The Google Nexus 7 is Google’s first foray into the tablet market with an own-branded device. It won’t take on the Apple iPad, but it isn’t designed to. With a comparatively affordable price tag, great workmanship and loads of power, the Nexus 7 could help spread tablets to a far broader audience.
Many firms have tried to produce tablet PCs since Apple popularised the format with its iPad two and a half years ago, yet none of them have come up with a credible competitor.
Samsung has been one of the most aggressive firms trying to compete in the tablet race with its Galaxy Tab series. Yet the Korean firm has failed to challenge Apple in tablets the way it has done in smartphones.
Others such as RIM and the now defunct Palm have made even less successful attempts to get into tablets, in the case of RIM leaving the firm with warehouses full of unsold devices.
Apple is still the undisputed leader and dominant force, and in much the same way as the iPod became synonymous with the MP3 player, iPad is the default name when your average consumer thinks of a tablet.
Google wants to change that, and the Google Nexus 7 is, in part, an attempt to spur manufacturers working on Android tablets to produce a worthy competitor to the iPad. But neither Google nor its manufacturing partner Asus is stupid enough to try to compete with Apple directly.
Instead they have decided to target a market currently occupied in the US by one of the few non-Apple tablet success stories, the Amazon-made Kindle Fire,
The Kindle Fire, which is designed primarily for consuming content that Amazon hopes you will buy from it, uses a customised version of Android that doesn’t link in to Google services.
That Amazon is using the Google made operating system but bypassing the services that actually make Google money, can’t be going down well at Google HQ. And while Google isn’t trying to make an iPad killer, it looks like it has decided to go after the Kindle instead.
And considering the Kindle Fire isn’t even available in the UK, it looks like the Google Nexus 7 will have a clear run at the pockets of British consumers.
The first major indicator that the Nexus 7 isn’t designed to go up against the iPad is its size. Google and manufacturing partner Asus have gone for a 7-inch screen rather than the 9.7-inch format found on the iPad range.
The front of the Nexus is featureless apart from a small 1.2-Megapixel camera at one of the shorter ends of the device. Google has not bothered with a rear-facing camera, saving money in an area that is unlikely to be a priority for many.
The roughly patterned back of the Nexus has curved edges, meaning you can feel but not see the solid feeling power and volume controls tucked away on the right hand side near the camera end, and the Micro USB and 3.5mm audio jack along the other short end of the device.
The 1200 x 800 HD IPS screen is very sharp and clear – not quite as wonderfully vivid as the retina display on the new Apple iPad, but superb quality for the price.
The screen on our review sample did flicker slightly as it struggled to find the right brightness balance, but that was easily solved by switching off the automatic brightness setting. It is only a minor niggle that that should be easily fixable via software updates.
The overall impression is functional but slick, and the Nexus feels very solid. For the price, build quality is impressive and it feels just as well made as the iPad, and a lot sturdier than most other tablets.
The second clear indication that Google isn’t going after the iPad directly comes when you first start using the device. Google has decided to build a tablet that is designed to be used in portrait mode, more like an oversized phone than a tablet,
Nexus 7 home pages only display in portrait, and auto-rotate for other tasks was switched off by default on our review sample.
It’s a strange choice that has upset some reviewers. However, we found that on a device of this size, tasks such as browsing or answering email were more comfortable in portrait.
Of course video content is clearly a major part of any tablet’s appeal, and the Google Nexus 7 is fine switching to landscape mode for films and games.
The screen is just the right size for handheld gaming, and 3D graphics run smoothly and almost on a par with the top-end handheld consoles.
Films look great on the Google Nexus 7, and again the screen is pretty much the perfect size for watching something while maintaining your grip on the train handrail on a crowded commute.
The Google Nexus 7’s performance for films and gaming is in part down to the power Asus has pumped into the device. It sports a quad-core Tegra 3 processor from Nvidia, plus 1GB of RAM.
It’s not quite as rapid as some of the top end handsets available, or indeed the latest Apple iPad, but it’s a surprising amount of power for under £200.
That power also helps make the Google Nexus 7 fast for other tasks, with browsing and maps for instance working very quickly.
The processor is also helped by the small tweaks that have gone into Android Jellybean, the new 4.1 version of the Google operating system that debuts on the Google Nexus 7.
As part its ‘Project Butter’ programme, Google has tried to eliminate instances of lag and other annoyances that have hindered Android on some devices.
The project has worked, and while there may not be any standout features to blow your socks off in Jelly Bean, the reduced friction when using the OS makes a major difference.
Though simplicity is the watchword with the Google Nexus 7, it does feature a couple of bells and whistles.
These include in-built GPS, which means you can take advantage of Google Maps’ offline mode when no Wi-Fi is available, and NFC, though using it to make contact-less payments might look a little ridiculous.
Google hasn’t skimped on the battery, with a pretty large 4325 mAh power pack. However, you will still only get around a day of usage if you watch a couple of films and do some browsing.
Of course, in building such a low-cost device, Google and Asus have inevitably had to cut back in some areas. The Google Nexus 7 is Wi-Fi-only, and there are no indications that Google is working on a 3G or 4G enabled version.
However, with the increasing ubiquity of Wi-Fi, and the possibility of tethering the device to a handset a process which worked perfectly well with our HTC One X, this isn’t a huge hinderance. Even the vast majority of Apple iPad’s sold at the moment are Wi-Fi-only.
Another issue is storage space. The Google Nexus 7 comes in an 8GB model for £159, and a 16GB model for about £200, and neither have room for expandable memory.
Neither capacity is exactly generous, and if you plan to put many films or games on the device you might run out of space rapidly. However, Google, like so many other firms, is clearly pushing for streaming to take over.
The review model of the Google Nexus 7 came with Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon available to stream from the Google Play Store. It’s not exactly an oscar-winning plot, but a few minutes of watching was enough to prove that the Google Nexus 7 and Google Play can deliver high-quality streaming over a normal internet connection.
And that is what the Google Nexus 7 is all about. It is a high quality media consumption device for gaming and video on the move, or idly browsing while watching the latest episode of the X Factor.
What it isn’t is an Apple iPad. But at £150 it really doesn’t need to be. Google and Asus have picked what they wanted to do and done it well, all without making the Google Nexus 7 prohibitively expensive.
It may not give Apple sleepless nights, but the Google Nexus 7 is an excellent device and could introduce tablets to a whole new swathe of consumers.