In February 2011, the Motorola Xoom was announced alongside Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) – the first tablet-optimised release of Android – and it subsequently became the first Android 3.0 tablet.
What’s important to note here is that it didn’t carry the Nexus brand. Google was comfortable enough to release Honeycomb to manufacturers, but they didn’t want to put their own brand on hardware that ran Android 3.0. The time wasn’t right.
That time is now over.
The Nexus 7 is the first Nexus-branded tablet. It was co-developed by Google and ASUS and it makes a few bold moves. Too bold, perhaps? For the answer to that, you’ll have to read on!
Design and build quality
At first look, the Nexus 7 has a generally understated design. It’s certainly not one that will jump out at you in a crowd, but there’s a lot of function in the design choices.
On the right side, in portrait orientation, is the power/wake button with the volume rocker below it. On the bottom edge, you’ll find the microUSB port and 3.5mm jack. On the left-bottom edge are four pogo pins, leaving the rest of the left edge and entire top-side empty.
The ports and buttons are made in such a way that you can’t see them when looking at the Nexus 7 from the front and, more importantly, are out of the way, meaning that you won’t be pressing anything at an inopportune time.
We initially found that the buttons were placed a little close to each other, but quickly got used to them as they are fairly easily found and make a nice “click” when pressed.
The back edge is bare except for the speaker at the bottom and the tastefully engraved ASUS logo just above it, and Nexus logo at the top.
The back itself is a dimpled, soft-touch plastic, but it almost feels like leather. It feels fantastically solid, and is both grippy and fingerprint-phobic.
On the front is the 7” screen with an asymmetric border around it and a hard, silver plastic along the edge. At the top is the front-facing camera.
The borders around the screen are interesting. In portrait mode, there’s just enough of a border for your fingers to rest on, while keeping them close for scrolling or page turning. In landscape, there’s ample room for your palms to rest on, which makes for very comfortable gaming.
There are two things missing on the Nexus 7. The first is a rear-facing camera. I can honestly say that it’s not a great loss to me – I’ve never wanted or needed to use my tablet’s camera. The second is a notification light, which is really more of an annoyance rather than a great loss.
The Nexus 7 has a clever design and is well-constructed. It’s something that both ASUS and Google can feel proud of.
Internals and performance
At $200 – $250, what can the Nexus 7 really offer internally? A lot, it turns out.
There’s an NVIDIA Tegra 3 SoC with a quad-core CPU clocked at 1.2GHz, with a special, 1.3GHz, fifth “companion-core”. The latter is used on its own and is intended for less intense operations.
Then there’s 1GB of RAM, and either 8GB or 16GB of on-device storage. Unfortunately, there’s no SD-slot for expandable storage.
WiFi b/g/n and Bluetooth provide connectivity. There’s no 3G variant of the Nexus 7. Some rumours suggest that it’s a way to circumvent carrier-control with software updates, while others suggest that it helps keep the cost down.
The Nexus 7 measures 198.5mm x 120mm x 10.45mm and weighs an almost paltry 340g.
However, it has been said that it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.
Though we couldn’t run our usual benchmark (it appears that AnTuTu is not yet compatible with Android 4.1), we can attest that the Nexus 7 is fast. There were few complaints to be had between the nippy Tegra hardware and the performance enhancements in Android 4.1.
The limited storage and lack of expansion slot, along with the absence of 3G, may be enough to deter some potential buyers. However, the solid performance and low price will help swing the deal back in the Nexus 7’s favour.
Screen and responsiveness
The Nexus 7 gets part of its name from the 7”, 1280×800, back-lit IPS display.
It’s not the biggest tablet screen in terms of both size and resolution, but that doesn’t make it bad. It’s a good screen – great, even.
Its relatively small size and high resolution, means that the Nexus 7 worked great as an e-reader. Good colour reproduction and excellent viewing angles made viewing videos on the Nexus 7 a pleasure.
Crank the brightness up a bit and using it in sunlight becomes possible but, as can be expected, it’s not exactly the most pleasant experience.
