The Nexus 7: Google Has a Game Changer
Most folks who follow my mobile and Tablet blogging here know that I really enjoy the iPad experience. Some (including my wife) say I enjoy it far too much. I’ve owned every edition since the original. Contrary to what the platform zealots believe, I’ve always been eager to take a look at what else comes down the pike from companies other than Apple, and give those devices a fair shake. I typically do this on my own dime and not with review units. In fact, last summer about this time I picked up two new Tablets: A Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the HP Touchpad. I wrote about both of those Tablets quite a bit. We all know how sorry a spectacle the TouchPad experience became. And if you followed along, you know that I didn’t care too much about Google’s Android Tablet experience on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. The other Android Tablets I played around with (but didn’t purchase) since the GT 10.1 also failed to impress. To be honest, I felt Google just didn’t get it when it came to Tablets. Well, that opinion has changed with the newly released Nexus 7 Tablet.
I have to give all the kudos I can to Google and its hardware partner, Asus, for the Nexus 7 Tablet. This is the first Android Tablet I’ve seen and worked/played with that tells me there may indeed be a real future for Android Tablets. Other GBM bloggers have put out reviews and thoughts (see links below) and they, along with most of the tech press, seem generally as pleased as I am with the Nexus 7. While this post might qualify as a review, I’m not going to spend too much time with specs and those kind of details, but instead talk about my impressions of the Nexus 7.
As I mentioned in this post last week, I managed to pick up a Nexus 7 quite by accident. Given the fact that these devices are now hard to get, I’m glad I did. While I was impressed with some of the early reviews of the Nexus 7, I’ve learned to have a hefty dose of skepticism about early reviews of new devices. I had decided I would wait and see how things shook out after the initial furor surrounding the launch died down. But when I found myself, on my birthday, standing in line at Staples on other business and watching a new shipment of Nexus 7 Tablets heading out the door quickly, my gadget lust took over and I treated myself to a self given birthday present. As it turns out, this was a great impulse decision.
Google wants to use its Nexus brand to define its Google Experience on mobile devices and it has more than succeeded with the Nexus 7. Going beyond that, Google has also succeeded in defining what any 7-inch Tablet experience should be or could be. I would go so far as to say that the introduction of the Nexus 7 is as momentous and as game changing as was the introduction of the original iPad. There is still work to do to go the last mile, and that last mile is always the toughest, but Google is at least firmly within reach of what I believe were its original Tablet aims and hopes.
The Nexus 7 hardware just feels right in my hands. Operating a Tablet has to feel effortless and how it feels in your hands has to make sense on a visceral and emotional level. The Nexus 7 succeeds here. The Tablet user experience is so vastly improved over previous Android Tablets that comparing them is like talking about the difference in sailing on a luxury yacht versus paddling a canoe. Quite a bit has already been said in comparing the Nexus 7 to other Tablets, most specifically the Kindle Fire and the iPad. Two quick cents on those comparisons.
The Nexus 7 compares to the Kindle Fire like a screaming jet fighter compares to a WWI era bi-plane. Amazon and its Kindle Fire may have created a nice media player and eReader for its content, but as of the release of the Nexus 7, you’d be hard pressed to get me to call it a Tablet. Actually, I’ve been hard pressed to call it that from the get-go. Google sure wants you to think that the Nexus 7 is competing against the Kindle Fire as evidenced by its Google Play strategy, as well as the fact that the My Library widget, which displays content you’ve recently played or read, is the default home screen. (By the way, does anyone know how to change that behavior? I can remove the widget easily enough, but that screen placement still wants to be the default.) Unless Amazon has really tightened down the screws on what it has in store for its next Kindle Fire, Google is way out ahead in this race.
As for comparing the Nexus 7 to the iPad, there are obvious differences; size and price point being the most obvious. If you’re talking about competing in the market, the Nexus 7 will absolutely take some iPad dollars away from Cupertino. But it will only do so because Google has succeeded in setting a standard for this smaller form factor that Apple, and all other competitors, will have to meet or rise above. If you’re talking about a Tablet computing experience, the iPad is probably still in the lead, due to its ecosystem and more mature OS. Slowly, that ecosystem advantage is eroding as more quality Apps appear for Android. Speculation is rampant surrounding a smaller iPad. I don’t know if that will happen or not, and I’m still in the “I don’t think so” camp. But Google may have finally found the right button to push to get Apple to think seriously about a smaller iPad.
Google has shown that by exercising some taste in design, and enforcing what it wants its Tablet experience to be, that it is capable of actually competing well in the Great Tablet Race. I would think that Samsung and other Android Tablet makers have quite a lot to fear at this point. I think Apple and Microsoft need to take notice as well.
Touch and the User Experience
What makes the user experience on the Nexus 7 work so well is the combination of hardware and software. (Gee, where have we heard that before?) The Nvida Tegra 3 quad core processor on the Nexus 7 combined with OS enhancements from Google make touching and manipulating the device feel natural. While there may be some slight lag here and there, the overall user experience relating to touch is extremely smooth and compares more than favorably to that experience on the iPad. Google calls its efforts to smooth this out Project Butter. I’d keep milking those cows because Project Butter makes what has come before seem like trying to manipulate melted cheese that has already cooled. And, I’m glad to report that the Nexus 7 passes the Pinky Test.
