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Google Nexus 7 Hands-on Review

Definitely an Amazon Kindle Fire killer; but definitely not an Apple iPad killer
 

Google Nexus 7

A high resolution very clear 7" diagonal color screen is the most visible attribute of Google's new Nexus 7 tablet.

It is responsive in use, but it is also, well, only 7" in size, a handicap in many applications.

 

 

Both Google and Microsoft have a surprisingly uneven record when they stray away from their core software/service competencies and start dabbling in hardware.

The Nexus 7 is, for sure, a great device, although Google's marketing and launch of it has been clumsy and amateurish.  The unit performs as promised, and has more than enough processing power to drive its high resolution screen, even in demanding game applications.

In every measurable respect, it is way superior to Amazon's Kindle Fire - a device which only six months ago seemed state of the art, but which now seems lackluster and unappealing.

But this marketplace lead is unlikely to last for long.  Maybe you should wait to see what the new generation Kindle Fire will offer, and what the exact substance of a rumored competing Apple device may be, before choosing the Nexus 7.

The Google Nexus 7 - What You Get

The Nexus 7 comes in a colorful box, and interestingly, the company and contact information printed on it is exclusively for Asus (the actual manufacturer of the unit), not for Google.

Puzzlingly, although my unit was supposedly shipped direct from the factory, and was supposed to be brand new, it had been earlier opened and resealed.

Inside is the unit itself, protectively enclosed inside clear plastic wrap, and inside an inner box is a wall charger, a USB cable to connect between the Nexus 7 and the charger (or a computer), a folded piece of paper with warranty details and another sheet as a quick start guide.

The wall charger has its specifications printed on it in tiny brown/grey type on a black background, and so is close to completely obscure.  However, looking at it through a jeweler's loupe reveals it to be a multi voltage unit that delivers 2 amps at 5V.

The connector cable is 36" long.  It seems a little short, but is adequate for most situations.

I needed the jeweler's loupe again to read the warranty sheet, which was printed in an insultingly tiny type size.

Interestingly, the warranty is not offered by Google, but rather by Asus, and is for 12 months.

The quick start guide was in black and white only, and mercifully in larger type than the warranty document.

Using the Nexus 7

The unit is easy to turn on in theory - there is a button on the side to be momentarily depressed.  But somehow, its low profile position on the side proved hard for me to locate, especially when holding the unit at the same time.  The iPad's button is on the top, and the Kindle's button is on the bottom -both seem easier to access.

The unit does have a lovely bright and clear screen, and the ease of reading small characters is tangibly better than on the Amazon Kindle Fire.  The two units have the same sized screens, but the Kindle has a resolution of only 1024x600 pixels, compared to 1280x800 on the Nexus.  That is two thirds more pixels on the Nexus 7, making smaller characters better formed.

All those extra pixels require more computing power to drive them, and the Nexus 7 is generally a very smooth performer when it comes to showing video and making screen transitions, and seems improved over the Kindle Fire.

Not all apps displayed correctly on the Nexus 7, with some subtle text overflow type issues.  Perhaps the 'automatic resolution conversion' routines aren't yet optimized for the new screen resolution of the Nexus 7?

It was frustrating to see valuable screen real estate being wasted by the control bar at the bottom.  The Kindle has a clever way of causing that to disappear when not needed that frees up more screen - an essential feature on these small 7" screens.

We also noticed that sometimes the touch screen didn't react to our touch.  We're not sure what the cause of that is - maybe some programs have not accurately remapped the touch sensitive areas of the screen?

The Nexus has rounded edges which makes it feel smaller than the Kindle with its square edges, and it does fit into pockets slightly more readily.  The specs say the Nexus is slightly thinner, but this is an imperceptible difference.  Its slightly greater length is ever so slightly noticeable, however.

It was nice to see the unit has a separate volume control.  The Kindle doesn't, and it is never intuitive to work out how to access the software controlled volume setting.

The new Jelly Bean version of Android (4.1) has some slight reworking to the Android interface, and some new features too, including more voice recognition capabilities.

It was our not very scientific sense that the Wi-Fi in the Nexus 7 is a bit less sensitive than the Wi-Fi receivers in our iPad, iPhone and Kindle Fire.  When using the same Wi-Fi strength measuring app on both the Nexus and Kindle, there did seem to be a varying but at times 5dB difference in received signal strength, confirming our vague sense of this.  At times the Nexus would struggle to keep connected to our home Wi-Fi service, although the other devices never have similar problems in the same places.

Should You Choose the 8GB or 16GB Option

Unfortunately, the Nexus 7 does not have an SD type slot to allow for additional external memory cards to be plugged in and swapped over.  Its capacity is limited to only that available within the unit, which is either 8GB or 16GB.

