The Google Nexus 7 is a device built to wage war.
It's a cruise missile that is soaring toward the hardware, software and media market shares of tech giants like Apple, Samsung, Amazon and Research in Motion. What makes it formidable is its shockingly low price, its features and its app/content ecosystem. It may be the most competitive Android tablet yet released.
Increasingly the gap has narrowed between the build quality and software performance of Apple's tablets and that of its competitors. But the Nexus 7 is not aimed directly at the iPad, but rather at the so-called "price umbrella" underneath the $400 base-model iPad 2 (the New iPad can retail for more than $800). This should worry Kindle Fire and PlayBook fans more than Apple lovers.
The Nexus 7, built in partnership with Taiwan-based tech firm Asus, has two versions. Demand for the pricier $260, 16-gigabyte edition is already creating waiting lists on Google's online store. The cheaper $210, 8 GB model is more readily available. The seven-inch form factor is fantastic. Small enough to slip into a bag without feeling like a burden, and light enough to hold one-handed for extended periods of time. Like using a Kindle, but better. We're big fans of the tablet's rubber grip backing too.
iPad aside, this is one of the best tablets for on-screen typing. You can hold the device with two hands and comfortably thumb over every key. The software feels markedly better than any other Android device we've tested – it's both impressively accurate and fast. We also found it the perfect size and weight for personal video viewing, this may be the Netflix Android app's new best friend.
It's missing some features you'd expect: It's network connection is WiFi only, no big powerful camera here (just a 1.2 megapixel forward-facing sensor) and very limited local storage. The 1280 x 800 pixel LED display is impressive, and even though it's below "Retina" display level, it is markedly sharper than close competitor Kindle Fire, which shares its seven-inch screen. On the plus side, it's NVIDIA Tegra 3 T30L 1.3GHz graphics chip was able to handle just about any game we threw its way.
Jelly Bean may be a relatively minor operating system update, but it improves the overall experience immensely. Despite the occasional slowdown, the interface is now, for the most part, as smooth as using iOS. That performance is long overdue, but it was shaped by and arrives into a world of absurd patent lawsuits and injunctions.
Two of the bizarre adaptations forced on the Nexus 7 by Apple's patent lawyers show up immediately: You can't "slide to unlock" from its homescreen (you have to either circle to unlock, or a couple other odd motions... though the Face Unlock makes us feel as if we live in the jetpack future). You will also note scrolling through apps and menus on Jelly Been feels stiff, that's because iOS apparently owns the "stretch and snap back" behaviour. Instead, users get a subtle colour flare when you reach the end of a navigable area.
Why does Apple go to court to defend these small distinctions? It has something to do with the reality that since its launch more than two years ago, the big shiny 10-inch iPad still has about 60 per cent of the global tablet market to itself, despite attracting a rogue's gallery of competitors.
Great effort has been put into designing this OS to avoid litigation, but also to use all the Google services really well, sometimes at the expense of its third-party Android partners. In the upcoming iOS 6 Apple is going to allow you to share apps right from the App Store to Facebook, and it already integrates Twitter into an array of features. They are doing this because they realize services hooked up to the social network hype firehose are capable of explosive growth. Google Play Store can recommend apps already, but bafflingly picks a fight with Facebook by only sharing via Google+, which is the company's own much smaller social network.
Google Now shows promise. In theory, it uses all of the data you've fed Google over the years to feed your tablet timely, contextually-aware alerts. Think streetcar schedules while sitting at your favourite cafe, or sports scores for teams you've recently searched. In practice, however, it's clear that Now needs time to learn your tastes – and there's obviously no offline version.
Voice Search is impressive – perhaps more so than Siri. Google is clearly drawing upon a much larger corpus of information than Apple, which gives Voice Search the ability to interpret and understand an impressive array of queries. Don't know when the Olympics start? Forgot who directed Alien? Google's Knowledge Graph probably knows the answer (and provides the answer in a more natural, human-sounding voice than Siri).
Down in the weeds the effectiveness of results starts to get a little more random: When asked who the mayor of Toronto was it loaded a Google.com search results page for Rob Ford. When you ask who the president of the University of Toronto is, a card pops up and the tablet speaks David Naylor's name aloud. It could speak Hu Jintao's name, but could not understand follow-up questions about the President of China (no Google, we're not curious about huge town, or Hue Gentaro). To be fair, Siri has the same problem with non-English names and places. Another complaint is that the feature is a pain to invoke from anywhere other than the homescreen.
The quick-look active menu is actually the best mobile "task manager" we've seen. From the nav button you can instantly see not only which apps are running, but what is happening on the screen of that app (say which frame you paused the YouTube video on), instead of just the app's icon. Another niggle is that those homescreen and nav controls aren't physical buttons, and managing touchscreen icons can require a learning curve.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the active wallpapers and widgets, which remain some of the key differentiators for the Android experience and quite popular as downloads. Some may be a little gimmicky, but clearly lots of people like the ability to see live data or access functions from their homescreens without opening apps. And, it's something you can't do in iOS (which is strange, considering the concept was notably employed by Mac OS X).
However, some of our other long-standing Android gripes remain. Managing apps is still needlessly complicated. Google's default media players are painfully bare bones. There is no consistency to how the back button works. Another oddity is that some of the main Jelly Bean features refuse to run in landscape orientation; forcing a tablet to be held in portrait is a strange choice. These are small complaints, to be fair, but they still detract from the overall experience.
Tablets are a classic tweener device. For most users they aren't fully capable productivity boxes like your desktop or laptop, but they make great e-readers, Internet surfers and increasingly are the preferred interface for social networks. Judging by app sales charts, they are also very popular gaming machines. The Nexus 7 performs all those tasks as well as any device on the market, with one of the lowest price points out there.
We said the Nexus 7 was a war machine, and if there's any firm with the chance to fight its way onto Apple's turf in the tablet space, Google is that company.