So it’s finally here – the Android tablet that will break Apple’s iron grip on the market and consign the iPad to history. Or at least that’s what Google hopes. The Nexus 7 is an Asus-built, media consumption-focused 7in tablet with a quad-core Tegra 3 processor and 1280x800 screen, running the new Android 4.1 Jelly Bean OS.
Couple that impressive spec with a cheap-as-chips £160 price, and you can see why the Nexus has – at least on paper – overtaken the Amazon Kindle Fire as the tab most likely to topple the new iPad. So can it live up to the hype?
Design and build
As with all of Google’s Nexus smartphones, build quality of the Nexus 7 is superb. Asus has done a great job of making this look and feel every bit as impressive as an Apple product.
The rubberised back is an attractive and sensible addition, meaning you can confidently hold the tablet in one hand without fear of dropping it – perfect for use on a standing room-only train.
The number of buttons has also been kept to a minimum, and even the speaker placement is smart, giving the Nexus 7 a loud, clear sound for its size. It’s the ideal form factor for a tablet you can easily use when you’re out and about, with none of the wind-catching unwieldiness of larger, iPad-shaped designs.
While it lacks the eye-caressing wow factor of the new iPad’s Retina Display screen, the Nexus 7 has a decent 7in IPS display with a 1280x800 resolution. That’s considerably crisper than the Amazon Kindle Fire’s 1024x600 effort, greater than the 1280x720 on high-end smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC One X, and equates to a none-too-shabby 216ppi. Not quite up there with the new iPad’s 264ppi, but certainly good enough for a few hours’ reading without eye strain.
HD movies look superb on the Nexus 7's screen, with rich, vibrant colours, although it can look a little washed out with still images – something that’s particularly noticeable in menus and apps, and no doubt a by-product of the dramatically low price tag.
OS and interface
Android 4.1, or Jelly Bean if you prefer, is a big improvement on 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). We had to update our Nexus 7 test device to the new OS manually – a simple process once you’ve registered for an account on Google’s Play Store – but retail versions of the tablet should come with it preinstalled. Particularly impressive are the new gestures – to delete something, for instance, you simply flick it off screen.
Jelly Bean's interface remains largely the same as ICS, but many of the bugs have been ironed out, and general navigation and app launching feel a little slicker and more polished than before. That might have a lot to do with Google’s Project Butter, a processing framework built into the new OS specifically to get rid of device lag. We think calling it Project Hot Lard or Project WD40 would have been a bit more imaginative. In any case, Google’s finally bringing Android up to iOS levels of slickness.
Google has overhauled many of its default apps for the Nexus 7, and they look great. YouTube, in particular, is a thrilling graphical experience, while a tablet-optimised Gmail makes better use of the available screen space.
One of the most impressive new features is called Google Now – a scarily clever attempt to bring together all of Google’s knowledge about you. It takes the form of ‘cards’ which show you information based on your location. For instance, stand at a bus stop, and it will display the next arriving bus. Use Google’s Maps Navigation sat-nav software, and it will show you how long it will take to get home, taking into account traffic. Or it can combine your diary, location and travel info to warn you that you’re going to be late for an appointment.
Google Now can even keep you updated on the score in major sporting fixtures, although it seemed to struggle to display Cardiff City fixtures, so obviously some big names have been left out. Google reckons it can work out which team you support from which searches you have made. As we said, scarily clever stuff.
Outside of Google’s own apps, though, it’s a disappointingly familiar story. You do of course get access to the whole of the Google Play app store (unlike on the Kindle Fire), but Android still trails far behind iOS in both quantity and quality of tablet apps, and very few take advantage of either the Nexus 7’s quad-core processor or the new Jelly Bean OS.
The Nexus 7 is incredibly snappy in use, with the quad-core processor and Project Butter combining to make lag a thing of the past. You won’t have any problem watching HD video either, with the 12 GPU cores inside it ensuring there’s never any stuttering or slow-down – even when beamed to a TV through Google’s new Nexus Q gadget.
The latest generation of tablet-optimised games also look excellent on the Nexus 7's HD screen – not quite as detail-rich as the latest iPad titles, but definitely the best we’ve seen on any other tablet, and a lot crisper than they look on the likes of Asus’ Transformer Prime thanks to the more closely-packed pixels. Plus, all of the most powerful titles can be found in one place with a simple tap on Nvidia’s Tegra Zone app.
With a choice of 8 or 16GB, the Nexus 7 isn’t blessed with vast storage, but thanks to Google’s Play service, that’s not as big a problem as it might seem. Anything bought via the Google Play Store, including films and other space-hungry files such as games, can easily be stored on and re-downloaded from Google’s servers.
Admittedly, 8GB does limit you to a couple of HD films and a few albums – but for all but the longest of flights that should be enough to last you until you next get network access. The integration of Google’s cloud-based Drive will also help boost its storage space when you can get on Wi-Fi.
Google quotes eight hours of ‘normal’ use and nine hours of video playback, and these figures seemed to tally with what we found – you certainly won’t need to recharge midway through most flights. However, do be warned that existing USB chargers are unlikely to work (the Nexus 7 is too power-hungry for that), so you’ll need to use the one supplied with the Nexus 7.
Possibly the biggest drawback to the Nexus 7 is that it’s Wi-Fi only – there’s no 3G or 4G even as an option, although you do get Bluetooth, GPS, accelerometers, a magnetometer and NFC for contact-free content sharing and payments. Download everything you need for the day before leaving the house and you’ll survive, and at least the Wi-Fi antenna is strong – we were able to connect without issue at home and in cafes alike, even with weak signals that the Galaxy Nexus phone struggled to capture.