An iPad Lover’s Take On The Nexus 7

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Trolls, feel free to skip to the bottom of this column and post your comments immediately without reading a word. Actually, who are we kidding — you didn’t make it this far.

Everyone else, brace yourselves. You may want small children to leave the room. I’m about to do something I don’t do often — something I always said I’d do if the product deserved it. Something some people seem to think I’m incapable of: praise a Google product — an Android-based Google product, no less.

Is that enough build up for you? Okay.

I like the Nexus 7. I really like it.

I was out of town during Google I/O this year and missed the opportunity to see the unveiling and get my hands on the product a few weeks back. But Google was kind enough to give me a Nexus 7 demo unit last week. I’ve given the company credit for this before. For the most part, they don’t mind criticism and genuinely seem to want to build products that all consumers (whether Apple fans or not) will like. And with the Nexus 7, I think they’ve done just that.

To be clear, the product isn’t perfect. But no product is. Yes, that includes Apple products (though the MacBook Air in the pre-retina world was pretty damn close, in my opinion). But with the Nexus 7, Google has, for the first time, created an Android product that I would buy for myself. And I wouldn’t have an issue recommending it to anyone else.

Everyone already knows the device’s two key features: the 7-inch screen and the $199 price. Both have been rumored for months. And I was highly skeptical of both. I love my iPad from the screen size on down. And I didn’t think it would be possible to build a great tablet at such a low price.

But I was wrong.

Granted, Google isn’t making any money selling the device at $199 — at least not directly. And the device isn’t quite iPad-quality. But the iPad starts at $499. This is less than half the price. And the build quality is very good.

Normally when I get a review unit of a non-Apple product, I have to force myself to use it to get a sense of how I might use it in the real world. But with the Nexus 7, I actually find myself wanting to use it. That point can’t be overstated. I actually want to use an Android device. It’s a brave new world.

For me, the key is the size. Again, I was skeptical at first, but for many situations, I’ve come to love the 7-inch frame. The iPad is brilliant when you’re sitting on a couch or camped out in a coffee shop. In my view, the 9.7-inch iPad is slowly but surely becoming a laptop replacement. I expect this to continue. But a 7-inch tablet is different. The iPad is clunky to read in bed, for example. The Nexus 7 is perfect for that.

More broadly, the 7-inch tablet further opens the door to true mobile computing. I find myself constantly using it while walking around the house (as opposed to sitting on the couch). And I don’t think twice about shoving it in my bag when I take off for the day (as I sometimes do with my iPad when I have my laptop with me). Many could say the same about the iPad, but in my view, the 7-inch tablet is more desirable in many circumstances simply because it’s — shocker — smaller. 9.7 inches versus 7 inches may not seem like a huge difference. But it is.

Whereas laptop sizes vary mainly to please screen size preference, I suspect that 7-inch tablets will fit naturally into different use cases than 10-inch tablets. In other words, I believe they’ll end up being closer to two different categories rather than two variations of the same category.

Having used a 7-inch tablet for the past week, I now see it as an absolute no-brainer that Apple has to make an iPad with this form factor as well. Of course, such rumors have been swirling for a while — and now the smoke seems too thick for there not to be a fire. It’s coming — but when it does, Apple will find itself in a position it hasn’t been in for some time: being a second-mover to a good product already on the market (as opposed to being a second-mover to a bunch of mediocre-to-shitty products, as has been the case many times in the past).

Back to the Nexus 7 (sorry, this is an “Apple column” remember). For now, its true competitor is the Kindle Fire. But calling the Kindle Fire a “competitor” is probably being too kind to Amazon. All I know is that Amazon better hope their next version of the device is ready to go ASAP and that it’s significantly better than the first version. Because the Nexus 7 seems far better in pretty much every way.

