Google Nexus 7 Android tablet hands-on

The Nexus 7 isn’t a revolutionary tablet, but it’s certainly an evolutionary one: a device that builds on the mistakes and successes of Android tablets thus far. It’s the first to crawl out of the ocean of terrible Android slates, and on the way it’s crushed the slower and weaker Kindle Fire (which was oh-so-close). Call it natural tablet selection.

While the iPad remains the undisputed king of tablets, it’s hard to ignore just how much the Nexus 7 gets right. It’s light enough to hold with one hand, powerful enough to run complex apps and games, and best of all, it’s just $200. Apple may have the shiniest tablet on the block, but the Nexus 7 is by far the best value of any mobile device, be it smartphone or slate.

Before the Nexus 7 was officially unveiled, I argued that we shouldn’t expect anything truly revolutionary from a Google tablet — and I’m sticking to that. The Nexus 7 doesn’t do anything new, it just does it better and cheaper than any 7-inch tablet thus far. And combined with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, it’s the best experience I’ve had with Google’s mobile OS to date.

The Good: Fast, powerful, filled with Jelly Bean

In my initial hands-on with the Nexus 7, I was shocked by how luxurious it felt for a budget-priced tablet. After spending several days with it, I’m even more impressed by what Asus (which built the tablet under Google’s guidance) was able to accomplish. As I sped through dozens of tabs in Chrome, watched YouTube videos, and jammed through Spotify playlists — often multi-tasking between all of these apps — the Nexus 7 didn’t break a sweat.

Simply put, the tablet never gets in your way, which to me is the hallmark of a great computing device.

It’s no surprise why the Nexus 7 is such a speed demon: It sports a quad-core Tegra 3 processor and 1 gigabyte of RAM, specs typically found in much more expensive devices. Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which struggles just to browse the web and is the only successful Android tablet to date, can’t hold a candle to the Nexus 7.

Asus didn’t skimp on the tablet’s other hardware either (save for the small amount of storage, more on that below). Its 7-inch screen offers a 1,280 x 800 resolution (good enough for 720p HD video), and since it’s an IPS display, it offers rich colors, wide viewing angles, and good outdoor performance. After “testing” plenty of HD video and magazines, I found the Nexus 7’s screen to be among the best on an Android tablet (save for Samsung’s slates).

The hefty 4325 mAh battery is rated for nine hours of video playback and 300 hours of standby. I only needed to charge the Nexus 7 every other day when using it for web browsing, Twitter, and the occasional video. The strong battery life is key, since it will make the Nexus 7 a useful companion to your existing laptop.

While the powerful hardware is great, what makes the Nexus 7 such a joy to use is how much Android 4.1 Jelly Bean improves on the Android experience. You can thank Google’s “Project Butter” for that, an initiative that was dedicated to making Android feel as smooth as butter. New enhancements, like triple buffering in the graphics pipeline and Vsync, which keeps the device’s framerate in sync with the display, make for the most tactile Android experience yet. Overall, it feels like the OS is now ready and waiting for your input — a sensation that iOS and Windows Phone has given me, but never Android.

Since it’s running a full version of Android, the Nexus 7 also gives you access to all of the apps on Google Play. Amazon’s Kindle Fire, notably, only lets you access a select few apps.

Aside from the big fit and finish improvements, Jelly Bean also includes some intriguing voice search capabilities. As always, you can perform web searches with your voice, but Jelly Bean also taps into Google’s Knowledge Base to get you Siri-like answers to simple questions. The OS manages to outdo Apple’s virtual assistant with Google Now, an intelligent search feature that learns your habits and provides information without your input. For example, Google Now can tell you if your bus or train is delayed, without any prompting, as you’re making your morning commute.

I didn’t use the Nexus 7 long enough for it to learn my habits, but I’m intrigued by the possibility of Google Now. The other voice search capabilities work about as well for me as Siri does for the iPhone.

It’s worth noting how Apple and Google are positioning their virtual assistants: For Apple it’s a virtual being; for Google it’s all tied into search. That makes sense for Google, though, as the voice search in Jelly Bean feels like the biggest advancement in the company’s search technology for years.

Eventually, you won’t be typing queries into — you’ll be speaking them aloud to a search prompt on your mobile (or wearable) device. Jelly Bean gives us our closest glimpse so far into Google’s search future.

The bad: Few storage options

Flash memory is expensive, so it comes as no surprise that Asus went as low as it could to get the Nexus 7 down to $200. With 8-gigabytes of storage, the entry-level Nexus 7 is on par with the Kindle Fire. If you’re going to be streaming most of your media, as I expect many will, this likely won’t be a problem. But eventually, you’ll begin to feel the crunch of storage space, especially as you pile on the apps.

If you need more storage space, your only other option right now is the 16GB Nexus 7 for $250. If the tablet takes off, as I expect it will, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 32GB version eventually pop up.

It’s funny that, in its quest to create the perfect Android tablet, Asus didn’t include one of the few useful features currently found on many Android devices: support for additional storage with microSD cards. Given that you can now buy a 32GB microSD card for around $20, it seems like a no-brainer to support additional storage cards.

The verdict: The best 7-inch tablet yet

Aside from its limited storage, there’s little I can fault with the Nexus 7. It’s fast, light, and cheap, but it also feels like it costs twice as much. We’ve already seen consumers go crazy for ultra-cheap tablets like the discounted HP Touchpad, so I expect the Nexus 7 to do quite well once it’s available in retail stores (right now you can only pre-order it from Google).

Before the Nexus 7, I’d never have recommended an Android tablet to anyone. The Kindle Fire was a nice effort, but it quickly became apparent that it was too underpowered and limited in its scope. This tablet, in comparison, should please even the pickiest consumers.

I’m still not convinced Google actually understands tablets, but the Nexus 7 proves it’s at least trying to.

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