The future is now, or at least that’s what Google wants you to believe. They may not be wrong; with technology moving at the pace it is, even a slow economy and perhaps the worst political climate in history isn’t doing much to slow down technological growth. And Google is at the forefront with Android OS, now at 4.1 (codenamed Jelly Bean), available for just one device: the newly branded Google tablet from ASUS, the Nexus 7. And what a good start to Google’s tablet line it is.

The Nexus 7 is, as the name suggests, a 7″ tablet that is built to replace any similarly-sized device while offering all of the traditional apps and services available on a tablet. That means e-readers, media players, and other tablets. It isn’t perfect; for starts it comes with either 8/16GB, which is a pitiful amount for a tablet today, and there is no upgradeable storage. But because of some great hardware and software, the Nexus 7 makes for a very decent device.

Hardware

Inside our Nexus 7, provided by Staples, is a special version of NVIDIA’s Tegra 3 T30L chip that instead of a traditional 1.2GHz dual-core CPU has a 1.3GHz quad-core CPU, 1GB of RAM, and a 12-core GPU. No other device, even to this day (since we are reviewing the Nexus 7 fairly late after it’s release), has a GPU with this many cores. We’ll talk about how that’s equally a good and bad thing in a bit.

All this processing muscle powers the 1280×800 IPS display that provides decent levels of brightness but lacks the light and color contrast that we’ve seen in tablets recently, like in ASUS’ own Transformer Prime Infinity TF700T. Pictures and video aren’t stunning on this display, though they aren’t bad. Colors are close enough to accurate, and games look good enough and are certainly bright enough to play in bright conditions (but not in direct sunlight).

What’s actually really impressive about the Nexus 7, and may sound like a moot point, is the back case, which makes the tablet absolutely wonderful to hold for any period of time. The Nexus 7 has a dimpled texture on the back, which provides excellent grip and minimal slip, almost regardless of hand dampness. It’s the best grip I’ve ever tested on a tablet of this size, and it’s the only tablet that I’ve comfortably held for over an hour one-handed.

The Nexus 7 is, in nearly every other way, built like any traditional 7″ tablet, though ASUS has chosen Samsung’s design over Apple’s in some ways. The power button sits above the volume rocker on the top right, and the auxiliary cable is on the bottom of the device, beside the Micro USB connector. The latter is something I applaud, especially with so many tablets, including the TF700T, using a proprietary connector because the larger battery requires more power to flow to charge. The Nexus 7 doesn’t have that problem, as we’ll talk more about in the battery section below.

The Kindle Fire (left) beside the Nexus 7

On the bottom left is also a panel for future use, potentially for inductive charging, though no accessories make use of it yet. There are two microphones, one on the top and one on the bottom left, and a rear speaker designed to bounce sound off of users hands when cupping over it. The design is very non-intrusive, and it works well for gaming and watching movies, but only if you hold the tablet with two hands, or at least the correct hand (depending on which way you hold it).

There also is no rear-facing camera, which is unfortunate but understandable. However, as I say with all tablet cameras, they should be a requirement but they shouldn’t have excellent quality. They should be good enough for VR use for apps, but not for still or video photography. So it’s a shame that the Nexus 7 doesn’t have a rear camera to accommodate that. The front-facing camera is decent, and certainly good enough for videochat.

Software

The Nexus 7 is the first device in the world with Android 4.1, which for most people will appear identical to Android 4.0. The Nexus 7 is superbly stable, and the software functions flawlessly. I’ve had nary an app crash nor the tablet reboot; it has, over the past two months of testing, proved to be extremely stable and a very solid OS.

Android 4.1 does have some updates to the OS besides for general speed enhancements, which you can read all about here. The ones that actually impact everyday use are from Google Now, which uses information that you input into major applications and gives back additional information later on. For example, search for a destination in maps and five minutes before your appointment Now will have a traffic report available in the drop-down menu. It’s a simple convenience tool, but a very powerful one when done correctly.

Unfortunately however, with a tablet Google Now is almost irrelevant. What helps is that it’s connected to users’ Google accounts, not to the device, so if you look up the weather out of town for a trip on your computer, then fiddle with the Nexus 7 later on, it’ll have a new weather report available. Google Now works with weather, traffic, public transportation, flights, and more. It’s similar to what Microsoft offers with Windows Phone in the OS, and while not as robust (yet), once it hits phones the usefulness of the service will grow exponentially.

