Scouting Report: Google Nexus 7

[Every time a hot new gadget is announced, the buzz can reach a boiling point before anyone stops to think about what all the fuss is all about. In our Scouting Report series, we’ll cut through the marketing jargon and examine what makes a certain product special—or in some cases, simply overhyped.]

The Google Nexus 7 tablet is here. Is this bargain 7-inch tablet the tablet you’ve been waiting for? With a starting price of just $199, the Nexus 7 has set its sights on the first-generation Amazon Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet, and Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2 7.0. Of those tablets, only Samsung provides a full-blown version of Android, albeit one with the company's own TouchWiz customizations. Amazon and Barnes & Noble each use their own variants of Android, which means you don't get the full Android tablet experience with either. Thinking of taking the plunge with the Nexus 7? Let’s dig into what it offers and find out.

The processor

Nexus 7 has an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, and is a product out of the Nvidia Kai reference platform that targets low-cost, low-compromise tablets. Manufactured by Asus for Google, the Nexus 7 is the manifestation of what was first discussed at CES 2012 as a $250 tablet, and shown as the MeMo 370T. So how does the Nexus 7 perform? It stacks up well against other Android tablets: it was the best performer of any of our 7-inch class tablets, and was competitive on some tests with the top 10.1-inch Android tablets. Its graphics benchmark scores were only average, though. This could be accounted for by the fact that not all Tegra 3 chips perform the same way, and the Nexus 7 is specifically engineered to reflect price and performance tradeoffs.

The display

Here, Google and Asus strike a very decisive blow to other 7-inch tablets. With 1280 x 800 pixel resolution and optical bonding, the Nexus 7’s display has the chops to deliver gorgeous images and text, with minimal pixilation. Images indeed look great, with pleasing and fairly accurate color reproduction in our subjective tests. Oddly, the Nexus 7’s text rendering experience is more mixed; the font choices and text rendering as reflected by Google’s Android 4.1 Jelly Bean operating system and Chrome Web browser (new to 4.1) produce text that frequently shows pixilation and isn't as smooth as we’d expect. Apple’s “Retina” displays on its iPhone and iPad remain a better experience. That said, the Nexus 7’s text is far and away superior to that of any of the 1024 x 600 pixel displays on its 7-inch competition. The Nexus 7 joins the Nook Tablet as the only models with an optically bonded display, which translates to better colors and contrast and less glare.

The specs

Beyond the Nexus 7’s processor, its specs represent a mixed bag. The lack of a MicroSD card slot—something to be expected from Google’s philosophies, but not common among its competition—is the biggest drawback to the Nexus 7. The 8GB model at $199 seems like a bargain, until you consider that you’re stuck with just the memory you bought, and that unit only has 5.62GB of free space out of the box (some of which is consumed by the pre-loaded content). Pictures, apps, high-def movies, and music can quickly consume that space. The 16GB model at $250 is a much better deal, and is the only version of the Nexus I’d encourage shoppers to consider. You get an NFC chip, a nice add; and a GPS. There’s only a front-facing camera, not a rear-facing camera, which may sound like a minor point until you want to use your tablet to capture a QR code or barcode in a store, or you want to capture a quick image and your phone isn’t at hand.

Battery

Consider this another design win for Google and Asus. We tested the battery to last 10 hours, 10 minutes while playing a high-definition video.

Intangibles

Google’s Jelly Bean OS changed how Android works, again. This time, the changes were less satisfying, at least as exhibited on a 7-inch tablet. The changes turned the tablet into more of a phone layout, locked in portrait mode. In reality, Google mixes phone and tablet depending upon the orientation of the Nexus 7, but that only causes more confusion, not less. I can better deal with the different displays within an app, like Gmail (hold the tablet landscape to get panes, and vertical to get a single pane view), than I can deal with being forced to turn the tablet vertically anytime I’m using the home screen.

Another frustration? The Android tablet app ecosystem is still a work very much in progress. A lot of tablet apps just wouldn’t work at all, or display correctly, on Nexus yet. We've compiled a nice list of must-have apps that work well with the Nexus 7.

The downsides

As noted above, the 8GB model has an appallingly little amount of user-accessible local storage. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 2 8GB model is guilty of the same thing, except that model has a MicroSD card slot, so if you care to pop in a 32GB card and pack it full of images, videos, and music, you can knock yourself out. With Nexus 7, you get what you get, and the tablet won’t grow with you. Yes, there’s the cloud, but the cloud will not help any when you’re in-flight and can’t stream a movie over your $17.95 Wi-Fi connection—assuming you even get one.

Scouting Report verdict

If all you’re looking for an e-mail and Web browsing companion, and perhaps a color e-reader for reading books and magazines, the $199 8GB Nexus model may be worth a look. That’s the sole audience that should consider the $199 model. The 16GB model has a lot to offer, and it’s the best tablet for the price, so long as you don’t mind its lack of storage expansion and are willing to deal with the idiosyncracies of Android and the Android ecosystem.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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