By Thom Holwerda - Posted on 2012-08-11 17:22:34 UTC at http://OSNews.com
Nobody needs a tablet, but many people still want a tablet. This is still the core differentiator between a 'real' computer and a tablet. At least in The Netherlands, you can't function in society without a desktop or laptop connected to the internet, so people need a computer. A tablet, though? Hence, the most common thing people have told me when they played with my iPad 2 is this: I'd love to have a tablet, but not for hundreds of euros. Enter Google's Nexus 7, the first 'cheap' tablet that doesn't just validate Android as a tablet platform, but also gives the iPad a run for its money.
I was a happy iPad 2 owner. I surely didn't need a tablet, but I wanted to know what all the fuss was about, and as you can read in my review of the device [http://www.osnews.com/story/24915/Apple_s_iPad_2_Conservative_Inconsistent_but_I_m_Loving_it], once I had it, I loved it. It was far, far from perfect, but I still found that having the internet next to you on the couch in such an accessible fashion was something I really enjoyed - no matter how decadent and, in essence, overindulgent it really is.
When the iPad 3 (I have to give that thing a name) was announced, I wanted to upgrade right away. I love high-density displays, and wanted to reward Apple for taking the plunge, especially since they managed to keep the price the same. I sold my iPad 2, and stashed the money away for when the iPad 3 was to arrive in The Netherlands.
And then my car needed to be replaced. I obviously put all other purchases on hold, including the iPad 3, until all the dust surrounding the car purchase - complicated enough as it is - had settled. Once it had, I came to my senses and realised that spending over €500 on something I effectively only used on the couch or in the bathroom was ridiculous, especially taking into account I already have a €1100 ZenBook. Basically, it was my geek heart versus my self-employed business-owning mind, and the latter won.
I had become part of the 'want-one-but-not-for-hundreds-of-euros'-crowd.
So, I waited. I waited until something affordable, but still capable, would come along. For a few months, I eyed the BlackBerry PlayBook, which, with its sub-€200 price point, seemed like a decent enough option. However, RIM's future is far from certain, and considering I don't want to end up with another BeOS, I decided to wait it out.
And then the rumours started. Google was going to launch its own tablet. A 7" tablet, running the latest version of Android, and it would be affordable. This piqued my interest, but considering the rather shoddy quality of cheap Android tablets, I was sceptical. I didn't see how Google would be able to introduce an affordable tablet that wasn't ten shades of suck.
Google then unveiled the Nexus 7, and I placed a pre-order not too long afterwards. From the first reviews and hands-ons, it became clear Asus had managed to create a quality 7" tablet, with fast hardware and a good screen, and all that for a mere $199. This sounded exactly like what I was looking for, and thanks to the favourable exchange rates, the 8GB version only cost me €165.
I've been using the Nexus 7 for a few weeks now. Does it live up to the expectation?
The Nexus 7 packs a quad-core Tegra 3 processor, 1GB of RAM, 8 or 16GB of storage space, and all the usual other bells and whistles we've come to expect from tablets and smartphones, such as Bluetooth, WiFi, front-facing camera, various sensors, and so on. The 7" 1280x800 (216 ppi) IPS display is covered with Corning scratch-resistant glass, and is really the star of the show here. It's bright, very crisp (although not as crisp as the iPad 3's, of course), and has decent viewing angles. I'm no expert on displays by any means, but to my untrained eye, it looks great.
The back is covered in a soft plastic that's supposed to feel like leather, and while that may seem a bit kitschy, it actually works. My iPad 2 always felt slippery, and I wasn't particularly keen on holding it in one hand while walking around. With the soft back on the Nexus 7, there's loads of grip. It just feels a bit more comfortable and secure.
The weight and size of the Nexus 7 plays an important role here, too. It's remarkably light (340 g compared to the iPad 2's 601 g), and because it's much smaller, you can easily hold it in one hand without straining your arm. You can also wrap a single hand around the back of the device, which is an incredibly secure grip and useful when walking around.
Battery life is excellent. After three days of use, the battery still shows round and about 20% charge, so you could probably squeeze in a fourth day if you tried. I find judging battery life incredibly hard, since it's quite dependent on usage patterns. As always, your mileage may vary.
One omission is a rear-facing camera, but in all honesty, I consider that a feature, not a bug. You should not use a tablet to make photographs, period. Your photos will be crappy, you look ridiculous, and if you do it at concerts, you block other people's view. It's inconsiderate. Anything the technology industry can do to discourage using tablets as camera's, I'm all for it. On top of that, it gives the device a cleaner look.
