Now We’re Gettin’ Somewhere: The Nexus 7 (2013) Review

Ever since the launch of the original Kindle Fire in 2011 showed the world that a $200 tablet didn’t have to suck, the market for smaller, media-focused tablets has exploded.  Google seized upon this opportunity to show the world how it’s done just over a year ago with the introduction of the Nexus 7.  The flagship Android tablet packed a high-quality 1280×800 IPS LCD, quad-core Tegra 3 CPU, and all-day battery life into a slim frame that weighed barely a third of a kilogram.  While that spec sheet would have been impressive at almost any price, Google chose to go for Amazon’s throat with the Nexus 7, pricing it directly opposite the Kindle Fire at a mere $199 for the 8GB model.  The Nexus 7 sold incredibly well – especially for what is, at least in theory, a device aimed mainly at developers – with most estimates placing it with over 10% of the Android tablet market.  Google clearly had a hit on their hands, and as Google I/O 2013 neared, the Android community was abuzz with rumors surrounding the Nexus 7’s surely-imminent replacement.  It was, after all, the one-year anniversary of the original Nexus 7 and Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean” launch.  Much to our surprise, however, that event passed largely uneventfully, with no announcement of either a new version of Android nor a new 7-inch horse for it to ride in on.

Rumors continued to swirl, however, and when Google announced a press conference on July 24th, there was little doubt what they had in store for us.  Sure enough, that morning Google officially announced to the world the heir apparent to the 7-inch tablet crown, simply enough simply called the Nexus 7.  The name says everything that needs to be said: This is everything that was awesome about the Nexus 7 you know, but better.  It’s a bold promise to make, but one Google were intent to deliver on.  So does 2013’s Nexus 7 live up to the lofty standards set by its predecessor?  Read on to find out.

While the Nexus 7 (2013) promises to be everything you loved about the 2012 model, there is no ignoring that it stumbles at the very first hurdle: price.  The new hotness comes with a new, ever-so-slightly higher $229 price tag for the base model.  It’s worth remembering, however that last year’s Nexus 7 initially launched at $199 for the 8GB model; the 16GB model that matches this year’s base unit was a loftier $249.  The Nexus 7 (2012) saw a price drop of sorts towards the end of the year when the 16GB model moved down to $199 and was supplanted at the higher price point by a 32GB SKU.  While I wouldn’t hold your breath for a similar situation this year, as 16GB seems to be the current industry-standard base level of storage, at least you’re paying less for the privilege than you would have as an early adopter (as well you should).  Still, there’s no dismissing that slight jump in price – while $199 hits a certain psychological threshold by being (technically) less than $200, $229 has no such luxury and may make the new Nexus 7 a less tempting impulse buy.  On the other hand, it’s still $100 less than the iPad Mini – a device that already significantly lagged last years Nexus 7 in specs when it launched eight months ago.

Speaking of Apple’s junior tablet, a major concern with these lower-cost devices is the build quality and overall fit and finish of the device.  Last year’s Nexus 7 set the high watermark for tablets of this size, and this year’s is no different.  While much wailing and gnashing of teeth has been done over the removal of the rubberized back in favor of smoother soft-touch plastic, I can assure you that the new Nexus 7 retains the excellent in-hand feel and grippiness of its predecessor.  Furthermore, it does this while shedding nearly two millimeters of thickness and 50 grams of weight.  While I’ll be the first to admit I don’t really see the point of pursuing ever-thinner devices (below a certain reasonable threshold, of course – nobody wants a two-inch-thick phone), the slimmed-down weight is immediately noticeable, even compared to last year’s already-dainty model.  Next to a 10-inch tablet, especially a chunkier model like the HP TouchPad or current-generation iPads, the new Nexus 7 feels positively weightless.  It’s reasonably comfortable to hold for long periods with just one hand, and can even be dropped into an average jeans pocket and hauled around with minimal notice of the weight (though the sheer size is another matter entirely).  I wouldn’t exactly call the Nexus 7 the ideal device to take jogging with you, but it’s definitely “pocketable,” at least in the literal sense – something that can’t be said of its fruitiest competitor.

