To say that there has been breakneck progression in ARM mobile hardware, would be an understatement that also extends also to tablets of all types. From the cringe-inducing IMX515 resistive panelled devices in 2010, all the way to the quad-core [Tegra3] and [Exynos] powerhouses of today, it has been a long journey. But unlike carrier-subsidised phones, tablets have often been seen as the distant, neglected cousins – lacking connectivity and practical use. Devices which are rarely a necessity, with features that can often be replicated on smaller devices, slapped with pricing and relative sales volumes which lend themselves more to impulse extravagances.
But yet, despite these logical failings, I’ve always had a soft spot for that book-sized tablet. I’ve been drawn to devices like the carabiner-friendly [Barnes & Noble Nook Color], which I found somewhat clumsy to use, but with a solid design ethos. Or the [Galaxy Tab 7.7], a device which ticked every single checkbox on the spec-sheet, but was let down but substandard software at the time. Even on the larger side, I spent many an hour digging around the filesystem and SHSH blobs of an iPad 3, or wielding the ponderously large Asus Transformer(which in turn pales in comparison to the gravity-altering Lenovo Thinkpad tablet).
The Nexus 7 comes with the basic inclusions, in a box that has been widely acknowledged as the most airtight and fingernail-punishing to date.
Form / Technical
This begs the question, why mid-sized? Why this 7-8″ size, instead of the increasing bigger Galaxy Note ‘phablet’ form factor. Or the omnipresent 10″ Tab/iPad size? The answer is the one of balance – it’s compact enough to tuck into a jacket pocket or side compartment, light enough to wield one-handed, but still with all the connectivity, functionality and power to churn through tasks. Reading one on the train is completely natural.
The extra 2-3″ on top of a phone can’t be underestimated – I’ve tried and failed many times in reading anything more than a few articles on my phone (even at 4.6″), let alone longer essays or books. The screen space on extended use is a luxury that really has no substitute. Apple’s rumoured upcoming iPad Mini speaks volumes to this.
Conversely, the 10″ size falls short on portability and weight – the same considerations which prevent us from bringing sub-portable notebooks around with us. The productivity camp opt for add-on keyboards and cases, edging the device ever so close to Air/Ultrabook dimensions – but then you’re comparing them with devices which can run circles around tablets on just about every task without breaking a sweat (or creating ergonomic issues). Outside of visual presentations and watching movies, the 7″ always has my pick over the 10″, which usually handles tasks more at home on a 40″ TV.
The left side has four-pins for dock compatibility, as well as a microphone (look for it).
So jaded as I was about the offerings on the market, I followed with increasing interest about the Google Nexus 7 – a device built unapologetically WITH compromises. It doesn’t have a rear view camera, at all. Or a MicroSD slot, or a soft aluminium metal backing, or even Gorilla Glass (instead opting for Corning’s more generic glass). But look beyond the arguably frivolous, and you end up understanding why the Nexus 7 was built – a no-nonsense, affordable device designed to showcase just what can be done when the focus is on accessibility and software. It’s a combined effort between Asus, long-known for their Transformer range of tablets, and Google, looking to set a shining example for the tablet market and expand their beacon Nexus range.
The Nexus 7 was not built to be the shiniest tablet, it was built to be THE people’s tablet. This approach becomes evident throughout the entire device. It crams in only what matters.
Take a tour around the physical form of the 7, and it’s more or less standard fare. 198mm x 120mm x 10.5mm, with bezels that extend further on the verticals than the sides. Reasonably slim, and one of the lightest at 340g (around two Galaxy phones, or half an iPad). The rubbery soft textured back works well, making it natural to grab the device and handle it like a paperback book. The screen is colourful and dense as expected of an IPS panel, at 1280 x 800 (216ppi) with superb viewing angles, not the best in class in any area, but I found no deficits apart from marginal backlight bleed on pure black backgrounds. The blacks stand no chance next to a Samsung S-AMOLED screen.
The textured rubberised backing feels plush and durable, while affording some degree of grip. The only physical buttons on the entire device are the power and two volume buttons.
But there are extras, it packs in NFC capability, Bluetooth, 1GB of RAM, a front-facing 720p camera and either 8GB or 16GB of storage. I’d highly recommend the latter as there’s no expandable memory slot – you get what you get. At least you don’t have to buy more chargers – it charges the 4325mah battery fine off computer USB ports and phone chargers, albeit at a slower rate. With average use, I was experiencing around 8 hours of continuous battery life (Asus quotes an optimistic 10 hours), which drops to around 5 under heavy gaming. An Asus document explained engineers spent months fine-tuning the internal circuitry to minimise energy leakage.
However, chances are the average person on the street doesn’t care for these details – instead, it’s the snappiness and response of the experience which stands out. For this, the Nvidia Tegra 3 delivers in spades. Combined with Android 4.1, known as [Jelly Bean], which has a slew of improvements which increase everyday performance. As one who has spent eternities tweaking previous Android devices for additional speed and responsiveness, I was shocked at just how quickly and seamlessly everything was, right out of the box – making my Galaxy Nexus also running 4.1 look positively pedestrian. Touches are electrifyingly responsive and loading times are nearly non-existent. Even playing intensive games, the 1.3ghz quad-core Tegra3 powers through it all – be sure to check out the [Tegra HD] optimised titles. This little underdog can proudly stand up there and trade punches with the best. When you’re not killing zombies, unused CPU cores take themselves offline to conserve power.
A small horizontal slit on the back houses the speakers, with the bottom of the curved back offering a standard headphone jack and Micro-USB connector. Yes, it charges from your computer and standard phone chargers too.
I’ve intentionally given myself a full two months to get used to the Nexus 7 and it’s intracacies before writing this review. Swiping through it now, next to my Galaxy Nexus, I’ve noticed that even while many applications overlap, I’ve removed many from my phone – applications which would be better suited to the tablet. FBReader for e-books, Instapaper for articles, 500px / Flickr for photo browsing, MXPlayer for movie watching, a handful of games to name a few. If I’m opting to clear a heavy Inbox or search for information on the web, I’m far more likely to reach for the Nexus 7 than my phone. Google’s increasing book, magazine and movie collection also lends credence to the offerings.
In short, it’s an unbridled joy to use.
Should you buy one?
This is finally is the device we’ve been waiting for. The tablet which transcends everyday usability frustrations and doesn’t get between you and the task you want to achieve. It doesn’t come loaded with useless OEM bloatware (I’m looking at you Samsung), but instead a $25 credit on the Google Play store, which I was able to claim immediately to put towards some useful apps. All this for a tick over $200.
I’d have absolutely no hesitation on recommending one to a non-technical person, but for those who want to tweak, it’s easily unlockable in typical Nexus fashion. A slew of ROMs and kernels await for overclocking all the way up to 1.8ghz (2.0ghz in some circumstances). Asus has also been quick to offer a range of official accessories, though the device has now been available long enough for plenty of third-party alternatives to appear.
If you’re looking for a device with the smoothness of an iOS device, but with the full power of Android, the portability of a small paperback, and a liveable price tag – look no further. The Nexus 7 is the first Android tablet to deliver on all counts.