I have a not-entirely-undeserved reputation as a fan of Apple’s hardware and software. And it’s true that I think that Apple is charting the future of computing with the iPhone and iPad, and that no one has built a tablet that I could possibly recommend that ran anything except iOS.
Yes, you can collect whatever wagers there were on the table as to when I’d like an Android device. Because I really, really like the Nexus 7, the 7 inch, Google-backed-and-Asus-built Android 4.1 tablet. It’s fast, it’s pretty, and Android 4.1 puts it far ahead of other Android tablets for the time being. Did I mention that it’s also $199?
Read on for my full review...
You Nexus, huh?
There are many reasons to be excited about the Nexus 7, but very near the top of the list is that it is a Nexus device, and thus falls under the blessed umbrella of Google’s promise to update the operating system on an ongoing basis. The Nexus series of devices have all been a sort of reference hardware for Android, where Google says, in effect, ‘This is how you do it.’ to the rest of the hardware world. Given the dismal rates with which Android devices receive updates, having a Nexus device is a smart way to avoid early obsolescence. You can buy this tablet and be as certain as you can be with Android that you won’t be left out come the release of whatever is after Jelly Bean (rumored to be Key Lime Pie, but unannounced as yet).
The other reason to be excited about the Nexus 7 is that it’s manufactured by Asus. They’ve been making great hardware for awhile now, but this really is another level up for them. It’s solid, fast, and feels great in the hand. It’s got a slightly textured back that has just the right curve to it. I’m totally impressed with the design and build. Under the hood it’s got a fast processor, plenty of RAM, and while the 8GB and 16GB may feel skimpy to some, this is a device that’s all about the cloud. It’s clearly designed with that in mind, and given that you’ll be streaming most of your media, the sizes are reasonable.
The 7 inch form factor is pretty great, especially with the bright and colorful LCD in the device. While the iPad’s 9.7 inch screen is roughly the size of a standard sheet of letter-sized paper, the Nexus 7 most closely resembles the size of a comfortable paperback book. It’s easy to hold with a single hand, and is light enough that you’ll forget you’re holding it...not quite Kindle-light, but it only weighs .75 pounds. I was unsure if I’d like the 16:9 screen after so long with the 4:3 iPad screen, but in portrait mode (clearly the dominant mode for the Nexus 7) it was barely noticeable.
The hardware is very solid, the battery life is great, it’s fast, and the screen is easy to read and reproduces colors very well.
Did I mention that it’s only $199?
Gosh, you've... really got some nice toys here.
In many ways, Android really is the anti-iOS. Want to futz around in the file system? Want to do that via USB, WiFi, or maybe run an FTP server directly from the device itself? No problem! Prefer to change the default keyboard? You’ve got a dozen to choose from. Install apps from the official Google Play store, or from side stores, or directly from your hard drive. Android doesn’t care at all.
And while my praise is not universal (Android is still a mess of a UI), there is one new feature in Jelly Bean that does beat iOS for the time being: Google Now. Google Now is a sort of location-sensitive dashboard for your Nexus 7, invoked with a simple upward motion on the screen. It gives you contextual information on what it calls “cards”, based on the time, the place, your calendar, things you’ve indicated interest in, etc. It’s very clever, and Google has the data behind it to make it very, very good at what it does.
Maybe my favorite thing about Jelly Bean is that it replaces the old Android browser with Chrome, my go-to browser. It’s the default in Jelly Bean, and between it’s implementation of tabs and the incredibly robust sync (it will sync bookmarks, passwords, and more with your desktop, and even show you currently open tabs from your different devices) it is maybe my favorite mobile browser. Sorry, Safari.
The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long
As I said, my praise for the Nexus 7 is tempered by its UI and UX issues. There are a few that truly boggle me, such as the way that when Android presents you with a text field that is ready to accept text, it doesn’t pull up the keyboard at the same time. I thought briefly that there must be some way to invoke the speech-to-text feature that I wasn’t aware of, and that Google was just pressing that to become a standard input. But no...you call that function through a key on the keyboard. it’s just terrible UI.
