In 2010, Gizmodo described the Samsung Galaxy Tab, a 7″ Android tablet available through Verizon, as “the worst of a tablet and the worst of a phone,” and I agreed. The Tab and Android 2.2 Froyo were laggy and overpriced. Why Samsung thought they could sell a $599 7″ Android tablet when the iPad was $499 is beyond me.
Weighing in at $199, the Asus Nexus 7 is a completely different story.
The wild success of the Nexus 7 launch can be attributed to three forces: the rapid cost reduction of quality hardware, the polish of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and the development of tablet-specific apps in a maturing Google Play Store (formerly App Market).
I like the 7″ form factor. The iPad’s 10″ screen makes it a two-handed device, and I cannot think of situations where I would be comfortable using an iPad but not a small fast laptop (I still use dead-trees when it comes to reading). I concede that the iPad could replace a laptop for someone who does not do processor-intensive work and didn’t already have a small laptop. For me, given the heft of the iPad 3 (The New iPad? whatever), it seemed silly to carry an iPad when it was so close in size to a Macbook Air or a Thinkpad X220.
In contrast, the Nexus 7 is in a separate league of devices. Comparing the Nexus 7 and the iPad is like comparing a sports car to a luxury sedan. They’re just different. The 7″ form factor makes the Nexus 7 one-hand device, similar to a pulp paperback. I can reasonably use the Nexus 7 on public transport or in a long line for coffee (or anywhere you would read a paperback).
The front of the Nexus 7 is a single sheet of Gorilla Glass with no hardware buttons framed by a beveled steel case. The black plane is only interrupted by a single centered front-facing camera above the screen. The result is quite handsome, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple attempted to get an injunction on the Nexus 7 in the near future. Thanks to the perforated black leatherette wrapped around its back, the Nexus 7 sits in the hand comfortably, and the whole device just exudes quality.
Input/output placement is pretty standard. The only hardware buttons are a power/standby button and volume rockers on the right side, and the micro USB charging port and 3.5mm audio jack are on the bottom of the frame. Some people prefer the audio jack on the top of the device, but I find that placing the audio jack on the bottom prevents errant cables from draping over the screen during use. A single speaker grille runs along the bottom of the back. The speakers are surprisingly loud and usable, with very little distortion or tinniness at max volume. I was able to use the Nexus 7 to provide background music at a small gathering.
Unfortunately, the Nexus 7 is wifi only. I would have liked to have seen at least a 3G option. The Nexus 7 is the perfect size for short trips where I pack lightly, but the lack of 3G severely cripples the Nexus 7’s usefulness on long bus rides or trains.
Some have complained about the lack of rear camera. I consider using a tablet to take pictures a misdemeanor at least, so this does not bother me, especially since anywhere I have the Nexus 7 I would also have my iPhone 4s and its unmatched mobile camera (it was used to take the photos for this review).
Compared to plasticky Android phones (even the Samsung Galaxy Nexus feels awkwardly light), the Nexus 7 has a comfortable heft and svelte-ness to it. Small touches like the steel frame and pebbled back make the Nexus 7 feel like a well-designed product, unlike many of its Android tablet predecessors.
In terms of features and polish, I consider Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich to be the first true Android competitor to iOS. With Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, Google augments the Ice Cream Sandwich experience with Project Butter, making the OS even smoother than before.
A lot of the differences between Jelly Bean and Ice Cream Sandwich are subtle interface tweaks that increase the usability of Android, but the biggest and most obvious change is the integration of Google Now. Holding down the home button or doing a Google search results in a set of ‘cards’ appearing above your search results based on time, location, personal data (calendar, contacts), and Google’s best guess. It’s basically dynamic iGoogle for mobile with a sleek interface. I was skeptical about Now, but it has been consistently giving coherent results so I’ve been pleasantly surprised.
Google’s Nexus line has been trying to remove as many hardware buttons as possible, so Android’s Home, Back, and Menu buttons have been relegated to the operating system. While this maintains the Nexus 7’s uninterrupted glass face, it means that I find myself accidentally closing apps while playing games that involve rapid tapping across the screen.
