Google Nexus 10 deep-dive review: Android, supersized

An in-depth look at where Google's new 10-in. tablet shines -- and where it falls short.

Google's Nexus devices tend to stand in a league of their own, thanks both to their pure Android software experiences and market-disrupting price models. With its new Nexus 10 tablet, available November 13, Google is expanding its reach into the realm of 10-in. tablets.

The Nexus 10 is a bit different from Google's past efforts. The tablet, manufactured by Samsung, enters a realm that's already crowded with noteworthy contenders -- and its price, while certainly low, is nowhere near as eye-catching as what we saw with the recent Nexus 7 and Nexus 4 devices.

Google's Nexus 10 tablet

The Nexus 10 will be sold directly by Google for $399 for a 16GB version or $499 for a 32GB model. So what's it like to use, and is it worth the cost? I've spent the past several days living with the tablet to find out.

Body and display

In terms of design, the Nexus 10 feels very much like a Samsung tablet: The device has a plastic-based construction that comes across as more utilitarian than premium. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's a significant difference from the sleek and metal-centric approach used by products like Asus's Transformer Pad Infinity and Apple's iPad. (Of course, the iPad is more expensive, with a 16GB model costing $499. The Transformer Pad has a higher starting price, too, but it's actually in line with the Nexus 10's higher-end offering: $499 for a 32GB tablet.)

The Nexus 10's casing has a rubberized sort of feel that's pleasant to the touch; the tablet is easy to hold and never feels like it's slipping out of your hands. At 1.3 lb. and a 0.35-in. thickness, the device is relatively light and thin, too -- more so even than Apple's latest offering, which comes in at 1.44 lb. and 0.37 in.

The Nexus 10's best physical attribute, however, is its face. The tablet boasts a striking 2560-x-1600-pixel, 10.1-in. display with 300ppi, making it the highest resolution screen on any tablet today -- the kind of resolution you'd typically see on a 30-in. computer monitor. The iPad, for comparison, has a resolution of 2048 x 1536 with 264ppi.

The Corning Gorilla Glass 2 screen is every bit as sharp as you'd expect: Colors pop and details shine with a level of clarity that simply delights the eye. Watching HD videos -- movies, in particular -- is just an awesome experience on this device, particularly when you factor in its dual front-facing stereo speakers, which provide the best on-board audio of any tablet I've used.

The only negative is the Nexus 10's built-in autobrightness feature, which I found to be rather erratic: Regardless of where I used the tablet, the screen's brightness would randomly fluctuate every 30 seconds or so, even when I was holding the device perfectly still in stable lighting conditions. This seems to be a consistent issue with Samsung-made mobile products.

The Nexus 10's speakers are built into a plastic bezel that surrounds the display and extends seamlessly onto the device's sides and back. The left side of the unit houses a 3.5mm headphone jack along with a micro-USB port. That's right, folks: The Nexus 10, unlike most tablets, actually charges via a standard micro-USB connector instead of a proprietary alternative. (Hallelujah!).

The tablet has a power button and volume rocker directly next to each other on the far left of its top edge. That placement is somewhat unusual; the side of a device is a far more common spot for volume control. It's a minor detail, for sure, but even after a week of using the Nexus 10, I find it feels slightly unnatural to press left or right instead of up or down on the volume rocker to adjust the sound level.

On the right of the tablet, you have a dedicated micro-HDMI port -- no special adapter or connector required there, either. The device's bottom, meanwhile, has a magnetic charging port, presumably for future docking accessories.

The Nexus 10's back is a single piece of hard plastic, save for an inch-and-a-half-tall panel of removable material surrounding the camera at the top. The removable panel is another very Samsung-like touch; it's thin, flimsy, and feels like it'd be all too easy to snap in half. I was actually worried I was going to break it when I first peeled it off my device (thankfully, I did not).

Why would you even peel the panel off in the first place, you might be wondering? Unlike many Samsung-made phones, the panel doesn't give you access to the device's battery or other interiors. It does, however, serve as a placeholder for an optional cover accessory; Google sent me a bright red cover to try out.

Once attached, the cover flips around the top of the device to protect the screen. It also serves as an easy on-off switch: With the help of a hidden magnet, the cover automatically activates the Nexus 10's display when you lift it up and puts it to sleep when you place it back down. It's a nice touch that -- particularly with the way it integrates naturally into the tablet's form -- makes the product feel more complete.

(Google says the covers will be sold directly through its Google Play Store but has yet to release any info about their pricing or when they'll be available.)

Under the hood

Google's Nexus 10 is powered by a 1.7GHz Samsung Exynos 5250 dual-core processor along with 2GB of RAM. It's easy to get caught up in specs like the number of cores when talking about tablets (quad-core is quickly becoming par for the course these days), but it's important to remember that those numbers alone don't determine a device's performance.

The experience of using the Nexus 10, in fact, is more consistently smooth and snappy than what I've experienced with most other 10-in. Android tablets -- including those with quad-core chips. Navigating through the home screens is fast and fluid, apps load instantly and multitasking feels effortless. Web browsing is a breeze, too, even with numerous tabs open in the Chrome browser. There's nothing to complain about in terms of performance here; the Nexus 10 absolutely delivers.

The Nexus 10 packs a 9000mAh battery that promises nine hours of nonstop video streaming, seven hours of continuous Web browsing and 500 hours of standby time. I found the tablet's stamina to be top-notch; even with moderate to heavy use, I was often able to go a solid few days between charges.