The 16GB is $50 more than the 8GB unit ($249 rather than $199), adding considerably to Google's profitability (it is estimated that Google's cost goes up by a mere $7.50 when it adds the extra 8GB of storage).

In contrast, the iPad offers three capacities - 16GB, 32GB or 64GB.

There is doubtless a deliberate reason for this willful limitation on storage - to encourage/force you to use Google's cloud storage services, which in turn, forces you into their entire 'ecosystem' of buying their digital products from them in the first place.

We roundly reject the concept of cloud based storage, particularly for mobile devices such as a tablet.  There's no guarantee that you'll always be connected to a high speed internet line, and Murphy's Law pretty much guarantees that the times when you most need to access data stored in the cloud will be the times when you're unavoidably off-line.

When we first received our Nexus 7, we noted that its 16GB capacity already had 3.34GB used by system files and pre-loaded software.  If we had chosen the 8GB version, this would have mean almost half the 8GB was already used up.

Even the 12.66 GB free that our 16GB unit started off with is a pathetically small amount.  A single movie can take up 2GB of space.  An hour of music can take up 100 MB of space.  Books take up potentially as much as 1MB or more, each (depends on if they are text only or if they have pictures and other special formatting/features).

If you are going on a long journey and wish to load half a dozen movies and a selection of say 50 CDs worth of music onto your device, you'll not be able to do this.  This is an appalling limitation and not one shared by the iPad.

To measure the capacity another way, we have 57GB of music files on our mail laptop and would ideally like to be able to travel with most of them. We can do that with an old iPod that we've had for many years, but not with this latest and supposedly greatest Nexus 7.

We also have 44 GB of video files.  Same as with the music files, there's no way we could get any significant amount of video onto the unit either.

Not only is the 8GB unit farcically inadequate, but we wish Google would have emulated Apple some more and added 32GB and 64GB versions.

The totally inadequate capacity in the $199 8GB unit seems to be reflected by an apparent lack of sales of that unit.  Google is currently showing the 8GB unit to be in stock on its site, but the $249 unit with the barely adequate 16GB of storage is showing a 3 - 4 week delay.

There is one additional need for more storage on the unit, but it is a reason we don't begrudge at all.  Google Maps now allows you to download map regions to the unit, so you can realistically use the program while disconnected from the internet, for example when traveling.

Google adds a turn by turn navigation overlay to the program as well which is surprisingly unsophisticated.  There's nothing new about navigation programs, and we'd have expected to see some more features in their version.  But you can't argue with 'completely free' - is that hammering sound we hear another nail being driven into the coffin of the standalone GPS manufacturers?

Included - and Missing - Apps

An iPad comes preloaded with a great collection of apps; the Nexus 7 doesn't seem to have as many.  For example, it has no news type apps, and no stock market ticker/tracker.  It doesn't even have a weather app.

It has a calculator app, but it is probably the worst calculator app we've yet encountered.  It has no 'Clear All' key - to clear a number, you have to backspace over each digit one at a time.  It has no memory.  And while it has some trigonometric functions, the only way to input values is in radians, not degrees.  Maybe there's a way to switch it over, but it is non-intuitive to say the least, and regrettably there's no help file associated with it.

A Mysterious Camera

The unit has a camera that faces towards you.  It is a relatively low-resolution 1.2MP unit, and is probably intended primarily for use when video-conferencing.

It can also be used for a 'face recognition' form of locking/unlocking the unit, although this is a fairly gimmicky process that doesn't reliably work all the time (fortunately you have a backup ability to enter in a password if your face isn't recognized - lighting conditions make a big difference).

But how can you take a regular photo with it?  There's no app to allow you to use the camera.  Ooops.  Someone forgot something important in their rush to get the product to market, it seems!

Screen Shots

As a reviewer, it is great to be able to capture a screenshot to show one's readers.  It seems there is a way to do this with the Nexus 7, because we accidentally somehow did it on one occasion, but we can't find out or recreate what it was we did to trigger the screen shot event.

Searching through their manual eBook for camera, screen shot, screen capture, and capture all brought no results either.

A shame, as we'd loved to have been able to show you the formatting problems in their eBooks.

Music Player

Google offers its own music player and - gack - content management system for music files.  Maybe it works for pop albums, but Google decides it knows best when it comes to overriding our filing and naming conventions for our classical music collection, destroying the essential sequence and linkages between, for example, movements in a symphony, or pieces of an opera/ballet that span two or three CDs.

