The Google Nexus 7 tablet is an excellent value at $199 for the 8GB model ($249 for the 16GB) with an impressive feature set that feels smooth to use, thanks to Android Jellybean 4.1 with Project Butter, long batter life (over 9 hours of robust use) and tight integration with Google apps and services.
The Physical Device
The device feels good with a dimpled, rubberized back, aluminum banding around the edges, and a gloss black plastic bezel around the 7-inch screen. It has a power button and a volume rocker on its right edge, and a micro-USB port and headset jack on the bottom. It is easy to hold in one hand for prolonged periods with a substantial, stable feel to it.
The screen resolution is 1200 x 800 at 216 PPI, the same as the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, at the same price, less than the yet to be shipped Nook Color HD (243 PPI), far less than the Apple Retina display (264 PPI), but better than the recently announced Apple iPad Mini (163 PPI). The proof of the pudding is in the viewing, and a Netflix high-movement video (Dana Brown’s Step Into Liquid) displays very smoothly and in impressive detail, though there were a couple of scenes that displayed pixellation, due most likely to the not-very-good wireless internet streaming speeds on campus. At home the same video looked even better. Which brings up another point: 8GB or even the higher priced model with 16GB is not a lot of storage for a media consumption device, but most of the content gets streamed to the device, so connectivity speeds become even more important. Book loading speeds were noticeably sluggish.
The screen is backlit, with brightness controls per app, but even at its brightest the home screen and various app screens seemed murky and not bright enough. The reading app, however, worked fine and displayed a bright white background with crisp, black text.
The glass cover is Corning scratch resistant glass, and not the Gorilla glass that Apple uses, making it more important to protect the glass front of this device with a cover.
It has only a front-facing 1.2MP camera which takes OK, but not very impressive pictures, but inexplicably the device does not come with a camera app. You have to download one from the Play store.
The device is thin and light (only 1mm thicker than the iPad) and can easily fit in a jacket pocket or purse.
The home screen is classic Android, with customizable wallpaper, places for a grid layout of app icons, widgets, a favorites “carousel” (removing this is the first thing that many will want to do), and a row of seven frequently used icons at the bottom: Google apps, My Books, My Magazines, all apps, My Movies, My Music, and the Google Play app store. Below these shortcuts, and always available, are the Back, Home and History buttons.
The star of the show is the new Google Now. First, it must be enabled. After that, swipe up from the bottom of the screen and Now cards will appear with information useful to you given your current whereabouts: weather, traffic, public transportation, local restaurants, etc. It learns as you use the tablet and travel around, and is really quite impressive.
Also quite impressive is the Google voice search. From the now screen say the word “Google” and voice search will be activated. Speak your search term, Google will recognize it (using it’s online search technology, and not requiring a huge database for local voice recognition) and serve up your search results. If you don’t speak fairly quickly after voice search is activated you will have to tap the Mic to re-activate it. It worked flawlessly for me.
The touch actions operated smoothly, with no lag time between touch and response—except, of course, for the lag in loading streamed content. Where the Kindle Fire can seem a bit balky, the Nexus 7 does not. Google integration—i.e., using your Google id to login to services—was also very smooth. The Google Play store suffers by comparison to the Apple app store, and the Play book store suffers by comparison to Amazon books, but overall it is a smoothly operating infrastructure where you can find any content you want. The My Music area will play your own music stored in Google’s cloud service, but unless you have opted in to that, it will play only music you have purchased.
The onscreen keyboard works well, and Google has added a zoom feature when username/password boxes appear, making them that much easier to fill in accurately.
The Reading Experience
If you are buying this device as primarily an eReader you will not be disappointed. It runs the Kindle and Nook reading apps (“Nook” was the only word I could not get the voice search to recognize (!)). Its native Play reading app works extremely well, facilitating highlighting, annotation, and bookmarking, like the other apps, with a more developed contents drop-down than the other apps and more complete sharing options. In fact, sharing options throughout the app infrastructure were better on the Nexus than on any other tablet I have tried, including the iPad. The in-book dictionary was not as good as that in the Kindle app, and Wikipedia ties in were not available, though translate options were.
Beyond the basics the Nexus comes with NFC technology, which is not widespread yet, but may become the preferred method of sharing data between mobile devices in the months to come. It also comes with strong Google + integration, if that matters.
At $199 this is an excellent value. It has an elegance of its own. Not Apple elegance, but a strong, independent infrastructure in a smoothly operating package, for those who do not want to pay for Apple technology or be a part of the Apple infrastructure.