Google Nexus 7 review: Still the best small tablet

by khafagates

Design
Aside from its new SIM card slot and slightly heavier weight, the Nexus 7 with HSPA+ is identical in look and feel to the original Wi-Fi-only version. It’s yet another black tablet in a long line of black tablets; however, it does its best to break from the cookie-cutter mold of most slates. Chief among those efforts is a leathery, grippy back texture, similar to what we’ve seen on the Acer Iconia Tab A510, but with both “Nexus” and “Asus” embossed on it. It may not look like much, but this seemingly small bit of design panache makes the tablet one of the most comfortable I’ve ever held.
Then there’s the bezel. Held in portrait mode, the right and left side bezels of the tablet are refreshingly thin, while the top and bottom are thicker than what I usually find on 7-inch tablets. While the thicker bezels can be useful as a place to rest your thumbs while holding the tablet, they are a bit too thick for my taste and make the tablet feel needlessly long.

Google Nexus 7

Amazon Kindle Fire HD

Barnes & Noble Nook HD

Apple iPad Mini

Weight in pounds

0.76

0.86

0.68

0.68

Width in inches (landscape)

7.8

7.7

7.65

7.87

Height in inches

4.7

5.4

5

5.3

Depth in inches

0.4

0.4

0.43

0.28

Side bezel width in inches (landscape)

0.8

0.9

0.3/0.5

Speaking of holding, the Nexus 7 is noticeably lighter than the Kindle Fire HD, but isn’t as wispy as the iPad Mini or Nook HD. It’s the same thickness as the Fire HD and a bit thinner than the Nook HD, but it can’t compete with the iPad Mini’s slightness.
When the Nexus 7 is held in portrait mode and viewed from the front, the 1.2-megapixel front camera sitting in the middle of the top bezel is its lone distinguishable feature. On the right edge toward the top is the power/lock button, closely followed by the volume rocker. Following the right edge down and around to the bottom reveals a headphone jack, with a Micro-USB port in the middle of bottom edge. Right above that, on the back, is a horizontally aligned 2-inch-long speaker slit. The HSPA+ version of the tablet houses a SIM card slot in the middle of the left edge.

Enter the cellular option!

(Credit: Eric Franklin/CNET)

That’s it, though. No memory expansion, no HDMI-out, and no back camera. Their exclusion is likely a cost-saving measure, but this simplified design also serves to make the tablet that much more approachable for the tablet layman.
Android 4.0, the second
If you’ve seen Android 4.1 on the Wi-Fi version of the Nexus 7, visually you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from version 4.2. It has the same controlled, focused feel and is less intimidating to the uninitiated than the typical Android tablet interface. It also feels less constrained than its original implementation.
The now-familiar tray on the bottom of the home screen is by default filled with Google services apps such as Play, Music, Books, YouTube, and Magazines. There’s also a folder housing Chrome as well as Google Maps, Google Plus, Gmail, and other services. Directly in the middle of the tray is the apps button. Swiping up from the home button and across the apps button takes you to Google Now, Google’s predictive personalized helper.

The apps tray now features smaller icons than before.

(Credit: Eric Franklin/CNET)

Google Now uses voice recognition to field queries and displays information such as the current weather, local bus schedules, and nearby restaurants you may be interested in. The thought is that Google Now will give you information when you need it. If it’s 5 p.m. and you’re about to leave work, it will conceivably update you with traffic information without you having to fetch it. The information would just appear in Google Now at the right time. I’ve spent a few weeks using Google Now and while I can appreciate its value, since I walk to work, don’t travel much, and am not really into sports, its usefulness to me is very limited.
The new new
There are quite a few new features in Android 4.2; some interesting and useful, others just kind of cool. First, the Gesture Type feature is Google’s native OS answer to Swype. I’m not a Swype user, but I was impressed by Gesture Type’s ability to accurately interpret my finger sliding and determine, for the most part, what I wanted to type. It did, however, have trouble with the word “badass,” which is kind of unacceptable to me.
Tablet settings can now be accessed much more quickly. Simply swipe down from the top-right corner to reveal a tray of shortcuts, including brightness, Wi-Fi settings, general settings, battery life, airplane mode, and so on.

That smooth textured back kind of makes the Nexus 7’s design.

