Google is making great headway in winning the smartphone wars with its Android operating system for smartphones (excluding the odd lawsuit), but the Android OS has had no luck in the tablet sphere.
Here Apple remains in absolute control, with over 60% market share worldwide (higher in the UK), and repeated contenders, such as RIM and Google's OEM partners, have been repeatedly humiliated. Has Google, developing and designing its own device in partnership with Asus, finally managed to penetrate Apple's iPad fortress?
Android Jellybean is a pleasure to use
The Nexus 7 (N7) is clearly focused on the only hole in the tablet market - the 7-inch form factor. The fact that it has done this with an impressive sub £200 price point ought to give rivals cause for concern.
In the UK we have limited experience with any top quality 7-inchers, outside of Samsung's original Galaxy Tab 7. The US has had Barnes and Nobles' Nook and the extremely popular Amazon Kindle Fire, which Amazon says accounts for 22% of the entire tablet market. Neither launched here due to content licensing issues, so the N7 comes as the first serious piece of kit in this form factor.
The Nexus 7 isn't anything exceptional to look at. From the front it appears much as its tablet rivals do - a minimalist single sheet of Corning Gorilla Glass with a camera top centre. It has no physical buttons on its face.
While the iPad's brushed metal backing is often swooned over, it remains dangerously slippery and requires a case. The Nexus 7 ameliorates this problem somewhat by having a tough plasticky/rubber back, with a pin cushioned texture for grip. While this is a significant improvement on the iPad 3, I still found it dangerously slippery and - unintentional clumsiness aside - found that it required almost as much care as Apple's to be handled safely without flying out of one's hand when pulling it out of a jacket pocket, for example.
Despite the useful grip, it remains slippery.
Which is sad, because the device is being positioned as a more rough and ready, 'on the move' device, running against Apple's high-design/fragility trade off. The N7's plastic back does make it far more durable, and it is basically un-scratchable. I would still want a case, however.
Another minor annoyance is the button positioning. Stacking the power and volume buttons all down the same side (the top right) doesn't work. As mentioned earlier, there is no physical 'home' button on the front screen as you get on Apple and Microsoft's tablets (and most smartphones). Users are reliant on a fumble-friendly and near flush power button (which sits too close to the volume rocker) as the only way to wake the device. Again, this runs counterintuitive to its 'quick draw' from your pocket design. It seems minor, but after weeks of usage this has become a key gripe for me. My smartphones and other tablets can be flicked on without looking - the N7 always involves that initial 2 seconds of fumbling to turn on.
The Nexus 7 sits nicely in the hand
The Nexus is a pleasure to hold weight-wise (380g - par for the course for this form factor), and can easily be held in one hand for extended periods similar to a smartphone. Its size means it is a bit fiddly to stand up without a case (say for watching movies in bed), but for second screen web browsing, light tasks and e-reading, it is a nice, light and most importantly, thin package.
A major budget trade off on the N7 is the lack of rear facing 'main' camera. This will disappoint only those oddballs that feel its appropriate to wave giant tablets around at events taking second rate images. I doubt this will bother too many pragmatic users, although it is nice to have the option in a business meeting of taking quick snaps and compiling them with other notes. As an SLR/smartphone user I see little use for high res cameras on tablets, so this isn't missed really.
What is left is a pretty poor quality, 1.2MP front facing camera. It takes noisy, waxy, bleedy images that are barely good enough for a Facebook wall. Useful perhaps for a Skype chat, but little else. Google boasts that it will film in 720P, but other than those that video blog I doubt this would get much use - it is cell phone quality poor.
There are no SD card slots or SIM card slots (the N7 is Wi-Fi only) - the omission of an SD card slot is a huge blow as the N7 only comes in 8GB (useless) and 16GB configurations - this leaves limited room for music, video, magazine and app storage - I would've liked to have seen 32GB and 64GB options. It also has no HDMI/video out, but again, this is a minor omission for a budget tablet.
However, not having even a mini-SD card slot for the N7 hurts - most other Android tablets do nowadays, and this is one of the key advantages over Apple devices, which need to be jail-broken to obtain the same functionality. I feel this is a missed opportunity here.
The USB/Charger and headphone jacks are at the bottom of the Nexus. The headphone jack positioning, as banal as it may sound, is important for use of the device when it's charging - this is one of the iPad's most annoying traits - having a power cable going in one end and the headphones the other which means the device cannot be held in landscape. Annoyingly, the micro-USB connector on the N7 also wobbles around like an old woman's knitting, and doesn't appear particularly strong and secure - another cheap spot on an otherwise solid frame.
The 7-inch screen size is bound to court diversifying opinions - while much of the tech media seems to love this size, I don't. While it is fine for reading web pages, playing games and watching films (the 16:9 screen ratio helps here too), it is too close to a smartphone size.
