Google Nexus 7
Cheap; nice size; well-designed
Not as good as Apple’s iPad; not sold on Android
$249 (8GB); $299 (16GB)
The iPad has seen off a fair amount of competition, even more so than the iPhone which despite its wild popularity has less market dominance than the iPad. Remember the BlackBerry Playbook and HP Touchpad?
Apple has this market pretty much to itself with 70% of the market all going for iPad. Still, that’s 30% of the market going elsewhere, and it’s largely not going anywhere good at the moment. Mostly on cheaper Android powered tablets that offer small screens, underpowered processors, poor screens, and the such.
Enter the Google Nexus 7. This has two aces up its sleeve: The first is price: an 8GB model is just $249; whereas $299 gets you a 16GB model. A teardown by iSuppli has indicated that component costs are around US$150 which means Google is probably just about breaking even, or perhaps taking a loss on each device.
This tells you much about Android’s position in the tablet market. Apple dominates tablets with the iPad, despite wide competition, and with Microsoft getting ready to enter Google has to do something before Android is completely sidelined.
The second Ace (or well King at least) is quality. Put your Apple brand loyalty to one side for a moment and you’ll see that the Google Nexus 7 is a well-built device, with competent internal components, fast enough to run the Android operating system smoothly, it has a good responsive multi-touch display.
All for $249.
Apple already has a budget tablet of sorts. Last year’s iPad 2 model which it still sells for $429. But there’s a big difference in take-up with consumer technology between devices that cost over $400 and those that go under $300, even more pronounced when the device goes under $150.
Does the price really matter?
You can’t dismiss price as a factor when releasing a device. Look at the chart for the iPod sales over history, starting in 2001 at US$399 for 5GB or US$499 for 10GB, sales were moderate right up until the point where Apple released the 1G mini in 2004 for US$249, then again in 2005 when it dropped the price to US$199; then again when Apple introduced the nano for US$149.
Apple typically avoids a business model that drives down the price of devices, in favour of introducing new models that justify the original price. However, price has a big impact on taking a product away from being niche, to one that’s bought by most tech enthusiasts, then bought by the general public. When you start to get sub $300 a device fully goes mainstream, and when it’s sub $150 it enters disposable income territory for most people.
At $249 the Google Nexus 7 sits comfortably enough in this area to be convincingly selling out in stores. We imagine a lot of people will be snapping these up as Christmas presents.
Aside from affordability there are good reasons to want a cheaper tablet to carry around. Loss or theft is less of a concern; as is damage from everyday usage. We’ve yet to see anybody using an iPad on a beach on holiday; but Amazon Kindle devices are pretty common for this very reason (it’s no great shakes if you get sand in the speaker grill).
Do you get enough bang for your buck?
On a surface level it’s fairly easy to compare the Nexus 7 to the iPad 2 and come to the conclusion that it’s half the tablet for half the price. It’s a fair assessment: the 7in screen it’s literally half the size of the iPad; and it’s half the price.
But the innards are high spec. It features an nVidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor, the same as found in many high-end tablets (and of comparable quality to the A5X). This is backed up by a healthy 1GB of RAM and the display is a backlit IPS panel with a resolution of 1280 x 800 for a 216 ppi.
It has 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, but no 3G/LTE option for cellular connectivity. This strikes us as somewhat odd, as many people have suggested that they’d use this form factor as an alternative to a smartphone.
What cost cutting has taken place is done so smartly, there’s no camera on the rear, and there’s no Micro Sd expansion slot.
Having just 8GB or 16GB options is parsimonious too, especially given that Android itself takes up 2GB of that space. With content increasingly moving to the cloud and services like Spotify and iTunes Connect streaming media this may not be so much of an issue, although you’ll need to spend time carefully removing unwanted apps on the 8GB model.
So what we have here is a good, small, cheap, alternative to buying an iPad that is competent. You can quibble about whether Android is as good an experience as iOS (and we will, have no fear) but in this incarnation it’s not so howlingly bad as to be able to dismiss the device out of hand as clumsy and incoherent (as you could with a 7in tablet from last year like the Samsung Tab).
There is some debate to be hand over the size and portability of the device. At just 120 x 199mm the Nexus 7 still isn’t pocket friendly (for that you’d need an iPhone or Android smartphone); but it is a lot lighter and easier to carry around than an iPad. It’s also thin, at 10.9mm and very light at 336g; battery life matches the iPad’s 10 hours of regular web browsing and general usage.
