Review: The new Nexus 7 is the best 7-inch tablet that money can buy
At a Glance
Google Nexus 7 (Second Generation)
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If you're in the market for an Android tablet, the new Nexus 7 is the one to get. And if you're got the old one lying around, considering trading it in for this one.
The original Nexus 7 was merely a bargain, a good-enough tablet at a great price. The new Nexus 7 is a downright steal. It’s the best 7-inch tablet, period. Google has redefined budget tablet so that it no longer refers to cheap-feeling, sub-$200 devices. You can now grab a svelte, premium 7-inch tablet with a high-resolution screen, wireless charging, quad-core processor, and 2GB of RAM for a measly $229.
The revamped Nexus 7 is more than just the next stock Android gadget offering from Google. It’s the company’s re-do of what it should have done right the first time. The search (and maps, and mail, and…) giant, with its ginormous, seemingly all-inclusive Android ecosystem, has finally entered the premium tablet market.
Easier to hold, faster than ever
The first thing I noticed about the new Nexus 7 is that, despite sharing the same name as its predecessor, it’s an entirely different product. The previous-generation Nexus 7 looks antiquated lying next to this shiny new toy.
The new Nexus 7 is easier to hold—the bezel is 3mm thinner on each side, so you can comfortably cradle it in one hand while using the other to grip the handrail on your train ride to work. One-handed use is much easier this time around, though I would have loved to see some sort of option to shift virtual buttons to the side of the screen where my thumb naturally falls. (LG’s Optimus UI implements this functionality in the dialer application on the company’s Optimus line of Android phones.)
Google ditched Nvidia’s Tegra 3 processor this time around, in favor of Qualcomm’s 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because this is the same processor that the LG-manufactured Nexus 4 handset contains, essentially making the new Nexus 7 a slightly bigger Nexus 4. The Nexus 7 certainly feels much faster than its predecessor. Games and apps launch quickly and multitasking between the Home screen and Google Now is a cinch. I noticed some stuttering on relatively simple tasks like posting a photo to Facebook from the image gallery—but that could be the fault of the apps themselves.
Google posits that its newly revamped Nexus 7 can support up to 9 hours of continuous use away from a charger. In our own battery tests, the Nexus 7 lasted 8 hours, 47 minutes on a single charge while repeatedly playing back a locally stored, high-definition video. That’s a bit less than what Google advertises, and much less than the 10 hours, 12 minutes that last year’s Nexus 7 managed. Perhaps the difference is due to the bigger battery pack and lower-resolution screen on last year’s model. Though the Nexus 7’s battery life results are average for a tablet of its size, direct comparisons are difficult, as the iPad mini and the 7-inch Kindle Fire HD don’t have high-resolution screens.
If you were a fan of the last Nexus 7, you probably wished that Google had added a rear-facing camera to handle all of your Instagram-posting needs. Well, it’s finally here—but while the 5-megapixel camera is certainly capable, you won’t want to rely on it for vacation photos. Photos taken at the stock Android camera app’s low-light setting came out too dark; better-lit photos are adequate for posting to the Internet, but not for archiving the days of your life.
The Nexus 7 comes with a few other goodies, including an MHL port, support for wireless charging, and NFC capabilities. The new stereo speakers are a dramatic improvement, too. If you have big hands and hold the device in landscape orientation, however, you might muffle the sound—which can be inconvenient when you’re trying to play a game or watch a movie without headphones.
Annoyingly, the Nexus 7 doesn’t supply any expandable storage, so you’ll have to opt for the priciest model—and probably buy into some cloud storage, too—if you’re a media junkie.
Dang, that screen!
Whether it’s dark in your house or very bright on the train, the Nexus 7’s new 1200-by-1980-pixel LCD display is quite a sight—literally. I was stunned to see a display of this caliber on a device priced at under $250. At 323 pixels per inch, the resolution makes for crisper text in apps like the Kindle ebook reader.
At full brightness, last year’s Nexus 7 display looked dimmer than the new Nexus 7’s display, though the new colors on the new model seem a little oversaturated, like a bag of Skittles.
In general, I enjoyed reading text more on this year’s Nexus 7 than on last year’s, thanks to its slimmer body and brighter display.
Better than all the rest
Based on specs alone, the iPad mini has some work to do. Its current processor is a bit more dated than the one that new Nexus 7 runs on, and the mini packs only 512MB of RAM. The mini’s display is bigger than the Nexus 7’s and it features a different aspect ratio, but it’s not a Retina display, which gives Google the upper hand. And whereas Apple’s 16GB iPad mini sells for $329, Google’s Nexus 7 starts at $239, and its 32GB variant costs only $30 more. If you need that much space on an iPad mini, Apple asks you to fork over an extra Benjamin. The only upside to Apple’s offering is its superior collection of tablet-optimized apps. The Google Play store is full of apps, but fewer of them are specifically made for tablets.
Meanwhile, Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD is in so much trouble. The 7-inch Kindle Fire is cheaper at $199 (for 16GB of storage) and $229 (for 32GB), but its screen resolution and pixel density leave much to be desired. It’s also about 2mm thicker than the new Nexus 7. In addition, the Fire HD uses a customized version of Android and doesn’t come with Google’s standard applications—and they’re not available to download if you decide you want them.
First with Android 4.3
The Nexus 7 is the first device in the Google Nexus family to use Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, an incremental software update with features like support for OpenGL ES 3.0, Bluetooth 4.0 LE support, and the ability to restrict certain user accounts. That last capability might come in handy if you plan to buy this tablet for yourself and your family. There aren’t many tablet-optimized applications available for Android yet, but Google is changing the way it showcases those particular apps, to make them easier to find.
Beyond that, you’ll still have access to the Google applications that come with every stock Android device, including Gmail, Hangouts, and Google Maps. You’ll also have access to Google’s new stock camera application, which debuted in the Google Play editions of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One last month. Because it’s a Nexus device, this Nexus 7 will receive the most timely Android software updates, so you won’t have to worry about software fragmentation or getting left behind with an older version of Android.
I can’t help but feel a little trepidation. The previous-generation Nexus 7 had quite a few issues to contend with after its update to Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. If I let the battery die, the tablet wouldn’t turn on without a hard reset, and the tablet became buggier and slower to use over time. I hope this new Nexus 7 won’t suffer from those foibles—because if history repeats itself, Google will have to do much more next time around to rid us of our bad memories.
The second-generation Nexus 7 offers strong features at an affordable price. If you’re a seasoned tablet user, whether you should buy this tablet will depend primarily on whether you are tied to Google’s ecosystem. Still, this particular device can hold its own against any other 7-inch tablet currently available. At the moment, it has some of the best specs, a bright screen, and a few other little goodies—and it’s hardly a splurge. If you’re in the market for a 7-inch Android device, this is the one to get.
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