We have a love-hate relationship with the Android tablet. You can see it written across the pages of Pocket-lint, through numerous reviews. Do it right and the Android tablet is a wonderful companion. Do it wrong, and it's an awkward shoehorning of the wrong software into cheap hardware.
The Nexus 7 by Asus could change everything. It's the right software, beautifully integrated into fantastic hardware, with a price that makes it incredibly competitive, not just against the premium tablets out there, but against the cheap models too.
It could be a game changer, so should you be excited about the Nexus 7?
Design: The case for 7 inches
It's in the design stakes that the Nexus 7 really belies its £159 price tag. There isn't so much as a hint of cheap plastic bezel here. Instead, the glass front meets a neat metal band, fusing front and back. The edges curving into the back are rubberised, meaning that the Nexus 7 feels nice and grippy in your hand.
The Nexus 7 measures 198.5 x 120 x 10.45mm. It is compact and although some devices will shave a few millimetres off the thickness, in reality, the Nexus 7 nestles nicely into one hand. The size means that you don't have to grip an edge when you can stretch your hand around the back and hold it securely with your thumb and fingertips.
It also weighs just 340g, so although it feels solid, there is a distinct weight advantage over larger devices. This also means it will slip easily into the inside pocket of your suit jacket and while it may be too big for the pocket of your jeans, it's certainly portable, with a much smaller footprint than something like the iPad.
Like many tablets, Asus has eschewed any physical buttons on the front or edges. Instead, the power/standby and volume controls are on the curved edge on the right-hand side. This means they aren't visible from the front, which gives a nice clean finish, with only minimal searching with a finger to locate the appropriate button.
All in, it's a tidy looking package, well constructed and lovely to hold. The build quality is very good, which comes as a welcome relief, given the price point. The choice of materials works and works well, and while it might not have a brushed-aluminium back, the tactile finish is not only good looking, but practical too.
Under the skin
The Nexus 7 lands with the Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor and 1GB RAM. This is the same processor that you'll find in the likes of the HTC One X, offering plenty of raw power.
There are two versions of the Nexus 7, one with 8GB of internal memory and one with 16GB. This isn't a huge amount of memory, and once again we find that there is no microSD card slot. This means no local memory expansion and will no doubt see some potential buyers groaning with frustration.
The microSD card slot has become a slightly contentious of late. Missing from some notable top-tier smartphones, you can almost guarantee that Samsung will include one on its next tablet, as it did with the Samsung Galaxy S III. But it seems that Google is more in favour of having you stream your content than keep it all locally.
However, there is enough internal memory to load up enough movies to keep you entertained for that trans-Atlantic flight, as well as store your important photos and favourite music tracks.
Other hardware includes a forward-facing 1.2-megapixel camera. There is no rear camera, which again some might see as a negative on the spec sheet, but let's be realistic about it: how many people actually take photos on a tablet? Yes, it happens, but here you'll have to go for your smartphone, or preferably a camera, instead.
There is a microphone, so you're all set for video conferencing, but there is no camera app as standard. You can easy download an app to launch the camera, if you want to take pictures of yourself, “vlog” or whatever.
You're also treated to the likes of NFC, Wi-Fi and GPS, along with the normal motion sensors. Physical connections are on the minimal side, however, with a Micro-USB and 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom of the device.
This means that if you want to share something on your device with your TV, you're looking at a wireless solution. That's not the end of the world, but it does mean that the Nexus 7 isn't quite as adroit a media player as something with, say, an HDMI port, common to many cheap tablets.
Finally we have the display. The Nexus 7 is equipped with a 7-inch 1280 x 800 IPS display, finished with scratch-resistant Corning glass. It's glossy and does attract fingerprints, but easily wiped clean.
The 216ppi pixel density makes it nice and sharp, and although it doesn't hit the heady highs of the latest iPad Retina display, it's difficult to criticise the sharpness or colour reproduction. Viewing angles are excellent and although it has adequate brightness to cope with daylight use, although it doesn't cope well with direct sunlight, being very reflective.
