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Review: Nexus 7 is best Android tablet yet

 Nathan Olivarez-Giles says the Nexus 7 provides the best tablet experience outside of Apple's iPad.
Nathan Olivarez-Giles says the Nexus 7 provides the best tablet experience outside of Apple's iPad.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Reviewer: Just because Nexus 7 isn't as big as the iPad doesn't mean it's not as useful
  • The Nexus 7 sells for $200 with 8GB of storage
  • Reviewer says Nexus 7 does not have software performance problems
  • Nexus 7 has Google Now info cards and a voice-activated search system

(Wired) -- Note to all tablet makers not named Asus: This is how you make a 7-inch tablet.

The Nexus 7, the first tablet to wear Google's Nexus brand, sets a new standard for smaller slates, proving that just because it isn't as big as Apple's iPad doesn't mean it can't be just as useful, as fast, or as fun.

If you've been on the fence about Android, or tablets in general, this is the tablet you've been waiting for.

While the Nexus 7 isn't a full-on iPad-killer, it far out-classes anything else offered in the 7-inch category, and most 10-inch tablets too.

The Nexus 7 does this by offering smartly designed, powerful hardware and the best Android tablet experience to date. For those who only use their gadgets to surf the web, check e-mail, play games and update their social media feeds, the Nexus 7 might be an even better choice than an iPad, given how much easier it is to carry around.

But the feature that will probably be the most enticing to consumers is the price.

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The Nexus 7 sells for $200 with 8GB of storage. That's the same price as the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet at the same storage capacity. If you want a bit more room to download HD movies, music, games and apps, you can get the 16GB version for $250.

At these prices, the Nexus 7 is frankly a steal when you compare it to what else is out there at the same cost.

The 1280×800 IPS touchscreen is beautiful. It's the best display I've seen on a 7-inch tablet, and almost as good as the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity and the third-generation iPad.

It's not quite Retina display quality, but with a pixel density of 216ppi, it's very close. Colors are balanced without being over-saturated, a common issue on many mobile devices nowadays, particularly those from Samsung.

Also absent are any software performance problems. Where the Fire and Nook suffer from unresponsiveness, slow animations and stuttering screens, the Nexus 7 screams.

In fact, Google's tablet responds as quickly and scrolls as smoothly as just about any tablet I've seen, no matter the size. It feels as fast as Asus' larger Transformer tablets, and it performs as smoothly as the iPad, even when playing high definition games such as ShadowGun or playing back HD movies.

Basically, the Nexus 7 is a beast. Navigating around Android 4.1 Jelly Bean (yes, this is the first Jelly Bean tablet) is super clean.

There's no hesitation on the part of the Nexus 7 when loading magazines, books, apps, video, games, music or web pages.

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This can be attributed to Nvidia's 1.2GHz Tegra 3 quad-core processor — yep, this is the first quad-core 7-inch tablet, too.

Alongside that is a 12-core Nvidia GPU and 1GB of RAM. The only noticeable delay comes when you first turn on the Nexus 7. There's a lag of a few seconds while your content loads into the interactive home screen widgets pre-installed by Google.

The widgets show you what content — books, music, magazines, movies and TV shows — is available in the Google Play store for you to consume, via either streaming or downloading.

These widgets make extensive use of cover art, so they are colorful and attractive. They're easy to use, expanding and contracting as you cycle through the various options.

Most importantly, they reduce a lot of the friction around finding stuff in Google Play, both for content you've already purchased, as well as enticing new options.

The widgets are very much "in your face," and they clearly suggest that Google intends to be your go-to destination for buying, renting and streaming digital media.

The Fire and the Nook — the Nexus 7′s primary competitors, which also follow the "device as content portal" philosophy — also offer an array of entertainment options on their home screens, but Google's arrangement is far prettier to look and less intrusive. Amazon Fire's shows a cludgy carousel of content, and even that's better than the random assortment of book covers found on the Nook's home screen.

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These Google Play widgets come installed by default on every Nexus 7, but you can easily remove them and use a fully customized Android home screen of your own design.

If you're not into buying content from Google, you can download Amazon's apps and get your stuff there. You can still get Netflix, or Hulu for video. Rdio, Mog, Spotify, Pandora and other music streaming services are there, too.

This isn't a user experience that forces you to buy all your content from one storefront.

The Nexus 7 is a device tailored to consuming digital entertainment. The operating system is confined to a portrait landscape, and there's an app tray persistent across the bottom of the homescreen.

The only time the Nexus 7 shifts into landscape mode is when the content you're consuming calls for it, such as watching a movie or playing a widescreen game.

