Google's new Nexus 7 hasn't deviated a great deal from the device's original form. It is smaller, thinner and lighter, coming in at just 8.65mm thick and weighing 290g, but it has kept its sleek, black minimal appearance and features. Like its predecessor, it has foregone the gamut of ports and slots, with only a micro USB port on the bottom edge and an 3.5mm audio jack on the top.
Of course, this minimal design means that there are a few things missing. Users have often deplored the iPads lack of expandable memory, and the Nexus 7 likewise lacks SD card support. Neither is there support for a mini HDMI cable, although with streaming that probably isn't quite so much of an issue.
What many users may miss is the comfortable textured back. This time around, Asus opted for a hard smooth matte plastic which, while it doesn't feel bad, does lack the tactile appeal of last year's tablet.
The 7-inch screen, on the other hand, is simply stunning. It packs in a 1920 x 1200 (323 ppi) resolution compared to last year's model's 1280 x 800 (216 ppi), with, Google claims, a 30 per cent increase in colour range. And it does look beautiful — crisp and vivid, with off-axis viewability hindered only by light reflecting off the glass. And the introduction of OpenGL ES 3.0 to Android 4.3 allows the tablet to take full advantage of that beautiful screen.
Finally, the new tablet has added at least one feature the previous model was missing: a rear-facing camera. Coming in at 5-megapixels, it leaves photo quality a little lacking — especially with contemporaneous gadgets tending to sport 8-megapixel snappers. Nevertheless, its inclusion at all is an improvement, since many users deplored the lack in its predecessor.
One of the biggest draws of the Nexus 7 this year is Android 4.3's ability to create multiple profiles for different users — or even the same user, so that you can partition the device between set-ups for work and play, or create a restricted profile for a child or guest users. Although multiple profiles were available with Android 4.2, this is the first time that users have been able to set up a profile that limits access to certain features — the ability to download new apps, for instance.
When you set up a restricted profile, only the administrator account — which requires an unlock code for access — can approve apps and content for that profile, and the restricted profile is unable to access the Play store at all. Additionally, Google services such as Gmail, Drive, even the Chrome browser are disabled by default. This allows you to hand over your tablet to a friend or child without worrying about what they'll get up to with your save files — or your Google Play downloads.
Generally, however, the software features are minor upgrades to Android 4.2. You might notice a few performance improvements here and there, and a few small UI differences, but nothing significant. We don't see this as a problem — it's an absolutely fine operating system — but if you're hoping for a big leap up, you will have to wait a little longer.
Hardware-wise, the Nexus 7 houses a 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor with 2GB of RAM and a 400MHz Adreno 320 GPU. It also sports surround sound by German audio company Fraunhofer, a GPS, a gyroscope, an accelerometer and a compass. It supports 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, including Bluetooth Smart. Ports are micro USB, 3.5mm audio and SlimPort, which allows you to convert the micro USB to HDMI using an additional adapter. The battery can last up to nine hours on a single charge.
The first time we saw the screen — which we already mentioned was stunning — we were blown away. Its high resolution and graphics processing powers make it one of the best on the market, hands-down. It's super bright, and colours are rich and lush. Some have argued that, next to another tablet, sometimes the colours can be a bit askew, tending towards negligible green, but unless you have two tablets side-by-side, you won't notice the difference.
We would argue that its ability to smoothly render complex, high-definition 3D graphics in real-time — as demonstrated using Unity graphics demo app The Chase, which allowed us to slow down, rewind and zoom in on the action of a high-speed, futuristic hoverbike chase — more than makes up for this, anyway — especially at the Nexus 7's price point.
Otherwise, the tablet responds smartly to commands — we noticed no lag when launching apps, or swiping through screens, and logged no device crashes. One particular feature of Android that we particularly enjoyed is the way it links your Wi-Fi password to your Google account, so the device, upon bringing it home, was able to immediately log in to the home network without having to input the password again. Once or twice, we did notice that it failed to log in to a Wi-Fi network, and suspect it occasionally has difficulty switching environments — this problem was resolved by restarting the device.
Benchmark-wise, it can certainly hold its own next to current-gen peers. Running Chrome on BrowserMark, it's nearly up to speed with far pricier devices, and its GFXBench results are more than respectable compared to other tablets on the market.
BrowserMark benchmark results
Samsung Galaxy S4
Google Nexus 7 (2013)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
GFXBench 2.7 T-Rex HD Onscreen (FPS)
Google Nexus 7 (2013)
Sony Xperia Z
Apple iPad Mini
Samsung Galaxy Note 8
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
We were happy to find that Google Now has vastly improved since last year's Nexus 7. It seems to have no problem understanding the Australian accent — which makes sense, since Google has had time to work on the voice-activated personal assistant based on user feedback. It had no problem locating local information, and we particularly enjoyed the contextual "intelligent" search; for example, if you ask "What time is it in Tokyo?" followed by, "Is it raining there?", Google Now will tell you the weather in Tokyo. The service can also be used to set alarms, location-based reminders and calendar dates, dictate emails and voice-to-text translation.
The one major area area where the tablet disappointed won't come as a surprise: its rear camera. We don't expect much of front cameras, which seem to exist only for video calls and therefore don't need to take amazing pictures, but a rear camera is a different kettle of fish. The Nexus 7's seems to struggle with colour and lighting accuracy, and futzes fine detail. Although users were annoyed by the lack of a rear-facing camera with the first Nexus 7, we'd prefer it be left out than sub-par — or perhaps expandable memory would have been a more useful inclusion, given most people will have access to a smartphone camera anyway.
Even given its flaws, the Nexus 7 is an excellent performer when it comes to music, film, reading and games — especially for its price point, at AU$299 for the 16GB Wi-Fi model, AU$339 for the 32GB Wi-Fi model and AU$439 for the 32GB LTE model. Its screen is top-notch, and other improvements delivered by both the hardware and Android 4.3 once again launch it to the top of the affordable small tablet category.