Balance – that's the key. Last year's Nexus 7 from Google set the bar for small tablets with just the right balance of features, size, and price. This year, Google and Asus have done it again, balancing size, performance, and a wallet-friendly price to hit the sweet spot for a compact tablet.
Editor's Note: This is a review of the Google Nexus 7 tablet for summer 2013. For our review of the original 2012 Google Nexus 7, see here.
Nexus 7 physical features
The new Nexus 7 is slimmer, lighter, and more comfortable to hold than the original, which was already more comfortable to hold than the oddly wide Apple iPad mini. This model measures 200 x 8.6 x 114mm (WxDxH) and weighs 290 grams, with tapered sides and a soft-touch back that somehow feels a little classier than the weird faux-leather of the original Nexus 7. Asus still understands that narrowness, more than anything else, is key to making a device you might sometimes want to hold in one hand.
There are very few ports here – just microUSB, a headphone jack, and a microphone – and narrower, but not very narrow, side bezels framing a sharp 1,920 x 1,200 screen.
The screen is the big advance here. Asus swapped out the Nexus 7's original 1,280 x 800 screen with a gorgeous 1,920 x 1,200-pixel IPS LCD panel. At 323 ppi, it's almost exactly the same density as the iPhone 5's Retina display and higher than any iPad. It's bright enough for most circumstances, colours are very true, and the viewing angle is good – but it's also small enough that the screen doesn't totally kill battery life. We got 7 hours and 37 minutes of video playback with the screen turned up to max brightness. While that's definitely shorter than the 10 hours that last year's model, with its less dense screen, managed, it's still quite respectable.
The Nexus 7 comes in three models. The first two are Wi-Fi only, with support for 802.11a/b/g/n on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands – the support for faster 5GHz Wi-Fi is another upgrade from last year's version. The 16GB Wi-Fi model has gone on pre-order for £199, and the 32GB version (which we were sent for review) retails at £239. The third unit packs 4G LTE support and will retail at £299 (with 32GB of storage – there’s no 16GB option with the LTE slate).
All of the models have GPS, which makes this bright little tablet an absolutely killer in-car navigation system. The GPS on my test tablet locked in very quickly. The tablet also has Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC, although surprisingly there's no support for Google Wallet. Maybe Google Wallet is a thing of the past.
Performance, OS and apps
The Nexus 7 is the first Android 4.3 tablet, running a 1.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm S4 Pro APQ8064 processor. Think of it as about two-thirds of the way up the current performance ladder, with the Samsung Galaxy S4 phone at the top. It almost doubles the performance of last year's Nvidia Tegra 3-based Nexus 7 on pure processor and graphics benchmarks, and positively crushes the iPad mini on the Geekbench system benchmark: The mini scored only 748, while this guy registers 2,643. The Chrome browser beats the iPad mini on the Sunspider browser benchmark by about 30 per cent.
Real-world performance isn't solely dependent on processor speed: It's dependent on how many pixels you're pushing, the OS, and third-party apps. That's where the Nexus 7, running Android 4.3, runs into a bit of trouble. I run the same bunch of Android apps every time I test a tablet, and some of them either didn't show up in the market or got buggy on the Nexus.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted, for instance, suffered from weird graphics artifacts. The UI in Netflix was sluggish, although videos played just fine. Asphalt 7: Heat, one of my standard test games, didn't even show up on a search. Sometimes when searching Google's own Play store, animations would get jittery or the text entry box would lose focus. The popular video player MX Player quit on launch. I suspect a lot of these problems are Android 4.3 issues which will get solved quickly as the app creators update their work.
I didn't see any such problems in Google's other built-in apps, and other apps such as Riptide GP2, Paper Monsters, Dead Trigger, and Photoshop Touch ran just fine. Most importantly, Google's Chrome browser runs very, very well here, as do Netflix and Amazon's Kindle app. I'd still recommend e-ink e-readers to many people because of their vast reserves of battery life and sunlight readability, but this will do a great job with children's books and comics.