The auto-brightness can be a little twitchy at times, especially noticeable with white or light backgrounds such as in the Kindle app, where at times the backlight brightness appeared to be changing rapidly. Fifty Shades of Grey rapidly became 50 Shades of Backlight.
There is a 4325mAh battery powering the Nexus 7, which will give you around eight hours of use. Performance depends on exactly what you do with your device and Asus has told use it's working with Nvidia to extend this further in the future.
Jelly Bean tastes sweet
The Google Nexus 7 is the first device to arrive with Android 4.1, Jelly Bean. For those who have been using an Ice Cream Sandwich or Honeycomb tablet, Jelly Bean isn't a huge departure from previous Android versions.
But it is an evolution: Jelly Bean picks up a number of points of refinement in Android and we're not going to list them all here. But it is worth saying that the outcome of Project Butter, which aimed to improved the consistency in UI navigation and touch response, seems to have paid off. Although the latest smartphones are very slick, the Nexus 7 really does feel buttery smooth, with no sign of lag or delay as you navigate the device.
The keyboard really demonstrates this and although there are a number of alternatives you might want to try, the size of the Nexus 7 means the keyboard works nicely. It's lightening fast, so in this case, we stuck with the native keyboard and encountered no problems with it.
Other improvements with Jelly Bean are notifications. On the first run of "proper" Android tablets sporting Honeycomb, notifications were a bit of a bore. They're much slicker now, with Gmail grouping email notifications together, for example, giving you plenty of detail. You get access from the lock screen too, making it fast to take action.
The swipe down notifications area also gives you access to the rotation lock and the settings menu - as well as things like music controls when appropriate. The Nexus 7 is designed to be used primarily in portrait, or the home screens are at least. For some this might be a little confusing, as skipping out of an app may mean you have to rotate the device, or be left doing everything sideways. In this sense, the Nexus 7 is less like the predominantly landscape Xoom and more like recent smartphones.
The Nexus is a pure Android experience, so you won't find it loaded with apps or tweaks from manufacturers. But the Google services all work very well on the Nexus 7: People, Gmail, Google Maps, Calendar, etc, have all benefited from constant refinement. Living in the Googleverse has never been so easy.
There is still the criticism that the Google apps and OS lack consistency. While this doesn't stand in the way of practical use, it is a little irksome that things like refresh icons are different, for example in the Wi-Fi list. A minor point, but something that highlights that a dab more attention to detail is needed in places.
Another addition in Jelly Bean is “Google Now”. This is basically search evolved, and tries to second-guess what you might be coming to look for based on previous searches and contextual awareness. It will present a number of cards populated with information, drawing on things like weather, sports results or your calendar.
Google Now draws out results, so rather than giving you a bundled stream of information, you have a mapping result separate, for example. So search for Nando's and your local peri-peri chicken shack will be mapped and highlighted for you, with the other associated results dropping into the normal list.
While Google might not be pushing a Siri-competing voice assistant, voice is integrated at menu levels in Jelly Bean, as it has been for a while in Android. The big change in Jelly Bean is offline mode. You'll have to download the language files to get it to work (English UK is 15MB). The results are not quite as good as the online version, but if you want to dictate emails when offline, you certainly can.
You can also ask questions and read the answers. It only works for basic things, like asking the definition of a word, time or weather, but it will return regular text results too.
Are you not entertained?
Google is pushing content on the Nexus 7, with Google Play high on the agenda. But it's in the realm of entertainment that the tablet stumbles. Yes, there are some hardware challenges which don't help, like the lack of connections or memory expansion, but geography is also a barrier.
In the US, the Nexus 7 gets the full Google Play treatment. In the UK, at the time of writing this review, you miss out on a couple of key elements. One is movies to buy: you get rentals, but you can't own them. The second, and more significant, is music. The third is magazines. That sort of hobbles Google's desire to sell you all its content, but we're sure these services can't be far off.