There's also issues with the hardware, which relate mostly to usability. Since it doesn't have a home button, there's no clear indication what's up and what's down, often causing you to pick up the device upside-down. The front-facing camera gives some indication when there's lots of light, but that sometimes has an unintended side-effect: your brain assumes the camera is a button, and you'll still pick it up upside-down.
Without a home button, the only way to wake the device is the on/off-button, but this button is placed at an annoying angle, and since it's the same colour as the back of the device, you can't actually visually identify it. These two issues are both caused by the lack of a home button, so I would have much preferred a physical home button. Barring that, it would have at least helped if the on/off-button had a contrasting colour (like silver, the same colour as the bezel).
All things considered though, with a price like this, it's amazing you're getting this kind of quality hardware. Google and Asus manage as such because it's sold at cost, but as a consumer, I honestly don't care. It's hard not to feel ripped off when companies have margins in the 40-50% range.
Software is more important than hardware - and this is where the Nexus 7 stumbles when it comes to arguably the most important aspect of a tablet: the browser. I'm starting with this complaint, because I don't want it to be buried under the otherwise fantastic Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.
Chrome on the desktop is - by a huge margin - my favourite browser. I find it a better browser than any others because it's fast, gets out of the way, and has a superior tabbed browsing implementation. My only complaint is how it doesn't integrate very well with the rest of Windows (visually), something they will have to address once Chrome hits Metro.
On my Galaxy SII, Chrome isn't without its issues. It tends to stutter when typing in an address in the address bar, and during page loading it often feels as if it's locking up. I also get the occasional force close. However, considering I was running a custom ROM (CM9) which wasn't even stable yet, I'm willing to concede the issue could lie somewhere else in the stack.
No such excuses for the Nexus 7, however. Force closes I haven't seen yet, but during page loading, the browser still often becomes unresponsive, and the loading itself will often take longer than it should - especially considering the quad-core processor and 120Mbit/s connection I'm on. This is not just the case with notoriously slow and sluggish sites like The Verge [http://www.theverge.com/], but also prim 'n' proper sites like OSNews [http://www.osnews.com/] or Daring Fireball [http://daringfireball.net/].
Furthermore, typing in the address bar is an exercise in frustration, as it will often take seconds for the device to catch up with your typing (it seems searching through bookmarks, history, and relevant Google search queries slows everything down). The close tab button is also far too small, and will often not register your touch - or it will register, but only a few seconds later. This kind of touch delay is only found in Chrome, and nowhere else. It's puzzling.
Considering just how important the browser is for a tablet, this is unacceptable - especially on a device with a pure Google software stack, where it has full control over all possible optimisation paths. Google has a lot of work to do on Chrome for mobile devices, and I'm hoping stuff like this gets fixed in updates soon enough.
Moving on from the browser, though, Android Jelly Bean on a tablet is fantastic. This is my first experience with Android on a tablet, so I can't compare it to previous versions to see how much progress has been made, but what I'm seeing here before me is a joy to use, well thought-out, and by no means behind the competition. In fact, I'd argue it's ahead.
The built-in applications like Gmail, People, and Calendar are all properly tablet-optimised and have clean, simple, and easy to use UIs which all follow the same basic UI guidelines. There are a few oddities here, behaviour-wise, though. On some applications, you can swipe the main content to the right to reveal the left-hand navigation bar; on some, you can't, and you need to use the top-left button to do so. Even others will only allow you to hide the navigation bar with a swipe; not reveal it. It's all a bit willy-nilly, and while you can limit yourself to the top-left button for a consistent experience, Google needs to either make the swipe behaviour consistent, or remove it altogether and solely rely on the button.
An odd exception here is the Play Store application, which, for some reason, is entirely identical to its smartphone cousin. It looks out of place, and it still doesn't have sorting options for installed/all applications. The Play Store needs work, and lots of it, for tablets and smartphones.
As far as third party applications go, it's a bit of a hit and miss. Many applications have tablet support, but it's clear that for quite a few of those, tablets were an afterthought, and not a prime concern as it is for many iOS developers. It's a bit less of an issue considering how relatively well Android applications scale to different resolutions, but ideal it is not. It is, however, fascinating to see just how many developers rushed to improve their tablet support the moment the Nexus 7 went on sale, and over the first few days after, it seemed as if almost all application updates said something about tablet support.
In other words, the situation is improving, but it's not on iOS levels just yet.
This last line certainly doesn't apply to Android 4.1 as a whole. Project Butter may sound like marketing speak - and, effectively, it is - but the improvements Google has made to touch performance and the graphics stack are very noticeable. Ice Cream Sandwich was a huge improvement over Gingerbread already, but Jelly Bean moves it up a notch for a completely and utterly fluent experience. Aside from the already-mentioned issues in Chrome, Jelly Bean is (drumroll) buttery smooth.
