When Asus demonstrated its ME370T at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it impressed a lot of people. $US249 for a 7-inch, Tegra 3-powered tablet was looked like mind-blowingly good value and I, for one, couldn't wait for it to come to market. All went quiet on the ME370T-front for months, before it was finally revealed that the tablet had piqued Google's interests, too. 7 months went by, but finally we have the Nexus 7. You know the hype, you've seen the keynote, but what's it really like for Aussies to use?
What Is It?
The Nexus 7, despite being put together from a hardware perspective by Asus, is Google's first foray into a Nexus tablet. The Nexus line — for the uninitiated — is intended to be a "pure Google" experience, originally designed for developers, with none of the manufacturer's crapware slowing it down. To see that design ethos applied to a tablet is very exciting.
It's a 7-inch, rubber-backed tablet powered by a 1.3Ghz quad-core Tegra 3 and 1GB of RAM. It comes in both the 8GB and 16GB storage variants (we tested the 16GB) and it weighs just 340 grams. The screen is a 7-inch, 720p IPS display, the device is Wi-Fi only and doesn't come with a MicroSD-card slot
If you buy it from the Google Play Store, the 8GB model will set you back $249, while the 16GB model will cost $299. If you buy it from retailers, however, you'll be paying $318 for the 16GB model.
The first thing you notice about the Nexus 7 is the clever design. Google said that they wanted to make something that had the portability of a paperback book with the intelligence of a great tablet. It wanted to give users the ability to get around and use a tablet without tiring a user's arm out. In this area, they have definitely succeeded.
The brown, curved, rubberised back panel fits into the hand nicely and it stays there too, thanks to the tiny, grippy dimples all over the back. The 7-inch form factor is perfect from a portability standpoint, but it's not so tiny that it's frustrating to watch, read and browse on when you get home to use it on the couch or in bed for the evening. In this way it almost flawlessly straddles the tablet and smartphone form factor.
When you actually get down to using it, the new version of Android, known as Jelly Bean, rewards you with super-fast performance coupled with smooth operation. Google tweaked a lot of things between Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean — right down to new window animations — and that care really shows.
New features in Jelly Bean include Google Now, which predicts your life as it happens and tells you what you need to know about getting around and enjoying yourself before you even ask; overhauled search including upgraded voice, which is amazing for searching through all of your apps and pulling relevant information; resizable widgets which let you take customisation to a whole new level, and new page animations which make navigating around the device a really simple experience.
One of the best things about the Nexus 7 is how easy it is to get it going. Because it's pure Google, you don't have to run around tending to bloatware from manufacturers during he set-up process. You set up your Google account or sign-in with one you've already got, and that's it. You're placed onto a pre-configured home screen environment that is geared to what the device is meant for: enjoying content. Your home bar contains a folder full of Google's own apps like Earth, Plus and Currents, and it sits right next to Chrome, Music, Movies and the all-important Play Store.
Recommended apps, books and movies are intuitively presented on the second screen to the right, and it's already got a few free books embedded on the device's home screen to encourage you to start exploring content right away. All this comes together to make a really welcoming experience for a beginner tablet user and it's really awesome. I feel like I could give this to my grandparents and they'd know what they were doing with minimal instruction from me.
I mentioned that it comes with all of Google's apps pre-installed. That's a nice touch because it couples these apps and services — like the languishing Google Plus social platform — with an enjoyable user experience. People are more likely to explore the device they're having fun on, and by integrating these services seamlessly into the device, it's likely to increase adoption and give Google Plus much-needed traction. To be honest, if this was my every day tablet it would probably have me using Google Plus a lot more than I do now.
Underneath all of this UI-goodness beats the heart of the Nexus 7's 1.3Ghz Tegra 3 processor. If you're into mobile gaming, the Nexus 7 is for you. With a quad-core processor, 1GB of RAM and a high-definition, 1280x800 IPS screen it begs to be played with.
