While 2012 has been the year that the best Android smartphones have matched and in many ways overtaken Apple’s iPhone – in terms of performance and popularity – the tablet market remains dominated by the Apple iPad. Google wants to change this.
The Nexus 7 follows on from a Galaxy Nexus branded smartphone, built in conjunction with Samsung, and looks set to be joined by the Nexus Q, a media streamer, and Google Fiber, an internet service being trialled in the US, as Google looks to turn the Nexus brand into a wider portfolio of products.
Comparisons with the Apple iPad come easily but, for two key reasons, this isn’t really a like-for-like comparison. Firstly, the screen size. The Nexus 7, as the name alludes, has a 7in screen, noticeably smaller than the 9.7in iPad screen or Android rivals, such as the Asus Transformer Prime, which have sported 10.1in screens.
Secondly, the price: at £159 for this 8GB version, or £199 for the 16GB model, it’s at least half the price of the aforementioned competition.
A smaller tablet with a smaller price tag has been done before – the Blackberry PlayBook, the Motorola Xoom Media Edition – but with mixed results due to inadequate software or performance. The Nexus 7, built in conjunction with Asus and with the full backing of the Google brand, surely shouldn’t have these issues.
Google Nexus 7: Tech specs
It’s certainly strong on paper. A 7in 1280 x 800 HD screen is backed-up by the very latest version of Android’s OS, Android 4.1 aka Jelly Bean.
Debuting on the Nexus 7 but set to slowly roll out to a selection of other Android devices, it promises to be a a “buttery” smooth upgrade. One thing’s for sure, in the sometimes scattergun world of Android updates, we’d count on the Nexus range of products being kept at the forefront where any updates are concerned.
You have the option of 8 or 16GB storage (the latter is £199) – choose carefully, as there’s no provision for adding an SD card for more space.
And while there’s Bluetooth, NFC (Near Field Communication) and wi-fi on board and a front-facing 1.2MP video camera, there’s no rear-facing camera –so if you’re buying a tablet to take pictures, well, this isn’t for you. What's more, while the camera here is quick to respond, it doesn’t take particularly impressive images.
The battery, which isn’t replaceable, claims nine hours of HD video playback, 10 hours of internet browsing and 300 hours of standby time.
Google Nexus 7: Build and design
The tablet has been built with the help of Asus, responsible for one of the best Android tablets around, the Transformer Prime. As a result, the build quality is high: it doesn’t feel remotely cheap, despite being slim and very light, the textured rubber rear casing feels good and it’s machined to feel durable and solid.
There’s no home key – touch sensitive controls only on the front – so the only buttons are volume controls and the power/display on/off button on the top right-hand side of the device. Tucking those away keeps the profile clean but they’re a little fiddly to find without turning the device around and having a good look. Practice makes perfect.
That said, the Nexus 7’s easy to hold one-handed whether reading or watching video and makes a full-sized tablet seem big and heavy by comparison – at 340g it’s close to half the weight of the new iPad.
Google Nexus 7: Interface
As mentioned, the Nexus 7 sees the debut of the latest incarnation of the Android operating system (OS), Android 4.1 'Jelly Bean'. It’s a subtle upgrade to Android 4.0, as found on most flagship smartphones, and will be familiar to any previous users.
Moving around the apps and interface in general is slicker than ever, the Nexus 7’s quad-core Tegra 3 processor making for a fast and fluid experience. Customisable screens, Android’s familiar widgets and live apps and wallpapers mean you can make the five tablet home screens as informative, exciting or simple as you like.
Small tweaks aside, the biggest new feature is Google Now. This is an improved search platform, within which you can use text or voice search to deliver normal search results alongside ‘cards’ of content tailored to your previous usage or location.
A personalised search companion, then, that marries voice input and Google’s famous search bar. It’s accessible via various points on the tablet and while we found it a little slow to respond at times, the potential is there: one to watch.
