Physically speaking, the difference between Android tablets and Apple's iPad has, for the most part, been in the little things. Not unimportant things, mind you, but features that are small in size. A micro-HDMI port, for example, is something we expect to see on an Android tablet, micro-SD card slots too. Some Android tablets play host to USB ports, both full size and micro, and some have a slot that also read the SD card you use in your digital cameras.
Not so with the Nexus 7. Google's approach is far simpler than its OEM partners. Opting to follow Apple's lead, Google has designed a tablet with the bare minimum of openings, ports and slots. There's a single micro-USB port at the base of the tablet, which is used for both charging and data transfers, and there is a 3.5mm headphone socket on the top. Otherwise, the tablet is sealed in a comfortable, plastic chassis, with a dimpled texture to hold on to.
The Nexus 7 is light, and its textured cover is comfortable to hold.
It's not the slimmest mobile gadget around; the Nexus 7 is about 10.5mm thick, but thankfully, it is one of the lightest tablets you can buy. At 340-grams, Google estimates that this tablet weighs the same as a standard paperback (think Pride and Prejudice, not War and Peace) and it is certainly one of the most comfortable to hold, even for long stretches of time.
The screen is probably the reason Google chose to work with Asus on this project, given the success Asus has had with its tablet displays thus far. The screen on the Nexus 7 is fantastic for the price you'll pay, offering an HD resolution IPS panel with responsive multi-touch controls. Colours and blacks could be bolder, but text onscreen is crisp and gradients appear smoothly. Off-axis viewing angles are good, though not as good as those on the larger Asus Transformer models.
It's also worth noting that the Nexus 7 doesn't have a rear-facing camera. There is a 1.2MP front-facing lens for video-calling, but there is no camera for everyday photography. Some may disagree, but we think this a wise decision. Cameras on tablets tend to be of a poor quality and are awkward to use because of the larger size of the devices themselves.
We do feel Google is missing a trick in not including an HDMI port on the Nexus 7, though. This tablet is primarily a multimedia consumption device, and the option to share the content on the tablet with a larger screen makes sense to us. That said, we doubt may Nexus 7 owners will miss this functionality, either way.
Android Jelly Bean
One of the best reasons to consider the Nexus 7 over any of the other Android tabs available at the moment, is that you are all-but guaranteed to have the latest version of Android as soon as Google releases it. The Nexus 7has the Jelly Bean version for now, and while we've published more detailed opinions on this update already, it is worth pointing out the top-line pros and cons, as it informs so much of how this review is constructed.
For starters, Jelly Bean is definitely better than all previous versions of Android. It feels slick and fast and there is almost no processing lag whatsoever. Animated transitions appear fluid and they respond to all touchscreen input, however subtle. There is the standard suite of Google apps pre-installed, plus a few new ones like Google's Flipboard-style news reader, called Currents. You also get a free movie (Transformers: Dark of the Moon) and AU$25 credit on the Play store, which is substantial when you consider that you can buy the 8GB version of this tablet for AU$249.
Google Now is also installed, a new application which attempts to deliver information to you, before you request it. For example, if you tell the tablet your route to work and home each day, it will, in theory, give you traffic warnings before you set out in either direction. You can also tell it where you live and which sporting teams you like, among other things, and it will keep you up to date with weather and scores. To launch Google Now you simply swipe upwards from the virtual Home button on the navigation bar.
Really, Google Now? You think I should hang out at Scruffy Murphy's?
In our tests, Google Now was pretty useless. We couldn't plug in Australian sporting teams, and we didn't find the automatic navigation suggestions very helpful. From the sample cards you can browse through, it seems like a great feature for travellers with flight times and currency and language translators on hand. We did find the updated voice search feature far more useful though, with voice-to-text translation providing far more accurate results than previously.
Matching the tablet's excellent screen and design, Google and OEM partner Asus pack in some of the best of this generation's mobile hardware. Opting for an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, Google pretty much guarantees that you'll be able to run anything in its app store with this tablet, plus future proofs it for some time to come. It seamlessly handled all of our tests, all games and HD video content we threw at it, and it multitasked between these apps without complaint.
In synthetic benchmark comparisons, the Nexus 7 certainly held its own. It's BrowserMark result was excellent, using the Chrome browser for Android, and 17.69 frames-per-second in a 3D rendering benchmark is solid, though not mind-blowing.
BrowserMark benchmark results
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7
ASUS Transformer 300T
Apple iPad (2012)
ASUS Nexus 7
Acer Iconia 510
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Battery life in tablets is never as much of a concern as it is with smartphones, especially a 7-inch tablet that doesn't have 3G connectivity. Asus includes a 4325mAh battery pack in the Nexus 7 and delivers Energizer Bunny-like results, with 10 hours of 720p video playback in our tests, over five hours of web browsing and approximately five days of standby between charges. As with the display, it is great that battery life is not one of the areas sacrificed to keep the price low.
One important thing to remember about the Nexus 7 is that there is no 3G option — this tablet is strictly Wi-Fi only. If you feel like you're going to need data regularly when you're on the move, you might look to some of the other 3G models available.
Of course, savvy smartphone users will know that you can easily share the data on your smartphone account with this tablet, using the personal Wi-Fi hotspot option on most current smartphones. You might need to increase your monthly data allowance through your telco if you take this route, but it will give you the data you need on the Nexus 7, when you need it.
Perhaps the most limiting feature of the Nexus 7 is that it only comes in 8GB and 16GB storage options, and there is no way to expand this memory with an SD card, or similar. This means you have to figure out in advance whether the extra AU$50 for the 16GB is money well spent, or not. Only offering these two options is obviously part of Google's plans to keep the price of the Nexus 7 to a minimum, but it definitely creates an obstacle for users with large media libraries.
It might mean that you will have to consider alternatives to local storage for certain file types. Photos and documents can be accessed easily and quickly when they are archived on a cloud storage tool like Dropbox, though this won't work so well for videos. Also, if you have a large music collection, you might consider signing up to a streaming service like Spotify, rather than dumping all of your MP3 files on the memory of this tablet.
Google's tablet is easily our favourite Android tablet, blowing past the excellent Asus Transformer in our esteem with its lightweight design and low price. We've seen other tablets in this price range before, but none have come close to delivering the performance of the Nexus 7, or having a screen of the same quality as you get here.
This is an important tablet for geeks, as it will be the best way to stay up to date with Google's platform as it advances. For everyone else, the Nexus 7 is a great value tablet and a solid alternative for anyone who wants an iPad, but isn't prepared to pay top-dollar for one.