branded but Samsung-built Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus smartphones both lacked removable storage. There's also no 3G/4G connectivity option, so the Nexus 7 is a Wi-Fi only tablet.

Google says the Nexus 7's battery will last up to nine hours for HD video playback and will offer 300 hours of standby time, though the specifications page quotes eight hours of "active use". We found battery life a little disappointing in real world use, as we were often forced to charge our review unit on a nightly basis. Battery performance will obviously depend on your usage pattern, but if you're using the Nexus 7 constantly it does tend to suck up a lot of battery power.

The Google Nexus 7 is available to pre-order in Australia through the Google Play store. It is priced at $249 for the 8GB version and $299 for the larger capacity 16GB model, plus delivery charges of around $20.

The Nexus 7 is also sold in Australia through various major retailers including Harvey Norman, JB Hi Fi, Dick Smith, Bing Lee, The Good Guys, Retravision, Radio Rentals, Officeworks, EB Games, Costco, BSR and other authorised resellers.

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