Android tablets have been around for quite some time now, but with the iPad stealing the show, few people have been persuaded that there's a must-have dessert-themed slate. One of the only exceptions to the rule was the Amazon Kindle Fire -- a 7-inch device with stripped back power, screen and storage for a bargain basement price. It took the US by storm but it hasn't been released in the UK.
The huge sales showed Android tablet makers that the way to tackle the all-consuming iPad wasn't by trying to better its specs, but by offering something usable and affordable. This ethos is evidently shared by Google, which has -- in collaboration with tech manufacturer Asus -- launched the Nexus 7 tablet.
Like the Kindle Fire, it's a 7-inch device, the cheapest version of which starts with only 8GB of internal storage. Unlike the Fire, it's packing extremely powerful components and a high-definition screen, making it useful not only as a full-featured ebook reader, but also as a tablet in its own right.
As Google's own design, it's the first device running the latest version of its Android operating system, known as Jelly Bean. This brings various interface updates and the handy personal information service, Google Now.
Best of all though, the Nexus 7 starts at a mere £160 for the 8GB model or £200 for the 16GB version and can be ordered from Google's store.
While it's easy to argue that the Nexus 7 isn't a rival to the iPad and they therefore shouldn't be compared directly, it will naturally be lumped into the same category by the average punter on the street looking to buy "any tablet". It's therefore important to weigh it up against all the competition -- not just the cheaper Kindle Fire.
Should I buy the Google Nexus 7?
In a word, yes. The Nexus 7 has elite features that make it not only great for its price, but superb even when compared with the very best tablets.
It's running the latest version of Android known as Jelly Bean, which offers a clean and simple interface that's ideal for Android beginners and hardcore 'droiders alike. It brings a bunch of updates including improved notifications, better voice search and smoother, more buttery transitions.
It also offers a new service called Google Now, which aims to provide live, local information based on your position and your habits. It 'learns' what you do and what you search for, with the aim of providing information such as traffic updates or your football team's scores. In its current state, it might not be the most impressive service, but it's off to a good start and Google is working on giving it a lot more features.
The Nexus 7 is not just about the software though. This 7-inch tablet packs a high-definition screen, which makes even small text and icons look crisp and clear. If you hope to get through your favourite ebooks on it, rest assured you'll be able to read for hours without feeling the strain. It's bright and colourful too, making it great for renting movies from the Google Play store or simply watching YouTube clips.
Under the hood is a quad-core processor that gives the Nexus 7 some serious power. My benchmark tests put the Nexus' performance alongside the powerhouse Asus Transformer Prime, which costs a whole lot more. It also beat the pricier 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 by a country mile. With such a huge serving of power, it's easily capable of tackling most tasks you can throw at it.
Best of all though, it comes with a bargain basement price tag of only £160. Most decent Android slates start at around the £350 mark, with the top players charging upwards of £500 or more. Even with the best technology on board, the Nexus 7 still manages to carry a price that's low enough to tempt doubters and iPad fans into the Android tablet world.
Design and build quality
Compared to its 10-inch cousins, the 7-inch Nexus 7 is aimed at being much more portable. At 120mm wide, it sits very comfortably in one hand, giving the impression that you're holding a paperback book. It's a shade under 200mm long so it will easily drop into a small bag or even squeeze into your pockets if they're particularly capacious.
Its size means typing in portrait mode is comfortable as you can wrap your hands around -- your thumbs reach every letter on the keyboard without difficulty. That's less easy in landscape mode -- unless you have giant hands -- so you'll probably find it easier to lie it in your lap and simply jab at it instead.
With a thickness of 10.45mm, it's not as slim as other tablets on the market -- the Motorola Xoom 2 Media Edition is a svelte 8.9mm -- but its extra girth makes it feel a little more sturdy in your hand. It weighs 340g, which is about what I'd expect for a tablet of this size. That's not so heavy that you'd feel weighed down by it. I found I could easily hold it up while reading or browsing the web for at least a couple of hours at a time.
The whole front of the tablet is dominated by a sheet of glass that runs unbroken from edge to edge, meaning there's no unsightly plastic bezel -- although the bezel beneath the glass is rather too chunky, in my opinion. The screen sports the Corning Gorilla Glass we've come to know and love on devices like the iPhone 4S. It's designed to be stronger and more scratch resistant than your run-of-the-mill glass, which is handy if you're prone to idly chucking your keys at the screen.
You'll also notice there's no physical home button on the front. Those of you who are used to prodding the home button on the iPad might find the touch-sensitive buttons in its place a little unusual at first. You'll quickly get used to them. They bring up menus and one benefit is they rotate with the screen depending on how you're holding it, unlike the iPad's button, which does, of course, remain resolutely static.
