With the Nexus 7, Google has delivered an Android tablet that doesn't have to apologize for itself.
Like Amazon's Kindle Fire, the Nexus 7 sells for $199 and features a 7-inch touchscreen and Wi-Fi Internet access. But the 7 exhibits none of the Fire's cost-cutting moves (like leaving out physical volume buttons), runs a complete and current version of Google's Android software and connects to the full Play Store app catalogue.
Where Amazon's now-dated effort felt like a paperback book next to the iPad — cheap, compact, not quite built for the ages — the Asus-built Nexus 7 has a solidity and sophistication approaching Apple's market-defining gadget.
To begin, the Nexus 7 avoids the horrible battery life of older attempts. Left idle for 24 hours, its battery gauge didn't budge from 100 percent (the best standby performance I've seen), and it played Web radio with the screen lit for 9 hours and 40 minutes. Then it recharged over generic micro-USB cables — no proprietary plug needed, another upgrade from prior Android tablets.
The 7's 1280 by 800-pixel screen lacks the superlative "pixel density" of the iPad's Retina Display, but I needed a photographer's loupe to discern the difference. Reading 100 pages in a Kindle e-book was an eyestrain-free experience. A 1.2-megapixel camera above the screen allows this to double as a videophone for Google+ hangouts and Skype calls.
Inside, the 7 hides 8 gigabytes of storage, without microSD Card expansion available; a 16 GB model costs $249. It complements its Wi-Fi with Bluetooth wireless, GPS and a set of location sensors. Its Near-Field Communication radio allows "Android Beam" transfers of data like Web links but not mobile payments, since Google's problematic Wallet app doesn't run on the 7. (Correction: It's there; I was led astray when a search for it in the Play Store yielded nothing.)
In the bargain, the iFixit site ranked the Nexus 7 vastly easier to repair than the iPad.
But the 7's most important component may be its software. It ships with the 4.1 "Jelly Bean" version of Android unveiled last month–bringing notable improvements in performance, search, notifications and typing–but not the mediocre additions other Android vendors can't resist gluing on Google's open-source operating system.
Its home screen comes set to highlight the movies, books and music available through Google's Play Store. A $25 credit should also help persuade owners to check out this digital-download market — perhaps yielding enough business to make up for Google selling the Nexus 7 at cost.
App selection, however, remains a weak point. Although developers are starting to see a market in Android tablets, most of the 600,000-plus Android programs Google brags about don't make effective use of their larger screens. Some apps may need tweaking to run on Jelly Bean and the Nexus 7: While Hulu Plus worked fine, Netflix crashed and HBO Go isn't compatible yet.
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And with no Flash player for Jelly Bean, the Nexus 7 has the same issues playing some online video as the iPad. Now that Adobe has abandoned its mobile-Flash efforts, Web developers need to drop the Flash habit already.
The Nexus 7 seems a stretch as somebody's only, general-purpose computer; the iPad's larger screen, 225,000 iPad-optimized apps and option of integrated mobile broadband keep it on top. But if you want something smaller and lighter for reading, writing, watching and listening on the go, it's either this or spending weeks or maybe months pining away for an upgraded Kindle Fire or Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet – or for Apple to ship a rumored "iPad mini" of its own.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery