The Google/Asus Nexus 7 tablet is fast, good-looking, and cheap, and it finally shows Android at its best on a tablet. Even better,
you now get 16GB of storage in the base model for the same low price: $199.
So, can a $200 tablet measure up to the iPad? Well, no, to be honest. (The just-announced iPad mini? Too early to tell.) But for less than half the cost, it doesn’t have to. It took me all of a few minutes to realize that this Android tablet could do everything I need it to. To prove it, I wiped my iPad and gave it to my wife. I used the Nexus 7 for about three weeks to see how well it could do on its own for someone who rarely carries a laptop anymore.
Pretty well, it turns out.
The Nexus brand is Google’s ongoing project to provide a sort of reference design for Android hardware manufacturers, many of whom seem to have no clue how to build a decent Android device. (Microsoft, apparently grown impatient with hardware manufacturers’ similar ineptitude with Windows tablets over the years, is doing the same thing with the Surface.) Instead, there are a lot of expensive but poorly-executed iPad clones out there, when Android’s strength still lies with smaller screens and lower price tags.
Price and features
At $200, the Nexus 7 is getting close to impulse purchase territory. The rumor is that Google is selling them for a pretty thin profit, aiming to get lots into consumers’ hands rather than making a profit directly from the sale of hardware. I’m guessing that is less true now that we’re a few months into production, but in any case, the Nexus 7 is a great deal.
For that price, you get 8GB of storage (soon to be 16GB, if the rumors hold true), a front-facing camera (i.e., on the same side of the tablet as the screen, and a gorgeous display that’s close to the pixel density of the iPad 3 (216 ppi on the Nexus 7, 264 ppi on the iPad 3). The battery will last 6–7 hours on constant use, which was about two days of normal use (reading, email, and the occasional video or game) for me.
There are two important things to note in that feature list. First, the storage. Nexus devices are generally miserly with storage, and 8GB is a pretty small number. But Google is all about the cloud, where most of your data will be. The Nexus is meant for streaming, not downloading. Most of the time, this won’t get in your way, and with the coming bump to 16GB for the base model, it shouldn’t be an issue.
Second, there’s just one camera, on the front side. That makes it nearly impossible to snap pictures of business cards or receipts, which I regularly do using Evernote. It’s a pretty minor inconvenience if you also have Evernote on your smartphone in your pocket, but if this will be your only “smart” gadget, it’s something to consider.
Hardware and design
The Nexus 7 makes my iPad feel big and clunky. The size and weight not only differentiate it from the iPad, they define its usefulness. An iPad isn’t big, but it isn’t close to fitting into a pocket. But the Nexus 7 fit into my back pocket, the inside pocket of some of my jackets, and the Napoleon pocket on my favorite windbreaker.
It’s just the right size so you don’t always need to toss it in a bag to keep it out of your hands, which means you are more likely to grab it than your iPad when you are running out the door. But it’s big enough to be just as useful for browsing documents.
Also, the display is great. The resolution of the display makes text on my iPad 2 feel muddy and pixelated by comparison. It’s even higher-resolution than the just-announced iPad mini, despite the smaller screen size (which means the Nexus 7 has a higher pixel density). And because of the small size and light weight, it’s easily as pleasurable for reading as my Kindle. It ruined me for reading on a tablet. Now, I’m totally annoyed by the resolution of my iPad 2 whenever I fire up Instapaper.
The construction is good, but not perfect. I could easily deflect the screen along one side, as if it were not fully glued down. And the faux-aluminum ring around the display feels like the plastic it is, instead of the aluminum it is supposed to look like. But all in all, it’s a great design, and well put-together, especially considering the price.
There is just one big problem: the 7-inch form factor makes for a terrible typing experience. It is terrible for typing even if you are the kind of person who thinks that typing on an iPad is difficult. In either portrait or landscape orientation, the larger size (compared to a phone) makes it awkward to type with your thumbs and impossible to type with all your fingers. Fortunately, Google’s speech recognition remains excellent, because you will want to use it instead of the keyboard any time you want to type something longer than a sentence.
The Nexus 7 uses — mostly — the phone version of Android. (It seems to be up to the developer whether or not to use a tablet UI on the Nexus 7, as some use it and others don’t.) This makes no difference in most apps, since tablet-optimized apps for Android are rare anyway, and the extra real estate improves most. You do get sidebars in apps like Gmail and WordPress instead of having to flip from screen to screen, which makes things a bit smoother to use.
The big news is the new version of Android: Jelly Bean. I wouldn’t call it a huge jump ahead from Ice Cream Sandwich, but it’s a great refinement. All of Google’s tablet development finally comes together in this version of Android. It just feels better and easier to use, and it’s finally at home on a tablet that’s made for it. My only real knock on the UI is the presence of a menu bar below the keyboard. Nearly every time I reach for the spacebar, I end up pulling up a menu, instead. It’s a terrible design decision, probably made to avoid another patent battle rather than to make things better for the user.
On the one hand, the Nexus is the first Android tablet — perhaps the first Android device — that feels truly fast. Since it was first released on the T-Mobile G1, Android has suffered from lag and stuttering. Scrolling has been choppy, instead of smooth, and animations often made it look like opening or closing an app was harder work than playing a hardcore video game. That’s mostly been remedied now, and stutters are no more common on the Nexus 7 than they are on my iPhone 5. You can tap happily as fast as you like, and the Nexus 7 will keep up. (Which is good, because that menu below the keyboard will keep launching things by accident until you get used to it.)
The only real negative on performance comes from the camera, which is awful and impossible to use for photographing things. It’s good only for video chat, and not very good for that.
Who should buy this?
If you are considering a tablet, but are put off by the iPad’s price tag, get the Nexus 7. This is, hands-down, the best Android tablet on the market, and it’s a lot of tablet for the money. If you don’t do a lot of typing on your tablet, the Nexus 7 will make you very happy. If you do, or if you rely on Apple’s iCloud ecosystem, you are probably better off with an iPad.
The iPad mini was just announced, and Apple compared it directly to the Nexus 7 in its presentation. However, there are a few big differentiators. For one, the Nexus 7 has a higher-resolution screen. That means text and photos will look better, and it will be easier to read on it. The Nexus 7 is also smaller. The iPad mini looks hard to hold in small hands, and I don’t see how it would fit in a back pocket. Plus, it’s $130 more, and the keyboard won’t be much better than the Nexus 7’s.
On the other hand, iPads are awesome, and if price isn’t a big deal to you, you’ll probably be happier with the iPad mini.
Asus Nexus 7
Reviewed by Sam Glover on .
Summary: The Nexus 7 is, hands-down, the best Android tablet on the market, with a gorgeous screen, convenient size, and plenty of speed.
- Price and features: 5
- Hardware and design: 4.5
- Included software: 4
- Performance: 5
Overall score: 5 (out of 5)