Google Nexus 7 Review: Redefining The $199 Tablet

The Nexus 7 tablet was the talk of Google I/O, and for good reason. For $199 you get a device with high-end specs that even today’s top tablets have a hard time competing with. With a Tegra 3 quad-core processor, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean on board, and a 7-inch HD screen, it’s amazing Google and ASUS were able to manufacture this device for so little money. But specs are just specs… does the Nexus 7 live up to the hype? Hit the break for the full review.

Size and Design

The first thing you notice when you pick up the Nexus 7 is its size. The Kindle Fire proved that 7-inch tablets were viable, and the Nexus 7 goes a step further by slimming it down a bit. The Nexus 7 measures 198.5 x 120 x 10.45mm, a hair thinner than the Fire’s chunkier 11.4mm profile. Not the thinnest tablet in the world, but its size actually fits quite nicely in one hand. The Nexus also weighs just 340 grams versus the Kindle’s 413 grams, making it feel slightly lighter and a bit less clunky.

Also slimming it down are the rounded corners that curve back into a rubberized and textured back (white on the Google I/O versions, black on the Play Store version). The grippy feel of the back gives you confidence that it won’t accidentally slip out of your hands, and that’s a great feeling to have when handling your precious tech gadgets.

The front bezels are asymmetrical, meaning there is a wider bezel on the top and bottom of the screen (when in portrait mode) than on the left and right sides. This is designed to allow you to hold it in landscape mode by the wider bezels without accidentally touching the screen.

The Jelly Bean launcher is of the phone, rather than tablet variety, so its orientation is locked to portrait mode. Since the default UI is portrait-optimized, the power button and volume rockers were placed in the top right corner, on the side of the device. This makes them easy to reach in most situations. When using the tablet in landscape mode, it is a little awkward to hit the volume rockers since you have to reach over the power button to do so. I have at least once accidentally shut off the screen rather than turn up the sound.

On the bottom of the tablet is the microUSB charging port (unfortunately not MHL enabled) and the headphone jack. Some people don’t like the headphone jack at the bottom of a device, but it actually makes sense. When holding the device in portrait mode, you want the headphone cable to simply dangle straight down from the bottom of the unit rather than have to curve up and then drape down from the top.

Hardware

This is really where the Nexus 7 shines. The list of specs belies the $199 price tag.

  • Quad-core Tegra 3 processor: This is top notch. Usually, budget tablets skimp on the processor, but Google and ASUS decided to go all out and put real power behind the scenes. Bravo.
  • Back-lit IPS LCD 7-inch 1280 x 800 HD display (216 ppi): It’s no fancy “Retina” display, but this screen is quite nice and sharp with great color reproduction and wide viewing angles. The brightness can go pretty high if you need to see it outdoors, but it’s really not that great in the direct sun. To top it off, the screen is made from scratch-resistant Corning glass. The only issue I have had with the screen is when auto-brightness is on. For some reason, it gets a little wonky and the constant fade in and out of the backlight is annoying. I just shut it off and manage my brightness manually. Hopefully, this can be fixed in software.
  • 1.2MP front-facing camera: This is the one and only camera on the Nexus 7, which is one way they cut costs. It’s good enough for video chats, which is what it’s made for, but you won’t be using this camera for much else. There’s not even a camera app installed, though a 3rd party camera app for the Nexus 7 has already made its way to the Play Store.
  • 8 GB or 16 GB internal storage: The 8 GB unit costs $199, while the 16GB goes for $249. The $50 difference nets you twice the storage. Since there is no microSD slot (another cost cutting measure) you may want to spend the extra dough if space is important to you. So far, I haven’t felt the need since I’m using the tablet as intended… as a way to access all my content in the cloud. I’m streaming my Google Music, Google Movies, Netflix, YouTube, and Comcast Xfinity On-Demand programming. So far, HBO GO and MAX GO are not available.
  • 1 GB RAM: Standard for all tablets today, and seemingly more than enough for the Nexus.
  • 4325 mAh battery: The battery has plenty of juice to carry you through the day with normal use. Currently, my tablet has been unplugged for nearly 14 hours and it still has 65% left. Granted, I haven’t had it on the whole time, but I have used it throughout the day for browsing, YouTube, emails, chats, and social networking.
  • NFC (Android Beam): Google could have saved a few more bucks by cutting something as cutting edge as NFC support, but thankfully they have included full Android Beam compatibility, as well as Google Wallet support. This is a huge plus as we’re starting to see more and more NFC-enabled devices coming to market. It’s great to see both Google and ASUS working to bring us the important features that help future proof this device.
  • Wireless: The 7 supports WiFi 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 (though we’re not totally sure how much of the 4.0 Bluetooth spec is actually supported).
  • GPS: This is another area where they could have cut a corner to save money, like Amazon did with the Kindle Fire, but Google/ASUS gave it to us anyway. Another check mark in the “wow, still only $199?” column.
  • Sensors: The Nexus 7 comes with the full compliment of sensors, including two microphones (for noise cancelling), an accelerometer, a magnetometer, and a gyroscope. What else could you possibly need?
  • Sound: The tablet has a fairly good rear speaker that is certainly good enough for watching videos or listening to the occasional song. To get the most from the tablet, however, you really should plug in headphones. It’s not quite Beats Audio quality, but it sounds pretty darn good to me.
With this long list of goodies, it’s actually easier to just list out what it’s missing. What did they cut out to keep the costs down? Here’s what’s missing:
  • Rear camera
  • microSD slot
  • HDMI out