At this point, I think touch performance really comes down to personal preference. I personally very much prefer Windows Phone 7.5, which, to me, feels just right, while ICS and iOS were tied just behind. Now, though, Jelly Bean has overtaken iOS - I'm very much interested to see what iOS 6 brings to the table. Just to reiterate: this is an entirely personal experience, as I'm sure others will feel entirely differently. It reminds me a lot of ClearType vs. Mac OS X's font rendering; whether you prefer the former or the latter usually depends on which of the two you use primarily.
Application loading is also pretty much instant, but that was already the case on Gingerbread and ICS on my SII, so no differences there for me. However, on older devices, the move to Jelly Bean may mean the difference between frustrating lag and a usable experience, so I would certainly keep an eye out for CM10 or similar ROMs for your older devices.
As far as the graphical aspect of GUI goes though... Jelly Bean just obliterates iOS. I'm sure this will come to no surprise to any of you considering my deep-rooted hatred [http://www.osnews.com/story/25852/Skeuomorphism_bringing_Microsoft_Bob_back_from_the_dead] for skeuomorphic Microsoft BOB-esque user interface design. Android's Holo design language creates a very minimal, clutter-free graphical user interface that is distinctive, unique, fresh, relatively consistent, and decidedly digital - whereas iOS is an inconsistent mess of different visual styles with a very high Microsoft BOB-factor with wooden panelling, fake leather, stitching, and other childish stuff that just brings back unpleasant memories of Clippy and that stupid dog in Windows XP.
Android is clearly not as visually and behaviourally coherent as Metro, but it does manage to strike a nice and acceptable balance between the condescending visual nature of iOS and the starkness of Windows Phone 7. Metro can be a bit jarring when you first start using it, while there are no such issues with Android - which, I think, plays a big part in its success. I think Metro is superior, but just too different.
Jelly Bean is riddled with nice little improvements, too. For instance, the "open with..." dialog has been improved, making it less confusing than it was before; the same applies to the share menu (which is now a dialog). The keyboard does a better job at prediction and autocorrection (although it's still a bit too aggressive for my tastes). Widgets and icons move out of the way when moving widgets/icons around, and when a widget is too large to be placed somewhere, it will shrink automatically. The integration between the camera application and the Gallery is more seamless. All tiny details that add up to improve the user experience.
Probably the biggest improvement in Jelly Bean is the inclusion of Google Now and the new Search interface. Sadly, because (1) Google Now is not yet ready for The Netherlands, and (2) because I work from home and rarely travel, I didn't really get to see it in action all that much. I only actively noticed Google Now when it warned me - without setting reminders or anything - that I had to leave in 15 minutes if I still wanted to make it in time to friends in Amsterdam. For the rest, the only card it shows me is the weather in my hometown. If it really works as advertised, though, I can see how much of a boon this feature will be to frequent travellers and people who have to drive around a lot for appointments and such.
The new interface for Search is a very welcome improvement, and together with the improved voice search, is a very useful tool to quickly look up stuff. You don't have to open a browser or fiddle with slow-loading applications; type or speak in/to the permanently visible search field, and you're done. The results will show up in a nice and clean interface. Certainly an improvement over previous efforts.
All in all, Jelly Bean raises the bar for the competition, and refines some of the rougher edges of the Android user experience. I can't wait until CM10 on the SII matures a bit more, because the upgrade over ICS is totally worth it.
Never have I written a review where the conclusion is as straightforward as this one. This is not just a fantastic Android tablet for its price, nor is it just a fantastic Android tablet - this is a fantastic tablet, period.
If you have no specific preference for iOS, and just want a good tablet, the Nexus 7 is an absolute no-brainer. Save for the lower PPI screen and lack of a front-facing camera, the Nexus 7 holds its own against the iPad 3 (by lack of a better name). Add in the far, far lower price, and there's simply no reason to spend more than twice the Nexus 7's price just to get a higher resolution display. Heck, the Nexus 7 could be a lot worse than it is now, and it would still be a no-brainer.
If you prefer iOS, however, the choice is simple: you go for the iPad. Still, even if you prefer iOS, but want to know what this Android thing is all about, the Nexus 7 is close to cheap enough to be an impulse purchase (not in all countries and parts of the world, of course!). If you prefer Android - well, that's even more obvious.
I continue to be amazed at how much tablet Asus and Google have managed to shove into a $199 device. Feature-packed, fast, beautiful screen, long battery life, great software. If the rumours are true, and Apple really wants to enter the 7"-8" tablet space, the Nexus 7 isn't making it easy.
Original story page here.
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