Normally light weight leads to a device feeling flimsy and creaky – see any Samsung phone from the last two years or so – but this is definitely not the case here.  The front of the Nexus 7 is the expected solid, unbroken piece of Gorilla glass, running right up to a slight lip created by the polycarbonate shell.  This lip keeps the screen from sitting coplanar with flat surfaces and picking up sleeks if the tablet is laid face-down, and keeps the fragile edges of the glass from making direct contact with hard surfaces in the unfortunate event of a drop – the importance of such a design choice being immediately obvious to anyone who has ever dropped an iPhone 4 or 4S, which neglected such a precaution.  That polycarbonate chassis also feels solid, having an easy-to-grip soft touch finish that both reduces the likelihood of an accidental trip to the floor and lends the device a more “premium” feel than typical glossy plastics.  If there’s one stumbling block on the Nexus 7’s casing, though, it’s definitely the physical buttons.  There are only three (or two, depending on how you count): a power/lock button, and the volume up and down buttons on a rocker switch.  They’re a little on the mushy side, and are flat against the tapered edge of the tablet.  This serves to make them invisible when the tablet is viewed head on, which may look pretty sexy, but serves to make them unreasonably difficult to blindly push in the dark or with the device laying flat on a surface.  It’s a minor nit, to be sure, and something you get used to, but I would have preferred at the very least a more satisfying tactile response.  Overall, however, the Nexus 7 feels like a device that should cost a lot more than it does, and imparts the comfort of not having to worry about it breaking the first time you sneeze too hard while playing Candy Crush Saga.

Price and build quality are but two small parts of a bigger equation of value, however. Key to that equation is still device performance.  While a thick-skulled refrain of “specs don’t matter” is dribbled forth from a variety of sources these days, the reality is that specs are still central to creating a good user experience.  This is especially true as we expect these Lilliputian ARM-powered devices with extremely limited computing resources to increasingly handle more and more of the workload we once offloaded to monolithic desktop PCs.  Anyone who says differently should be forced to use a first-generation iPad as their sole means of interaction with complex web apps for a few days; I guarantee you’d never hear them decry the meaningless of specs after that experience.  So how does raw performance stack up on the Nexus 7?  In short: ridiculously well.

It has been said in places that this new Nexus 7 shares the same application processor as the current Nexus phone, the Nexus 4.  This isn’t quite true, however.  It is true that both are branded by Qualcomm as the Snapdragon S4 Pro, and both feature four CPU cores clocked at 1.5 GHz and an Adreno 320 GPU.  The devil is in the details, however.  This particular variant of the S4 Pro is the APQ8064-1AA, whereas the Nexus 4 sports a vanilla APQ8064.  The latter sports four Krait 200 cores and a DDR2 memory interface, whereas the former has been updated with more efficient Krait 300 CPU cores and DDR3 DRAM support, essentially making it a lower-clocked version of the Snapdragon 600s in the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S 4.  While it is clear that Qualcomm’s marketing department has finally succumbed to the space madness, it’s also clear that this new CPU should provide a healthy performance boost over last year’s model, especially when coupled with the more generous thermal envelope afforded by the tablet form factor.

In other areas, the Nexus 7 also gets some upgrades over both its smaller cousin and its older brother.  It sports faster DDR3L RAM – the kind you’d usually find in ultraportable notebooks rather than smartphones – and a significantly improved eMMC storage solution.  Android 4.3 introduces fstrim support to the operating system, which will periodically clear the cruft from the onboard NAND and help avoid the performance degradation that affected last year’s model.  It also introduces a few other performance tweaks in the form of a restructured 2D GPU rendering pipeline that reduces overhead when drawing a lot of elements on the screen, and further refinements to the memory management system to reduce instances of apps reloading.

