Review: Google Nexus 7 tablet

NEXUS 7: For less than $500, this is a fantastic little android-based 7-inch tablet.
NEXUS 7: For less than $500, this is a fantastic little android-based 7-inch tablet.

Let me say outright that the Nexus 7 is not the iPad. It's not really trying to be. But having said that, its features, operating system and specifications put it closer to the iPad than, say, the Amazon Kindle Fire is.

Not that we get either the Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire "officially", here in New Zealand. Why is that? Because both incorporate features, such as Amazon Prime and Google Music, that haven't been enabled here. For copyright, licensing, region control, broadcast rights, server access and other reasons, we just don't get additional content in New Zealand for any gadget except for the Apple iPad, and even there, we get a more limited selection than the US or UK does. Those are just the realities of being a small market with a so-so connection to the wider western world.

The question for us Kiwis, then, becomes 'Is the Nexus 7 worth buying even without those features?'.

The answer is a qualified yes. And before I continue, I should also add that I'm a fan of 7-inch tablets.

The Google Nexus 7, made by Asus for Google, is a good looking device. It's better looking than the Kindle Fire, and I'd even go so far as to say that it's nicer than the Samsung Galaxy Tab. That's because, for me, the edge-to-edge glass on the front panel, combined with the gently textured deep brown rear and silver rim looks classy without betraying the affordability of its elements.

And it feels good in your hands. Really good. The textured rear is more than mere decoration: it's decidedly grippy. There's no sense that the Nexus 7 is flimsy - it withstands pressure, flexing and the kind of bumps that it will encounter travelling around in a handbag or backpack.

So it may be that you, like me, switch it on with some trepidation. It can't really be that good inside, can it?

Once you've set it up, using a Google account or other email address, you're good to go. Android doesn't have the most attractive of home screens, but Jelly Bean gets out of your way far more than any previous Android operating system. Google has the very nifty Google Now that pops up when you switch the device on (after the initial setup). Still, you might wonder whether the screen is actually any good, based on the subdued colours you first encounter.

Never fear: the 7-inch IPS panel is solid. Okay, the bezel of the Nexus 7 is quite wide, and the screen doesn't get close to filling that edge-to-edge glass, but the 1280 x 800 screen delivers crisp and detailed images, and well-smoothed, impressively readable text.

I've seen 15.6-inch laptops recently with resolutions barely higher than what has been included here, and it's ample for most tasks. But it's not perfect: when I put the Nexus 7's IPS next to the SuperAmoled screen, the greens, in particular, seemed washed out. When the Nexus 7 was put next to the iPad 2, it's also apparent that it wasn't just the greens that lacked saturation; all colours were less intense and less rich. Additionally, when you tilt the screen, you'll notice a slight graininess to the Nexus 7 that you won't see in the likes of the iPad 2, let alone the Retina-enabled iPad. Finally, the screen's maximum brightness is less than that of the iPad. Given that both have IPS panels, and the Nexus 7 has 1280 x 800 resolution compared to the iPad 2's 1024 x 768, I think it's fair to say that the Nexus 7 has a lower quality panel. But at around half the price ... most people are not going to complain too loudly. And unlike some cheaper tablets, it's not so poor that you'll regret investing $439 in it.

In other ways, the Nexus 7 has a lot to recommend it. Take the rest of the specifications, for example.

It uses a quad-core 1.3GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 processor. The Tegra has been used on smartphones such as the HTC One X, but less commonly than it's used on tablets and laptops such as the Asus Transformer Prime. According to some reports, the Tegra has more raw processing power than the new iPad's A5X processor, as well as better 3D effects; the A5X has better colours, definition and text. Regardless, it's a top-notch processor.

When you combine that top-notch processor with 1GB RAM, you get a snappy and responsive tablet. Honestly, I was surprised at just how responsive it is. Whether you're opening apps, flipping from screen to screen, or checking and adjusting settings, there's no lag: it's a very enjoyable tablet experience.

