Review: Google Nexus 7 with Jelly Bean

Google tries to kickstart the Android tablet segment (July 28th, 2012)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: ASUS with Google

Price: $199 (8GB) $249 (16GB)

The Good

  • excellent value for money
  • solid all-round performance
  • quality display
  • good build quality
  • runs Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean”

The Bad

  • slightly thick and heavy for its size
  • only 8GB or 16GB options, no microSD slot
  • no support for MHL or HDMI
  • possible early quality control issues

With Android tablets generally trailing Apple's iPad by some margin, Google has taken it upon itself to generate momentum for the segment by launching the Nexus 7. As it has with its previous Nexus-branded products, Google has collaborated with an Android partner to develop a flagship device running a clean install of its open-source Android OS. In this instance, the Nexus 7 was developed with ASUS and runs Google's latest mobile operating system Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean." So how does the Nexus 7 fare in the ever expanding sea of consumer tablets?

Design and build quality:

Sanjiv: The Nexus 7 is a well made device. My unit is put together flawlessly in a way that belies its $199 entry price point. The textured and rubberized back feels nice in the hand, while everything else about it seems quite seamless and well finished.

Kevin: I'm generally in agreement on build quality. This is a very well put together device. At a shade under 12 ounces, it has a certain heft to it that makes it feel like a premium device. It's easy enough to hold in one hand or two, and one can hold it for long periods of time without tiring or feeling any ache.

That said, there are a couple of issues with the design. The power and volume buttons on the side seem just a little too far out of the way. They're not as easily accessible as one might like, though that's no huge detractor. The big complaint I have is the power cord. It's inexcusably short. Unless you're right next to your outlet or swap out the included cord for a longer USB-to-microUSB cable, this is not a device you'll be able to use while plugged in.



Sanjiv: Agreed on the power and volume buttons. I think it is because they are actually a little flat and this means that you have to hunt for them a little more. At 7.8x4.7x0.4in, I actually think the tablet is just a shade too thick from an ergonomic perspective; and a shade too heavy at 340grams. After owning a Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7, which is thinner, has a larger display, but weighs the same, the Nexus 7 doesn't compare too well in that regard - it seems somewhat 'first generation' by comparison. In its own right though, it is going to be fine for most users.

Kevin: Fair enough, shall we move on to display and sound?

Sanjiv: I will quickly point out to readers that although we have had no complaints about the build of the Nexus 7, some reports on the Internet suggest that there may be some early production glitches. Some users have reported the screen separating from the body of the device, among other less major, but still annoying niggles like the microUSB port being broken.


Display and sound:

Kevin: The 1280x800 HD display on the Nexus 7 should be more than suitable to get the job done for most users. Out of the box, brightness on the device is automatically determined based on ambient light conditions, but users can tweak the brightness settings to their liking. I've found that the auto-brightness feature is adequate for most situations, but I have found the need to change it from time to time.

Sanjiv: The display uses in-plane switching tech (IPS) that gives it really wide viewing angles. It is essential that tablets use this type of technology and Google and Asus did not cut corners here. The yardstick for tablets remains the 264ppi Retina display in the new iPad - it also has a noticeably wider color gamut, but that said, the 146ppi display on Nexus 7 is still very good.

Kevin: Indeed. At seven inches, users will be hard-pressed to find any real problems with the pixel density on the device.

Sanjiv: I found that it works really well for e-books, with the font being easy to read. It also looks good viewing webpages as well as for watching movies. Again though, while we have not experienced any issues with our respective units, there are some users who have reported light bleeding issues and the odd dead pixel. However, they seem to be in the small minority.

Kevin: As to sound, iFixit did the requisite tear-down on the Nexus 7 and found that its small frame packs two speakers inside, as opposed to the one advertised on the official product page. I found that the tablet outputs a much louder sound than one might think, and it's actually served as my primary music listening device over the past few days. The one downside is that the placement of the speakers makes it very easy to cover them up with a hand while gaming or watching movies, resulting in a somewhat muffled sound experience.



Sanjiv: Agreed; However, listening to music through a pair of headphones is a pretty decent experience and will keep most people happy. However, if you are a Mac user, be prepared to be frustrated in trying to get music on your Mac to your Nexus 7. With the introduction of Ice Cream Sandwich, Google switched to the MTP protocol, requiring Mac users to install the Android File Transfer app - during testing, the app repeatedly crashed. The easiest way to get music onto your Nexus 7 will be through Google Play, or a service such as Spotify or Rdio, for example.

Kevin: On the music transfer note, Google Music is a passable, albeit slow at times, option. With the small storage space available on the device, some sort of cloud solution becomes something of a necessity; Google, Dropbox, and Amazon all have apps for Android. Google Music allows for the storage of thousands of music files, and a user can choose her favorite files to save to the Nexus 7 for offline access. This is an imperfect solution, as it means a good portion of one's media will be unavailable away from an Internet connection, but it's not a dealbreaker, given the cost and power of the device.