Much to our dismay (although the same as with Apple) there's no way to escape Google's tyranny here.  At least with our old iPod we were able to replace Apple's dysfunctional system with a third party system that works perfectly.  We're unaware of any similar override option for Android devices - although with such a limited amount of onboard storage, the matter is rather moot to start with.

Screen Size - Is 7" Enough?

This is a key question with a complicated answer.

We discuss it in detail in this article on the best tablet screen size and further analyze it in this article about the implications of different tablet screen sizes.

The answer can't be boiled down to a simple yes or no, as you'll see if you read the other articles.  But our preference - all other things being equal - is definitely for a larger screen such as on the iPad.

Asus' Prominence Begs an Interesting Question

The box the Nexus 7 comes in has an impressive five different bar codes for mysterious things such as 'Check Number', CSSN, SSN, Customer P/N and P/N, and identifies its contents as being made in China (no big surprise there) by Asus, with the only contact information being for Asus, not Google.

The warranty slip also talks exclusively about Asus, not Google.

We can understand that giving Asus prominent branding is part of Google's way of trying to have its cake and eat it too - of selling its own branded tablets in competition with its Android supporter hardware partners, and it is probably a better way of attempting this ambitious goal than that adopted by Microsoft, which has sought to totally obscure who makes their new tablet devices, preferring to keep prime and exclusive branding for itself only.

But the really puzzling thing is Motorola.  Motorola, a year or so ago, made a somewhat successful 7" tablet, and is a hardware manufacturing company that seeks to continue making Android based tablets and phones.  More to the point though, Motorola is now owned, 100%, by Google.

It is a bit like keeping a dog and barking yourself.  In this case, Google owns a hardware manufacturer, but spurns its own subsidiary, preferring to contract its new Nexus 7 to Asus instead.  That decision doesn't bode well for Motorola's future as anything much more than a passive repository of patents.

The Seductive Trap that Steals Your Privacy

Many of the clever things offered by the Nexus 7 require you to sacrifice your personal privacy and anonymity.

You need to allow the device to turn on its GPS and other location determining services, and you need to log into your Google account, before some of the more helpful navigation and other features will work, but the downside of that is that Google is potentially building up a minute by minute record of where you are and what you're doing.

Of course, such privacy compromises also occur, without our ability to choose or not, with our cell phones.  Whether GPS enabled or not, the wireless companies know fairly exactly where we are based on what cell towers we are close to, and of course, based on the data traffic to and from our phone, they know most of what we are doing, too.

Nonetheless, as more and more stories come out about the detailed data which Google, Apple, and others are keeping about us and our usage of devices connected through their systems, it is not a comfortable feeling, and the sham (in)ability to opt out adds further to one's sense of distressed discomfort.

Increasingly, it seems that just about every possible app now wants to know much more about us than it needs to know, and your only choices are to give it full access to everything it wants or not download it at all.

Google eBook Reader

The Google eBook reader is not very polished.  Actually, it is appallingly dysfunctional and there's no way we'd ever spend money to buy a book through Google that would need to be read on the Google eReader.

It has two different modes - one is a bit like displaying a book as pdf pages, with the problem being you are stuck with the text size as it is 'locked in' on the pdf images.  The other mode is what we'd consider 'normal' eBook mode where you can adjust the font size and the text reformats to fill the screen.

But this 'normal' mode fails in tables, which remain locked in a fixed font mode.

In addition, the included Nexus 7 Guidebook is full of appallingly amateurish formatting errors.  In addition to simply formatting errors, and strange capitalizations, at times the text is totally garbled and unrecognizable.

For example these two paragraphs on page 6 of 100 :

accessi- Gesture Mode supports naviga- to try shortcut ges

bility tion by usingtouch and swipe gestures in combination with speech output.  turesintalkback, swipe using a single motion:

Can someone decode that for us normal folk?

Other than being forced to use Google's dysfunctional reader for its own manual, you are free to download and use either an Amazon Kindle or a B&N Nook eReader program for regular books.

The Amazon Kindle eReader works reliably as expected.

The Google Wallet

Google Wallet is a new way to buy goods.  This is one of the key new things that the major players are all fixated on, even if they've yet to introduce workable products, because all the main companies (which these days seems to be Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft) seek to become the intermediary and wish to get some slice of every transaction, plus also to own or at least share all the transaction data too - not only knowing what each person is buying, but also knowing what each company is selling, and at what prices.

Google adds a NFC (near field communications) chip - what used to be called an RFID chip until it was decided that 'radio frequency ID' sounded a bit too Orwellian, so in finest Orwellian manner, it was simply renamed.  This makes paying with the Wallet function easy.

