After the iPad came out in 2010, many electronics companies attempted to cash in on the craze by rushing out their own tablet devices, many of them running Google’s Android software.
But besides Apple, only Amazon has been able to really make a name for itself in the tablet market. At $199—well below the price of most other contenders—the Kindle Fire became a consumer hit.
Google has been paying close attention from the sidelines, and now it’s ready to join the party with the Nexus 7, a tablet it developed with the help of Taiwanese computer maker Asus. The Nexus 7, announced this week at Google’s annual I/O conference in San Francisco and due out in July, takes plenty of cues from the Fire, from its seven-inch display to its $199 price tag. Yet while the Fire is a great little tablet, Google’s ability to control the hardware, software, and app ecosystem make the Nexus 7 even greater. And since the Nexus 7 will be bundled with a $25 Google Play credit, the price is really more like $174.
On the surface, Google’s tablet is low on frills: there is no HDMI output or rear-facing camera, for example. But the device is strong and solid in your hands, with a dimpled, soft-feeling plastic back, two buttons on the right side (for power and volume), and a bright, crisp screen. At 12 ounces, it’s lighter than the Fire, which weighs in at 14.6 ounces. It also includes near-field communications capabilities, so on the rare occasions that you’re with someone who has an NFC-enabled Android device, you can beam content like photos and videos to each other directly.
The combination of Jelly Bean, the newest version of Android, with the zippy quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor makes the Nexus 7 a fast machine. Running apps and games and playing TV shows was smooth and fast, and generally without hitches. The tablet did get warm while I used it, but not hot.
Jelly Bean reflects a bunch of changes, the most noticeable of which is Google Now, Google’s answer to Apple’s personal assistant, Siri. To use Google Now, just press the virtual Home button at the bottom of the display and swipe upward. This brings up a page with a search box and a series of on-screen “cards” that you can scroll through to see things like local weather and traffic, nearby businesses, calendar appointments, and information on flights or sports teams you’ve previously searched for.
Google Now is meant to get smarter over time, so it’s too soon to tell just how helpful it could be. I like the idea of a personal assistant that doesn’t require explicit directions, though.
Google Now also includes voice control. To activate it, just say “Google”; ask things like “What time is it in Singapore?” or “Where’s the nearest gas station?” and it will answer in a surprisingly human-sounding female voice. If it doesn’t know the answer, it will—naturally—Google for it.
Though it seemed to understand me well, the system still needs work when it comes to performing tasks. When you ask a question, it transcribes it onto the Nexus 7’s screen, so I know it understood the command “Set an alarm for 3:30 p.m. tomorrow.” Yet it responded by setting an alarm for 3:30 p.m. that same day.
Jelly Bean makes it possible to view maps without an Internet connection. When looking at a map in Google Maps, you can choose “Make available offline” from a drop-down menu, determine the area of the map you’d like to use, and download it to your tablet (a more limited version of this feature is already available in the Android version of Google Maps). This technology seems better suited for urban exploring than long road trips, though, as the largest map I was able to download was a bit smaller than 60 by 60 miles.
Jelly Bean also introduces a clever update to the existing feature that uses facial recognition to unlock the device: it requires a user to blink before the tablet will unlock. This still isn’t that secure, but it should make it harder for someone to unlock your tablet with a photo of your face (instead, perhaps they’d have to use a blinking GIF). Sometimes the feature didn’t work, but I was impressed by how often it did.
The Nexus 7’s display is slightly higher-resolution than the Fire’s—1,280 by 800 pixels, or 221 pixels per inch. It’s impressive, given the tablet’s price. An episode of the TV show Smash that I downloaded from the Android app and digital content store Google Play looked excellent on the Nexus 7’s screen, with rich colors, high levels of detail, and good viewing angles. Videos streamed via Wi-Fi from YouTube looked great, too.
The tablet is also good for reading. It is easy to hold in one hand for an extended period of time, and Web pages rendered quickly and were easy to read. Books downloaded from Google Play appeared crisp.
The device is rated for up to eight hours of battery life during what Google terms “active use”; in the short testing period, I found it held up decently.
If you want to listen to music with the Nexus 7, you may want to hook it up to an external source or plug in some headphones. There’s a skinny speaker on its rear that produces decent sound, but it won’t blow you away. It’s also slightly inset, which means it doesn’t get muffled when you place the tablet on its backside.
No tablet is perfect: the Nexus 7 comes with a piddly eight gigabytes of internal storage, and there’s no microSD card slot to add more. My music collection alone takes up a lot more than eight gigabytes, so I’d be inclined to pay $249 to get the 16-gigabyte version.
The tablet also has a front-facing camera for video chats, but it’s not very good. I tried connecting with a friend over Google Talk and Skype, and the video quality was poor both times. The sound wasn’t great, either—during one chat attempt, my friend sounded like a computerized version of one of the adult voices in a Charlie Brown cartoon.
Let’s be clear: the Nexus 7 is probably not going to take much market share away from the iPad. If you really want an iPad, you’re going to get one (or whine and beg until someone gets one for you). But if you want a tablet without making so much of a financial commitment, the Nexus 7 is the best choice on the market. Sometimes it pays to be a little late to the party.
Hear more from Google at EmTech 2014.