In terms of design it’s spartan to say the least. The front is a single piece of glass with a 1.2-megapixel camera for video chat and a light sensor built into the metal frame. The rear is a black textured rubber. There’s a 4-pin connector for use with future accessories, and a 3.5mm minijack for earphones.
So what’s really interesting here is when you get a 7in tablet that doesn’t cut that many corners with build quality; the Nexus 7 is well built, is high spec, runs Android quickly and smoothly, and it does all this at half the price the cheapest iPad does.
Especially given that there seems to be huge demand for Apple to offer a smaller, and cheaper iPad experience.
So where things get interesting is whether it offers half the experience. Google has worked hard on Android, and regardless of where you stand on the “stolen product” debate, it’s hard not to look at the latest incarnation of Google Android 4.1 ‘Jelly Bean’ and see that it offers an operating system that’s pretty close to iOS. While Apple and Samsung wrestle it out in the courts, the general consumer may well decide that Android is good enough.
Much of the earlier interface issues have been smoothed out and Android on the Nexus 7 is a lot faster, snappier, and punchier than previous Android tablets (which have often felt clumsy in use).
Software and operating system
The Nexus 7 is a curious beast in that it’s running the latest version of Android 4.1 ‘Jelly Bean’ but in a manner that sits somewhat between the smartphone version, and the full-sized tablet version. Google’s promotional page compares it to the Google Nexus, rather than other tablet devices.
One real oddity is that you can only access the Home screen interface in portrait mode. So if you’re looking at an app in landscape mode and press the Home button, you suddenly have to flip the tablet around to use the interface. This is one of the key differences between an iPhone and iPad (the iPad home interface works no matter which way up you hold the device; whereas it’s assumed you’ll always interact with the iPhone interface while holding it upright).
There are other nods to the smartphone design too, the Apps button is at the bottom of the screen (as it is on an Android phone) and not in the top right (as on a Android tablet).
We’re not really sure what has brought about this design decision from Google. It certainly seems to give the device a smartphone-esque feel, which sits at odds with the tablet style.
Aside from that, Android is as Android does. It is, to our mind, slightly clumsier and more confusing to use than iOS, but it does offer a level of customisation that we’d sometimes like to see in iOS.
Looking at the Nexus 7 Interface
Having now had some time with the Nexus 7 there’s no doubt that halving the size of the interface has a big impact on the interface, especially the keyboard (which is pretty nasty to use). Everything else is a little cramped too, web browsing isn’t as good as an iPad (it often serves up mobile websites; mind you it’s better than a smartphone), and most app interfaces are a little busier.
Having said that, a lot of kick-back entertainment (movies, music, books, and so on) is perfectly good on a 7in screen. And it’s perfectly functional.
One thing we do like is that the interface feels a lot snappier than it did on old Android models. Android version 4.1 “Jelly Bean” seems to have fixed a few interface glitches and between the good hardware and new software it’s finally feeling as smooth as a first generation iPhone. Okay, so Apple engineers can chortle at how long it’s taken rivals to catch up, but they’re here now.
Apps and Google Play
Android lacks a lot of apps that really matter, is the upshot of it. And this is a big problem for Android.
On Android there are apps that are so cheap and popular they’re everywhere (Angry Birds) and apps that make it their business to be everywhere as they make money elsewhere (Amazon Kindle).
What Android seems to lack are the less high profile, but high quality apps that lift a device beyond its original intention. Some good examples are iMovie and Garageband (we can’t see anything remotely equivalent on Android); and apps like Omnifocus and Omnigraffle can’t be found either. There just seems to be a dearth of really good creative software on Android.
But does a $249 device need amazing creative software? Does the fact that it cranks out websites, books, movies, music and all the usual sit back and relax entertainment offer enough?
And both Android and iOS are introducing, and steadily improving, voice dictation services that make us all less reliant on the keyboard for text entry. There’s still some way to go for both Google Voice Search and Siri before they start to replace the keyboard; but their presence certainly makes it less prominent an issue.
These days you’re not just buying a device, but buying into an ecosystem. So with iOS you get the App Store, iCloud, Documents In The Cloud and iTunes Match.
Apple has put a lot of effort into iCloud and it is really starting to show. You buy something on one device, it appears on the others; your contacts, emails, and events all sync seamlessly; you create a document on an iOS device and you can see the changes happen on a Mac (and vice versa); you can stream your music collection from every Mac to every iOS device.
