I make a lot of aspirational purchases. I constantly buy books I really ought to read, subscribe to magazines that are so good the one time a year I actually get around to opening them, and add movies like Schindler's List to my Netflix queue because it's an important cultural touchstone. My credit card bill makes me look worldly and educated — my actual habits involve a lot of watching It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and re-reading The Da Vinci Code.
Last fall, I bought an iPad mini hoping that consolidating all those things into one place would make me more likely to do them. It didn't, really — movies don't look that great on the mini's screen, magazines take about 46 years to download, and oh man are there a lot of fun games on iOS that are more exciting than Schindler's List.
So when Google announced the new, $229 Nexus 7, I immediately leapt to the pre-order page. This would solve all my problems! It has a fantastic display, a great processor, all the books and magazines and movies I want, and it's so small and light it'll go everywhere with me. Right?
Then I looked over at the Nexus 7 I bought last year, which I loved to pieces. But it's sat dormant for six months. The battery's dead, maybe permanently. I scratched the screen pretty good, too. But a year is a long time, and maybe this would be the one. I had to find out.
The first Nexus 7 was a soft, plushy device that felt both comfortable and almost disposable. With plastic edges and a dimpled back, it was more toy than machine. The new model trades up to a sleek, classy, all-black body that very clearly means business. This isn't a toy anymore; it's a tablet for serious people who do serious things.
The Nexus 7 has grown up
The matte black back no longer looks or feels like Steve McQueen's leathery driving gloves, but it's still soft to the touch and much nicer to hold than some of the glossy, plastic backs on devices like the Galaxy Tab 3 8.0. At 8.65 mm thick, it's slightly slimmer than the last model, and at 0.64 pounds slightly lighter as well. It's also about a credit card thicker than the iPad mini, and almost exactly as tall. Google shaved a quarter of an inch off the bezels on either side of the display, which makes the device fit much more easily into my hand as well. I can grasp it like a phone, holding the tablet in my palm and tapping on the screen with my thumb — the iPad mini requires two hands, one to hold the device and the other to use it.
Google opted not to shrink the bezels above and below the display, which now look comically gigantic in comparison. The mismatched bezels also make the screen look smaller, and the tablet looks asymmetrical — it's nice to have a place to put your hands when you hold the tablet sideways, but no one needs this much space. The Nexus 7's 16:10 aspect ratio already makes it look gangly and tall, but the huge bezels turn it into an eighth-grader that grew a foot without gaining a pound.
The Micro USB port on the bottom is used for charging and syncing, while the volume and power controls sit on the tapered right edge. From the front, you see no blemishes on the device save for the awkwardly off-center camera lens; there's another, larger lens on the back, plus a small Asus tag and a huge Nexus logo. The logo is readable only when you hold the device in landscape — Google demoed the device mostly sideways as well, and clearly imagines you'll mostly use the Nexus 7 for watching movies and playing games. Me? I mostly read. The Da Vinci Code is a long book.
The two cameras are both pretty unexciting, but they're what I'd want from a tablet — the new 5-megapixel rear shooter takes decent, accurate photos, and though the front lens is really hard to align with your face it works just fine. I still loathe anyone I see taking pictures with their tablet, but if that's your thing the Nexus 7 will serve you well.
Sometimes I'll triage my email or play some games on my tablet, but Pocket, Kindle, Netflix, and Hulu are my top four most-opened apps and the competition isn't even close. I read on the subway, I watch TV shows in bed, and occasionally I do both at once because I have two tablets and that's just how I roll.
For me, a good display is the most important feature of a tablet. I don't need a hugely specialized set of apps — I play some games, but don't consider any one to be mission-critical — I just need a tablet that makes books and movies look awesome. That's the new Nexus 7 in a nutshell, thanks to its new 7.02-inch, 1920 x 1200 IPS display. Google says it's the sharpest 7-inch tablet ever (at 323ppi it's hard to argue otherwise), but I'd put this screen up against anything from the iPad to the Nexus 10. It has bright, vivid colors without being oversaturated; the viewing angles are ridiculous; and text, photos, and 1080p Netflix looks incredible. Even the Google Play magazines, which are just shoddy PDFs of Esquire and Better Homes and Gardens, are completely readable at their tiny default sizes.
All that, plus a new set of speakers that are both louder than the last model and output genuine stereo sound, makes the Nexus 7 easily the best small tablet ever when it comes to watching movies or just poking through videos of people grabbing mugs off someone else's bumper in the middle of the highway. It's also a really great remote for Chromecast, but that's a story for another day.
As good as any tablet display, at any screen size
Jelly Bean, round three
For three months, Google's been talking a lot about tablets. At I/O in June and again this week, it talked about the special section in the Play Store designed just for tablet apps, and the new tools for developers. It's about time, too, because though Android has made huge progress it's still not up to par with the iOS app selection. More and more apps I use are available on Android, but too many are still just blown-up phone apps, and there are still plenty of games and great apps (Paper and Djay come to mind) simply missing. Google's catching up, but it started the race way too late.
