Saturday, August 11, 2012

Google Nexus 7 tablet - full review!

I have a new toy. After years of swearing I'd never buy a tablet... I bought a tablet.

Why the change of heart? Well, I'd been kind of poisoned by Apple's marketing for the iPad. I still believe their all-things-to-all-people approach is wrong, and will eventually limit their market due to the high price of entry (unless they change that approach, and they might). You might think I'm crazy now, but I also predicted a few years ago that Android was going to be the real story in smartphones, not the iPhone - and now Android is pulling away in market share.

Anyway, it wasn't so much that I couldn't see the point of a tablet, but for a while Apple was defining what the word "tablet" meant - and I don't like their definition.

I do like Google's.

I don't want to replace either my laptop or my phone (well, not all the time, anyway). I don't need a device that performs magic tricks. All I want is a cheap screen that I can watch videos, play games, answer emails and browse the web on. My last cross-country flight - which was devoid of any entertainment options (but did have wi-fi!) - finally convinced me that I needed a tablet. In an economy class seat, there's room for me or my 15" hulk of a laptop - but not both of us.

I almost bought a Kindle Fire a little while back, but I'd heard about the sluggish, limited interface, so I waited. I'm glad I did. The Nexus 7 is what I was looking for - Google's approach almost exactly matches my needs, and I suspect the needs of many others in the same boat. It's not perfect, but it's the first tablet I've found that starts to get the balance right.

I bought the 16GB, $249 version, and I'll go into some detail as to why later. But first, my thoughts on the hardware and the included Android 4.1 ("jelly bean").

I'll start here because this is probably the most important aspect of any tablet design. Honestly, it's hard for me to compare the Nexus 7 to other tablets (because it's the only one I own) but for my uses, I'd call its battery "pretty good". Google rates it as getting 9 hours in normal mixed use - I'd say that's optimistic. Myself, doing what I consider a pretty normal mix of things and without really any extra apps installed except a few games, I get about 7 hours. That's enough for a cross-country flight but not a trans-Pacific one, and it's not enough to use in both limited fashion at work and then at home at night without recharging it at some point during the day. I feel like the goal for any tablet really should be a full waking day's continuous use before charging. (I know that no tablet really gets there yet, but others come closer.) Laptops are a bit different, both because they use a lot more power and because they can more easily be used while plugged in.

The Nexus 7 itself is well designed for the most part, in that it is a solid-feeling 7" screen with a plastic back. What more do you need? It's a tablet. There's nothing that really gets in the way, and nothing that really stands out. The screen itself is quite nice - 1280x800 resolution, nice color and contrast, good black level, good brightness but not too blinding. Android's automatic brightness seems to work well with this screen (it's a far smoother transition between brightness levels than other Android devices I've seen).

I like the thinness and the weight, or lack thereof, though I'd have traded a tiny bit of that for a smidge more battery life. 7" is the perfect size if you're buying a tablet to fit in between your phone and laptop, and as something you can carry around all the time. I can hold my Nexus 7 basically until the battery runs out and I never get tired. It's less bulky than the current Kindle Fire, though we'll see what the next model of Amazon's tablet looks like.

Here it is in a $9 case I bought on Amazon.

I do have the "screen lift" that's a common problem, in which the left side of the glass sits a bit higher than the plastic trim. There's currently an 87 page forum thread devoted to this on xda. Despite what you may read elsewhere, there is no quick fix for this - the problem is internal components pressing on the back of the screen and the case cover. Any quick fix is temporary, as the frustrated and resigned comments at the end of that thread demonstrate. This thing needs a metal back cover for support.

I'm not a fan of the rear-facing speaker, but the two biggest hardware omissions for me are a standard rear-facing camera and memory card slot. The camera I can live without, though I'm sure I'd get some use out of it if it had one. The lack of a memory card slot is a bigger deal. Now, I knew this going in - and it's why I bought the 16GB version (really a must) - but that doesn't mean I'm happy about it.

Most modern tablets - including the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 - are designed to be used with "the cloud". You're not supposed to need a lot of storage because you just stream everything. I think this is at best misguided, and at worst kind of a scam. The reason the manufacturers do this is so they can force you to subscribe to their cloud services. In Google's case, that means spending $3-$5 "renting" every movie, spending $10+ for each album of music (that you can then store on their servers for streaming), etc. If you don't do this, your tablet's pretty much useless because even if you can figure out how to rip your own music and DVD's to the device (not that hard, but ripping movies, especially, is not something most people know how to do at all), there's just not enough storage to put much on it.

You can also upload all of your existing music library from your PC - but not your movie library! - to Google's own servers and stream it to the Nexus 7 when you're on wi-fi. Again, though, when you're not near wi-fi - such as when traveling (ie. the times tablets are really designed for), you just can't store much music on the device. That said, the fact that you can upload all your music to begin with gives you an easy interface to download and keep at least a few albums with you, deleting and re-downloading at will depending on your mood. So this is kind of workable, if not a pain in the butt, even if it does take a long time to first upload all of your albums (I'm currently on 2 days and counting). iTunes Match this ain't.