Performance

As I wrote about in the hardware section (above), the Nexus 7 uses less powerful but inherently different hardware from what most tablets today may have. The quad-core Tegra 3 T30 with 12 GPU cores is something no device has, and while it sounds great in a marketing pitch and to the general public, I can only imagine the nightmare it can potentially be to developers. Remember the PS3′s Cell processor, anyone?

Then again, NVIDIA has always been much better at software platforms than, say, Sony, but the bigger question regarding performance to take advantage of all of those additional cores is whether developers will want to do it in the first place. As you can see in the benchmarks below, the Nexus 7 doesn’t fare better than higher bandwidth and more traditional chips, including NVIDIA’s own T33 in the ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity.

While the Browsermark test shows a pretty decent score, especially compared to most smartphones and tablets, it is still fairly distant from the T33 in the larger ASUS tablet and even the newer Texas Instruments OMAP powering the Archos 101 XS. It’s also fair to assume that the Nexus 7 scores so closely to the two because of the speed improvements to the OS in general, as well as how Android 4.1 is running stock on the Nexus 7, compared to the TF700T and 101 XS, which both run Android 4.0 with additional software overlays.

The Sunspider test is another story entirely. The Nexus 7 doesn’t even beat out the older Motorola Xyboard, which has an older but larger and higher frequency 1.5GHz Qualcomm processor. And from preliminary tests with the iPhone 5 (which we’ll throw in once we have it fully benched in our “lab”, with stable conditions), the Nexus 7 isn’t even close to the speeding bullet so many may be expecting. But, then again, it is still far faster than the majority of smartphones and tablets, so don’t think that it isn’t a good tablet to purchase because of web browsing speed alone.

In non-benchmark web browsing, the Nexus 7 performs extremely well, and I like it more than the iPad and the ASUS TF700T, for two reasons: first, it’s smaller and easier to use one-handed. And two, the speed difference may seem huge in a benchmark, but in actual use we’re talking about a second or two of additional loading time. Some people may be impatient, but nobody is that impatient.

Here’s where the real trouble comes in, at least when it comes to the Nexus 7′s unique hardware infrastructure. While it has 12 GPU cores, it’s likely that most software isn’t taking advantage of it unless NVIDIA has done some exceptional work that our benchmarks just aren’t taking into consideration. The Nexus 7 in Quadrant Standard falls behind the Galaxy S II, which is nearly a year older and, while it has a lower resolution 800×480 display, should not be ahead of the 1280×800 display on the Nexus 7. Yet here it is, by a tiny 20 points.

And then there’s the GLBenchmark 2.5.1 test (I’m phasing out the 2.1.5 bench, since the main tests we use are in 2.5.1 and because the newer test runs a single benchmark in 1080p off-screen), which looks even more grim for the Nexus 7. It not only barely beats the Sony Xperia Ion, a fairly recent but a traditional Tegra 3 T30L, it lags behind the iPhone 4S and HTC Droid Incredible 4G LTE. Sure, only the iPad (2012) musters enough processing power to make it through this extremely stressful benchmark at a reasonable framerate, but the Nexus 7 with it’s additional cores should be eating it up.

The problem, again, is that those cores likely aren’t being utilized. If they were, then battery life would likely drop significantly but the software would run much smoother, perhaps even better than the TF700T (if it’s own quad-core GPU were also fully active in this test). In my tests with a list of games, including Shadowgun, Horn, and several others, there is no speed problem or slow-down epidemic. It just works. However, those are all games that NVIDIA has helped develop, and while that’s great, for Android to be successful developers are going to have to be able to do it all on their own, with the tools available.

What the benchmarks show, and what my use of the Nexus 7 makes me believe, are two almost separate things. First, that while the Nexus 7 is fast, it’s significantly slower than competing devices, which seems reasonable considering the low price but not considering the specifications. Yet when I run games and applications on my own, they all run smoothly, and I have not seen any lag in any major titles thus far, some of them which are extremely stressful games. So while the numbers don’t add up, that’s likely due to the benchmarks not taking advantage of the core architecture in the Nexus 7. As long as developers do, this tablet will be incredibly fast.

