After months of leaks and hints about the Nexus 7, it was clear what to expect from Google's first tablet. The major question was: "Can it possibly be as good as it looks and only cost $200?" The verdict is in.
CAVEAT: This tester Nexus 7 is pre-release. The hardware is final, but the software is not. Jelly Bean (Android 4.1) is currently only out in a developer preview. It's mostly finished, but there are still some bugs and quirks. Matias Duarte suggested to Gizmodo that some additional features will be announced. We'll revisit the final version.
Why It Matters
It's a fully-functional, not-terrible $200 tablet. It's also Google's first tablet (though the hardware was built by Asus). It's a Nexus, which means it's a standard-bearer for the latest version of Android, in this case Android 4.1, a.k.a. Jelly Bean. It's like the Kindle Fire, if the Kindle Fire was a real tablet. And it's like the iPad, if the iPad cost half as much and ran Android.
Let's start with the body (you shallow bastards). The 7-inch form factor is terrific for people who want a very portable tablet. It's balanced very nicely for one-handed use (say, while standing on a crowded subway), and it weights even less than the Kindle Fire (12 ounces vs. 14.6 ounces). The texturized back feels terrific—almost like a hard leather—soft and smooth but plenty grippy. The whole thing feels very solid, with the hard aluminum around the edges, and scratch-resistant glass from Corning (not Gorilla Glass, though). The only external buttons are a power button and volume rocker. There's headset and micro USB ports, and four little conductive dots which will be used for accessories (Asus has said that it will be making an audio dock for the Nexus 7 in the months to come).
Once you start playing with it, the Nexus 7 is extremely fast. It has the same 1.3GHz quad-core Tegra 3 processor and 1GB of RAM as the Asus Transformer Prime (Gizmodo's current favorite Android tablet), but it's running Jelly Bean with its "Project Butter." That translates to a smoother experience than we've ever seen on an Android device. There's virtually no jitter or lag anywhere in the OS. Jelly Bean may be an incremental upgrade from Ice Cream Sandwich, but all of the little things add up to a much improved user experience. The notification panel displays vastly more info. You now have seven customizable icons at the bottom of the homescreen. When dragging an icon or widget to a homescreen, the existing items on that screen will arrange themselves around it. The search function uses Google's knowledge graph, which is excellent.
Jelly Bean comes with with some new software, including the much-talked-about Google Now. Google Now is basically an organizer with a brain that learns about you the more you use it. Unfortunately it feels very beta right now. If you search for a flight, sometimes a card will be added for it, and sometimes it won't. Look at this screen shot. I love that it knows the F train, which will take me home, will leave in 6 minutes and that it will take me 12 minutes to walk there. I didn't program it to do that. That's amazing. But then it also shows me the next few times the M103 bus is coming to Bowery/Prince. I've never taken that bus in my life, but I'm near it, so it show it to me. I don't need it, so I swipe it away, and it's gone. The Nexus 7 also has an NFC chip, which makes swapping photos and media with NFC-enabled phones (or pairing it with the Nexus Q) a breeze.
It's fast, it's smooth, it's portable, and it's inexpensive. This doesn't feel like a $200 tablet experience—it feels high-end. The LED-backed IPS screen is bright and colorful. At 1280x800 it has significantly higher pixel density than the first two iPads (216ppi vs. 132ppi), though it isn't quite as high as the Retina Display on the new iPad (264ppi). Games and movies look really great on it. Speaking of gaming, that's one of the things the Nexus 7 was built for, and it delivers. In the video above, look at the ripples in the water in Shadowgun as the characters walk around, or the way the cloth reacts to the marbles in Glowball. It takes serious horsepower to render that kind of detail, that smoothly.
Loving the refinements in Jelly Bean. Some are subtle, it's great. The boosted speed is really noticeable. Google's new built-in apps are terrific. Play Magazines, for example, gives you a very intuitive and attractive experience. You can flip pages, search through page thumbnails, or even scroll by article. Play Books has a really nice UI now, as does Movies, and the now more channel-centric YouTube app. These all come together in your MyLibrary. In the new Google Maps, looking at street view in Compass Mode is a freaky, future-feeling experience, and the phone now takes voice dictation even when off-line, and it's impressively accurate.
The 7-inch shape is small enough to slip it in a pocket. You wouldn't want to wear it in your pants pocket all day, but it's a nice option to have, and it'll definitely fit in a jacket pocket or a purse. Also, it has a front-facing camera for video chattin'. It lasted for 9+ hours of battery life with pretty heavy use, so no worries there.
The biggest flaw is that there is no expandable memory slot. As of now, you can get an
8GB 16GB version ($200) or a 16GB 32GB version ($250). For a something designed for HD media and high-performance games, you can fill that up pretty quickly ( though you'll be able to play media off a drive connected via micro USB UPDATE: Sadly, it looks like that won't be the case.). Another flaw on the hardware side: it only has one speaker, and it's on the bottom of the device (when it's in portait mode). If you're watching or playing a game (in landscape), all of the sound appears to be coming out of the right side. It does not support USB to HDMI connections, which is a bummer because that's such an easy way to play your media on a TV. Also, it's unfortunate that it isn't Gorilla Glass. Our review unit took an unfortunate spill off of a table and landed face down. The screen cracked and it stopped responding to touch. To be fair, it was a pretty hard fall, but you may want to drop $20 on the protective case.
On the software side, Jelly Bean still has some bugs. Screen rotation was locked by default. There were a couple of force closes, and Google Now just doesn't quite seem to be there yet. That said, this is a developer preview, so this deserves an update when the real deal arrives.
Should I Buy It?
Totally. At $200 there is pretty much no reason to buy a Kindle Fire at all. If you love reading Kindle Books and listening to Amazon MP3, you just install those apps and you're good to go. It also gives the iPad a good run for its money. You can argue that the iPad is a better tablet, but is it really $300 better? As useful as tablets are, they're still kind of luxury items. $200 for a full-fledged, seriously-spec'd, fully-capable tablet is an absolute steal. Get it. Seriously. [Google]
OS: Android 4.1
Screen: 7-inch 720p IPS screen
Processor and RAM: 1.3GHz quad-core Tegra 3 / 1GB RAM
Storage: 16GB / 32 GB
Camera: Back: None, Front: 1.2MP
Weight: 12 ounces
Battery: 4325 mAh Li-Ion
Price: $200/8GB, $250/16GB
Giz Rank: 4 Stars
Video by Michael Hession.