(Credit: Eric Franklin/CNET)

Magnification attempts to take advantage of the screen’s 1,280×800-pixel resolution. After enabling in settings, if you tap the screen three times in quick succession, assets on the screen will magnify in the section where you tapped. This is different from zooming, which scales images and text and applies anti-aliasing to smooth things out. Magnify simply makes things bigger. It’s a nice feature for those with poor eyesight, but I was disappointed by the lack of anti-aliasing.
Daydreams is essentially an interactive screensaver that plays when the tablet is asleep and charging. You can choose to display a clock, colors, jelly beans, or, my favorite implementation, Google Currents. Stories from your feed will slowly scroll across the screen, and tapping any of them opens the story in the Currents app.
Gmail gets a new design and a new, awesome feature. Awesome to me, at least. When viewing your inbox, you can now swipe messages away to archive them. As a person who gets a lot of spam in his inbox, this well-implemented addition is one of those details that seems small on paper, but makes a huge difference to your experience.

Thanks to its comfortable design and sharp screen, the Nexus 7 is one of the best e-readers out there.

(Credit: Eric Franklin/CNET)

Multi screen
Multi Screen implements users accounts in Android 4.2. Simply add a new user from the Settings>Users menu and follow the steps to setup an additional user account. New user accounts and all content on those accounts can be deleted by the tablet owner (the primary account) at any time. Also, any other user accounts on the tablet can accept updated app permissions on behalf of the additional account.
To switch to a new user you’re required to enter the lock screen, select the user icon and then unlock the tablet. This is a less elegant solution than the Nook HD’s implementation of profiles which allows you to simply tap the user account at the top of the screen, select your new user, and watch your content change to the new user’s content before your eyes.
Also, the Nook HD lets you to set up multiple child and adult profiles, allowing parents to have more than one administrative account. As far as I can tell, only one administrative account per tablet is allowed in Android 4.2.
Lock screen
“More information on lock screens!” is what Android fans have demanded for years. Actually, I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what Google is delivering anyway. Now you can add multiple email inboxes, calendars, and clocks to the lock screen. You can also add a widget called “What’s this song?”, which is a song identifier added to Android in 4.0, now quickly available on your lock screen.
The widget will listen to a song (either playing on the device or from another device and within seconds identify said song and conveniently provide you with a link to the Google Play store to purchase it. I can see this being useful at times, but it’s definitely a weird choice for the lock screen.
Play’s better, but…
Over the last several months, the Google Play store has improved by leaps and bounds in not only the quantity of its offerings, but also their relative quality. However, compared with Apple’s App Store, Play is still lacking in apps that take particular advantage of the increased processing power, higher resolution, and wide aspect ratio of tablets. Also, aside from the most popular apps (like Angry Birds), Android releases of some of the best apps can lag months or more behind their iPad counterparts and are often of lower quality. Google is attempting to rectify this, but I’d love to see it happen faster.
Hardware features
The Nexus 7 houses a 1.3GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and 1GB of RAM. It also has 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi support, Bluetooth, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, GPS, and support for Google’s NFC-based technology, Android Beam.

Hands-on with the Nexus 7 (pictures)

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With Android Beam you can send Web pages, maps, and files, but not apps, to a compatible Android device. To work, the two devices have to touch back-to-back, and in the case of the Nexus 7, the device must touch the upper-right corner of the other tablet’s back to work. And work it does. Web pages or maps travel quickly; pictures and larger files obviously take a bit more time to copy over.

Offerings in the Google Play store have vastly improved since this time last year.

(Credit: Eric Franklin/CNET)

Performance
The Nexus 7 sports a 1,280×800-pixel-resolution IPS screen; however, since its original release, two new 7-inch tablets with more impressive screens have launched. The Nexus 7’s screen is still sharp and bright, but the Kindle Fire HD delivers a glossier, more vibrant screen with colors that pop much more dramatically. The Nook HD has an even higher resolution, delivering even sharper text and video. The Nexus 7, though, outclasses the iPad Mini’s screen’s 1,024×768-pixel resolution and delivers sharper text and images than Apple’s 7.9-inch tablet.