But... there's that weird inconsistency in how music and videos are treated. This is not unique to Google, but it's still worth mentioning. Watching videos is one of the top features of any tablet, yet actually doing so offline is unnecessarily difficult. While you can upload your own music to stream or download, you cannot do anything similar for videos, and there's no "official" way to import videos from your PC directly to the tablet either. All you can do is just a straight file copy, but then you run up against the limitations of the built-in video player, which only seems to want to play h.264 encoded files. So you then need to download a separate third-party app to play other formats, and these provide an experience of wildly varying quality.

For example, despite being "optimized" for hardware decoding and Android 4.1, the popular MX Player stuttered badly when I tried to play a regular old 1440x1080 mpeg file captured straight from an HDTV stream. (Experienced readers will note that the screenshot above is set to use the software decoder, which is the only way this player can play this file somewhat smoothly.) This ends up reflecting poorly on the tablet itself rather than the app; the tablet should be able to play a file like this perfectly without any tweaking, and how do I know why the video's stuttering?  It doesn't stutter even on my phone, so it's easy to blame the tablet. Google could have avoided this by simply supporting more formats in the official video app.

This same design philosophy extends to importing photos, which doesn't really seem to be officially supported either. A tablet is the perfect medium for transferring photos from a digital camera on the go - and it does seem like you can upload photos to Google's Picasa Web Albums service if you run out of storage. But again, no official method is provided for getting photos onto your Nexus 7, and it's not even mentioned in the User Guide that comes pre-loaded as an Ebook - you need to figure out for yourself what cable you need (look for a USB On The Go cable with Micro-USB, like this one). I was surprised to find that once I did hook up the right cable to my camera, the Nexus 7 recognized it straightaway and gave me the option to import photos to the gallery app. I don't know if all cameras would work, but my Nikon Coolpix S8200 did.

So the Nexus 7 isn't perfect, and there's definitely room for improvement. But what it does, it does really well. Android 4.1 is very smooth, and unlike the Kindle Fire's completely custom interface, the Nexus 7's "library" and Play Store recommendations are just widgets that can be easily discarded if you like. (That said, Amazon's concept behind their library is more useful than Google's, which just shows you the last few pieces of content you consumed.. on the off-chance you might want to consume them again.)

It's easy to get a completely stock look on the Nexus 7 if you so desire, with commensurate performance. The Nexus 7 does feel fast - it rarely ever makes you wait or stutters on a button press.

Obviously, the Nexus 7 has access to the Google Play store (Google's "ecosystem"), and it's integrated really well - it certainly looks a lot nicer than it does on my phone, almost like it's an app built into the OS itself rather than what's really just a web page. That makes it feel like you have access to a lot of content on the Nexus 7... although seeing those dollar signs next to everything is an obvious giveaway that you really actually don't unless you pony up.

It doesn't help that Google Play is massively overpriced compared to the competition. The same book, album, app or magazine on Google Play will almost always be more expensive than Amazon. At least you can install Amazon's Kindle and MP3 apps... but not their app store (unless you enable sideloading of apps and grab the apk file).

There are some deals to be had, though - using my $25 Google Play credit (a promotion that's running right now), I was able to pick up the latest issues of Maximum PC and PC Gamer for $0.99 each. Magazines on the 7" screen work pretty well - they're readable even as originally formatted, but you can also view a "text" version of each article that's formatted for e-readers (and despite the name, there's always at least one image at the top). Books work equally well, although a couple of times I've had issues where the default font changed on its own and I could then never seem to get it back to the way I wanted it to be without exiting and restarting the reader app.

I've been having lots of fun playing free games, using my Netflix streaming (which I subscribe to anyway), watching the Olympics through NBC's free streaming app, reading emails and just browsing the web. My Nexus has already replaced my laptop as my go-to couch browsing device - it just feels a lot more civilized picking up this small(ish) screen to look at a random web site or check the news than doing the same with an 8 lb. clamshell behemoth. While I need my powerful laptop for some tasks, it's just overkill for many others. And those are exactly the kinds of things the Nexus 7 excels at.

Tablets are still in their infancy, and it's going to be a little while longer before both the UI/OS designers and, quite honestly, users themselves really have a good idea of the types of things people want to do with them. The uses I had for a tablet really only crystalized themselves in my mind over the last month or so. So far every tablet interface has taken a different approach - in most cases wildly different. I like Google's emphasis on media consumption - that's what I think tablets are good at. At the same time, I think Amazon's approach of severely limiting the user interface to certain types of content also severely limits the utility of the tablet itself.

However, I think that Google needs to address some of the inconsistencies in their approach with regards to different types of content, and I also think they need to give users some better options to import and view offline content. That latter point may run counter to their goal of ringing up $5 or $10 worth of stuff every time someone wants to do anything with their Nexus 7, but competition being what it is, I can't imagine that kind of fleecing's going to hold up over the long haul. Eventually we'll have an Android tablet as cheap and good as the Nexus 7 is, but with a memory card slot, a better video player and some real import tools. Who knows... it may not even come from Google themselves.

Playing cat videos is where tablets truly excel.

No comments:

Post a Comment

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP