TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Nexus 7 heaven

The Nexus is head and shoulders above all other seven-inch tablets, the only thing it needs is for large numbers of app developers to start producing content for Android tablets.

Technology Spectator

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The combination of a competitive price, premium quality hardware from ASUS and new Android 4.1 Jellybean software from Google, make the Nexus 7 the clearly superior seven inch tablet option on the market.

Aside from some initial logistics and delivery issues, the vibe from purchasers has been quite positive.

The reality is that until now there has been no worthwhile competition in the tablet market. The choice for any logical buyer has been iPad first and daylight second.

Clearly Google was frustrated by the inability of its hardware manufacturer partners to create a competitive tablet at a price point that was attractive to purchasers, so it paid ASUS to make the Nexus 7 tablet in order to try and kick-start interest from third parties in engaging with the Android tablet ecosystem.

While there have been plenty of Android tablets available for purchase, they have either been too expensive compared to an iPad, poor quality ... or both.

Inexplicably Google included Australia in the initial four countries that were able to purchase the wi-fi only Nexus 7 tablet, without first enabling Google Music's cloud library synchronisation/streaming functionality and the ability to purchase TV and movies from Google Play.

The two available models have 8GB and 16GB inbuilt storage, purposely lacking an SD card storage expansion slot in order to try and force you to use cloud storage and streaming. USB flash drives cannot be accessed by the Nexus 7 without gaining full administrator access by "rooting" it and buying a special USB OTG cable.

Both the 8GB and 16GB models are available for purchase from the Google play store for $268.99 and $319 respectively including shipping. The larger capacity model is also available through many Australian consumer electronics retailers for $319, though demand has been quite strong so quite a few stores have been out of stock at times.

Teardown experts iSuppli estimate that Google breaks even on the 8GB Nexus 7 model and makes a small profit on the 16GB model.

A hardware powerhouse

Although it is wi-fi only and lacks storage expansion options, the Nexus 7 is a hardware powerhouse. Sporting a quad core Tegra 3 processor and 12 graphics cores results in speedy usage throughout, there hasn’t been even one instance of lag or delay so far.

It should be noted that since the Nexus 7 can't connect to 3G/4G mobile networks when it’s used at home or in the office it will most likely use a fixed wi-fi access point for connectivity. However, while out and about eg: in a taxi enroute to a meeting, Nexus 7 owners will mainly enable connectivity by using their Android or iPhone as a mobile hotspot, using its 3G/4G data.

The 7 inch screen uses high quality IPS technology, has a front facing 1.2 megapixel camera, 1280x800 resolution and is physically protected by scratch resistant corning glass. The back has a soft yet pleasantly 'grippy' feel to it so it shouldn’t slip from your hands.

Weighing in at 340 grams we found the Nexus 7 quite easy to hold for long periods with two hands. If you have a Kindle or Kobo eBook reader the Nexus 7 is similar in width but a bit taller.

The light weight doesn't mean that it lacks staying power, the 4325mAh capacity battery lasted 2 days of light to medium use. If used to watch videos it should last about nine hours, the length of a flight from Sydney to Hong Kong, assuming it was fully charged beforehand. While it lacks native support for popular video codecs DIVX/XVID, there are video playing apps on the play store which offer this functionality.

Charging is done via a standard Micro USB port at the bottom of the tablet. Also at the bottom is a headphone jack which will be useful as the speaker is located on the bottom back of the tablet. The power button and volume rocker are at the top right.

Internal sensors include Bluetooth NFC, accelerometer, GPS, magnetometer and Gyroscope. Oddly while apps rotate using the gyroscope, Google has chosen to fix the homescreen in portrait regardless of whether you are holding the tablet sideways.

This can be overridden by buying the third app Ultimate Rotation Control for $2.99 from the Google Play Store.

Google follows Apple's playbook

It should be noted that Google's overall strategy for the Nexus 7 follows the Apple playbook.

Upon starting the tablet for the first time it’s clear that Google intends for all roads to lead to their Play Store where they can sell you apps, books and movie rental streaming. In case this wasn't clear it's hammered home by the main home screen being filled with a big Google play store widget.

It’s also clear that the Nexus 7 is targeted at the consumer market because the maximum number that can be ordered through the Google Play store by any one customer is five, along with Google's strategy of bundling a crime fiction eBook and the terrible movie Transformers Dark Side of The Moon.

One other major factor holding back Android tablets to date has been that the operating system has not been optimised enough for tablets. The arrival of Android 4.1 Jellybean has changed all that.

Finally, an Android tablet touch interface feels fast and smooth to use, thanks to an initiative Google calls Project Butter. The existing notification bar has had even more rich information added to it so you can see all the most important current information at a glance.

Improved voice recognition and the creepy Google Now

Voice search and dictation features have been noticeably improved, and the voice recognition engine can be downloaded for use on the Nexus 7 tablet offline.

In fact the majority of this article has been ‘written’ so to speak using the voice dictation feature. The key is to speak in full sentences without stopping, with clear gaps between the words you are saying in a regular speaking pace.

Another useful aspect which can be used offline is Google maps using the inbuilt GPS functionality of the Nexus 7 tablet by pre-caching a large map region (greater Sydney area) beforehand when you have WiFi access. We used it immediately to help a taxi driver drive us to our meeting location via a faster route.

The new Google Now feature is slightly creepy because it uses data gathered from your previous interactions with Google applications and websites. The more data you give it the better its predictions will be.

The most common example of this is when you have a meeting coming up in your Google calendar where you have specified the exact location. A new Google Now card will appear in the notification bar telling you how long it will take to get there using your most commonly used method of transportation. Sydney recently joined Canberra and Adelaide as cities where Google Maps has integrated public transport running times.

This feature is a result of long held beliefs at Google. Ex-CEO Eric Schmidt famously caused a lot of consternation in the technology sector and amongst privacy advocates in late 2010 when he said:

"With your permission, you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches. We don't need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about”.

The need for Chrome speed

The web browsing experience has also been improved. The old Google Android Browser app has been replaced by Chrome which is faster and whose interface will be familiar too many desktop users.

In an annoying move, Adobe has abandoned support for the Flash plugin on Android devices from version 4.1 onwards. While some websites have developed Flash alternatives for video and interactive applications, many have not done so yet such as ABC iView.

That brings up a really important point. A great tablet experience has to offer three things: an excellent operating system, fast and reliable hardware as well as tablet optimised apps and content.

The iPad has all of that. However, although some Android apps scale well to fit the Google Nexus 7's screen many have not been optimised yet.

Also in terms of tablet specific content we will have to wait to see if key publishers like Conde Nast who own WIRED magazine will release Nexus 7 magazine app versions along with existing iPad versions. In a promising sign the ABC released streaming Radio and News apps optimised for it a few days after the Nexus 7 was launched.

Initially there were no accessories available besides basic plastic cases, however, there are a range of third party accessories that are quickly coming on to the market.

Is the Google Nexus 7 worth buying? Yes, however, bear in mind that for it to truly shine we will have to wait and see if a large number of app developers and content providers decide to create offerings tailored for Android tablet owners.