[Review] Google Nexus 7 (2013)

To understand why the Nexus 7 even exists, let me draw a borderline analogy with another favoured topic of mine. In the classic Starcraft 2 universe, facing the droll and imperialistic Terrans (that’s us), are the Zerg alien race. A hive-minded hellish swarm made up of every inconceivable form of mutated arthropods, all bound by a singular destructive purpose of assimilation, even at the cost of themselves.

Now imagine that, but with cute green robots.

The Android device spread has been eye-opening – it’s THE defacto mobile operating system of our time and it exists in just about every imaginable form. Some might say this is merely an open market at work, without the tyranny of artificial boundaries, but they will agree that to isolate single examples is pointless.

This is where the Android philosophy differs and so many people misunderstand – Google generates large revenue streams from ALL mobile platforms, Android is just a sandbox. It’s not about individual hardware devices being exemplary or revolutionary, being handed down as if by gospel. It’s a playground of trial and error, a swirling petri dish of relentless iteration. The modern Theory of Evolution, conducted over tens of thousands of different components.

Success is not defined by anything except the cold, harsh reality of numbers. I agree with this philosophy, we shouldn’t grow sentimental attachment to these inanimate objects, which are merely faceless tools. After all, these devices are just disposable chess pieces which exist only to further the platform.

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The Nexus 7 is one such piece. Like every other Nexus devices before it, it’s intended as a developer ‘vanilla’ device – not a gimmick laden, celebrity endorsed tour-de-force of royal quackery with a cringeworthy Broadway spectacle in tow. It wasn’t made to overshadow, but to plainly serve. Expect a divine manifestation of perfection, and you’ll leave sorely disappointed.

And that’s exactly what I found in the past, as I moved between Nexus devices: the charismatic Nexus One, the hollow Galaxy Nexus, the promising original Nexus 7, the ambitious Nexus 10 – all built for a purpose, a trusted utility that can be used and discarded at will. The cloud, after all, is what Google excels at.

But notably, you didn’t fawn over a Nexus device like you would over an Apple product designed by Sir Jony Ive. There doesn’t exist a single millimeter of physical construct by his hand, which wasn’t meticulously obsessed over. I’d be uncomfortable revealing the amount of time I’ve lost while appreciating the minute details on my Macbook.

But now there’s this Nexus 7, and it’s a bit different.

Last year’s model had humble underpinnings. It was built to a low price – $199 to be exact, and within that strict limitation, it managed reasonably well, but it sacrificed too much. The new model has traces of the same DNA – the way the back curves, the placement of the buttons, the slight seam around the front glass – it’s unmistakably an Asus-made Nexus. The word pedigree is somewhat unwarranted.

But this time, aided by a sliver more leeway and a year of fruitful iteration, it’s substantially more polished. This Nexus device could be the first in the family that makes you WANT to pick it up, if only to admire it. There’s a slightly bevelled lip which lets fingertips grip on firmly, the textured back has been replaced with a smooth soft-touch rubber and the lightened device feels nearly Kindle-like in its sleekness. It’s now narrow enough to pocket in most trousers.

If I had to nitpick, the side bezels, which are extremely thin, make for accidental presses more often than I’d like. It’s an unenviable situation – thinner for ease of gripping, or wider bezels for more holding space. Thankfully, the lack of the silver ring makes for a less visually distracting experience.

There are still things which this Nexus 7 doesn’t do well, or at all. The 5MP rear camera is mediocre at best, there is no flash, no haptic feedback, no multi-coloured notification LED (just a plain white one). There’s no pogo-plug or HDMI port. It doesn’t have 802.11AC. You’ll understand why if you use one.

The fat is trimmed to bring you the most froth-worthy screen I’ve seen, not just in this price range, but on any device, bar none. From the tack-sharp clarity, to a well-overdue accurate factory color calibration and flawless viewing angles. It’s now even bright enough to be very readable in direct sunlight, not a bad thing for what many will use as a book reading device. The LCD is a top-shelf unit sourced from Japan Display Inc., a joint-venture between the Japanese Government, Sony, Hitachi and Toshiba.

It’s a shame it lacks a catchy marketing name.

Specs never tell the whole story of a device, but they are a vital structure to build an experience on. Suffice to say, the specs are sufficient. A 1920×1200 resolution which fits a 1080p video nicely, equates to 323 pixels per inch, well ahead of the iPad 4’s 264 PPI, last year’s Nexus 7’s 216 PPI and the current iPad Mini’s 163 PPI. Contrast ratio is around 20% better than an iPad 4. An LTE version is incoming.

The APQ8064 Snapdragon S4 Pro is an improved version of the Nexus 4’s innards, using Krait 300 cores and 2GB of DDR3. It’s responsive and fast, well provisioned for this resolution. The battery is actually smaller than last year’s model at 3950mAh, probably to fit in the skinny jeans. I found that movie playback was surprisingly thrifty and book reading yielded more than 11 hours of use. Whilst gaming, battery life drops immensely. Wireless Qi-standard charging is thankfully included.

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But what of the usage? It’s rock solid. The 7″ screen straddles the line of being able to use every genre of app reasonably comfortably. In my week with the Nexus 7, I’ve gleefully devoured hundreds of pages of books, magazines, webpages and the occasional comic, interspersed with movies and Youtube vids. For reference, the 7’s usable screen area is roughly 250% of a 5.5″ Galaxy Note 2. Because geometry.

It’s a device that I’m reluctant to ever put away.

I’ll create space in this article to voice one thing – usually when writing a review, I’ll ensure I read every available review of the same product I can find, to see if I’m missing something and not just regurgitating what’s been said many times (you should too). The acclaim has been widespread across not only technology sites, but mainstream media – a good sign of recognition for the Nexus name.

But then things get a bit ugly, the one-eyed coverage on a few ardent Apple sites is more vitriolic and bitter this time around, possibly because the device has shown what the iPad Mini should have been, at the cost price of a Mini, or maybe ad clicks are just down. The bottom line is, we should be embracing the best technologies in this age, not engaging in pointless vendor-specific tribalism for misguided reasons. If our content and purchases are locked away in a non-standards based DRM-ridden vault, that’s a choice we’ve made somewhere along the line. Handicapping ourselves to a specific manufacturer can be crippling.

In my 2012 Nexus 7 review, I said it was built unapologetically for a purpose – to be the people’s tablet. This time round, Asus and Google didn’t have to hold back to test the waters before committing. They knew that demand was already established and they’ve made a substantially better product in every way. Better than last year’s, better than every product in this category, and arguably, better than any tablet bar none.

The people’s tablet has returned.

Pictures courtesy of Popular Mechanics.

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