Sanjiv: Yes, storage is an inherent limitation of the device. Google has decided to skip microSD slots on consecutive Nexus devices - the Galaxy Nexus doesn't use a microSD slot either. So while most competing tablets start at 16GB and max out with as much as 64GB of storage space, the most you are going to get on the Nexus 7 is either 8GB or 16GB. The more serious user would only contemplate the larger of the two options. However, this Nexus 7 is all about the price point, and giving users a good all round tablet experience for the money.




Performance:

Sanjiv: Most readers will be familiar with the 1.3GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor that powers the Nexus 7. It is a solid performer in benchmarks (see below) and uses ARM's Cortex-A9 architecture. It delivers a rock solid user experience that means in most situations lag is not evident - the 1GB of RAM also helps in this regard. However, I did notice that when downloading and installing apps in the background, for example, lag can be apparent.

Kevin: There can be some lag here and there when downloading in the background, but it needs to be said that this is a powerhouse of a tablet. During my testing, I only experienced lag once: when I was downloading a game while watching a movie and occasionally switching between ten other open apps. The device only lagged when I tried to stream another game trailer from the Play Store. Needless to say, this is likely far more of a strain than the average user is likely to put on this device.

Sanjiv: I read recently that Nvidia did not supply a lot of documentation to OEMs when it released the Tegra 2, which made it a little difficult for OEM's to optimize the performance of their devices. Nvidia's emphasis with the Tegra 3, as one would expect, is with its graphics prowess. Although it has been bested by a number of devices in the benchmarks, including the quad-GPU PowerVR SGX in the new iPad and the new quad-core Exynos 4412 with the Mali 400, a number of developers have specially optimized their games for the GeForce GPU in the Tegra 3. This is one area where the Nexus 7 really shines from a performance perspective.



Kevin: True. Gaming on the device is quite smooth. Titles such as Dead Trigger and ShadowGun load quickly and run beautifully. Google spent a good deal of time during the Nexus 7's unveiling to focus on its gaming potential, and the device largely lives up to the hype.

Sanjiv: I have come to the conclusion that touchscreen gaming is at its best on a 7-inch display. Holding the Nexus 7 in the landscape mode and controlling FPS titles using is much easier using this class of device. It actually makes playing games like Dead Trigger and ShadowGun a lot more playable and much more fun as a result. The use of the Fling Joystick also works really well in this context too. Larger tablets like the iPad make playing these types of games more than a little awkward by comparison. A PS Vita will still blow blow any tablet out of the water for the ideal control scheme for serious gaming, however.

Kevin: The Tegra 3 chipset enables a visual effects nearly comparable to what one would see on a dedicated gaming console. Water ripples and shimmers, lights filter through steam and fog, and reflective surfaces shine with the Tegra 3; all of which makes for a much more immersive graphical experience in gaming.

Sanjiv: We certainly recommend checking out the Nividia Tegra Zone to find the games that have been specially optimized for the chipset. So what about the other great reason for picking up a Nexus 7 tablet - Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean"?




Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean":

Kevin: As we mentioned in the introduction, the Nexus 7 is the flagship device for the newest version of Google's operating system. "Jelly Bean," as Google calls it, is supposed to be optimized for tablets. Unfortunately, upon starting up the Nexus 7, a user will be confronted with one aspect that isn't terribly tablet-friendly, at least on this particular device: the home screen is portrait-only. No amount of reorienting the device will shift it to landscape mode. This isn't a fatal flaw, but it is a very annoying factor that you'll be faced with again and again whenever going to the home screen while holding the device in landscape.

Sanjiv: I totally agree. It is just mind-boggling really. Given that Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) got this right, it is really hard to believe that for a supposedly tablet-optimized OS, users are forced to view the homescreen in portrait mode-only. I can't fathom Google's reasoning here.

Kevin: It seems like it might be a sacrifice to ensure smooth operation of other features, perhaps. Android 4.1 implements features like resizable widgets, and landscape mode on the homescreen may be a casualty of making sure those features function smoothly.

Sanjiv: Users can get around this annoyance by installing an alternative launcher. Chief among them is Apex (Free, Google Play), although there a number of other possibilities out there too. So much for the pure Android "Jelly Bean" experience you get with a Nexus 7 though, if you do.

Kevin: And the "pure" experience is quite a pleasant one. Jelly Bean is largely as fast and responsive as Google made it out to be in its debut. Project Butter is the name Google gave to its effort to reduce interface lag, and the results are as smooth as the name implies. The CPU and graphics run in parallel to speed up the interface, which now runs at 60fps. That means screen transitions occur quickly and with very little choppiness.



Sanjiv: Google made huge strides with Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Jelly Bean puts the OS in the same ballpark as iOS and Windows Phone 7 for overall slickness. Graphical enhancements to the UI are slick, making for a polished product that belies its status as an 'open source' project. In the past, Google has added features to its OS at the expense of stability. The same can't be said for Jelly Bean, which is the best Android experience yet and stands on par with iOS and Windows 7 Phone for quality.

Kevin: True, Jelly Bean seems to really solidify Android as a mature operating system. Google Google appears to be putting a real emphasis on smoothness and user experience. Of course, there are some design hiccups here and there. The notification system, for instance, has a somewhat awkward two-fingered gesture that initiates deeper interactivity -- i.e., expanding new emails, etc.