But how to get funds into your payment wallet?  That's the big weakness of the Google system at present (well, the lack of many places that accept Google Wallet payments is another weakness too, for sure).  Whereas debit cards directly take money from our bank account, and credit cards pile up a balance that we can pay off monthly (or not) as we wish, the Google Wallet needs you to prefill it with cash, through the inconvenient intermediate step of first buying a prepaid stored value card from Google.

It also can be connected to a Citibank Mastercard, but not to any other type of credit card at all.  Other Citibank cards (such as their Visa cards) aren't accepted, and neither are other issuers' Mastercards.

Out of curiosity I tapped an image that seemed to invite one to associate your Wallet account with a Citibank Mastercard, but when I did so, I got the curious message 'Busy with another card :  Wallet is busy working with another card'.  What does that mean?

Android - a More Geeky/Techy Interface than Apple's iOS

Overall, one of the distinctive elements of the Android operating system will be seen by most as either its strength or its weakness.  The Android operating system is much more obviously a computer operating system, designed for people who like computers.

The great strength of Apple's iOS system is that it obscures the fact that the device you are using is a computer.  A person can almost immediately start to understand what an iPad is and how to use it, and Apple is very clever at making everything that is 'under the hood' stay under the hood.

Android, on the other hand, seems much prouder of the fact that it is a computer operating system.  For example, with an iOS device, if you want to check on the battery charge, you can either look at a picture of a battery and guess at its level of charge based on how much is filled in, or you can choose an option and have the charge level displayed as a percent.

But with Android, if you check on your battery charge, you get graphs and statistics, showing the varying state of battery charge level, and what devices have been using the battery.  Is it really helpful to know that 3% of the battery usage was by the Android OS and another 2% by the Android System (I've no idea what the difference is between the OS and the System)?  It is lovely to see a full screen chart showing what has been using power and when, but personally, I'd prefer that the time used to create this presentation had been reallocated to make the Google eBook reader display books correctly, instead.

Okay, so no-one is forcing us to go look at the battery power consumption analysis.  We make this comparison merely to indicate the different approach to managing the device - Apple is a totally 'user transparent/black box' approach, whereas Android is a 'let's pop the hood and look inside' approach.

This difference in attitude slightly flows through to all elements of the interface, which we feel is not as intuitive as the Apple iOS interface.  We're hard pushed to cite specific weaknesses or limitations; but it just doesn't feel as easy or simple or obvious.

We've been using Apple iOS devices since the original iPhone and Android devices since the original Android phone too (the T-Mobile G1).  At every step, iOS has always felt like a polished solid interface (even when, in hindsight, it really wasn't), while Android has always felt rushed and not quite ready and not yet polished and perfected.

Although it is 3.5 years since the G1 was released in October 2008, and although Android has gone through many major releases (this latest 'Jelly Bean' or 4.1 version being considered the tenth major release) since that time, the bottom line is that Android is clearly not as user-friendly or intuitive as iOS.

That's not to say this is a deal breaking point.  For most people, the differences in design and stylistic approach mightn't matter too much.  But in terms of the 'better' interface, Apple's iOS still remains superior.

Summary

The Google Nexus 7 made headlines for being better than the Amazon Kindle Fire, and at the same appealing $199 price.

Yes, it is better than the Kindle Fire.  But is that really the main competitor that Google seeks to win market share from?  When one compares the Nexus 7 to the iPad 3, the Nexus 7 is never better and usually inferior, other than in terms of being smaller - an attribute which is equal parts plus and minus.

If you want a mobile entertainment device, this would be a bad choice, due to its lack of capacity.

If you want a portable web browser/game player/email client device, this might be a good choice, if you can accept the limitations inherent in the 7" screen.  If you do decide the 7" screen is acceptable, then be sure to buy the 16GB ($249) model; the 8GB model is just way too inadequate for almost all users and uses.

As for us, our iPad will continue to be our preferred tablet.

Should You Buy a Nexus 7?

Truly this is the ultimate question.  Should you buy a Nexus 7?

If you already have an iPad, you should stick with your iPad.  I even prefer my original first generation iPad to the slick new Nexus 7.

If you already have a Kindle eReader of some description, whether it be a Fire or a black and white earlier model, you might wish to wait until 'the dust settles' and you can choose between the next version of the Kindle Fire, the Nexus 7, and whatever lower cost/smaller iPad that Apple releases, too.

If you have no type of tablet or eReader, we are tempted to say wait a few more months - you've waited this long already - and see what the new Amazon and Apple products will be and at that point choose the best of the three.

So, although by all accounts, the Nexus 7 is selling very well, most of us would be best advised to wait just a few more months.

 

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Originally published 20 Jul 2012, last update 08 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
 
 

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