We had no issues with the Nexus 7’s responsiveness. Swipes, touches, and presses all registered easily and accurately.
The Nexus 7 may not be able to say that it has the best tablet screen on the market, but it can certainly hold its own.
Audio was good enough and loud enough for a small quiet room. You’d think that breaking out some headphones would fix the loudness problem, but it turns out that those come out awfully soft as well.
We’ve already mentioned that the Nexus 7 doesn’t have a rear-facing camera. In fact, there’s not even a camera application.
However, on the front is a 1.2MP camera for video calling, and it fulfills that role well enough. It also works quite well for the oft derided “Face Unlock” feature.
With regular daily use – watching videos, reading articles and/or books, browsing, and gaming – we managed to get well over 3 days of use out of the Nexus 7. With slightly less use, we would have managed 4.
In our video looping test (looping 720p video at 65% brightness with WiFi on), the Nexus 7 managed to get closer to 11 hours than 10. This easily bests the Motorola Xoom 2’s 8.5 hours and creeps quite close to the iPad’s 13 hours (though the latter was measured with 1080p video).
Along with the Nexus 7 comes a new version of Android: 4.1, codename Jelly Bean. While it doesn’t bring as drastic an overhaul as did 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) before it, it brings some welcome additions.
The homescreen UI on the Nexus 7 is slightly different to other Android tablets (from 3.0 up) – it’s closer to the phone UI.
The lockscreen, homescreen, and launcher are all portrait-only, which is mildly irritating. The homescreen also features the shortcut bar at the bottom, though the total number allowed increases to 6 – 3 on each side of the launcher icon.
Notifications are accessible from the familiar pulldown, though it doesn’t take up the full screen and only slides down about 3/4 of the way. In landscape, the notifications pull down on the left of the screen. Strangely enough, this method seems to work quite well on the 7” form factor, though we did sometimes miss the corner-based navigation that other Android tablets use.
The Android team declared war on lagginess, and with that started “Project Butter”, which uses touch anticipation, triple buffering, extended vsync timing and a fixed frame rate of 60fps to create a fluid and “buttery” smooth UI. Our experience with Android 4.1 on the Nexus 7, as well as the Galaxy Nexus and venerable Nexus S, certainly falls in that category. Hopefully, this continues to be the case.
Notifications are now expandable by a simple 2-finger pulldown gesture, giving you some extra information about whether you need to deal with it now, later, or whether it can just be dismissed. Notifications can also be actionable, meaning that you can share something or reply directly to a message in the notification bar.
Another big announcement was Google Now – a personalised search application that finds things before you’ve asked for anything. It took some time, but Google Now eventually learned to distinguish between work and home. From there, it brought up cards at times that it guessed we would be travelling to either one, which showed a planned route along with some traffic information.
Cards can also show up to give you weather information; for appointments (which may then give you directions if necessary); travelling cards may appear offering to help you translate to the correct language; to convert to the correct currency; or to give you the time back home, though we didn’t get the chance to test the latter two.
Public transport and sports information don’t appear to be active in South Africa yet.
What’s important to note about Google Now is that it’s already showing usefulness and that it promises to get better and even more useful over time. Some may find it slightly creepy to see how much it knows and can guess from that, but it is an opt-in service to begin with, and you can turn it off at any point.
Apps-wise, you’ll find all the usual suspects, though Chrome now takes the place of the generic “Browser” app. Play Movies, Books, and Magazines don’t appear on the Nexus 7 when activated in South Africa, and getting them to do so seems to be a process that would deter most, if not all, average users.
The Nexus 7 offers an excellent tablet at an outrageously competitive price. It’s easily the best Android tablet we’ve used and it clearly shows that the 7” form factor is relevant.
There are, of course, a few things missing (large and/or expandable storage, rear-facing camera etc.), but we think that the low price-point will be enticing enough.
Hopefully, Google and ASUS will bring the Nexus 7 to our shores officially, but until then there are other ways to get your hands on one. If you have the opportunity to get one, we’d certainly recommend it.