But the tablet experience is more than just speed. Android's biggest flaw to date, on products such as the Galaxy Tab, has been the lack of apps that really take advantage of the screen sizes available.

This is where Jelly Bean starts to show that Android can be designed with tablets in mind. Perhaps it's because I'm engaged with almost all of Google's many platforms, such as Reader, Google+ and Gmail, but each of these apps displays very nicely indeed on the 7-inch screen. YouTube always looks good.

The non-Google apps are less impressive. Okay, games look great, but the Facebook app just displays badly, as the image below demonstrates.The Seesmic app doesn't take account of the wider screen and displays across the full width of the screen, even in landscape mode, which reduces readability dramatically.

So there are plusses and minuses. I think products such as the Nexus 7 will help drive better-designed tablet apps, but when developers build for Android they have to consider more than two form factors, as the iOS developers do. For Android, they have to consider multiple resolutions, screen sizes and products, and that's even before you consider the multiple operating systems. That's doesn't make it easy to design apps that easily resize appropriate to the screen size, and split the screen to display multiple parts of the app vs. a single part once there's more space available. I'm honestly wondering when Android can solve this problem, because it's the biggest issue holding back long-term tablet adoption rates for the platform.

Jellybean changes a number of UI navigation elements, and some of them are bogglingly obscure - a step-ladder symbol to clear notifications rather than the word 'clear'? a download button to access purchased apps list in Google Play store? - but most are obvious enough.

There's also the new Google Now, which adds voice search. It's comparable to Apple's Siri - just say "Google" or press the microphone button and you can search online, perform tasks and more. It capably handled the majority of my phrases and requests. We tested it using all the staff here at PC World, and decided that it was just a touch better than Siri at voice recognition for our varied accents. The cards remember what you have been doing and include useful information such as exhange rates, if you're overseas, and a local and home clock. It's functional and genuinely useful (if a little creepy) and I can't wait until it's also incorporated into my smartphone.

Last but not least, if you were in the US or other launch locations, you'd have access to a range of content that Google offers, such as TV shows and ebooks. Since we're used to not having such features, it's no great loss that we don't get them here. It doesn't make the Nexus 7 any poorer as a tablet, even if it leaves me a little envious for the full Nexus 7 experience.

That covers off the main features, leaving just a few elements I've not yet addressed.

There's no 3G version, but the Wi-Fi is capable of wireless-n, and that delivers ample speed. I didn't notice any delays when purchasing and installing apps, or when playing back youtube videos and other online content. The model we tested came with 16GB of onboard storage, and we'd definitely recommend this over the 8GB version, given that there's no microSD card slot for additional storage.

Surprisingly, there's no rear camera on the Nexus 7. To my mind, this is possibly its biggest flaw. The front-facing camera is usable by such apps as Skype or other chat services, but there's no camera app unless you install one

Battery life is around 10 hours even when doing something intensive such as playing a very graphics heavy game. Even though I was using it constantly, it took me 36 hours to exhaust it, even with lots of video watching, Monsters Ate My Condo and forum reading. Note that it does get a little warm, particularly by the dock connector, when you're performing intensive tasks for more than, say, five minutes continuously.

There were some other minor irritations - there's a Nexus guide Book for example, online, but when I tried to access it, I was told that nexus wasn't available in my region. Ok, then.

Overall, though, this is a lovely tablet, pocketable, responsive, well-designed and mostly affordable, though at $439 from Bond+Bond, Noel Leeming and Harvey Norman at the moment, it's rather more than the converted rate of $360 if you were to get the US version.

I'm going to buy one - and while I don't usually consider that sufficient as a recommendation, the combination of Android Jelly Bean, speed, price and a 7-inch IPS screen makes me think this will suit far more people than just me.

Google Nexus 7
7-inch, 1280 x 800, Android Jelly Bean tablet
Uses quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor
Responsive, good looking and genuinely affordable
RRP incl GST: $449

-PC World