Google's new Nexus 7 tablet: hands-on preview

Google unveiled the second-generation Nexus 7 yesterday. It wasn't a huge surprise given widespread rumours that the company was planning to lift the curtain on the follow-up to the original 7in Nexus 7 tablet released last year, an ecosystem-prodding device that wound up being the best-selling Nexus-branded device ever.

The big reveal at Google's San Francisco event turned out to be a $35 (£23, although the UK price is still to be confirmed) thumb drive-shaped dongle called the Chromecast which plugs into your TV and streams video and other media content from the cloud, using mobile devices and laptops as de facto remote controls. That's an intriguing play by the search giant, but the new Nexus 7 is based on a tried-and-true platform and also ought to move quite a few units, given its previous sales history.

I got my hand on the new Nexus 7 following a press event led by Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Android, Chrome, and Apps. The tablet features a black-on-black design that looks a whole lot like the original Nexus 7. It's slimmer and lighter than the first Nexus 7, but unless you're holding the original slate and the new one in either hand, you're probably not going to notice much difference.

For me, the big deal with the new Nexus 7 is the display. As I tooled around on the take-home unit Google gave us, surfing the net and playing some YouTube videos, I found the screen resolution much crisper than the first-generation, even approaching Apple's Retina display for its 10in iPad, but on a 7in device. In fact, the Nexus 7 has a 1,920 x 1,200 display that boasts 323 pixels per inch, which Google said is the highest resolution for a 7in tablet and the highest PPI for any tablet on the market.

Following the event, I spoke with Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, and he seemed to agree with me that the improvement to the Nexus 7 display was the key factor. He also offered some thoughts on the rest of the tablet's hardware specs.

"The new Nexus 7 has some very solid specifications, particularly around the 1920 x 1200 display with HDMI out and LTE, a massive leap forward. Google chose the Qualcomm S4, and with its embedded Adreno 320, users will see some very good performance. 802.11ac would have been a nice addition, but Google instead opted to invest that money into a second camera," Moorhead said.

The tablet's new GPU and support for the latest OpenGL standard definitely does mark an improvement on the original Nexus 7. I didn't spend enough time with the new tablet to really make a call here – stay tuned for our full review in the coming days – but on video playback there was less stuttering than I've experienced with the older version and frame rates seemed better.

Google is also touting some new features built into Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. In my brief hands on, I didn't get to explore the "Restricted Profiles" feature, but it allows for more parental controls on the new tablet, as well as uses in point-of-sale operations. The new version of Android also supports the Bluetooth Smart protocol, which manages power usage while transferring data to preserve battery life, apparently a good thing for folks using fitness apps.

Booting up the tablet

Getting started on the new Nexus 7 is a pretty smooth experience. I was able to boot up, plough through some informational screens, set my preferred language, connect to Wi-Fi, and log in with my Google profile in about a minute or two. Once that's done, the base interface will be familiar to anyone who has an original Nexus 7, down to the home screen button and easy navigation towards apps, the Internet via Chrome, and the Google Play store.

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I was a little dismayed to find that upon accessing my Google Play content, it was presented to me in the same visually appealing but hard to navigate way as on the original Nexus 7. For example, instead of a simple list of your music, you see a few big album covers with no clear way to find the rest of your songs. With the older tablet, I found out after considerable effort that it's possible to adjust things so you get the content you own/have stored with Google in a simple list format, but it's odd to me that the default presentation actually makes it difficult to discover and access every bit of stuff you've accumulated for your mobile device.

I snapped a few photos using the 5-megapixel rear-facing camera on the new Nexus 7. It's certainly not the most powerful camera available on a mobile device, but I was pretty happy with the results and even began to get used to the somewhat fiddly touch-sensitive focus adjustment tool that pops up when you're in photo-taking mode.

As for the battery life, I didn't take precise measurements, but playing music on full volume for more than an hour didn't seem to dent the battery too much, and when I plugged the device into a wall socket, the charging rate appeared to be fairly rapid. We'll tackle that in our full review, but Google promised an extra hour of battery life over the original.

There will be a 16GB Wi-Fi model priced at $229 (£149) and a 32GB Wi-Fi model priced at $269 (£175), both of which will be available on Tuesday next week in the US. There’s also a 32GB 4G LTE version that will launch "in the coming weeks" for $349 (£227) over in the States. As for the UK, the new Nexus will be available in the next few weeks.

While you're here, you might also want to take a look at our spec comparison between the original Nexus tablet and the new Nexus 7.