Key Lime Pie this is not
It may not have the apps, but Android has quickly become a great tablet OS. Last year's Nexus 7 came with Android 4.1, a massive improvement in the operating system called Jelly Bean. With the new tablet comes a new, stock version of the OS, Android 4.3. It's still called Jelly Bean, which is telling: there are a few changes to the software, but there's no big leap to distinguish this blend of Android from what came before it.
Android 4.3 now supports Bluetooth LE (which will make it a much more useful companion to wearable devices, watches, and the like) and OpenGL ES 3.0, which promises improved graphics for the device. You'll probably never notice either feature — they just make Android devices a little better. Even the restricted profiles, one of the more notable changes, isn't exactly new: Amazon and Barnes & Noble have always let you control apps and settings for particular user accounts. It's not a particularly robust feature here, either — all you can do is enable or disable apps and in-app-purchases — but it's still crucial for anyone who's been victimized by a child's itchy in-app-purchase finger.
Then there's Google Play Games, which is essentially Game Center minus all the horrible aesthetics. It tracks your progress and high scores in supported games (I'm making my way up the Riptide GP2 ranks), and charts it next to both your friends and all the people on the internet playing the same games. You can use it to set up multiplayer games, or be like me and just spend hours wallowing in your Jetpack Joyride ineptitude.
I can't say for sure how much of a performance improvement Android 4.3 is. There are still some noticeable problems — somehow Google still can't figure out how scrolling animations work, so the Play Store is as jittery as ever — but there's no question that the Nexus 7 is one of the fastest, smoothest Android tablets I've ever used. At least part of that is the hardware, though.
Fighting Moore's law
I bought the original Nexus 7 partly because Joshua Topolsky, Guy Who Knows Things, was impressed; he even called it "particularly slouch-free," whatever that means. And mine was indeed slouch-free, for a while. After about six months, a half-dozen updates to every app, and a new round of processors from Qualcomm, Nvidia, and others, the tablet went from zippy to comatose. Now it's unusably slow, an infuriating testament to how fast technology evolves (and how many sacrifices Asus had to make to hit a $199 price point).
The first Nexus 7 was fast, too — for a while
Can Google keep the new Nexus 7 from the same fate? At the moment, it's very fast. Powered by a hefty 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and 2GB of RAM, it flits around the OS with ease, and I rarely encountered stutters, jitters, or problems of any kind. (Except scrolling. Cool job Google.)
Even with all the extra power, battery life is really solid — I used it basically non-stop for an entire day and only used about 75 percent of the battery, so with regular use getting a few days out of a charge shouldn't be hard. (I'm still testing, though, so I'll be back if that changes.) And where the last model used to drain even while in standby mode, the new Nexus 7 sleeps quite soundly.
But I'm still worried. In our benchmarking tests, even though the new Nexus 7 is far faster than the previous model — 5,602 on Quadrant and 19,765 on AnTuTu — it's about even with its current competitors, as the original was a year ago. While Apple has a track record for supporting older devices, Android manufacturers don't, which makes me question the long-term viability of this Nexus 7.
Even at $229 (with 16GB of internal storage) a yearly upgrade is a tough sell; but when you're spending $269 for the 32GB model or $349 for 32GB and LTE service, you should expect more than six months of top-notch performance before it starts to sputter.
Are you okay with an annual $229 upgrade?
But make no mistake: the Nexus 7's a seriously powerful machine, and will be for the foreseeable future. And even if a year from now it becomes slow and outdated, it's still going to have a great screen, and it's still going to stream Netflix in 1080p. That's not much of a downside.
My new default answer to "what tablet should I buy?"
Google should've started making tablets a long time ago, instead of tacitly ignoring the large-screen ecosystem long enough to let Apple build a huge lead. The Android app situation has improved a lot, but it's still squarely in the iPad's rearview mirror. From Paper to Clear to Badland, it's no contest.
There are plenty of people for whom the iPad mini is definitely the right tablet. But before you pick, look through the Play Store and see if you can find everything you need. Because outside of that discrepancy, the Nexus 7 is a better tablet than the iPad mini. It's so comfortable in one hand, the screen is incredible, and its performance is virtually flawless. Android itself has even developed into a great tablet operating system, in many ways better than iOS.
For right now, the iPad mini's ecosystem might remain a trump card. But if Google can make a few more developers fall in love with the Nexus 7's high-res display and start building great tablet apps for Android, I won't care if Apple has a Retina display-equipped iPad mini up its sleeve. For $100 less than the iPad mini, I'll get a lot more from the Nexus 7.
I've already gotten a lot from the Nexus 7. I finally watched Scarface, and I'm 200 pages deep in a book I couldn't buy in a CVS. Turns out all I needed was a great screen after all.
All photos by Michael Shane.