The upshot of all of this is that the new Nexus 7 is the smoothest, snappiest Android experience to date.  Switching between several running apps never skips a beat.  Swiping, scrolling, and zooming is always a fluid experience throughout all the included applications.  The improved storage and CPU performance even allow the device to remain responsive and fluid while the initial deluge of app installations that always comes with first signing in to your Gmail account is taking place, a first in any Android device I’ve used so far.  Web page rendering is damn close to desktop-class…assuming your desktop is still powered by a Core 2 Duo.  Sure, that doesn’t sound very impressive on paper, but consider where we were just two or three years ago – and where the iPad Mini still is today.  The long and short of it is that the Nexus 7 never skips a beat, no matter what you’re doing with it.  In writing part of this review on the tablet with Google Drive, I had no trouble playing music, flipping back and forth between several web pages and social media apps, and carrying on an IM conversation all at the same time, all with nary a stutter or pause to reload as I switched apps.  I wouldn’t quite say the multitasking experience is as seamless as on a full desktop operating system just yet, but it’s definitely an issue of UI more so than hardware.  The Nexus 7 is the best user experience I’ve ever encountered in an ARM-based mobile device by far, and simply a joy to use.

The benchmarks bear out the stellar performance as well.  Fortunately I happen to have a Nexus 4 as my primary smartphone, so you can see just how much of a difference the move to Krait 300 cores and DDR3L RAM can make.

chart_1

Of course, almost any device can manage decent performance if all it has to drive is a 1024×768 panel, but it won’t be much to look at.  Fortunately, the Nexus 7 suffers from no such deficiency.  At the heart of the new tablet is the titular 7-inch WUXGA IPS panel.  That 1920×1200 resolution packed into the screen leads an incredible 323 pixels per inch, and the degree to which this blows away any other tablet on the market is immediately noticeable.  Having come from an HP TouchPad which had a sparse 1024×768 resolution across a larger 9.7” display, it’s a night-and-day difference.  Everything on the Nexus 7 looks incredibly crisp and clear, and reading on the tablet is an unrivaled pleasure.  Granted, I’ve already got a phone with a similar 318 PPI display, but the greater distance at which you can hold a 7-inch tablet versus a 4.7-inch phone adds to the sharpness of the image noticeably.  Fortunately, it isn’t just the raw resolution where Google and ASUS splurged on the new Nexus 7, either.  As an IPS display, the viewing angles are as good as we have come to expect from our mobile devices (and just further serve to highlight how unacceptable the cheap TN panels in our laptops and TVs really are).  Colors are vibrant without being oversaturated, and whites carry only the slightest yellow tinge – a very minor nit compared to the obvious blue hues so many devices pick up (I’m looking at you, Samsung AMOLEDs).  Maximum brightness is definitely firmly in the “uncomfortably bright” category and more than sufficient for outdoor use, and black levels are definitely some of the deepest I’ve seen from an IPS LCD; the upshot is an outstanding contrast ratio that eclipses virtually every other device on the market.  Every time I use the Nexus 7 I’m blown away all over again – the display is really that good.  There’s really no comparison – even the full-size iPads and Nexus 10s of the world can’t stand up in any regard other than sheer size.

On that note, I suppose I should comment on the size.  Officially coming in at 7.02” diagonally, the Nexus 7 display features a fair bit less viewable area than the iPad Mini, likely to be the most obvious point of comparison.  There is an issue with trying to read some web pages in portrait mode on the Nexus 7 – the physically smaller screen combined with the taller aspect ratio results in some text getting squeezed down to sizes that just aren’t legible at the typical viewing distance for a device like this.  An overwhelming majority of the time, a simple double-tap fixes this issue, and you can read on without difficulty.  You do end up scrolling a little more than you do on the iPad Mini, but you’re also getting vastly sharper text to read, and a lighter, smaller device to read it on.  As I said early on in this review, the Nexus 7 is both truly pocketable and easily one-handed, unlike the iPad Mini or a 10-inch tablet, and that can excuse a few minor drawbacks; the $100-cheaper-for-vastly-superior-hardware can easily excuse the rest.  That said, I do agree that the ~8-inch form factor is probably the ideal, assuming bezels can be reduced or aspect ratios tweaked enough to make such devices easily pocketable.  For now however, all the 8-inch devices on the market are either rubbish (Galaxy Tab 3 8.0, Acer W3), overpriced (Galaxy Note 8.0), or both (iPad Mini), leaving the Nexus 7’s honest competition as other 7-inch tablets.