Battery

Battery life on the Nexus 7 is fairly good, which is in part thanks to an additional processor core (that’s a 5th core) that keeps the tablet active when it’s in sleep mode at extremely low power. However, if you plan on leaving the Nexus 7 alone for a week or two at a time, don’t expect it to still have a charge. That low-power core does a decent job, but it’s nothing compared to other tablets, like the Kindle Fire, which you can leave out with no use for a month and it’ll still maintain a charge.

As you can see in the limited battery benchmark I ran here, which is strictly for tablets, the Nexus 7 ran exhaustive tests that mimic regular activity like web-browsing, reading, sending emails and the like for just over 6 hours 20 minutes. In reality this is less than the iPad and several other larger tablets, but those also feature bigger batteries. The Nexus 7 does it all with a 4,325mAh battery.

My own use of the Nexus 7 proves similar results, with around 6-8 hours of consistent use doing just about anything, though streaming HD video will drop that number down to 4-6 hours. It’s certainly enough to use for a cross-country plane ride, though for long intercontinental flights you may want to pack along an extra charger.

The great thing about the Nexus 7 when it comes to power, especially compared to the vast majority of tablets, is that it can not only connect and charge via MicroUSB, it’ll charge over a USB 2.0 connector. If you’re watching HD video or playing a high quality game, it won’t actually charge the battery, but the drain will drop significantly. So if you’re a user like me who likes using a tablet for video or quick email but still carries around a laptop for actual work, then the Nexus 7 works even if it doesn’t provide the battery life larger tablets do.

Conclusion

I admire both Google and ASUS for producing a tablet with the pretense that the Nexus 7 was developed under: a high-quality, low-cost device to mass produce for the market that meets most user requirements and is, most importantly, small and light. In that respect, the Nexus 7 is an absolute success. There is no tablet user or prospective buyer who shouldn’t in their right mind take a look at the Nexus 7 at the very least. And even if they feel like it’s an impulse buy, $200 for a tablet is not a major regrettable investment.

But if you want the absolute best in a tablet, the Nexus 7 does leave a lot to be desired. First and foremost, the 8/16GB storage is pitiful, and no expandable storage, while understandable in today’s marketplace, is something we all want. From Google and ASUS both, it’s just odd to see this headlining device is the most closed-off handheld they’ve released yet. Second is the display, which is decent, but certainly not great and far worse than competing screens like the iPad, TF700T, or even smaller screens like the equally-priced Kindle Fire HD and Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7. The two companies didn’t have to go all-out with the Nexus 7, but the one thing you don’t want to do wrong is make a poor display; the Nexus 7′s isn’t bad, but it does leave a lot to be desired.

The final complaint is one that is really only dependent on how many units sell, on how popular the Nexus 7 becomes. With the Kindle Fire HD and now the Barnes & Noble Nook HD selling for the same low price of $200, it’s very likely that Google’s original plan to sell the cheapest and most powerful tablet on the market got murdered no less than two months after it’s public acknowledgement. Sad, but that’s the state of technology today. Tack onto that the rumors of an upcoming iPad mini, it’s there’s no way to know just how well the Nexus 7 will do, which in turn begs the question: who is going to develop for the unique hardware in this tablet?

Sure, NVIDIA is providing their services to make sure applications take advantage of the quad-core CPU and duodecuple-core GPU, but if most tablets are either dual-core or quad-core, and utilizing only a smaller set of multi-core GPUs, then why bother putting in the extra work?

The Nexus 7 is a strong tablet, one that users will definitely enjoy, especially for potential development or to get their hands on the latest versions of Android. The excellent build design, and how the Nexus 7 is both extremely comfortable and very light, make it a pleasure to use for reading, web browsing, and other simple application use. For gaming it proves to be an extremely powerful tablet, one that is as good as larger Android devices. It’s a great tablet to have, if you don’t mind the minimal storage capacity.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★½☆

Very Good

Bottom Line: A great tablet for media use, but lacks storage and has a mediocre display

Pros:

  • Excellent build for the human hand; light and comfortable to hold for hours
  • It’s the Google tablet, so first to market with the latest Android OS updates
  • Quick, very capable for all media use, from reading books to hardcore gaming
  • Excellent price
  • Very powerful hardware…

Cons:

  • …even if most applications don’t make use of it
  • Minimal storage space and no expandable memory
  • Mediocre display; good enough for daily use, not great for watching videos

The Nexus 7 is available in 8GB and 16GB models for $200 and $250, respectively. You can purchase both from Staples.










James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.