The smaller form factor makes the Nexus 7 ideal for reading books, and magazines are a joy to read here as well, thanks in part to a "text view" mode that pulls the text from an article out of its magazine layout and into a more easily consumable e-book-style view.

As good as it is for running apps, the Nexus 7 did leave me with one complaint that persists across all Android tablets — there still aren't as many tablet-optimized apps for Android as there are for the iPad.

A 7-inch screen makes this deficiency much less of a problem than it is on 10-inch tablets. But for key apps like Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo, Fandango and Foursquare (just to name a few), you're stuck using a stretched phone app.

The experience isn't horrible, but when compared to what's available on the iPad, it's obvious things could be better. It's a shame too, because when it comes to entertainment, you can use the Nexus 7 to do nearly everything you can do on an iPad, but the smaller number of tablet-specific apps leaves the device feeling less capable.

I would also like the Nexus 7 to have included a rear camera, but there is a front-facing 1.2-megapixel camera that's good for video chat and passable for photos. Bluetooth and NFC (two features common in phones but not lower-priced tablets) are included here, as well as a gyroscope and accelerometer.

The build quality on the Nexus 7 is excellent. The display looks fantastic, and the rest of the device is best-in-class. It's thin (0.41-inches) and lightweight (about 12 ounces). At 4.7 inches wide and 7.81 inches tall, it's small enough to fit in the back pocket of a pair of jeans.

The back is covered in a black rubberized plastic that's dimpled — it feels sort of like a pair of leather driving gloves. The design really works. The Nexus 7 looks classy, and it's comfortable to hold with one hand or two. Throwing it into a purse, messenger bag, backpack or coat pocket is no problem at all.

Since it's a smaller tablet, battery life is about the same as a large smartphone: 7 or 8 hours under normal use. Watching HD movies or playing games non-stop will blow through that in half the time or less. But overall, battery life is about what one would expect.

Being a Nexus device, the Nexus 7 runs an unaltered version of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. To put it plainly, Jelly Bean is the best version of Android Google has ever released, and on the Nexus 7, the OS feels tailored for this device.

Two major new Jelly Bean features, the Google Now info cards and a voice-activated search system, work expertly on the Nexus 7.

Google Now presents the pieces of information you frequently search for in a series of "cards." You can access these cards at any time by swiping upwards from the bottom of the screen, even while running different apps. For me, Google Now guessed I wanted to see local weather and directions from home to work (or from work to home, depending on the time of day).

These two cards show up in Google Now automatically. It's helpful, and it gives me what I'm looking for before I even request it, which is the point of Google Now. Eventually, the system will learn my frequent searches, and those cards will show up, too. You can delete cards you don't want to see, or prioritize the most important ones.

Voice Search allows you to run basic web queries by asking a question rather than typing one in. It's an extension of what's already offered in Google's mobile search apps, but it's been refined for Jelly Bean.

Answers come quickly — whether in the form of links, Google Now cards or a sweetly spoken response — but Google still doesn't understand a lot of natural language or slang. You have to be pretty obvious in your requests. "Best wine shop nearby," works better than, "Where can I get the best bottle of wine around here?"

Google Now and the speech-enabled search features are only found in Jelly Bean, and the Nexus 7 is the only way to get it for now, though it's weeks away from arriving on Galaxy Nexus phones.

The Nexus 7 boasts some other firsts. It's the first production tablet built on Nvidia's Kai program, which essentially lays out a recipe for building a quad-core tablet at a $200 price point. Before the end of the year, we'll likely see similarly performing slates from other Android hardware partners.

Undoubtedly, Amazon and Barnes & Noble will participate, though likely while running Android version who-knows-what forked into something unrecognizable and free of Google's influence.

But make no mistake. The Nexus 7 delivers the best Android tablet experience we've seen so far.

There simply hasn't been a Google-powered device this compelling ever before. With a mix of top-notch hardware, a convenient and portable size, and easy access to entertainment from Google or anybody else outside of Apple and Microsoft, there isn't much more you could want from a tablet, other than more tablet-tailored apps.

Overall, the Nexus 7 provides the best tablet experience outside of Apple's iPad, though the Nexus 7 is far easier to carry around. This is the first Android tablet I'd go so far as to say I love using.

WIRED: This is the Android tablet you've been waiting for. Beautiful, detailed display. Handsome design and fantastic build quality. Jelly Bean feels like it was built for the Nexus 7. The first 7-inch quad core tablet, it has Porsche-like speed and agility.

TIRED: Android still doesn't have enough tablet-optimized apps. No rear camera.

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