The back of the Nexus has been coated in a rubberised material that's been given a dotted pattern that's quite pleasing to hold. The texture, along with its relative chunkiness, makes it pretty easy to keep hold of, reducing the chances of you accidentally hurling it to the ground every time you take it out of your bag.
It's really not pushing any boundaries in terms of aesthetic design -- the look is one that leans much more towards 'functional' than it does 'beautiful'. Still, you can't expect too much by way of design flair for a device of this size and it gets the job done. I just can't imagine anyone falling in love with its looks.
Mercifully though, it seems well built. There's very little flex in the back casing when you give it a squeeze and there's no loose flaps or dodgy casing peeling away. I'm very confident it can survive a life of being pulled in and out of bags and being casually plonked down on coffee shop tables.
Around the edges you'll find a power button and volume rocker -- they're pretty easy to press, a 3.5mm headphone jack and a micro-USB port. What you don't get is a SIM card slot for 3G data, so you'll have to rely on Wi-Fi connections at home or an open connection in your favourite bar.
There's also no HDMI port, so don't plan on hooking it up to a massive telly for big-screen app action.
Also conspicuous by its absence is a microSD card slot. Having that would have allowed you to expand the internal storage of the tablet to hold more videos and music. As it is, you'll have to make do with the rather meagre 8GB or opt for a more capacious 16GB model for £200. If you go for the 8GB model, you'll really have to keep an eye on what you're putting on there as you'll quickly run out of room if you keep transferring over your favourite films.
It's important to think carefully about exactly what you'll be using your slate for. If you plan on dumping a lot of your media on it to watch on the plane, you'll almost certainly want the 16GB model. If, on the other hand, your main needs are sofa web browsing and you rely mostly on streaming -- not downloading -- your content, 8GB will be fine.
Another omission from the outside of the tablet is a camera on the back. Nearly all tablets these days pack a snapper for those quick shots you just can't wait to tell Twitter about. But the Nexus 7 evidently doesn't want to follow the photography crowd.
That's most likely a cost-cutting measure and it's one I can forgive -- after all, taking photos on a tablet isn't that enjoyable and people look pretty stupid holding up their iPad at a concert. I'm personally happy to see the camera ommitted in favour of the extra cash in my pocket.
There's a 1.3-megapixel camera on the front though, so it's not totally without lenses. Oddly, there's no dedicated camera app on the Nexus, indicating that this snapper is only for video calling using Google Hangouts or Skype. Bad news if you were hoping to take some Myspace-style self-portraits.
The 7-inch screen comes with a resolution of 1,280x800 pixels. The technologically-minded among you will notice that this falls far short of the whopping 2,048x1,536-pixel resolution of the iPad's 'retina' display. But with a much lower price tag, we really have to forgive it.
It's still high though, especially when you factor in the price. It not only beats the resolution of Amazon's Kindle Fire, but also that of the iPad 2. Given the its smaller size, this results in a much higher pixel density on the Nexus 7's screen.
Small icons and text look particularly sharp and clear. App icons appear very crisp, even when viewed up close, and tiny writing in web pages looks mostly very readable. That's great news if you hope to use it as your ebook reader because the text will be displayed with enough clarity to make reading comfortable for long periods of time.
It's not as easy to read as a regular Kindle screen though as it's not E-ink. E-ink isn't like regular LCD displays -- it uses a different method of displaying text and isn't backlit, resulting in extremely sharp words that look like they've been printed on the screen. E-ink's suited to displaying only black and white words and basic pictures though, so if you want to do anything with your tablet other than reading books, a normal LCD screen is the way to go.
Not only is it nice and sharp, it's also rather bright. This helps make it a tad easier to see when viewed in direct sunlight or under harsh office lighting. The glossy screen is quite reflective though, so you'll still want to wrap your hand around it in a vain attempt at shading it.
It's not the boldest screen I've ever laid my eyes on -- especially when you compare it side by side with the AMOLED screens on Samsung's tablets, or indeed Apple's iPad. But it does the job perfectly well for movies, apps and web browsing. Just don't expect it to knock your socks off with vivid colour.
Android Jelly Bean
The Nexus 7 tablet is the first device you can buy that comes loaded up with the latest version of Google's Android operating system, known as Jelly Bean. Like version 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich before it, this new update seeks to provide a unified experience across smart phones and tablets. It also sports subtle tweaks that should help novice tech users get to grips with it.
Like the Nexus devices before it, the Nexus 7 is a reference design for the new software, meaning it hasn't been skinned with extra software like Samsung's TouchWiz interface or HTC's Sense. What you get is a pure, untouched Android experience.