It scores just under the Asus Transformer Prime TF201 in our Quadrant tests, but that's ok. The way the Nexus 7 puts rubber to the road doesn't disappoint, and the fact that you'll have to spend twice what the Nexus 7 is worth to get your hands on a TF201 will override any sour feeling you have about the spec differences.
The screen displays near perfect whites, too. When compared to the blueish hue of the Galaxy Nexus or the mild yellow tinges of the iPhone 4S and the Galaxy S III, the Nexus 7 is great read on. The display isn't perfect, though, and we'll get to these flaws in a moment.
I've got high praise for a high-resolution IPS screen on a cheap tablet. It was one of the better points of the Kogan Agora tablet I reviewed a few weeks ago, and the Nexus 7 is no exception: bravo to Google and Asus for putting it in there. The problem, though, lies in the way the display is lit and how it reproduces colour.
The device is deplorably dark. We've had ours running at full brightness, and while it's very usable indoors, it's barely visible in full sunlight. All you're left looking at is a black bezel with your fingerprints all over it. I know I can't expect the Retina Display of the new iPad in a sub-$300 tablet, but it'd sure be nice if it were just a little brighter.
Speaking of the bezel, it can get a tad obnoxious when you're browsing, reading or playing things with a lot of white space. It's not as intrusive as the enormous black bezel on the BlackBerry PlayBook (which are forgivable because they have a purpose), but it can still get on your nerves.
Battery life is also a tad disappointing. You'll likely be charging this thing everyday thanks to the full brightness required to use it outside. I got between eight and nine hours of battery life.
What's really disappointing though is the fact that so much of what the Nexus 7 is meant for — reading, browsing and intelligently figuring out your life — doesn't work in Australia. Take Google Now as an example.
It's a clever little feature that's like a personal assistant. It tells you useful things without you having to ask, but the information it gives you is severely limited to what Google actually has available in Australia. Driving directions work fine — it was able to tell me where I was and how long it would take me to get home in traffic — but I don't drive to work. Where are the public transport directions (for cities other than Melbourne)? What about the flight information? Where are my sports scores?
Take Google Play as another example. Google has been very upfront about the fact that Australians still won't have access to magazines, music and TV shows in the Play Store. These are things the Nexus 7 is meant for, and without them the whole experience can come off feeling half-baked and disappointing.
The price on this tablet is great, but as a result you're left without a few things that can get annoying if you're in the market for a full-featured tablet. It doesn't have an option for expandable storage for one, and though the a/b/g/n Wi-Fi connectivity is good the lack of 3G-connectivity is irritating. You won't be getting a rear-facing camera on the Nexus 7 either and the front-facing camera is fairly forgettable. There's been a few issues raised about the build quality, too.
Should You Buy One?
It's tough to compare the Nexus 7 to anything else currently available in the local market in the local market, simply because it's one of the first low-cost tablets that has actually made it here. In the US, this device is intended to compete with the first-generation Kindle Fire. The Kindle Fire is a tablet that was never meant for Australia, but the Nexus 7 is on store shelves as of next week.
It's clear, though, that Aussies love a bargain, and the price point of this tablet is perfect. $318 for the 16GB version is a genuinely good deal. It's got fantastic hardware, a killer operating system and fits perfectly into the life of someone who has a smartphone and a laptop or desktop computer, but doesn't know what they'd use a tablet for.
Make no mistake that the Nexus 7 is intended as a media-consumption device though. Don't be under the false assumption that you'll be able to get a lot done with this. Google will argue that there are plenty of productivity apps on the Android platform so that people can put together documents and presentations, etc, but at the end of the day it's like pulling teeth to actually use them. Best to keep this tablet in the entertainment and browsing realm where it belongs and excels.
If you've been holding off buying a tablet because of price, hardware or software concerns, take a serious look at the Nexus 7. Despite a few flaws (which are easily overlooked anyway), the Nexus 7 is a great tablet worthy of your time.