Tested spec

Google Nexus 7

Amazon Kindle Fire HD

Barnes & Noble Nook HD

Maximum brightness

288 cd/m2

394 cd/m2

455 cd/m2

Maximum black level

0.28 cd/m2

0.41 cd/m2

0.53 cd/m2

Maximum contrast ratio

1,028:1

960:1

858:1

The Nexus 7’s screen is responsive to touch and swipe, but possibly could use just a bit more sensitivity calibration, as some of my swipes would only half take. Navigating through menus is still smooth and swift, bringing very little of the navigational wonkiness that most Android tablets inherit.
Riptide GP ran smoothly, and, of course, it includes the Tegra 3 water-splash effects; however, the frame rate does drop when the resolution is cranked to max.
This speaks to my feeling that the 1.3GHz version of the Tegra 3 processor is beginning to show its age. I looked at two recent graphics-intensive games from Gameloft, N.O.V.A. 3 and Asphalt 7, and saw fair to poor performance on the Nexus 7 at times. While Asphalt 7’s frame rate is lower here than on other Tegra 3 tablets, it’s still very playable. The Nexus 7 has trouble keeping up with N.O.V.A. 3’s heavily dense polygonal environments, however, and as a result runs at a very low, sometimes unplayable framerate. On the other hand, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, another recent, graphically impressive game, played much more smoothly. Hopefully Gameloft will update its games with optimizations that deliver improved frame rates soon.

Yeah, I know, screenshots are terrible at representing low frame rates, but trust me, playing this sequence in N.O.V.A. 3 was like watching a slideshow.

(Credit: Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET)

That said, Tegra 3 has video chops. I got a 1080p movie to play on the tablet, and it looked great, especially with the screen’s high pixel density.
Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.

Video battery life (in hours)

Google Nexus 7 (Wi-Fi only)

10.3

Google Nexus 7 (3G)

9

HSPA+ speeds
For $299, the Nexus 7 is available with 32GB of storage and an HSPA+ connection. You can choose either a prepaid or postpaid AT&T DataConnect plan with no long-term contract. The tablet is also compatible with AT&T’s Share Plans, which let you share usage across devices.

Android 4.2 includes a new feature that allows you to swipe through similar music as songs stream to your device.

(Credit: Screenshot: Eric Franklin/CNET)

HSPA+ is like an “uber 3G” or “4G light,” and the technology’s performance on the Nexus 7 reflects that. While 4G LTE devices are known to rival Wi-Fi networks in speed, downloading a 272MB app on the Nexus 7 using HSPA+ with full bars took about twice as long (4.7 minutes versus 2.5 minutes) as it did with the Nexus 7 connected to a secure Wi-Fi network. Also, download performance seemed to be particularly location-dependent. From about 100 feet away, again with full bars, the Nexus 7 using HSPA+ took over 11 minutes to complete the download. Your performance of course will vary, depending on location.
For some, simply the inclusion of a cellular connection will be worth the extra $50. Speaking of which, paying an extra $50 (over the $249 Wi-Fi version) is a much better deal than the $130 more Apple and Amazon charge for 4G LTE versions of the iPad Mini and Kindle Fire HD 8.9, receptively. Make no mistake, 4G is demonstrably faster than HSPA+, but whether it’s worth the extra cash some companies are charging is up to you to determine.
Conclusion
Thanks to some of the new features in Android 4.2, the Nexus 7 gets mostly better with age, but should you buy it? While that decision will depend on what your needs are, the Nexus 7 is still the overall best small tablet.
The Kindle Fire HD has a better screen and excels as a pure media consumption device, especially if you’re an Amazon Prime member. The Nook HD’s higher-resolution screen delivers sharper movies and books, and its thin, grippy design makes it a joy to hold.
The Nexus 7 delivers with a low price, a comfortable design, and its trump card: the latest and greatest version of Android. Android 4.2 seamlessly builds on version 4.1 with useful features like multiuser, lock screen customization, and Gesture Type. It’s also a complete and open Android experience, and unlike the Fire HD and Nook HD, the Nexus 7 features a full, uncurated apps store.
But, what about the iPad Mini? Would it sound like a cop-out if I say it’s a toss-up? Probably, but there’s no escaping that these are two of the best small tablets yet produced, though again, it will depend on your needs. The Nexus 7 represents the best that Android has to offer at a very attractive price. The iPad Mini is more expensive, but offers a larger if lower-resolution screen, better apps support, faster performance, and longer battery life. Both are excellent tablets. The iPad is overall the better performer, but the Nexus 7 edges past it in value. And given that it’s a better value, the Nexus 7 wins the crown as the current best small tablet.

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