Nexus 7 review
Magic Jelly Bean
You unlock the Nexus 7 by swiping in any direction on the lockscreen (except up, which we’ll come to later), and instead of the kind of reskins we’ve come to expect from HTC and Samsung, this is as clean as Android gets. That’s a good thing, as a pared-down Jelly Bean is wonderfully accessible. In a nod to the direction Google is taking with the Play store, there’s a main homepage for media content, with tiles for books, albums and movies, and everything can be moved and resized at will: if you don’t like the full-width recommendation tiles, just drag them smaller.
As with Ice Cream Sandwich, there are three main controls at the bottom of every screen – back, home and recent apps – and an iOS-style row of favourite apps above that. The excellent Google Chrome browser is loaded as standard – although manufacturers can stick to the old Android browser if they wish – and alongside quick shortcuts for various types of media, there’s now also a useful expandable folder for your favourite apps.
One major new feature added in Jelly Bean is Google Now, which you access by swiping up to unlock – or indeed by swiping up from the Home button on any screen. It brings up a nicely contrasting white screen made up of cards: initially you’ll have the local weather, but Google Now can add flight details near an airport, transport times near a tube station, information about nearby museums and restaurants, meeting appointments, and so on. Better still, its voice search works quickly and accurately in our experience. It’s like a cross between Siri and one of the many location-aware activity apps, with one key failing: with no 3G, it’s largely useless if you want to use it out and about.
The rest of the Nexus 7 experience will come largely via Google Play, as this is very much a content-consumption device in the mould of the Kindle Fire. As we’ve already said, watching rented movies is very enjoyable with a good set of headphones, and games run fine – it almost feels like a portable games console given its dimensions. We’re slightly less enamoured with the reading experience, but perhaps that’s just by comparison with the sharpness of the iPad. Books come with large text and a nice page-turn animation, and they’re perfectly readable, so for all but the longest journeys we’d consider leaving the Kindle at home.
The Nexus 7 isn’t a budget tablet in anything but price. It’s fast, it has a perfectly good screen, and it’s built to a quality rarely seen from such a cheap device. Android’s Jelly Bean update brings its own advancements, and for the first time we can look at an Android tablet as a whole package and say: it all works. The fact that we’re saying that about a £199 device is remarkable.
For the sofa, there’s no doubt an iPad remains a far more comfortable size, with a screen better suited to web browsing and reading text. But Google and Asus’s little beauty easily has the edge as a travelling companion. It’s the perfect size to hold in one hand, and Google Play’s books and movies make it great for flights and hotel rooms.
Despite a few minor flaws, it completely redefines what we should expect from a budget tablet. If this is the outcome, Google should take matters into its own hands more often.
Four months after the release of the Nexus 7, the device received a free update to Android 4.2. Performance wasn’t significantly improved: we saw Quadrant scores remain unchanged after the upgrade, while SunSpider accelerated only slightly from 1,799ms to 1,683ms.
But the latest version of Jelly Bean brings some major new features, including multi-user support, where each person using the tablet has a separate login, complete with its own home screen, accounts, and collection of apps.
Our favourite aspect of the upgrade is the new keyboard, which allows you simply to drag your finger from letter to letter, just like Swype, rather than having to tap each virtual key in turn – a system that works with impressive speed and accuracy.
Android 4.2 also tidies up the menus that pull down from the notification area: dragging down on the left side exposes the familiar stack of app notifications and events, while dragging on the right side gives instant access to commonly used settings, including brightness, wireless, rotation lock and user switching.
The Nexus 7 is no longer the only device of its kind. The Amazon Kindle Fire HD, Nook HD and the Kobo Arc all now offer alternatives at similar prices; but these are conceived as ebook readers rather than general purpose tablets. The Nexus 7’s Jelly Bean front-end is a slicker, more versatile system than any of them – and the rapid arrival of Android 4.2 suggests the device may be first in the queue for future updates too.
In short, if you’re in the market for a regular Android tablet, the Nexus 7 remains the one to go for. The OS update has cemented the device’s appeal, and storage space has doubled since our original review, too, so it’s better value than ever. There’s also now a 3G model available at a tempting £239, which can serve as a true on-the-go companion.