I don’t miss the camera… I have my Evo 4G LTE for that. So far I don’t feel I need to expand the memory with a microSD card, so I’m ok there. The only thing I do wish it had was an HDMI port, or an MHL-based microUSB port. Outputting content from my Nexus directly to a monitor or TV could come in handy. I do this all the time with my Motorola Xoom at work. Our conference room projectors are HDMI-enabled and it’s been very useful to be able to bring up a presentation or graphic to show co-workers.

I guess it could be argued that a 7-inch tablet is most likely not a device you’ll be using in that manner, but since it is a media consumption device, being able to output that media directly would be nice. The tablet does have “pogo pin” type connectors on the bottom left side, so a dock accessory could be on its way, but we’re not sure if video out will be supported.

Software

The Nexus 7 is the first tablet to come with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, which is Google’s latest and greatest. This update brings many new features, including Google Now, the search giant’s answer to Apple’s Siri. Check out our hands-on video with Google Now. It’s impressive, and only promises to get better over time.

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Improvements in the notification system in Jelly Bean allow you to peek deeper into a notification with a two finger gesture. For example, you can drag open an email notification using two fingers right in the notification bar, exposing more of the email inline so you can read what you need without ever needing to launch your email client.

The default browser on the Nexus 7, and in Jelly Bean, is now Chrome, which is a great browser that can see all your open tabs on any other device you have that has Chrome installed on it. But Chrome does not support Adobe Flash, and Google has already removed the Adobe Flash Player from the Play Store for the Nexus 7. However, if you still really want Flash, you can download an alternate browser, like Dolphin, and find the Flash Player APK somewhere and install it. That’s what I did and now if I run across a site that requires Flash, I can load it up in Dolphin.

Jelly Bean also benefits from the fruits of Project Butter, Google’s internal code name for focusing on software performance.  They do this with triple buffered graphics, extended vsync timing, and intuitive touch that boosts the CPU with the next touch event to reduce lag. In other words, the OS gives you the power when you need it to keep things moving smoothly. Seems to be working.

Overall, Jelly Bean on a tablet is very adept. It is interesting to note that at 7 inches, Jelly Bean seems to adapt itself to a phone-like UI rather than a full tablet UI like we see on 10-inch tablets. This actually makes sense since you don’t quite have all the screen real estate you need to display the full tablet UI in a usable way, though it’s apparently not difficult to fool Jelly Bean into loading its full tablet UI on rooted devices. Personally, I don’t see the need. The default layout works quite well.

Below is our Jelly Bean overview video running on the Nexus 7.

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Performance

With the combination of the quad-core processor and the highly optimized Android 4.1 OS, this thing is peppy. Screen transitions are very smooth, and launching apps take no time at all. Switching between running apps is also very fast, and games run at high frame rates with no issues thanks to the Tegra 3. I ran a set of Quadrant benchmarks and the 7 places nicely near the top, but what really counts is your day-to-day use, and it does not disappoint.

The Google Ecosystem

There’s no question that the Nexus 7 was built to be a Google Play consumption device, just like the Kindle Fire was built to be an Amazon content consumption device. To that end, Google Play is all over this tablet.