While we’re on the subject of output devices, one of the most common complaints about the original Nexus 7 was that the speakers were weak and tinny.  While it did nominally have stereo speakers, they were located right next to each other under one grille and struggled to fill even a small room with sound.  In keeping with the tradition of making the new Nexus 7 an itemized list of fixes to the first-generation tablet, the speakers are vastly improved.  There’s now one located on each end of the tablet, and they are loud.  They’re still rather shallow tablet speakers, so don’t expect much in the way of deep, booming bass, but they’re easily capable of filling a large room with sound and can outperform even many cheap laptop speakers.  For watching some YouTube clips on the couch, you won’t have to worry about the people next to you having any difficulty hearing what’s going on, to be sure.

The new Nexus 7 still sports a 720p webcam that is basically identical to last generation’s, and still serves up the same strictly-adequate stills and video.  It’s fine for Skype or taking ‘selfies’ or whatever it is that you kids use your front-facing cameras for; I’ve never used mine for anything beyond testing to see that they work (and nominally how well), and maybe one Skype video call at one point.  Frankly nobody wants to see me, and that’s just fine with me.  The back camera is a new addition, however, and one I’m slightly more excited about.  I don’t foresee myself taking a lot of pictures with my tablet, especially when my phone has a better camera and a flash, but having the option could conceivably come in handy.  The Nexus 7’s pocketable nature makes this slightly less ridiculous a proposition that it would be on, say, an iPad, so it’s a shame that Google and ASUS decided to continue the proud tradition of mediocre cameras in Nexus devices.  The rear shooter here is a 5MP, backside-illuminated affair with 1.4 micron pixels, not dissimilar from what you’d find in the various iPads, but here it isn’t accompanied by any fancy optics –  just a bog-standard 4P (four plastic elements) lens.  Photos and videos taken outside and in bright light are fine if a bit grainy at full resolution, as they are with just about any modern phone or tablet, but those taken inside or in low light are a noisy mess.  And if you’re in a dark indoor setting, just pack it away – there’s no flash on the Nexus 7.  Even when the camera can get a decent shot, colors always seem washed out and bright lights quickly blow out images.  The stock Android camera interface doesn’t help here, either, having no options for manual ISO, sharpening, JPEG compression, or the like – it isn’t quite as absurdly Spartan as the iOS UI, at least allowing you to manually adjust exposure and white balance, but it’s not going to win any awards among photography enthusiasts either.  You also won’t be taking any HDR photos or videos with the Nexus 7 – it doesn’t have the feature, though it otherwise supports the full set of 4.3 camera functions, including the nifty-but-finicky Photosphere.  In the end, cameras on tablets are last-resort shooters, and in that light the Nexus 7’s performs admirably.  Just don’t expect to replace your DSLR with it.

Here are a few sample shots showing off performance in various environments:

IMG_20130827_165355
Outdoors in broad daylight, pictures look okay.  A little grainy at full resolution but overall contrast and colors are decent.  HDR would have helped with some of the shadows and blown-out sky here, but oddly it’s absent entirely from the Nexus 7.

IMG_20130827_165018
Indoors with plenty of natural light, results are also decent if a bit washed out.  Certainly sufficient for snapping quick photos to share online.

IMG_20130811_204731
Indoors in artificial light, photos get noticeably grainier, and sharpness drops off markedly as well.  Motion blur also becomes more pronounced as exposure time increases, and white balance suffers, especially with multiple different light sources, as seen here.

IMG_20130827_234744
Outdoors at night? As with most smart devices whose names don’t start with “Lumia,” you can forget about getting anything useful under these conditions.

Sound for your video calls and masterpiece cinematography is provided by a single microphone located on the side of the tablet, below the volume rocker.  This results, naturally, in mono audio and, lacking any active noise cancellation, a less-than-stellar experience when Skyping in a busy area – but then again, the easy solution there is to simply not be that guy who’s on Skype in a cafe.  The audio it does record is serviceable, typically smartphone-quality stuff – nothing to blow your socks off but enough for funny cat videos.