The one annoyance I’ve found with Jelly Bean is the lack of Adobe Flash support. I was excited about the prospect of lounging around and watching the Colbert Report, but Google’s officially not supporting Flash in Android 4.1+. Given that iPad doesn’t support flash either, it’s not a huge deal when deciding between tablets, but up until now Flash was a feature that Android had that iOS didn’t.
All in all, there’s really not much to say about Jelly Bean – it’s an evolutionary improvement over the really good Ice Cream Sandwich, rather than a revolutionary new OS. For people who live their lives in Google Apps, Android’s native integration are a boon. The only reason I would explicitly choose iOS over Jelly Bean is if I was already heavily invested in iPad apps, or if I wanted a 10″ tablet. Otherwise it’s a tossup.
In I/O 2012, Google rolled out its strategies for a two-fronted war with Apple and Microsoft over content distribution for mobile and for the living room, respectively. This is immediately apparent with the Nexus 7’s massive Play Library widget on the home screenout-of-the-box. They also give out $25 to the Play store with every Nexus 7 to entice you to migrate to Google Play. I’m quite happy with Spotify for music, Kindle for books, and torrents the Internet for movies, so I quickly deleted the massive library widget and added my own apps to the home screen.
One of the biggest problems that plagued the Tab and the iPad in 2010 was the lack of tablet-optimized apps. Tablets ran mobile apps stretched to a larger resolution, resulting in a pretty lame user experience. Apple was quick to standardize iPad-friendly apps, but given the hardware fragmentation of Android tablets, they were never able to achieve the same standardized quality. This crappy experience is why the Tab, Xoom, Transformer, etc. all failed.
Google recognized this problem prior to the Nexus 7 launch, and has made tremendous headway in improving the Android tablet experience. The new Play Store features a Staff Picks for Tablets section, with Google curated apps designed for tablets.
Compared to iOS, the big draw of Android is native Google integration. For those of you who are symbiotically fused with Gmail like me, the Nexus 7 will not disappoint. The tablet optimized Gmail app incorporates all of Gmail’s features and labels, taking full advantage of the Nexus 7’s increased screen estate. The rest of the Google Suite apps (Maps, Calendar, Reader, Wallet, etc) similarly take advantage of Android’s Google integration.
Unfortunately, some major apps such as Twitter do not have an Android-tablet optimized version despite having an iPad optimized version. This means that the screen space is not used as well as it could be, and that the text is somewhat over-anti-aliased. It’s surprising and a little disappointing that major apps such as Twitter have not invested in the Android tablet experience, given its market size dominance by user count.
Overall, the Jelly Bean software experience is lightyears ahead of what the Samsung Tab (and even the iPad) provided two years ago. The trade-off you make between Jelly Bean and iOS is the Google apps experience versus the rest of the apps. Given that iOS is still the dominant app marketplace in terms of revenue, I expect that the third party app experience for Android will always lag behind iOS; however, Google apps run flawlessly on Android (as they should) compared to iOS, and all the *major* apps are fine on Android, if not as polished as their iOS counterparts. For me, that’s enough to be very pleased with the Nexus 7.
So is it worth it? For me, yes. Google and Asus recovered spectacularly from a lukewarm Android tablet ecosystem and have achieved fantastic piece of hardware and software in the Nexus 7. However, if you are heavily invested in the iOS ecosystem already, the strong rumors of a 7.8″ iPad Mini launching by Q4 2012 warrant waiting for the undoubtedly well-polished Apple product.
If you have no particular allegiance to iOS, or Google apps are your top priority, there is no better tablet for $200 than the Nexus 7. Actually, there is no better 7″ tablet period (as of this writing). The 7″ form factor is fundamentally different than the 10″ iPad, and one could justify owning both. Given that the iPad is at least twice as expensive as the Nexus 7, I do not consider them comparable products. As a well-designed, one-hand, use-everywhere tablet, the Nexus 7 excels, and for that reason I am very satisfied with it.