Google's Nexus 7 (£159 for 8GB, £199 for 16GB) is a game-changer. The first Android tablet with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, offers the most bang for the buck you can get in the market right now. It's versatile, well-built, fast, and a lot of fun to use. It basically renders every 7in tablet priced at more than £250 pretty much irrelevant.
If you're looking for a small tablet to surf the Internet and play games, this is the one to buy. If Amazon has been wondering whether it should have released the Kindle Fire in the UK earlier, that question has been answered now – now that the Nexus 7 is here, the Fire won’t stand a chance.
Physical features and Internet
The Nexus 7 feels well-built, even classy for such an affordable tablet—and trust me, I've handled plenty of cheap tablets. Kudos goes to the hardware manufacturer, Asus, a company that typically builds good stuff.
A Gorilla Glass screen dominates the front of the tablet, and around back, there's a slightly grippy, stippled black rubber panel. At 198.5 x 120 x 10.45mm (HxWxD) and 340g, it's comfortable to hold in one hand for long periods.
Turn the tablet on using the prominent Power button at the top right corner, and you'll see a perfectly fine 1280 x 800, 7in IPS LCD screen with a huge black bezel around it. The screen is higher-res than the Kindle Fire, which clocks in at 1280 x 600.
This is one monster of a bezel, and it makes you wonder if the screen could have been larger, or the tablet smaller. The answer is probably, but not for £159. The display is bright enough to see indoors and out, although it's more reflective and less saturated than the high-end AMOLED screens used by the far more expensive tablets.
A Wi-Fi-only device, the Nexus 7 connects to the Internet using 802.11 b/g/n, albeit only on the 2.4GHz band. I had no problem hooking into several WPA2-protected networks, although it dropped off one of them during testing. The tablet supports Bluetooth for audio and NFC to transfer files to other NFC-equipped Android devices. Interestingly, Google Wallet doesn't appear in Google Play on the Nexus 7, so, for now, at least, it doesn't look like you can make NFC credit-card payments here.
Performance and apps
The quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 chipset inside is one of the fastest mobile processors around. This unit runs at 1.3GHz in single core mode, and 1.2GHz when two to four cores are active. While our Antutu system benchmark won't run on the new version of Android, we ran a bunch of other benchmarks, including Geekbench and Quadrant for system scores, Browsermark and Sunspider for the Web, and Nenamark for graphics.
System-wise, the Nexus 7 performed on par with other recent Tegra 3 tablets. Geekbench is a cross-platform benchmark, and the Tegra 3 tablets score considerably higher on it than the dual-core Apple iPad does—in this case, 1,472 to the iPad's 761. Graphics performance was rock-solid with a 55.9fps rating in Nenamark, higher than the Asus Transformer Pad TF300.
Games just rock here. I downloaded a few of Nvidia's Tegra Zone titles, and both Zen Pinball and Riptide GP had the smooth ease of control, which marks a really good gaming experience. There was no jerkiness, no lag, and no compromises.
This is the first Google device to install Chrome as the default browser, and that's great; it's about 30 per cent faster than the older stock Android browser, and it has a better tab interface.
The performance news gets even better with Android 4.1 thanks to Butter. That's Google's code-name for a project that makes everything in the Android UI smoother, and it works. Screen transitions are indeed smoother, and there's no lag with the touch keyboard. The whole experience feels more polished and professional than previous Android iterations.
Butter doesn't solve everything, though. Android has problems with processing stylus touch inputs that can make it difficult to use drawing programs. I tried Sketchbook Pro with a stylus and still saw a lag. Android 4.1 apparently fixes this, but consumers won't see the advantage yet because the apps involved need to be retooled for the new OS.
Thus we get to the stickiest issue with Android tablets: The perpetual lack of great apps designed to use high-end hardware. This is less of a problem with Tegra-powered 7in tablets than with larger devices, or those with different chipsets, but it's still an issue. Apps designed for 4in phone screens don't look so bad on 7in tablets (although they don't look great), and Nvidia has been busily helping developers churn out a few dozen super-high-end games for its chips.
You're going to find the range of apps designed for Android tablets to be in the single-digit thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands you'll find on the iPad. But the success of this tablet might improve that, and you certainly have some decent apps to start working with. The list on the Tablified Market is an excellent starting point.
Google Play and content handling
When you start up your Nexus 7, you'll see splashy ads for Google's new Play app market. Swipe to the right and you get suggestions from the Play store. The bottom bar on the UI is reserved for Play store icons. Fortunately, you can throw all of those widgets and icons away, because the Play store isn't all that.
Play has a bookstore that isn't nearly as large as Kindle or Nook (both of which run just fine on the Nexus 7), a magazine store that plays second fiddle to Zinio (ditto), and a video store that crashed every time I tried to run it. (Google says that shouldn't be happening, and is trying to help me fix it.) Google also says the tablet will come with preloaded content and a £15 credit for the Google Play store. Our tablet came with the new book, The Bourne Imperative and a hodgepodge of music and magazine issues, but no store credit.
I'm not that bothered about Google Play's problems, because there are enough third party streaming video apps to choose from. That said, it may be a while before all your favourites are updated to work with Jelly Bean. For example, BBC iPlayer won’t run yet, but there is an update in the works.
The tablet also does a good job with your own media, although you have to be careful about codecs and file sizes. The built-in speakers are fine for personal use, although they don't fill a room; sound through headphones, on the other hand, is great, with plenty of bass. The tablet played all of our MPEG4 and H.264 videos up to 1080p resolution, but there's no support for DivX, Xvid or WMV files. In terms of music, it handled all the usual music formats except WMA.
Major music and video buffs will find two disappointments here, though. The big one is that the tablet only comes with 8GB or 16GB of non-expandable storage. I strongly suggest that anyone who intends to store their own movies on here get the 16GB version. The minor one is that there's no MHL, HDMI or any other way to hook the tablet up to a TV.
There's no rear camera, and the Nexus 7 doesn't come with a camera app. And that's fine! Rear cameras on tablets are awkward to use, and they're typically not great anyway. I downloaded a simple third-party camera app to check out the quality of the 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera, and it's predictably noisy, designed for video-chat apps rather than building a photography portfolio.
Verdict: Should I buy a Nexus 7?
Simply put, the Nexus 7 delivers the best balance of price and performance you'll find in the tablet market right now, so it easily walks away with a Best Buy award. But how does the Nexus 7 stack up to Apple’s ubiquitous tablet? The New Apple iPad is a totally different beast.
It's much bigger, heavier, and more powerful with a mobile data option, and a far wider array of apps. It also costs more than twice as much as the Nexus 7. Think of the iPad as a better replacement for another home PC, while the Nexus 7 is for toting around wherever you go.
Google has delivered a powerful, good-looking tablet for an almost shockingly low price here. I wouldn't get too worked up about the Google Play store, as the Kindle app, Comixology, and various video apps make up for the lack of content.
And while Android still falls far short of the iPad in terms of high-quality tablet-designed apps, this could be the device to change that.
The Nexus 7 doesn't magically solve Android's problem with a lack of tablet apps. But it may turn the vicious cycle into a virtuous one, and the spread of these affordable, high-quality Android tablets will cause app developers to start writing for these devices.