However, load content on to the device and you're fine, or find a way to get yourself registered with a US Google Music (as it was known) account and you'll find that the offering improves, streaming any music you have uploaded into Google's cloud storage, and allowing for local downloads. Of course this being Android, there are no shortage of methods for acquiring content.
Perhaps one oddity, however, given the lack of connections and the push towards streaming, is that there is no native client for something like DLNA. This seems like a natural thing to integrate into music, movies or the gallery, but it isn't there.
We used Skifta to access local content on a media server, but we can't help feeling that this should be covered by Android: it is something that the likes of Samsung and Sony cover with their tablets, giving a more cohesive "digital home" feeling.
Having been fans of Flash, purely for the flexibility when it came to watching catch-up TV, the lack of support in Jelly Bean is a little annoying. Yes, we can see the bigger picture, but currently you'll miss out on some apps that aren't yet up to date, like BBC iPlayer, for example. Services like Netflix run beautifully, but until the app developers make the changes needed, you'll be at a minor disadvantage.
But with those foibles set to one side, we've revelled in the entertainment experience on the Nexus 7. The display brings video to life, the size and the aspect of the Nexus 7 really suits video content. If you've tried watching video in bed holding a larger device, you'll find that the smaller format is much more comfortable. Size really does matter, it seems.
On the audio front the Nexus 7 sounds great. The rear speaker is better than we expected, fine for sharing a little YouTube video. Its placement at the rear means you can occasionally obscure it with your fingers, but it's not a huge problem. But you'll want to connect your headphones to get the most out of it and we'd imagine for the majority of travellers and mobile users, that will be the case.
We noticed the difference stepping over from an HTC device with Beats Audio, but the music player does offer you an equaliser so you can tweak the sounds to your liking.
And then you have gaming. With the Tegra 3 sitting at the core, the triumvirate of interested parties (Google, Asus and Nvidia) are all pushing gaming on the Nexus 7. Games run without a hitch, with something like Riptide looking really slick. The size means that even for casual games, you have the space to play with your fingertips, so gaming is a lot of fun.
A Chrome finish
Aside from all the entertainment, the social networks and other fun, many tablets are being used for their browser. In the case for the Nexus 7 and future Jelly Bean devices, this means the Chrome browser. Having been released from beta, Chrome for Android is now a fantastic browser. We've found it to be fast and stable and it's beautifully slick in the way it handles tabbed browsing.
One of the nice features is being able to access tabs you have open on other devices where you're logged in to Chrome. This makes it really easy to access something you've been researching on another device, or to move, for example, from phone to tablet if you find you want a bigger screen for reading.
The impressive thing about the Nexus 7 is the quality of the device you get from Asus, at the price you're being asked to pay. The hardware and the build quality is top notch, there is plenty of power and the screen is fantastic. Add this to a pure Google experience, the latest version of Android and you're on to a winner from a software point of view too.
But there are also plenty of places where you can pick holes in the Nexus 7. There will be tablets that are better with media, with more native support for features and wider physical connectivity. Then there is the issue of those services that you don't get outside the US.
The real question then, is how much these shortcomings matter. To us, the flexibility of Android means you have the options to overcome in many cases, with the only real issue being the hardware that might be missing. We suspect that other Android tablets will appear shortly that plug these gaps if that's a huge problem for you, but in the meantime, there is little to complain about what the Nexus 7 offers.
Google has made a bold move with the Nexus 7. It has picked a great partner in Asus to get this smaller format tablet to market and the price is very aggressive. The gauntlet is down and other manufacturers will have to respond to stay in the game.
The Nexus 7 is a great play mate, a great travel companion and your best buddy on the sofa. It gives you quality and affordability, without compromising on performance. For that reason, we love it.