This has always been Google's struggle with Android tablets: Making sure third-party apps are up to speed with the platform. Google has changed the home page of its Play store so only tablet-friendly apps show up, although you can still find "ugly" apps not designed for tablet screens by searching for them. Those apps still don't look too bad on a 7in screen; it's really with 10in tablets that you’ll run into problems.
Apple's iPad mini has a superior app experience, it's true. You'll find more and better apps in Apple's app store, and they're pretty much all guaranteed to run smoothly. But the Nexus 7's app situation is good enough for that not to be a deal-breaker.
Android 4.3's other flagship feature makes this an excellent kids' tablet. Android 4.2 allowed for the creation of multiple user accounts on your tablet, and now "restricted profiles" have been introduced to let you create accounts that can only use certain apps. I created one and found that the restricted account was locked out of the Google Play store. YouTube threw up an error message but worked anyway; all the other apps I allowed my virtual child to use worked fine.
With no memory card slot, I suggest buying the 32GB Nexus 7 (with 26GB of storage available) over the 16GB unit. The price difference is only £40, and you'll want the space. The new Nexus 7 adds a 5-megapixel rear camera to the tablet, keeping the 1-megapixel front camera as well.
The new Android 4.3 camera app's UI is extremely simple, although you still get some options like capture size, a countdown timer, a few scene modes, panorama and Photo Sphere. Photos taken with the main camera were clear enough in good light, although bright areas were washed out and there was some visible colour noise. In low light, the noise really ramped up. Front camera images tended to be very soft, even smeary (but not blurry) in low light. The main camera captured 1080p video at 30 frames per second indoors and out; the front camera captured 720p at 30 frames per second. There's no image stabilisation, but there is a time-lapse mode.
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The front camera is fine for video chatting, and the main camera will do just fine for augmented-reality apps, bar code scanners, language translators, and all the things you really should be using a tablet camera for. People taking snapshots with tablet cameras generally look like idiots – don't be one.
Asus amped up the volume of the stereo speakers here, and they're now quite loud, although they're still tinny. Fraunhofer surround sound gives some real stereo separation in material coded for it, like Google Play movies. Still, the only way you're going to get bass is with headphones.
The Nexus 7 had no problem playing MPEG4 and H.264 videos in resolutions up to 1080p, as well as streaming Netflix and Google Play movies. There's no DivX or Xvid support by default.
The Nexus 7 doesn't come with any wired means to output video to a TV, but it works with Google's new $35 (£23) Chromecast to play some streaming (not local) media on TVs, and there's also a SlimPort micro-USB-to-HDMI adapter available that works with this Nexus 7 and last year's Nexus 4 smartphone.
The new Google Nexus 7 will be the right small tablet for most people when it comes across to the UK (hopefully pretty soon, according to Currys it will be September). Regarding rivals, the cheaper £159 Amazon Kindle Fire HD is only the right choice right now if you're heavily invested in Amazon's media world, although a new and more competitive model is probably coming soon. If you want to go a lot cheaper, then obviously you’ll be sacrificing a great deal for a really budget Android slate – not the least of which will be the new Nexus 7’s superb screen.
At the higher end, the £269 iPad mini has an unmatched range of apps, but you'll pay for that heavily in terms of a grainier screen, higher price, and more awkward form factor. And the £339 Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 has a Dirk Diggler-like "one special thing" in terms of its pen support, although you should only commit the cash if you need that pressure-sensitive pen.
Small tablets are most often used for some media, some gaming, some web browsing, and some e-reading. Provided third-party developers update their apps for Android 4.3 – and I think they will, soon – the new Nexus 7 is ideal for all of those, thanks to its sharp screen, comfortable ergonomics, and solid performance at an ideal price. All this means that Google’s latest tablet effort gets one of our Best Buy awards.