To round out the discussion of the Nexus 7’s hardware, I’ll bring up one odd inclusion and an equally odd exclusion.  Like the Nexus 4, the Nexus 7 has a notification LED below the screen, complete with the ability to display virtually any color your heart desires.  This is as handy as I ever – I genuinely appreciate notification LEDs and am thankful that at least the Nexus line of devices is committed to including them.  What is missing, however, is a vibration motor.  This means no haptic feedback whatsoever – no vibrate mode for notifications or little buzzes when tapping on the keyboard, and you can forget about ‘force feedback’ in games.  It’s an odd exclusion, especially considering how pervasive the use of vibration is on a mobile OS, but considering the price of the tablet and the slim profile, I’m willing to accept this as a sacrifice that must be made.  Then again, I usually turn all touch sounds and vibrations off immediately, anyways – if you rely on the haptic feedback when typing, you may be significantly more vexed by the omission.

If I had one concern going into the new Nexus 7, it was definitely battery life.  The screen has been upgraded to one of the highest resolution displays in a tablet and brightened up considerably to boot, the new processor is blazing fast, and the slimming down of the tablet has actually resulted in the new Nexus 7 shedding a little over 6% of its older sibling’s battery capacity.  That isn’t a recipe for outstanding battery life – while the original Nexus 7 had little difficulty meeting its estimated 8 hours of light usage, and in many cases exceeding it by a fair bit, I had serious misgivings about the new device’s ability to meet its more generous 9-hour estimate.

Thankfully, these fears were misplaced.  The new Nexus 7’s battery life manages to be very impressive despite all the shiny new hardware on display, meeting or even exceeding last year’s battery life in most workloads.  The secret sauce here is a principle called “race to idle.”  While at peak load the new Nexus 7’s AP8064-1AA system-on-a-chip (SoC) can consume more power than last year’s Tegra 3 T30L, it also gets its work done much faster, allowing the whole thing to go back to sleep sooner.  This means that for most workloads – browsing the web, watching videos, chatting with friends, snapping and sharing photos, etc. – the new Nexus 7 gets a lot more done on the same amount of juice.

I frequently find myself plugging the device in to charge before heading to work after two or three days since the last charge, and still having 30-40% charge left when I do so.  The lowest I’ve let the battery get was 18%, after three straight days of constantly being connected to WiFi and nearly six hours of screen on time since the last trip to the charger.  I haven’t been able to do a proper battery rundown test – just playing around with the device from 100% to 0% battery – because there simply isn’t enough time in my day to sit and browse for the needed amount of time.  But given that I routinely see 2-2.5 hours of general usage before hitting the 80% mark, I feel very comfortable in saying that indoors with auto-brightness enabled, you can get the advertised 9 hours of web browsing or video playback without difficulty.  Gaming or other similarly intensive activities will definitely take their toll, however: Just half an hour of Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Plainswalkers 2014 is enough to see at least 10% of your battery wiped away.  Then again, you’re playing a game that just a couple of years ago would have had frame rate problems on many low-end laptops, on a $229 ARM tablet.  “Only” being able to manage four or five hours of doing so on one charge doesn’t seem quite so bad in that light, eh?  Regardless of your usage, the new Nexus 7 will provide you with excellent battery life on par with or exceeding both last year’s model and the main competition.  It won’t quite match the ridiculous battery runtimes of the iPad 2,4 and the various ASUS Transformers in their docks, but it’s not likely to leave you wanting for more, either.