The Pinky Test
The Pinky Test is something I came up with awhile back for touch devices. Essentially, it is a given somewhere along the line that you’re going to be using a Tablet to do some reading while eating a meal; say a big juicy cheeseburger. Rather than wiping off your hands for every flick of the screen, it is obviously easier to hold your pinky out away from your food and use it to flick the screen for a page turn. The iPad has excelled at this from day one. Sadly, up until now, every Android Tablet I’ve tried as failed the Pinky Test. Suffice it to say that the Nexus 7 more than lives up to the challenge, again depending on the App. The App that I test this with the most is Flipboard. Initially an iOS App only, it is now available on the Android platform, and I’m delighted to report that flipping through pages in Flipboard is as effortless as it is on an iPhone or an iPad.
The importance of this can not be overstated or repeated enough. The Tablet user experience must be this smooth and effortless to the user. Otherwise it is a failure in my opinion. The only App I’ve tried where I experience consistent lagging on the Nexus 7 is, intriguingly, the Kindle App from Amazon. This happens when scrolling through a list of book tiles as the App is trying to redraw book covers. I like what I’m touching and feeling on the Nexus 7 so much that I keep scratching my head as to why it took Google so long to figure this out.
As I’ve said, I’ve not been a fan of Android Tablet implementations in the past. Jelly Bean is really growing on me for one simple reason. It’s simple. It doesn’t get in my way when I’m trying to work with the device. There is less inconsistency from App to App regarding user controls. Things just feel right and unlike other previous Android incarnations, I was able to figure out how to use things without much effort.
Jelly Bean brings some other new factors to the table(t) worth mentioning. Although I’m just beginning to experiment with Google Now, I find it more or less as capable as Siri when it comes to fulfilling requests. But, Google Now promises more than what we now know of Siri so I’m anxious to see how this develops in the future. The contextual and predictive behavior we are ceding to our computing overlords might cross over a Freaky Line, but like it or not it is the way of the future. That is of course until we humans rebel.
Jelly Bean’s Notifications are also improved and while I like the better predictive text on the keyboard the native Android keyboard still takes some getting used to. Of course one of the nice things about Android is that there are other options out there to try.
The Form Factor
When it comes to things feeling good, the Nexus 7 feels right in my hands relating to weight and size. I’ve worked with 7 inchers before and the Nexus 7 far and away excels here. I own and use a Kindle Fire and while it has served me well, it now feels like a brick compared to the Nexus 7. While I”m not ready to chuck out my larger sized iPad, the 7-inch Nexus 7 certainly feels like something I could carry with me more often when I’m out an about. It does fit in the back pocket of my everyday pants. But I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’ll do that much for fear of sitting on the device and breaking it. I like the feel of the device in my hands so much, that I’m in somewhat of a quandary about putting it a case. This is a device that I don’t want to add any weight or bulk to. At the moment I’m using a Kindle Fire slip case from Amazon to transport the device. Case makers need to know they can’t intrude too much on the excellent weight and size of the Nexus 7. But so much of that is personal preference. I predict we’ll see a slew of Nexus 7 cases by the holidays.
Please Play Our Stuff
As I mentioned earlier, Google wants you to play. Play music, play movies, play TV shows, etc… Google also wants you to read books on the Nexus 7, as well as periodicals. So much so that the out of the box focus is on these content features. That’s all well and good, and that may indeed be the battle ground of the future. But I can’t help but think that Google might be selling itself short a bit here by drawing such and obvious comparison to the Kindle Fire, given that it doesn’t yet have as much content to deliver as Amazon does. I’m not complaining here, just making an observation that the Nexus 7 looks to be so much more than a media player disguised as a Tablet. In fact, I’m sure we’re going to see plenty of articles about folks using the Nexus 7 as a work device.
Of course that depends on what your work is.
That Low, Low Price
I didn’t lead this post with the story line that is the price point of the Nexus 7. It is important. But it also a curious issue. The 8GB version of the Nexus 7 can be had for $199, when you can find it. The 16GB version will set you back $249, again when you can find it. Honestly, I think that as attractive as the $199 price point is, it is deceptive because given the lack of expandable storage on the Nexus 7, you’re quickly going to fill up that 8GB. If you’re seriously thinking about buying a Nexus 7 Tablet and can afford it, go for the 16GB variety. Sure most of your stuff can be stored in the Cloud, but that 8GB limit is going to be a limitation sooner than most folks realize. From what I’m reading Google was caught a bit unawares by this as the 16GB is now listed as coming soon on the Play store.
But that price point also will have a serious impact on the Tablet market in general. Tablet makers riding the Android band wagon will have to pay attention here. Those (and that includes everyone but Google) who don’t have the luxury of selling these devices with little or no room for a profit margin, will have to find other ways to distinguish themselves in the market place. There is room here for that to be the case given that the Nexus 7 comes without a back camera or expandable storage. But Google and Amazon are setting the price points and whether or not you pay attention to the lack of storage, a $199 starting point is enticing. This bears watching as we get nearer to the holiday season.
