Google Nexus 7 tablet review: solid, but not revolutionary

The Nexus 7 does well in many areas, but its lack of expandability limits its scope.

Google has shaken up the design of its core navigation and status buttons, in order to reorient everything around the portrait position. Google expects 7-inch tablets to be used more in portrait mode than anything else. This explains the move of the three nav buttons (back, home, and recent apps) from their former location flush left to their new locale, spread out along the bottom center of the display. The clock and notifications, meanwhile, move from the lower right of the display to the top of the screen. To gain access to the notifications or settings, you must slide down the "shader" from the top of the display. After the clean simplicity of the notifications pop-up on the lower right of the screen, this new design is hard to get used to. Pulling down the shader reveals a larger clock, a rotation lock soft-touch button, and a settings shortcut. Though cleaner than the pull-down Google provided on the early Froyo-based Galaxy Tab, the effect is the same: It makes the Nexus 7 feel more like a phone than a tablet.

Other interface tweaks contribute to making the Nexus 7 feel more like a giant phone than a tablet. The home and menu screens are fixed in portrait orientation, which can be jarring if you're moving from watching a video to doing something else on the tablet. And in the settings menu, you no longer have panes in portrait mode; this change makes it faster to navigate among settings options. Also gone is the battery life percentage; you get just an icon now.

Many of these tweaks annoyed me greatly, since I was accustomed to the features offered on Android 3.x/Android 4.0 tablets; they made it more difficult to reach some features, and I prefer the simplicity of a tap versus a pull-down shader for accessing more menu options. Google says that the former layout should be what we see on future 10.1-inch Android 4.1 tablets, but I missed that design on the 7-inch size. I did like the new set of Play widgets for surfacing content from My Library, My Books, My Magazines, My Movies, and My Music, but I was less satisfied with the recommendations widgets. The beauty of Android is that you have the choice to customize the home screen, and you get customization in spades. Widgets are more resizable now; and in addition to the Google Play widgets, you get a handy new widget for quick access to wireless, rotation, and brightness controls--plus another one for using Android 4.1's new music identifier. The music ID worked successfully with most of the music I threw at it, struggling only with beat-heavy areas of dance tracks and some obscure world music choices from Croatia, Japan, and Poland.

At the top of the home screen sits the Google Now bar, with a handy introduction to the Google Now search services, and a microphone icon for initiating voice searches.

One more change for the better: The Google Nexus 7's native image gallery has improved image rendering as compared with Android 4.0 and 3.2. I noticed that images regained full sharpness more quickly than before, a critical feature when you actively use the gallery to show off your pictures.

Unfortunately, Nexus 7 also shows one of Android uglier sides--the pain of OS and device fragmentation. I encountered some tablet apps that wouldn't work on the Nexus, raising the old issues involving Android's app availability and compatibility. Android 4.1 goes a long way toward improving Android's usability--in spite of the aforementioned portrait mode and nav button mess--but it doesn't solve some of the underlying problems, either.

Bottom Line

Google succeeds at shooting Amazon's Kindle Fire out of the sky; the company has delivered a superior piece of hardware at the same starting price. The Nexus 7 also beats out the same-priced Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (an Android 4.0 tablet with lesser performance and half the storage, but with a MicroSD card slot), and it beats out Barnes & Noble's limited Nook Tablet (which adds a MicroSD slot, but is restricted by B&N's custom Android version and the apps approved for it). I like the feel and design of the Toshiba Excite 7.7 better, but that model costs twice as much as the 16GB Nexus 7. Google hasn't positioned the Nexus as an iPad killer, but it's worth noting that the Nexus's price is a 38 percent savings over the cost of getting a larger-screen, same-size iPad 2, and a 50 percent savings over a third-generation iPad.

The Google Nexus 7 tablet is simply the best 7-inch tablet you can buy today. It performs well, but its mixed display performance and lack of a MicroSD card slot prevent it from eliciting unequivocal enthusiasm. Ultimately, the 8GB Nexus 7 is the best tablet you shouldn't buy today; although, that said, its relatively low price will soften the blow when you outgrow the Nexus 7's limitations and want to step up to another model in six months' time. At 16GB, the Nexus 7 becomes an affordably priced starter tablet that provides terrific battery life, solid performance, and the latest full-court version of Android. But beware of the storage limitations; they might be a deal breaker for anyone with a large media collection or a desire to download movies and TV shows from Google Play.

This story, "Google Nexus 7 tablet review: solid, but not revolutionary" was originally published by PCWorld.

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