The default out-of-the-box home screens include several widgets for your Google Play content, including your Books, Movies, Music, and Apps. A recommendation widget is also included that provides you with customized suggestions for other content you might like based on what you have purchased or downloaded in the past. Nice touch, and from what I’ve seen, it’s pretty accurate.

Google recently added TV Shows and Magazines to the Play Store, as well as being able to buy movies (not just rent them) to fully round out the content options. Unfortunately, right now the total amount of content available is not as robust as the competition, but over time more content will be added. Remember, the competitors all had a head start and Google is just now playing catch up.

To help prime the pump, Google is giving Nexus 7 customers a free $25 credit to spend in the Play Store however they please, plus a free movie, Transformers: Dark of the Moon. There’s no better way to get people started than to give stuff away for free. But if you don’t really want to buy into the entire Google ecosystem, you don’t have to. The Nexus 7 is a full-on Android tablet that can be totally customized to your liking, so you can still use it to play content from other sources like Netflix and even Amazon by installing the appropriate apps.

The one nit in this department is that only the US gets full access to all the Play Store properties as of this writing. Internationally, it seems that Movie purchases, Music, and Magazines are currently missing. This certainly makes the tablet lose some luster overseas. We can only hope that these services will make their way everywhere in the future as Google closes more licensing deals.

The Nexus Factor

There’s one thing any competing tablet will never be able to beat, and that’s the fact that this is a true Nexus device. That means that it is among the first to get updates directly from Google, and it runs pure vanilla Android so you know it will always run as Google has intended.

Nexus devices are considered developer-friendly, meaning they can easily be unlocked, rooted, and have custom ROMs built for them. They are made to be hacked. What I see in the Nexus 7, however, is a gadget that will appeal to a much larger audience in a more mainstream sort of way. I expect to see many Christmas stockings filled with Nexus 7′s this holiday season.

Conclusion

It’s obvious that the pros far outweigh the cons for this budget-friendly yet high-end tablet. The sheer amount of power you get for the price is game-changing. Google and ASUS have managed to bring top-tier performance and features to the masses, with very little compromise.

The shortcomings are relatively minor, especially when you consider what you are getting for the price. Google has now set the bar much higher than it ever was for not only a budget tablet, but for most high-end tablets as well.

With the only real issues being the lack of HDMI out, no rear camera, no expandable storage, and spotty international support for Google Play services, it’s hard to say anything negative, especially if you’re in the US. The Nexus 7 is a joy to use and has quickly replaced my Xoom for most tasks, though I still prefer watching TV shows on the larger 10-inch screen, and I can’t see taking notes or using the Nexus for presentations at work.

The Nexus 7 is a fun gaming device, perfect size for traveling, and makes the perfect couch potato companion. High quality craftsmanship, an affordable price, and high performance make this tablet a winner.

So what are you waiting for? Order one now!

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» See more articles by Ed Caggiani


  • http://twitter.com/umbrarchist umbrarchist

    It just needs a Kingston Wi-Drive for storage.

    • Sydney Cox

      Funny, that’s exactly what I am going to get once my Nexus 7 gets here…

  • Gridlock Manifesto

    I think one of the problems is that no one wants to pay $500
    for a 7-inch tablet that rivals the iPad with a smaller size. Apple does a fine job of packing a lot into their
    product for a “reasonable” price. The
    Nexus 7 is “more than reasonably priced” and the perfect size for
    portability. I plan to get this and give
    my Galaxy tab to my daughter. At first I
    was upset about the lack of flash, but since I mostly watch live and recorded
    TV with the Dish Remote Access app and my Sling Adapter at home, it doesn’t
    matter. My Dish co-worker bought the
    Kindle Fire which doesn’t work with the Dish Remote Access App, so he borrows
    my Galaxy Tab or iPad at work all the time for watching TV. Ha!
    Maybe I should just give HIM my Galaxy and then I can use my Nexus 7
    more often!

  • http://www.bestiphone5apps.us/ Sara

    Even though I have (and love) my Asus Transformer, I would really love one of these. Mainly because it seems like such a bargain. Fortunately we’re planning on buying a suite of them for Work to use for surveys – given that we can get two for the price of a single iPad it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

  • http://www.bestappss.com/2012/07/best-google-nexus-7-apps_24.html brar

    Everyone prefer nexus 7 because it is future proof… Which mean it is os upgradable and affordable…