If you're familiar with Android, you won't feel out of place here. The usual multiple home screens are present for you to fill with apps and live widgets. You can dive into larger grids of apps to view the ones you don't want displayed on your home pages. Google has kept the interface fairly straightforward but has made some changes aimed at making it a viable Kindle Fire rival.
Firstly, the row of icons at the bottom of each home page has been littered with shortcuts to your books, movies and music libraries, saving you the effort of digging them out from the app grids. There's also direct access to the Chrome browser, the Google Play store and a handy folder full of Google apps like Gmail, Google Plus and YouTube. Of course, these free apps can be downloaded and placed within quick reach on any Android tablet but it's nice to have them so close to hand as standard.
Google has slapped some big widgets on the home page to show off your library and recommended content, which you'll either find handy or annoying, depending on how used to Android you are already. They're easily removed by pressing and holding and dragging them to the Remove icon.
Pressing and holding was once the way you'd also pop new widgets down onto the home page, but doing that on the Nexus only brings up the option to change the wallpaper. If you'd like to put anything else down, navigate to the apps and widgets list and select what you want. Perhaps Google thinks this is a more logical way to operate and will help new users quickly customise their tablet, but I think forcing someone to dive into an extra menu is counter-productive.
It's also no longer possible to view the home pages in landscape orientation. If you've been busy playing Minecraft in landscape and quickly navigate back to the home screen, you'll need to flip it back around. It's likely this has been done to ensure you always get the same view every time you return to the home screen. It's not going to be a huge problem for most people but I think it's a little odd to remove this function.
Swiping around the home screens and loading menus is a very smooth affair. This is not just due to the powerful quad-core processor lurking under the hood, but also because of something Google calls Project Butter, which increases the frame rate of the screen to 60 frames per second. As a result, transitions look delicious and a whole lot better than the often stuttery attempts seen on similarly-priced slates.
It's not just the interface that's been tweaked. The notifications bar has also been given a boost. When you get a new message or an app needs to tell you something, an alert appears in your notifications bar. Previously, notifications wouldn't tell you much, but they now have a lot more info packed in. Each alert expands as it reaches the top of the list, or you can expand any notification with a two-finger gesture. Once they're expanded, you see the actual message or update rather than just a one-line alert.
For example, calendar alerts let you email everybody in the meeting with a pre-programmed response if you're running late, while photos appear as thumbnails and can be shared to Google Plus from the notifications bar, without opening the app. These alerts can be dismissed in one tap to clear them out of the way. If you've got a bunch of stuff waiting for your attention, it's a very quick and easy way to fly through them all without having to open a different app for each item.
A swish new feature of Jelly Bean is Google Now. It's a service that tailors info specifically for you based on your location and your tablet search habits.
Rather than using an app icon, you're required to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to access Google Now. You'll then be met with a search bar, your local weather information and a card showing nearby restaurants. The idea is Google Now will eventually learn your movements and habits and offer advice based on them.
For example, if Tuesday mornings usually see you scuttling across town to a meeting, Google Now will be able to bring up a handy reminder beforehand, complete with directions and traffic information to your location without you needing to search for it. If you're near a train station or a bus stop, it's able to give you live departures information.
Google Now also knows what you like just by your searches. You don't even need to tell your tablet which team you support -- it works that out from your searches and gives you up-to-date news about your team. There are 10 'cards' showing different types of info at the moment, but Google promises it's already in the process of creating more, so Google Now could become more handy down the line.
While the live traffic service does seem particularly useful when you're on your way to a meeting, it's not going to be much use on the Nexus 7 as it doesn't have 3G data. As soon as you leave your Wi-Fi connection, you won't be able to see the updates. Google Now seems like it will be a much more useful service when it eventually comes to smart phones.
Jelly Bean boasts an update to Android's voice control service, promising better recognition and improved answers to whatever random nonsense pops into your head. I took it for a spin and found that the updates had in fact made it more usable, even recognising my northern, Yorkshire twang.
When I asked, "Where's the pub?" it immediately brought up a snapshot of the local map and highlighted the pub that was right outside our office -- a perfect result for a pint in a panic. It's also a good deal better than iOS's Siri, which is not yet able to search for businesses in the UK, although this is something that's being addressed in iOS 6 in the autumn.
I had a similarly positive result when I asked, "What's the weather like in Barcelona?" The device immediately brought up a five-day forecast and read aloud the current weather.