Loaded with Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean”, the Nexus 7 is as fast as advertised. I do spot some lag from time to time (the swiping between main screens could still be smoother when a live wallpaper is running, but that’s a minor thing most regular users probably won’t notice), but it’s almost always within apps which don’t seem custom-tailored for the new OS yet. A good example is the Facebook app. iOS users constantly complain about this app being slow and unreliable — on Android, it’s much worse. That includes on the Nexus 7.

With the Google-built apps, Jelly Bean runs great. Overall, the OS doesn’t seem all that different from Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich”, but it’s more refined. I imagine it’s similar to what we’ll see with iOS 6 versus iOS 5. These mobile OSes are getting mature enough now where it’s more about refinement. For a long time, Android needed far more than polish. Now it’s at that stage.

Gaming had been one problematic area in the past for Android. With the Nexus 7 and Jelly Bean, it’s solid. I played several games that I play on iOS devices to compare — games like Canabalt, Osmos, Sky Safari, Angry Birds, World of Goo, Flick Golf, and Fruit Ninja. All now seem to run just as well as they do on iOS devices.

While the Nexus 7 has access to apps like Flipboard (and it runs great on the device, though without access to New York Times content, oddly), other apps like Instagram and Tumblr can’t be installed because they say the device isn’t supported. I’m told this is due to code in those apps which puts a “ceiling” on the Android version number on which they can be installed, and this should be fixed soon.

This brings up another important issue: because this is a Nexus device that Google built in conjunction with Asus, it should be fairly future-proof for future versions of Android and apps that require the more advanced APIs they provide. While previous Nexus devices still had issues getting timely updates, the Nexus 7 is WiFi-only, meaning the carriers have absolutely no say when it comes to updates here. In other words, goodbye bottlenecks.

But this is a double-edged sword. One of my favorite aspects of the new iPad is the 4G connectivity both because it’s really, really fast and because it works basically everywhere. With the Nexus 7, you have to rely on a WiFi connection. Again, while that’s great news for future updates, it’s bad news for true road warriors. (It also makes Google Now, the tentpole new feature of Jelly Bean, less useful because it can’t constantly send you new information based on your location.) Still, given Google’s difficulties in dealing with the carriers in the past, I think this was the right call.

As you might imagine, the lack of cellular radio also seems to help the battery life of the device quite a bit. It’s fantastic.

Another nit I have with the 7 involves the software system buttons. A number of times while playing a game in horizontal mode, I would inadvertently activate the buttons and hit one of them. The issue is that because the screen is so small, it’s a bit awkward to use with two hands. Likewise, in portrait mode, there isn’t much of a bezel to grip. It’s easy enough to hold with one hand, but for an iPad user (which features a much larger bezel), this took some getting used to.

When you first boot up the Nexus 7, you’ll notice that Google has given prominent position to Google Play media items. In fact, that entire main screen is dominated by a rather ridiculously large “My Library” widget (which I quickly replaced with my favorite apps instead). This is a weird choice because one area of weakness for the device is the media catalog. The Google Play store still doesn’t have access to any Warner music, for example. And the film, television, magazine, and book libraries are smaller than those that Apple and Amazon offer. I suppose this was a decision made to go right after the Kindle Fire (a “media tablet”), but again, Amazon still wins that battle. It’s not a huge deal, just an odd choice, in my opinion.

Now I’m back to focusing on the negative — old habits die hard, sorry. Again, the fact remains that the Nexus 7 is a great device. Not a great device graded on some weird curve where we pretend that Apple products don’t exist — but a great device, period. The $199 price point is just icing on the cake.

If you’re an iOS person like myself, you obviously have to think about Apple moving into this space as well. And I think the Nexus 7 shows a few places where Apple can improve the 7-inch tablet space — namely in making a device just a bit larger so it’s easier to hold with two hands, and using their existing pay-as-you-go carrier deals to offer up 3G/4G connectivity. We’ll see.

But for now, Apple’s not in this space. And the clear winner in this space is the Nexus 7.