Google's Nexus 7: To buy or not to buy?

Google Nexus 7 Android Tablet

It's been almost a week since Google unveiled its new Nexus 7 Android tablet. I've been using the Nexus 7 extensively since that introduction, and I've gotta say: I continue to be impressed with how compelling this device truly is.

The Nexus 7 was announced on the first day of Google's I/O developers' conference last Wednesday. The tablet costs $200 for the base-level 8GB version or $250 for a 16GB model. Both versions are available for preorder now and expected to ship in mid-July.

Nexus 7: Small price, big deal

As I wrote in my first impressions of the Nexus 7, the tablet's price may be small -- but its significance is enormous. At $200, Google is providing a first-class tablet experience at a budget-level price. That's something that hasn't been possible in the past, and that's precisely what the Nexus 7 is all about: getting a good-quality tablet experience into more people's hands.

So what do you actually get with the Nexus 7? You get a solid 7-inch tablet with a 1280 x 800 IPS display. You get a "pure Google" Android experience -- no bloatware, no stupid manufacturer-added skins, and no locked-down limited-use nonsense (paging Amazon...). The Nexus 7 ships with the brand new Android 4.1, a.k.a. Jelly Bean. Just as important, as a Nexus device -- and one with no carrier interference, at that -- you're guaranteed to get fast and frequent software updates as they become available in the future.

Presumably taking a cue from Amazon's Kindle Fire, the Nexus 7's Android 4.1 software puts content consumption front and center. Out of the box, the Nexus 7 has home screen widgets showing you all of your purchased content from Google Play along with recommendations for future multimedia and app acquisitions. Don't be misled, though: Those are just widgets, and the Nexus 7 is a fully functioning Android tablet -- not a restrictive platform built solely to encourage purchases from its manufacturer's ecosystem. Google's new setup makes basic stuff simpler for the less tech-savvy crowd while still providing the full range of advanced functionality for those of us who want it.

Google Nexus 7 - Android 4.1
Google Nexus 7 - Android 4.1

Under its hood, the Nexus 7 runs a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor along with a full gigabyte of RAM. If that sounds familiar, it's because it's basically the same setup every high-end $600 Android tablet uses today; the Nexus 7 does have some lower-cost components, as you'd expect, but its performance is every bit as good as any other tablet out there. In fact, I'd say it's actually better than many of them.

As a 7-inch device, the Nexus 7 feels a bit different to use than the typical 10-inch tablet. I've been underwhelmed by 7-inch tablets in the past, so I approached the Nexus 7 with a healthy bit of skepticism. I've found the smaller form to be perfectly pleasant to use, though; compared to a 10-inch tablet, it's surprisingly easy to hold in one hand while swiping or tapping with the other.

The screen is large enough compared to most smartphones that it feels like a nice complement, but the device itself is small enough to keep it incredibly portable; it could easily fit into most purses and even some pockets. The only time I find myself missing the extra space is when watching a movie; if I had to choose between a 10-inch screen and a 7-inch screen for sitting down and watching two hours of video on a plane, for example, I'd pick the larger option. But in the grand scheme of things, I'm not sure that's enough to convince me to lug around a bigger device.

The Nexus 7 is listed at eight hours of battery life. In my usage -- ranging from casual to moderately heavy -- I've yet to have trouble making it through an entire day on a single charge; in fact, I've often gone multiple days without having to recharge.

So, yeah -- the Nexus 7 has a lot of good things going for it. But there are some relative downsides to a $200 tablet, too.

Nexus 7: The $200 tablet tradeoffs

Let's face it: You obviously aren't going to get the same exact product for $200 that you'd get for $600. So where does the Nexus 7 make its tradeoffs? Here's what's noticeable:

• The Nexus 7 has a less sleek and sexy build than some of the high-end Android tablets. It's a bit thicker -- 0.41-in., which isn't all that bad -- and has a textured plastic back instead of the more metallic material used on premium devices. How important is that? It all depends on your priorities. But it's strictly an aesthetical matter.

• The Nexus 7 tablet has a front-facing camera for video chat but lacks the rear camera many high-end models have. That said, I don't know many people who actually use their tablet's rear camera with any regularity, so in practical terms, I doubt this means much for most folks. 

• The Nexus 7 has less storage than many high-end Android tablets, with choices of 8 or 16GB instead of the 32 to 64GB options you'll see at the top of the spectrum. The Nexus 7 also lacks support for external storage. Depending on your needs, that may or may not be a noteworthy negative for you.

• Speaking of slots, the Nexus 7 has just a standard micro-USB port -- no support for MHL and thus HDMI functionality -- along with a headphone jack. The micro-USB port can support USB devices like mice, keyboards, and ethernet adaptors, but you lose out on some of the advanced connectivity options other tablets can provide.

• The Nexus 7 doesn't have the best display on the market. I've found it to be fine for most purposes -- the screen is bright with true-to-life colors and excellent viewing angles, and it looks quite good for Web surfing, text-reading, and other normal uses -- but if you're a display aficionado who wants the best of the best, you're going to have to drop more than $200 to get it.

Nexus 7: The final verdict

So all considered, is the Nexus 7 the right tablet for you? I'll put it this way: I own a high-end 10-inch Android tablet. Since I've had the Nexus 7 around, I haven't felt the need to pick up that other tablet once.

In terms of software and performance, the Nexus 7 is at the top of its game. When you look at the Nexus 7 compared to other devices in the same general category -- Amazon's Kindle Fire, Samsung's Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 -- everything else looks like a joke.

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Ultimately, with the Nexus 7's level of hardware combined with its pure Google software, the tablet is a total steal at 200 bucks. You do make some sacrifices compared to more expensive options -- naturally -- but when you weigh everything out with the price, the Nexus 7 comes out looking like a champ.

All in all, the Nexus 7 is a fantastic device at an incredible value -- and a tablet I'd wholeheartedly recommend.

For more thoughts on the Nexus 7, check out my initial hands-on review and my Android 4.1 walkthrough.

[UPDATE: Google's Nexus 7 4G: To buy or not to buy?]

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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