Google Nexus 7: Apps and internet
The usual plethora of Android apps is available from the Google Play market, alongside books and games to buy, and films to rent (including HD content).
Although the overall selection is now pretty thorough, there are still gaps and more pertinently for the Nexus 7, a lack of optimised apps for the tablet experience. While apps from Sonos and Spotify are here, there’s no BBC iPlayer for the Nexus 7, nor control apps from the likes of Naim.
On the subject of iPlayer, there’s also no support on the Nexus 7 for Flash, which means you can’t view the web version of the BBC site. The lack of Flash support applies to all Android devices from Android 4.0 onwards, not just this one, and while we expect most sites to slowly move away from using Flash, for now it may be an issue. (Of course, Apple devices have never natively supported Flash.)
There are fixes around but we would expect a neater solution or an iPlayer app to appear in time.
When it comes to browsing the internet, it’s no surprise that Google supplies the Chrome app bundled as standard. This is Google’s own browser and it makes a compelling proposition, bringing with it some neat features such as syncing bookmarks and viewing history across devices and even allowing you to pick up one one device a set of web pages you left on another device.
Whatever browser you choose, moving around is fast and fluid, it’s easy to zoom in on text and web pages format intelligently. The screen is bright and clear and while it isn’t as pixel-packed as some rivals, nor quite as sharp around edges, we have no complaints when it comes to viewing text or pictures.
A zoom function, that gives you the choice between two links if it’s not sure where your finger has prodded, comes in handy, too.
Google Nexus 7: Video performance
The smaller screen size gives the Nexus 7 a natural advantage when it comes to producing sharp and colourful video content. Streaming HD video from YouTube it’s impressive: black levels are pretty solid, colours have a natural balance and there’s good detail. There’s not quite the punch and colour of the best displays but we’re perfectly happy with how it performs.
Of course with Android devices such as this it’s easy to drag and drop your own content or you can buy a rent a decent selection from Google Play. Dragging content across is far more flexible than Apple’s iTunes closed shop, but some may find the mess of folders less user-friendly than Apple’s neat windows of content.
And this 8GB version, with no SD card slot, doesn’t give much room to play with. That said, the rise of streaming services means this may well not be an issue for many people.
Google Nexus 7: Sound quality
It’s a similar story with audio. File compatibility is solid, with MP3, FLAC and WAV files supported, and music sounds good. In terms of design and layout standard music player is OK but of course there are plenty of other apps you can try instead.
We use a pair of reference Grado 325is headphones and find a sound that’s exciting and detailed. Hans Zimmer scores sound dynamic and powerful, The XX shows the tablet capable of an open, subtle delivery, while George Fitzgerald’s track Child is fast and rhythmical.
The usual selection of music streaming apps are here and we’re happy enough listening to Spotify’s 320kbps files. The position of the volume control on the side of the Nexus 7 is a little fiddly, but otherwise we find the audio experience on this tablet a good one.
The USP of Asus’ own Transformer Prime tablet was the keyboard-cum-battery with which you could double the tablet’s life. The Nexus 7 isn’t as flexible, with a sealed battery meaning you can’t upgrade the battery. We didn’t find battery life a problem, however. Around eight hours of general use is promised and that seemed to be fairly accurate. And, unlike certain power-hungry tablet rivals, it’s no slouch to charge.
Google Nexus 7: Verdict
Android tablets have so far struggled to make a dent in the iPad’s popularity. Google’s Nexus 7 changes that. The smaller size is interesting but it’s the smaller price tag that will ultimately make the most difference. £159 is an incredibly competitive price tag, which together with the Google brand name is sure to turn heads.
Thankfully, there’s nothing cheap about the design or performance. The smaller, far more portable format works nicely – it looks increasingly likely Apple will follow suit with an ‘iPad Mini’ – and the latest Android OS is the best yet.
Neat Google features, solid audio and video performance and an increasingly thorough and reliable selection of apps and other content, together make for a compelling, genuine tablet alternative.