Obviously Apple itself disagrees, and is releasing a 7-inch iPad to combat this market, but I think it is mostly pointless. The other staff in the CBR office agree. It feels like the Nexus 7's fantastic screen, which sports a lovely, bright palette at 1280 x 800 pixels, would be better suited to a 10-inch screen. Perhaps it is unfair to expect so much from what is a budget positioned device, but I found PDFs (especially those involving a text-image mix) to be tough too tough to read - requiring constant zooming and reframing. It doesn't help that they don't appear to render terribly well on the N7. Most websites are also fine, but again, similar to viewing them on a smartphone - you need to zoom in to read.
Smartphone-style typing is much easier than on 10-inch devices
One key advantage of the 7-inch size is typing - again, it hearkens back to the semi-smartphone sizing, but holding the Nexus in both hands and banging out Tweets, messages and even short emails was vastly superior to any iPad - which is simply too large in portrait or landscape size.
Interestingly the reader functionality, through Google Books, was excellent, but magazines and other publications still look much better on the iPad's screen - which, coincidentally, is more the size of a magazine. You get a single view of a page, rather than zooming, scrolling and pinching continuously.
Games in particular look brilliant on the N7, with rich colours and an impeccable refresh rate, which is suspect is what the device is being aimed at (see performance below).
Despite the N7's e-reader credentials, it unfortunately isn't much use outside on a bright day. The screen is very, very reflective - much more so than rival devices. I often had to crank brightness to full to make the screen clearly visible, it even suffers under indoor flurorescent lights. This is definitely not going to replace an e-ink device for reading in the garden.
The highly reflective screen does cause problems - this was taken indoors
To be fair, this remains the best screen of all the Android tablet and phone-tablet devices so far, directly comparable to a high end smartphone (such as the Samsung Galaxy S3) it just falls over when compared to the 2048x1536 resolution of the iPad 3. Readers may argue that the iPad 3 is a premium device positioned at a different market segment, and fair enough. I still believe the extra resolution is needed for tablets to have an advantage over e-readers (for e-book reading), laptops (for any productivity tasks, especially visual media such as photos) and phones (which does everything a 7-inch tablet does anyhow).
The Nexus 7 runs a screaming fast 'system on a chip' Nvidia Tegra 3 Quad Core 1.3GHz Cortex A9 processor, and 1GB of RAM. It also sports a whopping 12-core GPU. That makes it pretty much the fastest tablet on the market, premium, budget or otherwise, and it shows.
I would even go so far as to wonder if this is overkill - I struggled to find any apps that could do it justice.
When comparing games side by side with an iPad 3, every time it loaded the app faster, sometimes significantly so. However, the main problem here is the lack of Android tablet centric games and software with which to test - the real high-end Apple beasts, such as Infinity Blade 2 and the like, aren't available on the Google Play store. A lot of the cross-platform titles that are available on Android appear to be up-scaled mobile versions, rather than natively developed for the tablets.
Asphalt 7 and Modern Combat 3 both ran flawlessly, at least as well as iPad rivals. It will be really interesting to see what sort of dedicated Android software the developer community comes up with over the course of this year to utilise all this power.
Productivity apps such as Quickoffice Pro and Photoshop rendered and loaded quicker than the iPad 3 on the N7. Drawing and sketching apps, such as Sketchbook Pro also rendered quicker, although the touch screen was sometimes less accurate than Apple's.
The Nexus 7's colour reproduction with movies and pictures is excellent
Movies all run flawlessly in HD, with no lags in loading, stuttering or any other errors. Colour reproduction is lovely, although blacks show a lack of contrast, making for occasional graininess and splotchiness in darker films, such as The Dark Knight.
One large performance anomaly was with PDFs - testing several from 1.8MB to 15MB, the N7 struggled to keep up with the iPad 3 - it rendered poorly for a start, and then was very slow to re-render when scrolling, pinch zooming and reframing. So perhaps some optimisation work needs to be done here.
The key update for the Nexus 7 was is Android 4.1 Jellybean - a slight tinkering of 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). Google made much of its 'Project Butter' optimisation, which was essentially tinkering with triple buffering and v-sync optimisation, to ensure the UI has smooth transitions, zooms and scrolling, eliminating lag, and ensuring it continually runs at 60FPS. It is a success. This is a nice tweak that helps the OS feel far more smoother and professional, a more cohesive experience as a whole that matches anything Apple has produced. Flicking through videos, multi-tasking and app loading all occurs without a hitch, flicking through pages of books, Flipboard and other visual media is flawless.
One bugbear I have with Jellybean is that the homepage remains un-rotatable - media, webpages, apps, and even the sub-menus rotate according to the way the device is held by the user, but not the front page - very annoying for those that use landscape a lot or have the device upside down (for the aforementioned headphone/USB charging combo in bed, for example).
The home page doesnt rotate
Despite the power on show, the N7's battery life matches the market leaders, and stretches past the 10 hours advertised with general web browsing and light app usage. Like other tablets, HD video viewing got around 6-8 hours (Google claims 9), while 3D gaming dropped to about 3-5 hours. Most importantly, it does this without generating too much heat - another key Apple annoyance. The N7 doesn't require an all-nighter to charge - it quite happily charged from USB over the course of a work day, and even quicker from a wall plug.
