The Google Nexus 7 is powered by a Tegra 3 quad-core 1.4 GHz processor (or 1.5 GHz single-core), which performs very well, and it’s backed by 1GB of RAM. High-end games look outstanding and load quickly, while the Tegra’s GPU helps maintain smooth framerates.
I never encountered any stuttering or lag when navigating the homescreens or menus, and despite the fact that Android gave me the option to shut down processes whenever I wanted, I never really had to. I could literally have a dozen different apps still running in the background and I wouldn’t see a dip in performance…but just for the sake of being organized, I would still pull up the list of running apps and shut some of them down sometimes.
The only thing that surprised me a little bit about the processor is that its hard numbers came in right around where the Galaxy Tab 7.7 scored, and that tablet is run by a dual-core processor. So on paper, while it’s still very much at the top of the food chain in terms of what’s out there right now, the Nexus 7 doesn’t completely blow away today’s tablets. Don’t get me wrong; for all intents and purposes, its quad-core processor is excellent, but I was surprised that it didn’t completely crush its dual-core competition, which I also think would have helped to future-proof the device a bit more.
As far as the browser is concerned, Chrome on the Nexus 7 provided a perfectly smooth browsing experience, and one that’s especially familiar if you use the desktop version of Chrome. Good for Google for not skimping on features simply because this is a mobile version of the browser. The proof of Chrome’s performance is in the pudding, as it scored well in the Sunspider benchmark, once again placing it at the top of the pack. Take a look at the benchmark charts below for both Quadrant and Sunspider to see some of the numbers that the Nexus 7 produced.
Quadrant measures CPU, 3D, and memory performance. Higher numbers are better.
Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean)
Obviously, one of the most important features of the Nexus 7 is its operating system, as it’s the first device to sport the new version of Google’s Android OS, which has the code-name “Jelly Bean”. TabletPCReview will be running a full standalone review of the OS in the near future, but it wouldn’t be fair to review the Nexus 7 without at least a brief overview of some of the new features of Android 4.1 and how they sit with us.
The most prominent new component that Jelly Bean brings to the Android OS is Google Now, which is kind of like an aggregator app on steroids. To access it, you can either swipe up from the bottom of the screen at any time, or go straight to it from the lock screen. Basically, Google Now creates personalized “cards” for users with useful, relevant information, and pulls them together at predetermined points in time for you to view. Take, for example, the Traffic Card: it can gather information for traffic in a certain area and appear before your commute from home, before your commute back home, when you’re leaving an airport or hotel when you’re traveling, etc. But you can tinker with the settings for the card and check off whichever of those options you want, so the card only pulls the information and appears when you want it to.
Right now, it appears that there is just a fixed set of categories for the cards that you can personalize, but the idea certainly has room for plenty of expansion. As it currently stands, there are cards for weather, traffic, next appointment (pulled from your calendar, as are many of the cards), travel, flights, public transit (schedules), nearby places, and sports (you can edit the teams for which information/stats are aggregated during games).
Google Now can also be used to run searches — through text or voice recognition — and if it’s on a popular enough subject, Google Now will actually pull up another type of card, a search card. This search card features summarized information relevant to your search, and Google now will display it at the top of your search results and even read it back to you. For instance, my editor asked the Nexus 7, “Who are the New England Patriots quarterbacks?” and a card with a Patriots logo popped up with “Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer,” written on it, along with a source and a link for more information. Regular web results were listed below it.
Getting search results that come back with these cards and their quick, condensed information is a great idea, but it’s somewhat hit or miss at the moment. The feature hasn’t really been around long enough for Google to get a perfect idea of what sort of searches or topics are getting the most hits (and subsequently determine which searches should have cards), but it’s a work in progress, with more search cards being created on a regular basis.
The voice recognition can now also be used offline, a new feature for transcription that, while useful, would probably have more appeal if the Nexus 7 had a data connection, because offline voice recognition would cut down on data consumption. Nevertheless, it works well and is great for composing long emails or messages offline for later use, or for taking down notes. And don’t worry, it works for plenty of other languages besides English, with additional downloadable offline speech recognition packs for Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Japanese, and more.
In terms of some of the smaller tweaks in Android 4.1, there are things like slightly faster performance and smoother animations that you probably won’t even really notice unless you’re looking for them. But perhaps more significantly, there is now a pull-down menu that can be accessed by swiping down from the top of the screen. It’s essentially the same sort of toolbar/system tray that could be accessed in Android 4.0 or 2.3 by tapping the lower right-hand corner of the screen (where the time, battery gauge, Wi-Fi signal, etc. were all located), giving you access to your notifications, orientation lock, the name of the network to which you’re currently connected, date and time, and a shortcut to the settings menu.
Unfortunately, for some reason Google decided to eliminate the inclusion of a precise battery meter on this pull-down menu (or anywhere on the home screen); in prior versions of Android, the toolbar featured the percentage of remaining battery life. Users are now instead limited to just a small battery meter icon to give you a general idea of how much juice is left, and if they want the exact number, they have to go menu diving into the settings.
