After months of leaks and hints about the Nexus 7, it was clear what we were to expect from Google's first tablet. The major question was: "Can it possibly be as good as it looks and only cost $250?" The verdict is in.
AU Editor's Note: This is a US review of a pre-release Nexus 7 unit. The hardware is final but the software is not, it's still only the developer preview. We're also not sure which features will be available in Australia in Jelly Bean. We'll revisit this when we get our hands on a local unit.
Why It Matters
It's a fully functional, not-terrible $250 tablet ($319 if you buy it in stores). It's also Google's first tablet (although 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 aka 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 train), and it weights even less than the Kindle Fire (340g vs 414g). The texturised back feels terrific -- almost like hard leather -- soft and smooth but with plenty of grip. The whole thing feels very solid, with the hard aluminium 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 are headset and microUSB ports and four little conductive dots that 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 (our current favourite Android tablet), but it's running Jelly Bean with "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 customisable icons at the bottom of the home screen. When dragging an icon or widget to a home screen, 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 organiser 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 screenshot. I love that it knows the F train, which will take me home, will leave in six 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 $250 tablet experience -- it feels high-end. The LED-backed IPS screen is bright and colourful. At 1280x720 it has significantly higher pixel density than the first two iPads (216ppi vs 132ppi), although 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.
We're loving the refinements in Jelly Bean, even the subtle ones. The boost in 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 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 offline, 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 chatting. It lasted for more than nine hours 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 version ($249) or a 16GB version ($299). For something designed for HD media and high-performance games, you can fill that up really, really quick. 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 a table and landed face down. The screen cracked and stopped responding to touch. To be fair, it was a pretty hard fall, but you may want to consider getting 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. If you love reading Kindle Books, you just install the app 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. $249 for a fully fledged, fully capable tablet with serious specs is an absolute steal. Get it.
OS: Android 4.1 Jelly Bean Screen: 7-inch 720p IPS screen Processor, RAM: 1.3GHz quad-core Tegra 3, 1GB RAM Storage: 8GB / 16GB Camera: 1.2MP front only Weight: 340g Battery: 4325mAh Li-Ion Price: $249 (8GB), $299 (16GB) + shipping
Google Nexus 7 Gallery
Video: Michael Hession