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Seemingly tired of watching its third-party partners fumble the Android tablet experience--aside from Amazon and its successful, albeit locked-down Kindle Fire--Google stepped in, teaming up with Asus to develop the Nexus 7, easily the best Android slate yet. It’s a startlingly slick take on the 7-inch tablet concept, packing pure Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) within its well-considered form factor. And while the Nexus 7 doesn’t match up on many levels with the iPad, it offers a remarkably polished experience at the entry price of $199.
Compared to the like-sized Kindle Fire, the Nexus 7 feels dramatically sleeker at just .41 inches thick, putting it just a smidge ahead of the new iPad (0.37 inch), though its overall size and slim heft of just 12 ounces make it ideal for reading one-handed. Nexus 7’s rubberized backing feels great in the hand, and doesn’t detract from the premium feel of the device. Aside from power and volume buttons found on the upper-right, the device relies wholly on Android’s virtual buttons for navigation.
It’s no slouch in action, either, with a bright and responsive 1280x800 display, which doesn’t hit Retina-like levels of pixel density but otherwise impresses with fluid images and actions, thanks to the quad-core processor and 1GB of RAM. And Jelly Bean is a marked improvement over the dated Android builds still running on many current devices, as it moves further away from its iOS-biting visual origins into something that feels distinct, with helpful widgets and other features placing media and apps at the forefront.
Consumption is clearly the core function of the Nexus 7, and it delivers. Games and apps run on par with what you’d expect on the iPad, and books are perfect for the screen size. (Magazines, not so much, though zooming in makes them readable.) Movies and TV shows purchased from Google Play are streamed to the device by default, but can be “pinned,” aka saved locally, with a tap. Plus, you can place your own media on the tablet via Mac or PC. Web browsing is smooth via Chrome, the Gmail app offers a handier interface than the iOS web app, and Google Now delivers Siri-like voice searching that learns from your habits and actions.
Naturally, a $199 tablet that feels this refined comes with some concessions. Just Wi-Fi, no 3G, and only one camera, 1.2 megapixels, on the front. And at 8GB or 16GB of space and no support for expandable memory, you can’t store a huge amount of content--hence, the streaming-centric design. Ultimately, the ecosystem feels like the biggest question mark. Famously fragmented by myriad devices, Android’s app offerings seem lightweight compared to the iOS App Store, any many haven’t been optimized for tablets. Even when it comes to magazines, movies, and television episodes, Google Play feels like it’s just starting out, compared to Apple and Amazon. The Nexus 7’s popularity will likely help change that, but the selection remains a lingering disappointment for now.
The bottom line. Despite these woes, the Nexus 7 stands out as a really excellent tablet, one that shatters expectations for a contract-free, budget-priced handheld device. It lacks some features, but what’s here is all handled beautifully and nears Apple-like quality and design, with a price that can’t be beat. The Nexus 7 may well be the first Android device to appeal to existing iOS users, and while Apple may have found the sweet spot between performance and value with larger tablets, Google and Asus just beat it to the punch on the 7-inch side.
Google account, Android File Transfer program for connecting to Mac
Excellent physical design and feel. Stellar performance for a 7-inch tablet. Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) is a big improvement over earlier builds. Tremendous value.
Both models are light on internal storage with no option to expand. Google Play’s app and media offerings lag well behind Apple. No 3G service or back camera.