And there is one other factor worth mentioning, and that is that this particular version of Jelly Bean keeps the screen locked in portrait orientation when on the home screens or browsing through menus. Also, when users are on the home screens, there is a toolbar down at the bottom where they can stash shortcuts or folders for their apps. When using certain apps, however — say, Gmail, or when you’re web browsing — you can turn the tablet sideways and shift the orientation, just like old times.
Now, I say “this particular version of Jelly Bean,” because Google has since revealed that there will be different user interfaces for different sized tablets. While this is the UI setup for 7-inch tablets, 10-inch tablets will have a layout that is similar to that of tablets running Android 3.0 and later, according to Google, which means that it can be flipped to landscape orientation and will have the more traditional setup of having the notification menu down in the lower right-hand corner. How exactly the UI will look on phones is currently unknown, but we do know that it will be its own version, as Google has confirmed that the UI on the Nexus 7 is a layout specifically designed for 7-inch tablets.
The Nexus 7 is a consumption tablet that is built around Google Play, formerly known as the Android App Store; its focus on downloadable content and media is precisely why it sells for so little. So the question then is: how good is Google Play? If the content of Google Play essentially justifies the existence of the Nexus 7, it better be pretty darn good. And it is.
When it comes to the size of the selection, Google Play easily has the edge over its direct competition, the Amazon App Store for the Kindle Fire. Google Play has over 600,000 apps, and an ample selection of songs, books, magazines, and movies, though admittedly, Google is less specific about those numbers. And while it’s true that the Amazon App Store gives users the ability to stream movies through its Amazon Instant Video service (if you’re a Prime member, that is), it’s not exactly as if Nexus 7 users don’t have a number of ways to get their hands on video; Netflix, Hulu Plus, and the thousands of movies and TV shows that Google Play offers should have you sufficiently covered.
Game selection is solid as well, with almost all of the major hits, especially the casual/social games like Zynga titles, available on Android. iOS still has a few big exclusives, like Infinity Blade, but for the most part, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding what you need. Personally, I was perfectly content with my Scramble, Words, and Hanging With Friends.
And Google Play operates with all of the same benefits as the Apple App Store, namely with regards to cloud storage. All of the content purchased in Google Play can be stored on the cloud so it can be viewed and/or played anywhere, anytime. Buy a song on your PC and listen to it on your phone, or maybe buy an app on your phone and play it on your tablet. As long as the device you’re using has the required version of Android to run the app in question, moving from one device to another should be a breeze.
There’s never any need for any wires or syncing, because content purchased on Google Play is accessible from all of your Android devices and your desktop computer. You can even deliver downloads to your devices by purchasing them online via Google Play and selecting which of your devices you want it sent to, so it will be waiting there for you the next time you power it up.
Thankfully, Google really took it easy in terms of the pre-loaded content. Most of what comes on the tablet is just Google’s suite of branded apps, like Chrome, Maps, Google+, Gmail, Earth, Navigation, Talk, Currents, and links to Play content like Play Books, Magazines, Music, and Movies & TV.
The one other Google branded app that stands out is the inclusion of Google Wallet, since the Nexus 7 has NFC support – though unfortunately, we were unable to try it out, either as a form of payment or communication between two devices via Android Beam. The rest of what you’ll find here is just utilities like a calculator, calendar, contacts list, gallery, and a shortcut to voice search.
Though it may be unfortunate (at least to some users) that the Nexus 7 does not have a rear-facing camera, it does have a 1.2-megapixel front-facing webcam, which is more than can be said for its direct competition, the Kindle Fire and the Barnes and Noble Nook Tablet. By including a webcam, Google and ASUS have given users the appealing ability to video chat, which can be done through the pre-loaded Google Talk app or others from Google Play if you have a preferred favorite like Tango.
For most people, that will probably be the extent of the camera’s appeal, because it isn’t really meant to take pictures. Aside from the issue of its rough quality, Google didn’t even include a native camera app through which you can activate the hardware and use it to snap photos. There are third-party apps you can nab from Google Play that can activate the camera, but when you can’t see what you’re shooting and the quality is so poor, why bother?
The battery life of the Nexus 7 is great, and I suspect that is, in large part, due to the efficiency of the operating system which barely sips away at the tablet’s reserve when performing only basic functions. Leaving the tablet in standby for extended periods of time will barely drain the thing, too. In fact, with all notifications set to push, Wi-Fi always on (and connected, as the tablet was always either in my apartment or the office), and the brightness set to maximum, the Nexus 7 lasted me just shy of a full week (about 12 hours).
And while there were mostly light functions being performed, like checking my email when I received a notification, they were being performed on a regular basis, along with some more intensive tasks, like web browsing, video streaming, and game playing. I even read an eBook for a straight hour (again, with brightness at full blast) during that period of time.
The only other thing that I will say is that Google Now does cause the battery to drain a little faster (understandably so) though it doesn’t completely sap the thing by any means. I just happened to notice that once I had activated it and it began automatically pulling cards for me at my designated points in time, a few hours were shaved off of the battery life.