Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Nexus 7 - Google's 7 inch Android Tablet

On my last trip to Europe, I picked up a new Google/Asus Nexus 7 tablet at the airport. If you don't know what that is, it is a 7 inch Android tablet, made by the Taiwanese manufacturer Asus, with the latest version of Android from Google, 4.1 Jelly Bean. The "Nexus" branding means that it runs "pure" Android as Google intended it - that means no manufacturer skins or overlays, no carrier-installed bloatware, and always the first to receive the latest software updates directly from Google without any third parties in between - in software terms, then, the closest thing in the Android world to an iOS device.
*at the time of purchase, the tablet wasn't available in Japan, so I thought I had pulled off a bit of a coup, but as luck would have it, while I was away, the device was also released in Japan, at a slightly cheaper price!

Hardware


The first thing to talk about with the hardware is the size. 7 inches. I saw an iPad owner on Twitter today commenting that he thought 7 inches would be too small. I say it's the perfect blend of portability and viewability. It is small and light enough that I can hold it in one hand when browsing Flipboard, for example, but large enough that Web pages and text are clear and easily readable. IPad users will want to note that pretty much every other tablet in the world, including the Nexus 7, have a 16:10 aspect ratio, not 4:3, and as such lend themselves more to be held in portrait orientation rather than landscape. Much like a Kindle, it's about the same shape and size as a paperback book. Of course, for watching movies or YouTube content, you can flip it on its side and get proper wide screen content without letterboxing.

That brings me nicely to the screen. The screen is a 1280x800, 216ppi IPS panel. This means you have HD on a 7 inch device, and while the pixel density does not quite qualify as "retina", it comes pretty damn close. Text is sharp and crisp, and movies and photos look fantastic. Being IPS, colours are not as warm and saturated as AMOLED displays, so those coming from Samsung devices may find it a little washed-out, but they are probably more true to life. Whites are certainly plenty white enough, and blacks are deep and rich.

Build quality is otherwise solid; the back is textured plastic, but it gives you a decent grip without feeling cheap. There is one adequate but not stunning speaker on the back, and the tablet is heavy enough to feel solid in the hand while still being light enough to use for extended periods of time. I haven't yet had the opportunity to really push the battery yet, but using the tablet in the morning before work and most of the evening after coming home leaves me with plenty of battery in reserve. There are no hardware buttons, other than a small volume rocker and power button on the side; OS functional buttons appear automatically on screen at all times except when in full screen apps like video or games.

There is a front-facing camera for Skype etc, NFC connectivity so that you can "beam" files directly to other Android devices, and Bluetooth to talk to your car stereo, headphones, or portable keyboard.

The one drawback for some may be that at the moment, the tablet is only available in a wifi version. There are rumours of a 3G version, but at the moment, they are just that, rumours. I'm primarily using mine at home, in the office, and in hotels while travelling. Outside I have had to be a little more creative, finding free hot spots in airports or cafes where possible, or using the Wifi Hot spot mode on my phone if I am stuck and really desperate to use the tablet. In general, though, this device is seeing a lot of use for reading/gaming/blogging/viewing on the sofa or lying in bed, simply as a more comfortable alternative to the phone. Using 3G on the move in Japan is not a great experience anyway, and to be avoided if possible in my opinion.

The tablet also comes with "only" 16GB of storage on board, and no way to expand it. However, as it is a wifi only device, most of the time you will have access to cloud or streaming services, so it shouldn't be a problem. For my 12 hour flight from Europe back to Japan, I loaded 3 movies onto it with space to spare; you will run out of battery before you run out of storage.

Software


The tablet runs the latest version of Android, Jelly Bean, and this is simply a fantastic OS. Google have really got their act together with this one, and the stock apps work really well on the tablet. The larger size of the screen is used nicely with split-screen views for the stock email client and the Gmail app, giving you your folder list on the left and mails themselves on the right.


The launcher allows up to 6 apps to be placed in the dock at the bottom for easy access, and to simplify placing of widgets and shortcuts on your home screens, icons now move out of the way if you give them a little shove with whatever you want to put in their place. Widgets from Google, notably the calendar widget and email widgets, are now fully resizeable, so you can shrink or stretch them as you like to reveal more content. This is great if you have a full schedule or lots of mails that you want to keep track of without having to continually open the app.


A big addition in Jelly Bean is Google Now. I plan to write more fully about this, but in short, Google Now is intelligent information, based on your location, search history, and calendar. I found it really useful on my travels, with it providing me with reminders accessible from the notification bar at all times of: the time back home in Japan, the exchange rate for the country I was in at the time; journey time in current traffic to places I had searched; and reminders and travel times of upcoming appointments. I find it less useful at home, where it is mostly "reminding" me about the weather, but it does at least give me a reminder whenever a Tottenham game is coming up, and tell me the time it will be on in Japan.


One thing that Android fanbois used to crow about when scraping the bottom of the barrel for advantages over iOS back in the day was support for Flash. That, however, is no more, as Flash is not compatible with Jelly Bean. That's why decision on Adobe's part, as they have decided to cease development of mobile Flash, so just like our Apple friends, we will have to learn to live with it.

Price


The Nexus 7 is available online directly from Google through the Google Play Store, which you can access from any browser (not just from Android. In fact, if you access from Android, you can't buy hardware). The Japanese retail price is 19,800 yen, and this is perhaps the most appealing thing. You can buy it pretty much as an impulse purchase and it won't make a serious dent in your wallet. It may just change the way you consume content and use your phone though.

*until October 30th (activation), you also get a free 2,000 yen credit for the Play Store to spend on apps, books, or movies. Definitely worth doing to get some premium apps or tablet-specific versions. And don't forget, you can install your purchased apps on all of your devices, not just the one you bought them on.

Overall rating: 4.5 out of 5 A fantastic little machine, only really let down when you are stuck without a wifi connection.




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