One area where the Nexus 10 falls short is in storage: The tablet's internal space is limited to either 16GB or 32GB. Once you factor in system files and all that fun stuff, even on the 32GB device, you're left with only about 27GB to 28GB of actual usable space -- and the device does not have an SD card slot for external storage. As with its Nexus 4, Google is clearly putting the focus on cloud storage and Web-based streaming, but that kind of configuration isn't going to work for everyone.

The Nexus 10 has two cameras: a front-facing 1.9-megapixel, 720p camera for vanity pics and video chat; and a rear-facing 5-megapixel, 1080p camera for stills and general recordings. When it comes to still pictures, the cameras are okay but not great; they'll get the job done, but you'll get far better quality from pretty much any current high-end smartphone camera. (Does anyone actually take photos on a tablet, anyway?)

Google's Nexus 10 supports near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free sharing and services, including Google Wallet, which comes preloaded on the device. Contrary to some reports, the tablet does not support the new Miracast wireless display-sharing protocol announced for the Nexus 4.

The Nexus 10 is currently available as a Wi-Fi-based device; at this point, Google has not announced any plans for a 3G- or 4G-capable version.

The software

Like with all of Google's Nexus devices, the software is what really sets the Nexus 10 apart from the competition. The Nexus 10 ships with a pure stock version of Google's new Android 4.2 operating system. That means you get the actual software Google's Android team created -- no cluttered and messy manufacturer-added interfaces and no mountains of bloatware glued onto the system.

The Nexus 10 ships with a pure stock version of Google's new Android 4.2 operating system.

The result is a fast, fluid and visually consistent user interface that's a pleasure to use. Equally important, it's a guarantee of fast and frequent future upgrades: While most Android tablets are dependent on their manufacturers for OS upgrades, Nexus devices receive their software directly from Google, typically within a week or two of a new release. That's a sharp contrast to the agonizing wait-and-see game owners of manufacturer-controlled tablets commonly face.

Android 4.2 brings a new but familiar look to the 10-in. tablet form: Instead of the tablet-specific UI introduced with Android 3.0 and carried over ever since, the Nexus 10 utilizes a setup that's more similar to what you find on an Android phone. It's very much like the UI used on the Nexus 7, only with a few additional tweaks designed to take advantage of the larger screen space.

At the top of the home screen, you have a persistent Google search bar that provides access to both the Google Now intelligent assistant tool and the Jelly Bean Voice Search feature. At the bottom, you have a Favorites Tray with eight customizable icons and a permanent shortcut to the app drawer. Beneath the tray is a black bar with virtual navigation buttons that let you move back, return home or switch apps from anywhere in the system; the buttons remain centered in that bar regardless of how you're holding the tablet.

Then there are the notifications: While previous Android tablets have displayed notifications as tiles in the lower-right corner of the screen, the Nexus 10 instead uses a variation of the standard top-of-screen setup. The main notifications pulldown is accessed by swiping down on the left side of the screen. Swiping down on the right, meanwhile, brings down a separate "quick settings" panel -- a new feature of Android 4.2 that provides quick access to basic system settings.

Even as someone who's used Android tablets since their earliest incarnations, I've found the new 10-in. tablet UI easy to use and adapt to. It feels completely natural to move from an Android phone to a 7-in. tablet to a 10-in. device -- and that platform-wide consistency is very much Google's goal with this UI change. From a perspective of platform growth and accessibility, that makes perfect sense.

The one area where I'm not completely sold is on the placement of the virtual navigation buttons. Those are buttons you frequently access while using a device -- and when holding a 10-in. tablet in landscape mode with two hands, their centered orientation makes them rather difficult to reach. I get why they're centered from a conceptual standpoint, but it'd sure be nice if there were a way for the user to reposition them to the left or right side of the screen for more ergonomic access.

Interface aside, Android 4.2 now supports multiple user accounts on tablets. Google says the feature will let each user maintain separate home screen setups and app collections as well as access to his own Google-related services like email and storage.

Multiuser support was not yet available on the prerelease software on my review device, so I wasn't able to test it. Google says it'll be added via an over-the-air update on the day the tablet launches; I'll revisit it in my blog once I've had the chance to check it out.

Android 4.2 introduces a slew of other new features, such as a redesigned Camera app, a new system keyboard with slide-to-type support and a powerful multilayered security system. There are also some improvements to the Gmail app and signs of subtle polish sprinkled throughout the UI.

I went into great detail about the various new features in my Nexus 4 review earlier this week. Rather than repeating myself here, I'll point you there for additional information.

What about the apps?

Before I wrap up, there's one elephant in the room that needs to be addressed: the apps. Android is frequently criticized for the lack of apps that are optimized for the tablet form, particularly in comparison to Apple's iOS platform.

So how real of a problem is it? Well, it's all relative. In terms of objective measurements, Google doesn't release numbers about the percentage of "tablet apps" vs. "phone apps" within its Play Store. Android apps aren't really classified separately like that in the first place; rather, apps that are properly coded to Android 4.x design standards can scale up from one form to another without issue. (Very few Android apps have separate phone and tablet editions.) If they're designed well, they'll also incorporate additional UI elements -- multiple on-screen columns, for example -- when a larger screen size is detected.

Based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence, I'd say it's probably fair to conclude that iOS has more apps that are optimized for the tablet form at this point. It's also fair to say that Android's collection of tablet-optimized apps is rapidly expanding -- and there's no shortage of sharp-looking selections to be found.

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