As a Nexus device, the new Nexus 7 comes with the latest version of Android out of the box, and the promise of prompt updates going forward. Android 4.3 is another minor update to Jelly Bean that brings a few key features like Bluetooth LE,  AVRCP 1.3, and a revamped camera interface, along with a bevy of under-the-hood tweaks to improve performance and battery life.  There’s really not a lot to talk about on this front – if you’ve used stock Android 4.1 or above before, you’ve basically used the software you’ll be getting on the Nexus 7.  That’s definitely a very good thing, though.  Android has become a very mature and versatile platform, and the unadulterated experience of a Nexus device is definitely the best way to use it.  Everything works as it should and the lack of OEM and carrier cruft keeps performance stellar.  While I still feel WebOS and Windows 8/RT are able to deliver closer to a desktop-class productivity experience, the harsh reality is that those platforms are either defunct or saddled with a lot of difficult-to-solve ecosystem and hardware issues.  Android provides the next best thing: still featuring real multitasking just with a clunkier interface than the aforementioned platforms, it’s miles ahead of iOS for any use case that involves jumping back and forth between multiple different applications.  As these ARM-based tablets become more capable and more people find themselves using them for more things, these use cases will become increasingly important.  Apple is set to improve this situation somewhat with iOS 7 later this fall, and the dreadful Acer W3 at least demonstrates that there is some momentum for smaller, cheaper, and more portable Windows 8 tablets, but for now the Nexus 7 and Android 4.3 provide the most powerful and versatile combination of hardware and software you’re going to get at less than 10 inches.

Final Thoughts

It should be obvious by now that I like the new Nexus 7.  If pressed to pass down a single “yay-or-nay” verdict on whether someone in the market for a tablet should buy one, I’d emphatically say “yes.”  It’s definitely the best “premium small tablet” on the market today, bar none.  It doesn’t have the real Microsoft Office suite of the Acer W3 or quite as many ‘tablet-optimized’ apps as the iPad Mini, but it doesn’t have the dreadful screen of the former or the woefully under-specced silicon of the latter, either.  If that’s your choice, there basically isn’t a choice: buying the iPad Mini with the 2013 Nexus 7 on the market can only mean that either you’re an iOS developer or have severe mental deficiencies.

Expand the field to all available tablets and the recommendation carries a few more caveats.  The screen is absolutely still at the top of the class, but the margin by which it blows away the competition narrows significantly when the likes of the Transformer Prime and fourth-gen iPad get involved.  There’s also the matter of the fundamental difference in usage models between a 7 or 8-inch tablet and a 10-inch one.  10-inch tablets are much less practical to hold with one hand for any extended period of time, and any sort of one-handed operation is right out.  On the other hand, you’re less likely to need to zoom in to read web pages on them and they tend to be more useful for productivity scenarios, being able to show more information at a time and fare better when paired with a keyboard and stand.  Sheer size also affords them more room for batteries, and while the Nexus 7 has spectacular battery life for a tablet with its size and spec sheet, it can’t quite compete with monsters of longevity like the ASUS Transformer line or A5r2 iPad 2.  The Nexus 10’s Cortex A15-based SoC also affords it a slight performance advantage over the Nexus 7 in CPU-bound situations, and as more ten-inch devices sporting Tegra 4s and Snapdragon 800s start to trickle out, there’s definitely going to be a growing performance deficit for the Nexus 7 and its Snapdragon S4 Pro.

There’s also the pesky matter of a growing number of surprisingly good tablets available below the Nexus 7.  The ever-beating drum of progress has marched the hardware of last year’s Nexus 7 (plus an SD card slot and rear-facing camera) down to $129 in the form of the Hisense Sero 7 Pro, and similarly-specced tablets are available from ASUS and Barnes & Noble at $149 in the form of the Memopad HD7 and Nook HD.  Yes, the 2013 Nexus 7 blows away all of these devices in software support, performance, and screen quality, but $80-$100 is not an insignificant price difference when you’re talking about this price range.  If all you want is a tablet for light web browsing and reading on the couch, the Sero 7 Pro may be a better choice for an increasingly value-conscious market.  It’s hard to deny the appeal of these devices – remember, last year we were showering praise on this very hardware at $199.

At the end of the day, however, the Nexus 7’s value proposition is still the greatest on the market.  Taking everything into consideration – the class-leading display, the very powerful (if no longer quite flagship) SoC, the excellent build quality, and the promise of long-term rapid updates to Android carried by the Nexus brand – it simply eclipses anything else out there.  If you’re looking for the best media consumption and light productivity tablet your money can buy, look no further.  Google and ASUS have delivered a truly worthy successor to the device that redefined the Android tablet experience.  The only way it could get any better is if it came with free ice cream…maybe next year.

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