The sound quality coming out of the device is tinny, par for the course with most other tablets. Most users will use headphones I suspect, but the sound quality is good enough for group viewing.
The Nexus 7 has GPS built in and NFC (near field communications), so will be enabled for the mobile payment future, with the included Google Wallet. Given its limited implementation in the UK, Wallet wasn't tested. NFC can also be used with Android Beam to transfer files and photos.
Google Maps remains an absolute pleasure to use on Android
The GPS however is a welcome addition since 3G is missing, and means the Nexus can be used as a decent mapping device, even offline. Google Maps remains vastly superior to any alternatives, including Apple's half-baked implementation. Use of restaurant finder apps such as Yelp was an absolute pleasure.
Google has also integrated the system well with its cloud offerings, such as Google Drive, Gmail and Google Docs, all of which work perfectly.
The included Google Currents mashes together various news sources into your individual magazine, but is still streets away from the market leader, Flipboard.
Google has also included Google Now, its version of Apple's Siri, a voice based assistant. While personally I find Siri to be the biggest load of rubbish since Microsoft BOB, most of the other hardware vendors seem to think this is the future. Fortunate then that Google's implementation is a bit more useful (if still a gimmick), operating more as a form of widget - giving you updates on traffic, weather, appointments and translating languages. Annoying then that it pops up with its 'suggestions' pre-emptively - which made me feel like my device was spying on me. It will apparently learn from you over time, but I just found it to be an annoyance.
Most users will simply install a weather or travel app as a Google widget, and use Calendar for appointments.
We need a bit more top shelf content than Rihanna's latest film
UK users also get the short end of the stick content wise, US purchasers got vouchers for the Google Play store and a free copy of a film (from a selection) - this would've been welcomed as an added £15 (or so) bonus for UK users.
It's hard not to recommend what is a phenomenal piece of hardware. This is a very powerful device for the price yet retains industry standard 10 hour battery life. It's body and design doesn't feel as cheap as the price dictates, and is supported by a very nice (if too reflective) screen.
Much like Google itself, it's unflashy and functional, and gets the job done.
Many of the corners cut by Google to bring it under the £200 price point are entirely forgivable. However, the storage isn't one of them - 8GB and 16GB are simply too small for consumption devices. An ASUS rep told CBR that the 16GB version is selling out everywhere worldwide - the 8GB isn't. 8GB will hold your apps and maybe a bit of text, but no HD films, music, photos or hi-res PDFs. I have to wonder why Google bothered, other than to lock consumers into its cloud standards.
The 16GB version is just enough - but it still means plenty of file juggling, and/or movie/music streaming for users. For anyone on a long haul flight, it's just not worth it. This device needs the Cloud, and that requires constant Wi-Fi since there are no 3G/4G options. To make matters worse, the Google Play store is still weak on movies and music, you will be relying on LoveFilm and Netflix. This could've been solved easily in the same manner as the other Android tablets - an SD card slot.
While this problem is also a huge failing of the iPad, that is jail breakable and users can attach SD cards through the camera kit to upgrade storage - Google will be relying on this same hacker community to do something similar through its own USB port. This could've been a real user friendly winner of a feature for Google, and wouldn't have added much to the price.
Is a 7-inch tablet really big enough to be useful?
The 7-inch form factor is also a problem. I certainly hope Google brings out a more upscale version of the Nexus - a 10-incher with a 32GB hard drive, a 1080P screen and an SD card reader (perhaps even 3G/4G support) - would easily take my £300. There are other users like me I suspect.
It is up to you reader - form over function. I am aware that there will be those that disagree vehemently, but 7-inches quite simply isn't useful for production. It makes the Nexus a strictly casual consumption device. Yes, you can Bluetooth connect a keyboard for word processing, but the screen is too small. Same for PDF viewing, photo editing and even stylus sketching.
This problem is exacerbated somewhat by the lack of tablet specific apps available - most are simply up-scaled smartphone versions, and these don't do the N7's power, screen and capabilities justice. It has improved markedly since launch, but still remains a sore point.
All these criticisms aside, it isn't entirely fair to compare this to the iPad 3 in terms of build quality, specs and software its a budget device. For half the price of an iPad it is easily the best device available outside Apple's eco-system. Much of the devices' long term success will come down to the Google Play store's apps. Quite simply, there aren't enough tablet centric apps there.
While boffins, IT specialists and hackers may love it, this may put off more mainstream users who want a simple experience. Apple wins here hands down. This may also be of concern if the Windows 8 launch goes off without a hitch - Android may find itself piggy in the middle - unable to attract the power users (who want Windows) and the creatives/casuals who want Apple.
For pure performance however, the N7 is an absolute no brainer. Yes it is flawed, but nothing else compares to this power at this price point. It is an absolute bargain that could've sold for at least £50 more.