I’m pretty sure that the text rendering on Android was designed by someone who hates reading and readers. It’s that bad, and the only hope you have if you’re a type nerd is hoping that the app you are using can use custom fonts. Roboto is a perfectly functional font, pretty even when used properly, but the serif choices are terrible, and there is still a lot of work that Google could do re: linespacing and kerning. Apple has Android beaten handily for sheer beauty of text.
The OS still has, even after the huge improvements, stumbles and stutters that pull you out of the experience. When I open Chrome it occasionally just locks up for several seconds...no input registers at all. The browser is one of the most-used aspects of a tablet, so I expect Google to be working on making Chrome on Android as good as Chrome on the desktop as quickly as they can.
There are a dozen other small things that show Google’s lack of attention to UI details in Android, but Jelly bean is such a grand improvement overall, I feel like I should be grading them on a curve. Taken on its own, the latest version of Android is very solid, and if they iterate from here, it has the potential for greatness.
A new life awaits you in the Off-world colonies! A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure!
While I still prefer iOS overall, there are some truly great things about Android. Unfortunately, the great things are also the reason for disappointment at times. Case in point: the Google Play app store (formerly the Android Market). Google allows you to download and install apps from anywhere, with no oversight...a very different world than the highly-managed and tightly-controlled Apple App Store. The downside is that, well, there’s just aren’t that many great apps. The number of apps that are written for a tablet screensize is pretty small, and outside of the established companies (Evernote, Netflix, etc) there just hasn’t been the explosion of truly inspired high-quality apps that we’ve seen via Apple.
There are things that iOS just doesn’t allow, and here’s where Android can be important for a certain type of computer user. For instance, if you don’t like the Android keyboard, you can install alternatives. Likewise if you don’t like the Launcher for the homescreen. If you want, you can tweak and set up Android just exactly the way you want, and for some users that is a critical part of their interaction with a computing device.
Android also has a bunch of non-obvious abilities that can come in handy. For instance, while the Nexus 7 only has a single external port, a micro-USB port for charging, with a simple Micro-to-Full size adapter you’re able to plug just about any USB device into the tablet and have it work. Want a full-sized USB keyboard? Ok, just plug one in. Want to use a mouse with your touchscreen? Sure thing, no problem...you can even plug into a USB hub and hang multiple devices off the hub. With a download of the StickMount app from the Play store, you can plug in arbitrary USB thumb drives as well. There’s even been a documented case of someone hooking up a floppy drive to the thing. So if you want to experiment with connectivity, the Nexus 7 has you covered.
There's only two of us now.
With the arrival of the Nexus 7, I can honestly now recommend a tablet that isn’t the iPad. I still wouldn’t recommend this over the iPad unqualifyingly, but the devil is in the details as far as purchasing decisions go. If you have $399 or more, I think the iPad is a better tablet, and iOS is a better computing experience. But if you are dipping your toes in the tablet space for the first time, or are price-constrained, or just want a secondary device to play with, the Nexus 7 is a solid choice. And I couldn’t say that about any other Android tablet, so kudos to Asus and Google for pulling this off. They’ve got a winner on their hands.
What does this mean for libraries?
If your library is looking for a hardware choice for circulating to patrons, or for a tablet to get for staff to use, the Nexus 7 appears to be a solid choice. For circulating to patrons, it runs standard Android apps, which puts things like the Kindle app, the Library Anywhere app from LibraryThing, the Overdrive Media Console, and the 3M Cloud Library app at your fingertips. For staff use, the browser is modern and should handle pretty much any pages thrown at it, as well as handling PDFs and other document types easily. And the Google ecosystem, while well behind Apple, may be good enough for most users.
The 7-inch tablet has found its first real winner, and I’d argue that the Android operating system has found its first true tablet. I was suprised by how much I enjoy using the Nexus 7, and in the end that’s the true test of any consumer electronics device. I really liked using it. It isn’t going to replace my iPad, but I can totally see uses for it where I wouldn’t want to carry an iPad around. And then there are the use-cases that need that USB connectivity or other disallowed behaviors in iOS.
TL;DR: I think the Nexus 7 is a really great tablet. Also: did I mention that it only costs $199?