It's not free from quirks though. When I asked, "Where is the nearest petrol station?" it started well by showing my current location at our office in south London, but oddly decided that that the nearest station was 11 miles away in west London. Interestingly, I don't live far from the location it chose and I had taken the Nexus home with me several times, so I suspect it was trying to be clever and was expecting me to be driving back that way.
Still, I did ask it where the nearest petrol station was, and I can't really consider an 11-mile trek to be nearby, so I'm chalking that up as a fail. It managed much better with, "How do I get to the Tate?" which immediately brought up the Maps app with directions from CNET UK Towers to the nearby Tate Modern gallery. Much better.
Books, movies and apps
To help you enjoy your tablet as fully as possible, Google has whacked in shortcuts on the home bar to its books, movies and music sections of the Google Play store. Thankfully, they're rather easy to use. A quick tap on the book icon will immediately bring up your library, letting you browse through titles you already own and head over to the store to get more.
The store is a lot neater now than it used to be, letting you search by category, by new releases and by most popular. There's also a free section if you're desperate for literary treats but don't have any cash. When you click to purchase a book, it will immediately download and save to your library.
Getting movies is a similarly easy process. Hit the icon and take a browse at films and videos already in your library -- including any personal videos you've transferred onto it. Hit the Play store button and you can browse what else is on offer. Although you can't yet buy films to own, there is quite a selection to rent.
These range from £1.49 -- the price to rent garden ornament-based animated comedy Gnomeo & Juliet in standard definition -- up to the more pricey £4.49 for Nazi-moon-nonsense Iron Sky in high definition. When you've downloaded the film, you have three days to watch it. Once you've pressed go, you have 48 hours to complete the film, so pick your times well.
Other than its Books and Movies services and, of course, the other Google standard services, Gmail and YouTube, the Nexus hasn't been loaded up with much. Thankfully, you have full access to the Google Play store for all the app downloading you could want.
From there you can get Facebook and Twitter -- both have been updated recently, making them slightly more usable on touchscreen devices. Moreover, there are hundreds of thousands of social networking, productivity, shopping or gaming apps to pick from.
The Gmail and Google calendar apps are particularly easy to get to grips with for novice users as they sync easily with the Google account you register your device with. Once you pop in the necessary information, you can choose to automatically sync your email, calendars, contacts and even your Google Plus photos to the tablet. This saves you precious time in not having to input the same details on all the apps individually.
Power and performance
It's not just about the software on board though -- after all, what's the point in having all this fancy functionality if the tablet itself is too weak to power any of it?
To make sure it's got enough grunt to tackle the essentials, Asus has stuffed the rubberised shell with an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and 1GB of RAM. That's the same quad-core processor found in tablet beasts like the £500 Asus Transformer Prime, which I've found to be extremely powerful. So I was very keen to find out exactly what the Nexus is capable of -- especially as it costs several hundred pounds less than the Prime.
To see how it stacks up against its tablet competition, I booted up the Geekbench 2 benchmark test and was given a score of 1,536, which I was extremely impressed with. By comparison, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 -- also a 7-inch slate -- offered only 409 on the same test and comes at a higher price than the Nexus. So in terms of power, Google's own offering seems to offer considerably better value.
It performed similarly well on the CF-Bench test, where it scored 11,716. To put that into perspective, it managed to beat the £350 Sony Tablet S, which only achieved 5,399 on the same test. It even topped the Prime, which notched up 10,764. In terms of raw scores then, the Nexus 7 comes across as being an extremely potent little thing, and that's exactly how I found it to be in everyday use.
Swiping around the home screens was wonderful -- helped along by Project Butter -- and there was no visible lag when clicking on icons and having the apps open. Menus were swift to navigate and opening the multi-task bar to switch between live apps was instant and didn't trouble the little slate in the slightest.
The same was true when I used numerous apps at once. Even when I had several apps operating in the background -- including playing music in Spotify -- I still found it was able to switch between browser tabs in Chrome without hesitation. There's nothing worse than seeing a device severely struggle to put up with the tasks you really want it to do, but at no point was I in doubt that it was capable.
It handled 3D games well too, with Blood & Glory -- Android's answer to Infinity Blade -- rendered extremely smoothly, without the lag and stuttering that tells of a struggling processor. Swiping my finger across the screen to slash my opponent with the sword remained responsive and immediate at all times -- very satisfying.
The Google Nexus 7 might not be the most attractively designed tablet money can buy, but it's packed to the gills with high-performance components, a high-resolution screen and the latest Android Jelly Bean software.
It manages to offer enough power to keep even hardcore gadget geeks happy, while also being user-friendly enough for tech novices to get to grips with. Despite minor gripes such as the lack of a microSD card slot and no 3G connectivity, such an affordable price tag means it's very difficult to fault.