Google really seems to us to have a lot of catch-up here. While the Google Play store (which can bounce apps pretty effectively to any Android Device) and Gmail and Google Calendar have always been effective cloud services, equivalents to Documents In The Cloud and iTunes Match just aren’t there (Google Play music player is only available in the United States, and is no substitute for iTunes Match by all accounts).
Interesting enough to buy?
What we have here is a really interesting device. Not interesting because it does anything inherently spectacular, or original, but because it does things competently for a surprisingly low price.
It’s not as good as an iPad for a couple of reasons, mainly because the screen is half the size and it’s therefore half as good in many respects. It does also have a neither fish nor fowl feel to it in the sense that it lacks the portability of a smartphone, or the practicality of a full-size tablet. You still need to bag it to carry it around, and if you plan on still carrying an iPhone around with you we’re not really convinced that the extra screen size on the Nexus 7 makes it that much better a device than a current iPhone for many tasks.
Despite the larger screen, the lower resolution doesn’t offer the text or image rendering quality of the Retina Display on either the iPhone 4/4S or new iPad (although it is on a par with the cheaper iPad 2). We found it little better for reading books on the move than using an iPhone.
Web browsing isn’t noticeably better (for some reason it serves up mobile versions of websites like a phone), and we can’t imagine using the keyboard for anything other than a short burst message. Again, no better than a smartphone. So where’s the gain? Some people might even think it’d be better just to have an iPhone with the same case dimensions but with a larger screen, which seems to be Apple’s plan for the iPhone 5.
And what it lacks, above all, is 3G or LTE connectivity, so you can’t even replace your smartphone with a larger tablet/phone hybrid. This is something quite a few of the Macworld team have considered doing. We’re making fewer voice calls these days and having more portable, and cheaper device capable of text messaging, email and general communication could be a preferable option for some.
For all that there is something to be said about the price. It’s not that we don’t think the iPad (or other tablet devices don’t offer value for money), we’re just not that enamoured with carrying around a $800 smartphone and $500 tablet day in, day out.
What about the 7in iPad?
The tech market is increasingly of the opinion that Apple is ready to introduce a smaller, cheaper tablet device. Indeed countless rumours, supposed leaks, and general commentary all points to Apple creating such a device. Actual facts are thin on the ground (actually, non-existent but such is the way with Apple) but let’s surmise that Apple is going to introduce a device similar to this: 7in display, 8GB or 16GB RAM, no expansion capability,
We hope that Apple’s 7-in iPad (if indeed such a device does exists) includes a Retina display (quite likely) and there’s a 3G/LTE cellular option (less likely). Both of these would make it a much more compelling alternative to what Google has on offer here.
One thing for sure is that the rumoured device will run iOS and come with iCloud, Documents In the Cloud and iTunes Match functionality, so even if it matches Google’s Nexus 7 point for point and costs a bit more it’ll certainly be better. Just how much better and how much more it costs will be the rub.
Macworld Australia’s buying advice
The Google Nexus 7 is a good alternative to paying for an iPad. It’s not as good as an iPad 2, and certainly not as good as a new iPad (third-generation) but you can’t really discount the $249 price tag as a factor. I think the key point would be to say “it’s not bad”. Sounds faint praise but it’s not. That’s the point. The Google Nexus 7 is half the price of an iPad is not bad at all. If you’ve got either an iPhone 4 or iPad you really don’t need one. Both devices to our mind are better than this. But in terms of widening the market for portable internet connected devices the Google Nexus 7 (if left unchallenged by Apple) will almost certainly soak up a large proportion of the general public; keen to own a tablet, not willing to spend $429 or more for an iPad. For early sales figures it seems that there’s a market for the Google Nexus 7, and we wouldn’t be surprised if this opens up a wider tablet market of people who are also willing to buy an iPhone, but unwilling to also buy, or carry around an iPad on a regular basis. Although we’ll wager that in the long run they find the iPhone serves a better purpose, and does so more effectively. What remains to be seen is how well Google’s Nexus 7 stacks up against either a cheaper full sized iPad (think iPad first-generation), or a smaller and cheaper iPad 7-in selling for circa $300. Apple must have considered both options but – again, only rumours – seems to be plumping for the smaller and cheaper device. While the $249 bargain price seems a good deal at the moment, we’ll wager it looks perhaps less attractive if Apple does roll out an alternative device.