Sanjiv: Standard Google apps included work very well. In particular, the new Google+ app is particularly well-optimized for the tablet experience. Maps, Currents, Gmail, Earth as well as Google Talk all function as well as you could hope for in the tablet context.

Kevin: Maps, in particular, shines on the Nexus 7. The new Google Maps features turn-by-turn navigation and a number of other features that make for a truly eye-opening experience. Compass Mode in Street View is, in itself, almost worth the price of admission, allowing users to physically turn with the device and see whatever would be in front of them in the real world. The navigation mode is also quite useful, and Google circumvents the lack of a cellular connection by allowing users to download maps for offline access and navigation.



Sanjiv: Google have been clever enough to include as pre-installed a Nexus 7 guidebook as an e-book. This is a really handy way of getting to know the functions and features of the OS to help users get things done. It is really worth having a read, so that you can become a Nexus 7 power-user in no time.

Kevin: One of the major features Google showed off when revealing the Nexus 7 and Android 4.1 was Google Now, a sort of continually-learning service that helps users organize their own lives. Google Now remembers the things users search for, where they search for them, and so forth, and it presents that information when the system deems it necessary.

Sanjiv: To access Google Now, simply swipe up from the bottom of the display and it will automatically present you with information relevant to you. This includes the local weather, meetings or other events that you might have scheduled. It's akin to Siri in some ways in that it functions as an assistant. Its voice recognition capabilities are also very good, and provided that you are in a quiet area and you speak clearly, but using regular language, you can ask Google Now for assistance in finding information without too much difficulty. It's a really worthwhile addition.

Kevin: The voice recognition feature built into Android 4.1 really is one of the standout aspects of the operating system. Google has parlayed a massive amount of voice data into a system that can pretty solidly outperform Apple's Siri in many cases. Additionally, the voice dictation feature is available offline, making it all the more useful. Users are restricted, however, and can only use voice commands to search the web, whereas on an Apple device one can search the device itself for files. The voice feature is useful for setting alarms for one day, but it cannot do simple things like create a calendar event. Tell it to make a calendar event for "tomorrow at 5 PM" and the device will set an alarm for today at that time. It's a very frustrating limitation, and one that Google will hopefully find some way to fix in the near future.




Connectivity and battery life:

Kevin: The Nexus 7 doesn't have a cellular connection. So long as a user remains within range of a Wi-Fi signal, this isn't really an issue. Upon moving out of Wi-Fi range, though, the storage limitations on the device become more of a concern. Fortunately, the offline mode for Maps preserves navigation functionality, and the voice recognition features are also largely available offline -- with, of course, the exception of Internet search.

Sanjiv: I've always enjoyed the immediate connectivity of 3G or 4G devices. However, with convenience comes the added expense of an additional data plan. So, it is not a bad thing that the Nexus 7 is not currently available with a cellular connection - it is easy enough to tether the device when on the go, if an Internet connection is required. If you don't have a smartphone, only then does it become an issue.



Kevin: A cellular connection would also likely have the effect of lowering the battery life of the device. As it is, the Nexus 7 gets pretty solid life out its 4,325 mAh battery. On the product page, Google claims up to eight hours of active use, and that's actually been a bit on the low side in my experience. User experience may vary, of course, but one can likely expect a solid 10 hours of use before the battery indicator creeps into the red.

Sanjiv: No complaints with the battery life from me. It's pretty decent with some benchmarks showing over 9 hours of use. As with all mobile devices though, this will vary considerably based on the activities that you are engaged in. You will get maximum life if you set the display brightness lower, and don't engage in too many processor intensive tasks. In that case, you will start to cut in severely on the longevity of use per charge.

Also of note from a connectivity perspective is that the Nexus 7 does not support MHL nor does come equipped with an HDMI port, meaning that you won't be able to connect it directly to a TV to view movies on a larger display.




Final thoughts:

Sanjiv: There are better 7-inch tablets on the market, but not for the money. I previously mentioned the Galaxy Tab 7.7 as an example and if money is no concern, I would seriously recommend users give that device a look. It offers the best ergonomics in the class and a Super AMOLED Plus display. The 7-inch form factor has a lot going for it from an entertainment and consumption perspective, although you couldn't use it as a serious alternative to a notebook when on the go for productivity. A larger tablet paired with a Bluetooth keyboard is a much better proposition in that regard. Overall, though, the both Google and Asus have got the basics right in the key areas for this tablet - although I doubt it will pose a serious threat to the iPad.

Kevin: At that price point, the Nexus 7 is a terrific value for anyone looking for a tablet. The power of the device, combined with its pocket-sized portability, make it a terrific entertainment option; and the stellar voice controls along with Google Docs significantly increase its utility for productivity. It's by no means perfect, but you'll definitely be getting more than what you pay for the device. We could be seeing the emergence of the first real competitor to the iPad, albeit from a thoroughly unexpected angle.

by Kevin Bostic and Sanjiv Sathiah


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