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How to improve your Google Nexus 7 tablet in 5 simple steps

The Nexus 7 clocks in at just £199 making it one of the most affordable small tablets out there. Unlike the similarly priced Kindle Fire tablets, this device is running pure Android with all the Google apps you know and love. These are all good tablets, but if you want the geek-approved experience with Google’s apps, you’ll want the Nexus.

If you take the plunge with the Nexus 7, you won’t regret it. And to help you along with your shiny new toy, here’s what you should do with that tablet to make the most of it right off the bat…

1. Unlock the bootloader

One of the coolest things about a Nexus device is that it is completely open and easy to tinker with. If you want to flash ROMs and mess with system files, there’s always a factory image to fall back on should you break something. But you just got it – you don’t need to worry about rooting it right away, but you should think about unlocking the bootloader so you can have some fun later.

By unlocking the bootloader you will be able to flash unsigned software to the internal storage. This is required to swap out the recovery in order to root. The reason you might want to unlock the bootloader proactively is that doing so resets the device to factory settings. It would be a bummer to spend time setting the device up, only to have it wiped when you decide you want to get your hands dirty.

All you need to do is install the Android SDK on your computer and make sure you’ve downloaded the Android device drivers from it.

Then plug in the Nexus 7 via a USB cable (with USB debugging enabled) and open a command prompt/terminal from the SDK platform-tools folder. Enter adb reboot bootloader, then wait for the device to boot and enter fastboot oem unlock. Confirm on the screen that you want to unlock, and you’re done.

Unlocking the bootloader introduces a slight security risk if someone gets their hands on your tablet and really, really wants to get access to your internal storage. For most people, that’s not a real concern. There’s very little risk in this operation and you can always relock at any time.

2. Secure your tablet

The Nexus 7 isn’t the most expensive tablet out there, but that doesn’t mean you should be lax in your security practices. Your next order of business should be to set up the security options, starting with a screen lock. Hit the main system settings, then scroll down to Security. In this menu, it’s a good idea to choose a more secure lock screen, and you’ve got plenty of choices.

The old Android standby is the pattern unlock, which is quick and easy to use. If you want more security, there’s the PIN or password lock options. Whatever you choose, you’ll have to enter it each time you wake up the device, so consider putting in a lock delay as well. Doing so will allow you to wake the device up without entering your code for a short time. Under “Automatically Lock” you can pick a timeout period from immediately to 30 minutes.

So your device is locked down so no one but you can access it, but what if you lose it and a good Samaritan finds it? If they can’t unlock it, they’ll never be able to contact you to return it. In the Security menu there’s an entry for Owner Info that can help with this. With this option, you can include an email address, phone number, or anything else that you want to show up on the lock screen. You could even promise a reward in all caps with exclamation points to encourage honesty (ahem).

The last thing you should do to beef up security is make sure Android Device Manager is fully enabled. In the Security menu, check out the Device Administrators and ensure Android Device Manager is selected. This will allow you to use Google’s built-in system for managing a lost device. Without this option checked, the ADM website and app can only be used to locate and ring a lost tablet. With it enabled, ADM can also lock and wipe a device for your protection.

3. Install these essential apps and games

Netflix – The app has recently been revamped to be much better, and Netflix supports full HD streaming on the Nexus 7 (free with your Netflix subscription).

Dashclock – An excellent widget for the home and lock screens with an ecosystem of extensions that feed you information (free).

SuperBeam – The fastest way to transfer files between two Android devices (free).

Solid Explorer – A full-featured file manager with a dual-pane interface and root support (free trial, $1.99 – £1.20).

Badland – A beautiful and innovative physics-based side-scroller (free demo, $2.99 upgrade – £1.80).

Riptide GP2 – An intense racing game with amazing graphics and full support for Google Play Games (£1.99).

Kingdom Rush Frontiers – Perhaps the most exquisitely well-balanced and enjoyable tower defence game ever produced (£0.60).

Reaper – 2D hack-and-slash combat with a really cool visual style (free demo, variable priced upgrade).

4. Customise and tweak

So now you’re loaded down with apps, what about making the device yours? Android offers a ton of customisation options, but there are a few things worth doing right away.

Since we downloaded the fabulous Dashclock widget, you’ll want to enable lock screen widgets. The new default in Android 4.4 is to only allow the regular clock on the lock screen. Go into the Security menu and check the box next to Enable Widgets – yes, it’s not very descriptive. Replace the regular clock with Dashclock and you’ll thank yourself.

As you install apps, make sure you check out the widget list to see if any of them could be of use on your home screen. And don’t be afraid to go beyond the stock wallpapers and sounds. You can load any images onto the internal storage and set it as a wallpaper in the Gallery or Photos app. Dropping an MP3 into the Notifications or Ringtones folder on the internal storage will automatically add it to the list of sounds in the settings as well.

You may also want to sideload the necessary APK to enable Google’s still semi-secret Google Experience Launcher (GEL). This home screen is currently only official on the Nexus 5, but it already exists on the Nexus 7 by way of the Google Search app. The GEL file is only a stub that gives you access.

5. Look at Nexus 7 cases and accessories

The Nexus 7 supports wireless Qi charging, but you only get an old fashioned USB cable in the box. There are a variety of chargers in different price brackets. There is an inexpensive option from Anker for £26. However, the official Nexus charger is good for the Nexus 7 because it has a magnet that properly aligns the coils in the tablet with the base – and at £35 it’s not much dearer than the Anker effort.

As for cases, the official Nexus folio is of interest because it has a built-in stand and an interesting design, and it sells for £26. If you want something a bit cheaper, Poetic makes a similar case that users have been quite happy with, and it’s only around £15.

The Nexus 7 boasts a solid battery life, but it’s always smart to have a little extra juice handy when using a device with a non-removable battery. Again, we’d recommend you look at Anker, as its external batteries have a very good reputation. You can grab a cell several times larger than the Nexus 7’s internal battery for around the £30 mark. Since the Nexus 7 uses a standard microUSB port (as opposed to the proprietary plugs used on some larger tablets), it can be plugged into the battery with any matching cable you have lying around.