Google’s I/O conference for 2012 brought out a lot of new features, products, and ideas, fresh from Mountain View, for the crowd to digest. I tried my best to summarize it all in 480 words, but I had to leave out entire product lines, let alone details on any one thing. If I had to pick one thing that Google should crow about, though, it’s Android 4.1, “Jelly Bean,” and the reference device they debuted to show it off, the Nexus 7. It’s really the best Android device I’ve used, with perhaps the most thought put into every aspect of how people do use devices and might want to use them. Here’s why.
Yes, it’s in the same form and size space as the Kindle Fire. But you should know that it’s slightly shorter, slightly thinner, and much, much lighter than a Kindle Fire. Its only physical hardware buttons are a power switch and a volume rocker, and they’re on the back, upper-right side of the device if you hold it in portrait mode. It’s meant for arm’s length or table-top viewing and text entry, and lacks the kind of size that allows for Bluetooth keyboard typing or farther out viewing that iPads provide. But given that the Nexus 7 is ⅖ the price of an iPad, sporting a screen that’s 7/10 of the iPad is a reasonable choice.
The screen itself
It’s 216 pixels per inch (ppi), which is far beyond the first and second-generation iPad that came in at 132 ppi, and short of the third-generation iPad’s 264 ppi. It’s fairly bright, and having tested it out with one HD and one SD episode of The Walking Dead, it’s good for video applications. One disadvantage is when doing finer text editing, as getting close up to letters in text fields reveals pixelation and the limits of web pages compressed into a 7-inch screen. There’s a reason the I/O demonstration emphasized voice input with the Nexus 7.
Google went out of its way to show the results of its Project Butter UI enhancements in Android 4.1. They used side-by-side footage shot from extremely high frame-capture cameras, discussed some of the technical aspects of what they improved (buffering, v-sync, and lots of other vid-wonk stuff), and hammered home the point that Android keeps a steady 60 frames per second (Kevin Marks explains a good deal of the minutiae on This Week in Google). But that’s all pointless until you get your hands on it, drag things around, open and close things, and see how it holds up to your always surprisingly short attention span.
Having used the Nexus 7 quite a few times per day for four days, I will say that, whatever combination of processor, memory, software, buffering, and blah blah blah is baked into this device, it freaking works. I’ve spent years working with Android devices of every stripe, since the first commercial release of the G1. I know what lag feels like. I know what it’s like to arrive back at the home screen and wait, with a sigh, for your icons, widgets, and the screen controls themselves to be redrawn. I have experience the feeling of a tiny tragedy when something that is supposed to appear as an impressive animation—a blurred dash, a telescoping ring, a supposedly intuitive finger gesture—turns out instead as an inadvertent reminder of the limits of multi-party device design.
I have experienced that kind of micro-disappointment very, very rarely on the 7, and the experience with all the other Android UI elements has led me toward disbelief. So much disbelief, in fact, I used a third-generation iPad for a side-by-side comparison, and I rediscovered some inherent lag in iPad operations that now I wish I could forget. I’m not saying the 7 necessarily beats the iPad on this score, but that, side by side, I’m starting to realize how much certain interface actions just have some inherent lag, perhaps so the user doesn’t feel something has passed them by.
Android’s openness pays off
One valid complaint about the iPad is its openness to non-Apple-sold media. Amazon, Google, or any other company is barred from selling its own music, movies, or other competing wares through Apple devices, to say nothing of their own apps. The Nexus 7 is integral’s to Google’s increased emphasis on all the things you can buy and stream from the Play Store. You see it in the naturally limited storage space, the “Your Library” widgets, and the more-than-likely subsidized $200 price. But the thing is, it doesn’t have to be a Google device, through and through.
You can install the Amazon MP3 store/player or, with a few more clicks, get the Amazon Appstore working and tie your tablet to a direct competitor’s ecosystem. You can replace the stock music/podcast/sync app with doubleTwist and sync iTunes directly to your Nexus 7. Google makes it very easy to buy things from them, but it definitely doesn’t bar you from entirely avoiding them, either. It’s only a selling point for people who think somewhat deeply about how they use their tablet, but it’s a point Google seemed to miss entirely with another I/O-launched device, the Nexus Q.
What do you think of the Nexus 7? Are you eager to see what Google can do with 7 smooth, relatively cheap inches of screen space?