As I said earlier the “who has more Apps” debate has become pretty much a moot point in my view. Even though Apple still has a large numerical lead in Apps optimized for its Tablets that numerical advantage really hasn’t meant much except to those who like to measure those kind of things. More importantly, it is the kind of Apps that make a difference. One of the things that has happened since my last Android Tablet experience is that a number of my go-to Tablet Apps have also become available for Android, and by and large many of them work beautifully on the Nexus 7. These include Flipboard, Netfilx, Instapaper, Pocket, and Readability. Notice those are all consumption Apps. Other Apps that I use on the iPad that are available and need to be optimized for the Nexus 7 screen include Zite, any Twitter client except for the Twitter App, and The Weather Channel. Social and Sharing Apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Path look fine. Interestingly enough Facebook is faster on the Nexus 7 than it is on either of my iOS devices. As for Apps to get work done, I haven’t really looked too closely in that category yet, but beyond Evernote, which works well on the Nexus 7, I don’t see the Nexus 7 as being that kind of device for me in the way that the iPad is.
It isn’t surprising given the price point and regulatory issues that the Nexus 7 debuts without 3G or 4G radios. And there’s certainly a precedent for that as many enjoy WiFi only Tablets like the iPad or the Kindle Fire. That said, in my view, this is a device that screams out for an always on option. The Nexus 7 is more of a mobile device than a portable one, like the iPad. This would open up all kinds of issues, to be sure, but as someone who has purchased his last two iPads with 3G options, I find that option to be something that, while not always needed, can be a real boon to my usage. Fortunately I still have a MiFi card for that kind of connectivity. But in my view, the Nexus 7 or its successors will need to have wireless connectivity beyond WiFi in the future. Is this a deal breaker? It depends on your scenario.
Other Thoughts and Things
The Nexus 7 offers a host of other things that I haven’t had a real opportunity to try out or spend enough time with. Here are some of those things:
Battery Life: Most say 7 hours. I feel like I’m doing better than that, but haven’t run any specific tests yet, nor, given my work load have I been able to say I’ve used it enough to really judge. Suffice it to say that I’m pleased with what I’m seeing in the first few days. I do note though that Walt Mossberg says he got almost 10 hours in his usual testing routine, which is better than he got on the new iPad using the same testing procedures.
NFC is built in: OK, great. No merchant anywhere near me has heard of NFC, much less uses it. I imagine at some point in the future this will become more than just a footnote for most of us. But for now, that’s what it is.
Bluetooth keyboards: I’ve tested the Nexus 7 with the Apple Wireless Keyboard and the Logitech Ultrathin keyboard. Both work fine for keyboard input. Although this small form factor Tablet looks kinda funny next to one of those larger iPad sized keyboards. Will that stop folks? I don’t think so.
Screen resolution and outdoor viewing: It may not be a Retina device, but frankly, I don’t think a device at this size and this price point ever needs to be. Everything looks very good on the display. Comparing the Nexus 7 alongside the Kindle Fire outdoors, the Nexus 7 is more readable in bright sunlight, but that is still not an optimal experience.
Sound volume: The volume output of the Nexus 7 is better than the new iPad and certainly better than the Kindle Fire.
Gaming: I haven’t checked out much in the way of gaming on the Nexus 7 beyond Angry Birds and Field Runners. I can still kill pigs both on the ground and in space. I can still defend towers.
There are reports of quality control issues with some Nexus 7 devices. (Here’s a round up.) I can say that I have experienced none of these issues.
I hesitate to call this a summary or a conclusion because I’ve become convinced that the Tablet experience has several phases. There’s the out of the box first impression. Then there’s the working with the device for a period of time phase. And finally, there is the adapting myself and my work/play load to what the Tablet can offer. I can only address the first of those three phases here given the short time I’ve had the Nexus 7.
So, my first impression is that Google has more than a winner in the Nexus 7. It has a game changer. Is it it too early to make such a bold statement? I don’t think so. There have been several computers (and the Nexus 7 is a computer) that have genuinely rocked my world and changed my perceptions. My first one was the first laptop computer I owned. It was made by Texas Instruments, had a black and white screen, was heavy as a horse, had no battery, and I loved the damned thing. The second life altering experience I recall was with my first Tablet computer, the Toshiba 3505. Sure, I owned a lot of computers in between those two, but none of those in between devices altered my thinking or affected me that much. The third in this line of world rocking devices was the original iPad. It still continues to rock my world. If there was a device in between that original Tablet computer and the iPad it would be the iPhone, but to me that’s a different discussion. It is really easy for me to say that the Nexus 7 is now number 4 in that list of “rock the world” devices. Google (and Asus) have not only hit a home run with this device, but they have shown other batters how to stand at the plate and deliver.
I may be wrong, but I think we’ll look back on the release of the Nexus 7 as a very important moment as the Great Tablet Race continues.
Other GBM posts on the Nexus 7