Whatever your opinion about Google, they are among the companies leading the way forward in computer & internet technology. With that in mind, this year I watched the Google I/O keynote livestream, not really sure of what to expect. While there were some interesting announcements and demos, what I was really interested in was the tablet that was supposed to be announced. Details had been leaked pretty heavily beforehand, but of course there’s nothing like an actual product demo to fill in the gaps. Long story short: I was seduced by Hugo Barra’s swarthy accent into pre-ordering a Nexus 7. The form factor looked interesting, and at $200, it seemed like a low-risk way to try out the Android OS and ecosystem. So, a week or so into owning the device, I thought I’d write up my impressions.
When comparing the Nexus 7 and the iPad, the first obvious difference is the size. While 7″ vs. 9.7″ doesn’t seem like a big difference on paper, when you lay both devices together, the Nexus 7 is about 1/3 of the size of the iPad. The smaller size makes the device seem a bit more personal. There are instances where a larger screen might be more desirable, but after using the Nexus, I feel that the iPad is too large to use as comfortably. The Nexus can be easily gripped with one hand, and typing using the on-screen keyboard while in portrait mode is just about the same as using your phone. The only advantage I can see with the iPad in terms of screen size is for watching video and using content-creation apps. For example, my wife and I watch Netflix almost exclusively on our iPad, using the Smart Cover as a stand to prop it up on the bed or coffee table. You couldn’t really do that with the Nexus’ smaller screen. Another example is using a writing or music-making app; in those cases, more screen real estate means a more usable interface.
The Nexus 7 screen, while not quite Retina-caliber, is still very nice. It’s bright and has a decently high resolution. The back of the device is a textured plastic, which (somehow) feels like leather. It’s pleasant to touch, and makes it easier to hold the Nexus 7 for long periods of time. The only hardware buttons on the device are on the right side, and include a sleep/wake button and volume rocker. I find the buttons awkwardly placed. Since both buttons on the Nexus 7 are placed close together, there have been a few times where I accidentally put the device to sleep instead of adjusting the volume. In addition, the buttons are difficult to press unless you hold the Nexus with your left hand and press the buttons with your right. I guess if you’re left handed, no big deal. I think iPhone has its’ volume rocker on the left side because its’ easier for right handed people to use. The Nexus is built very solidly, but there were a few times when I could feel the case creak a bit when applying any sort of pressure to the screen.
The last part of the puzzle is Android 4.1, Jellybean. Even though the UI paradigms of Android and iOS are mostly similar, there were a few unfamiliar things that took me some time to get used to, mostly relating to app management. Basically, I don’t really have anything to say about Android. It seems to just work. There are a few differences, like the ability to add “widgets” to your home screen, but it’s seriously not the big deal that the frothing fanboys seem to think it is. Both platforms really work in a similar manner, each having access to more or less the same apps. Strangely, the one thing that I missed the most when using Android is a hardware “home” button. I’m so used to waking my iOS devices with the home button, it’s like a muscle memory.
In conclusion, the Nexus 7 is a nice device. If you’re an Android user, it’s probably a no-brainer to pick one up. It’s for sure the first tablet that can compete at all with the iPad on any level. That being said, it’s hard to recommend over the iPad, unless “not Apple” is your primary consideration for buying new hardware. If Apple releases a smaller iPad, any sort of advantage that the Nexus has will be eliminated. But for now, the Nexus seems to be the best “small tablet” you can buy.
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