By Michael Fisher | August 1, 2012 4:35 PM
When Google announced its widely anticipated Nexus 7 tablet in June, it promised a product that would provide “the best of the Google experience.” Some of us weren’t so sure the company could deliver, and I said as much in a piece written on the announcement date.
In that piece, I wrote: “Does it give consumers a cost-effective way to break in to tablet ownership? Yes. Will it do what other midrange tablets do, and do it better? Probably. Will it sell very well? Almost certainly. But it’s not a terribly exciting product. It’s not a game-changer.”
I still believe most of that is true. That last bit, though -about the game-changing- now gives me pause. Because while I wrote that reaction piece above without having handled the device, I’ve now spent several weeks with a Nexus 7 of my very own. And in that short time (even accounting for the shiny-new-device “honeymoon phase”), the little slate from Google has become my favorite tablet. Considering my initial reaction was one of barely-disguised apathy -a far cry from Jaime Rivera’s unbridled glee- that’s quite a jump.
Here’s how the Nexus 7 beat out the other tablets in my arsenal to become my favored device.
As I write this, I’m sitting in San Francisco International Airport, waiting to board a flight home to Boston. To while away the six hours between California and Massachusetts, I’ve got three e-books loaded up. Not on my iPad, but on my Nexus 7.
There are a few reasons for this: the Google Play Store has a pretty robust catalog, for one, and I was itching to try it out. Also, the Nexus 7 is the newer device in my collection, so it’s been getting a bit more attention than the others. But the crucial advantage it offers is in its form factor. It’s quite simply the most portable little tablet I’ve ever encountered.
On a recent episode of the Pocketnow Weekly, I poked fun at managing editor Anton D. Nagy when he said he’d carry a 7-inch tablet as his daily driver, if only it had phone functionality. It only took a few days with the Nexus 7 to make me eat my words. I still think the spectre of someone taking a call on a tablet is ridiculous, but the sheer portability of the Nexus 7 is seductive. It fits beautifully in the hand, its soft-touch back cover giving it more purchase on a countertop than, say, the iPad’s metallic casing. And its smaller dimensions mean one-handed use is possible, if not entirely comfortable. After I’m done, it’s a simple matter to slip the device into a cargo pocket.
Sure, these arguments can be made for many tablets in the 7-inch size range, but the Nexus 7 features an almost-perfect balance of physical features that makes it stand out from the crowd. It’s a little thicker and a little chubbier than is ideal, but those shortcomings weren’t noticed by any of my non-tech-savvy family, all of whom have handled, prodded, and pawed at my Nexus 7 over the past week. Indeed, the tablet’s four-day tour through the hands of those admirers was exciting to watch: Instagram photos, webpages, and Facebook profiles were shared easily between people with a quick pass of the tablet back and forth. Sure, that’s possible with the iPad, but much less cumbersome with this smaller device.
Android Done Right
Because this tablet is a Nexus device, Google has loaded it with a stock build of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. There’s no skin here, no manufacturer-added “value” to load the OS down, and it shows. Jelly Bean performs beautifully on the Nexus 7, its Project Butter UI enhancements making the experience almost effortless. Swipes and flicks prompt animations which glide right along, the interface layer seeming to float on a cushion of air just under the display. It’s a far cry from the jittery, jumpy experience offered by the competing Amazon Kindle Fire.
Even Android’s tablet app problem gets a bit of a break on the Nexus 7. Sure, most apps are still just scaled-up versions of their phone-sized counterparts, but that’s not as offensive on a 7-inch display as it is on the larger 10-inch screens. Apps like FlightTrack and Instagram do particularly well at this screen size. Yes, there’s still wasted space, but it’s far less egregious here.
The Nexus 7 also throws into sharp focus Android’s home screen advantage. The widget-based approach allows information to be continuously displayed on the screen. Again, the lack of a manufacturer skin helps here, keeping the out-of-box options confined to Google’s Spartan-but-useful widget suite.
Everything You Need, Nothing You Don’t
Speaking of Spartans … the Nexus 7 is, in a few ways, a slimmed-down device. There’s no primary camera, only a front-facing module for video calling. There’s also no cellular radio, so the tablet is fully dependent on WiFi hotspots to feed its hunger for connectivity. While the lack of a dedicated back-mounted camera isn’t a deal-breaker for everyone, the lack of a cellular option is a somewhat bigger deal.
But mobile-hotspot functionality is now widely available on most smartphones. A WiFi cloud thrown off by my Galaxy Nexus is what’s providing the connectivity that’s making this article possible; it’s also feeding internet traffic to my Nexus 7, as it’s been doing for the past few days. Built-in cellular connectivity is no longer critical on tablets.
Also, the lack of carrier radios means there’s nothing to get in the way of Android software updates. There’s no CDMA encryption to bypass, no proprietary radio software that needs coddling, so the Verizon-fueled “Nexus-fail” that so inflamed my temper a few weeks back can’t happen. The Nexus 7 is a true Nexus device, and it gets to stay that way.
And as a special bonus, NFC is here, ready to be put to use by future NFC-dependent applications. Also, the GPS functionality that’s normally missing in devices lacking cellular connectivity is actually present on the Nexus 7, making the Google Maps experience much more useful.
The Price is Right
As I hinted above, many of these advantages exist on other 7-inch Android tablets, without some of the shortcomings the Nexus 7 carries. These other devices may feature more robust build quality, better displays, or added features like primary cameras. Some of them offer useful software features built into their skins. Others carry enhanced internal storage or Micro SD expandability. In short: there are better tablets out there.
But here’s the thing: not for the price. When the $199 and $249 price points of the two Nexus 7 versions are taken into account, it’s almost impossible not to recommend the device to first-time tablet buyers and experienced slate users alike. It’s a portable, responsive, high-powered tablet for half the cost of the cheapest current iPad. And it carries the full power of Android -stock Android- with the promise of timely updates direct from Google for the reasonable lifetime of the device.
If you ask me, that’s not a bad feature set in a new best friend.