Google’s second-generation Nexus 7 tablet is probably the best 7 inch tablet you can buy in mid-2013. That said, it’s not going to make everyone happy. The speakers could be better positioned. There’s no microSD card slot. And while there are now more than a million apps available for Android, there still aren’t as many tablet-optimized apps for Android as there are for Apple’s iOS.
But the new Nexus 7 has an excellent display, feels great in your hands, has a speedy processor, and runs the latest version of Google Android. It’s one of the best tablets around for watching videos, reading books, playing games, surfing the web, or doing just about anything else you can imagine doing on a tablet.
While there are cheaper 7 inch tablets around (I’m looking at you, Amazon Kindle Fire HD 7), the new Nexus 7 is also reasonably inexpensive. At $229 and up, it’s about $100 less than the price of an iPad mini.
If you’re in the market for a new 7 inch tablet, the Nexus 7 is a pretty great choice. On the other hand, if you already have last year’s model, there might not be a lot of reasons to upgrade.
OK, now that I’ve got the verdict out of the way, I guess it’s time to show my work. Google loaned me a Nexus 7 tablet to try out for a few weeks, and here are some of the things I found.
The new Nexus 7 is manufactured by Asus, just like the 2012 model. But the new version is thinner, lighter, has a higher-resolution display, a faster processor, and more RAM than its predecessor.
Honestly, you’ll only notice some of those things if you put the two tablets side-by-side. Both are pretty compact and powerful — and while the new Nexus 7 has a brightert, more colorful display with a higher pixel density, last year’s model is still pretty great good.
The new model measures 7.9″ x 4.5″ x 0.34″ and weighs about 10 ounces. It has a 7 inch, 1920 x 1200 pixel display with 323 pixels per inch. It’s an IPS screen with wide viewing angles and Corning scratch-resistant glass.
Powering the tablet is a 1.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro quad-core processor.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that means this tablet has the same processor as last year’s Google Nexus 4 smartphone, but it actually appears to be an updated version of the CPU with 400 MHz Adreno 320 graphics and overall performance that’s closer to what you’d expect from a Snapdragon 600 chip than a 2012 Snapdragon S4 Pro.
The tablet has 2GB of RAM, 16GB to 32GB of storage, WiFi, Bluetooth, and NFC. Google also plans to offer a model with optional GSM, HSPA+ and 4G LTE connectivity.
As for WiFi, the new Nexus 7 has 802.11a/b/g/n dual-band 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz network support.
There are dual stereo speakers on the back of the tablet, a 1.2MP front-facing camera, a 5MP rear camera, and a 3950mAh battery which Google says should offer up to an hour longer battery life than you’d get from the original Nexus 7 (which, incidentally, had a larger battery).
Google’s not a fan of microSD card slots on its phones and tablets, and the Nexus 7 is no exception. So if you think you might need more than 16GB of storage for your music, movies, games, and other content, you’ll probably want to spring for a 32GB model.
In fact, there aren’t very many ports or jacks at all on the tablet: just a microUSB port at the bottom and a 3.5mm audio jack at the top. The USB port uses SlimPort technology so you can connect an HDMI adapter and use it as a video output port.
Other features include GPS, gyroscope, accelerometer, compass, and ambient light sensors, and unlike the original Nexus 7, the new model has an LED notification light on the front.
Design, speakers, and display
Asus built the Nexus 7 case of plastic and glass. This isn’t a high-end device with an all-metal frame. But the plastic feels sturdy and light, and the tablet feels great when you hold it in your hands.
The plastic curves up a bit, so that the sides are round. This makes the Nexus 7 look even thinner than it is, but at about a third of an inch thick, you don’t really need any illusions to make this tablet feel thin. It is.
The soft touch finish on the plastic back panel makes the tablet easy to hold with one hand, and the light weight makes it easy to hold for a long time. I had no trouble spending hours at a time reading eBooks on this tablet while holding it in a single hand. It’s also pretty comfortable to grip with two hands in landscape mode for extended gaming sessions.
Like most modern tablets, the front of the Nexus 7 is almost nothing but edge-to-edge glass. But under the glass there are black bezels along the sides of the screen.
Google says the bezels on the wider sides for the tablet are thinner than before, but the short sides have thicker bezels than the original Nexus 7, which makes the tablet a little taller than its predecessor.
While that might annoy folks that don’t want to use as much available glass as they can for display purposes, the extra bezels give you a little something more to hang onto when you’re gripping the tablet in two hands to watch videos or play games.
In practice, I don’t mind the new bezel arrangement at all, and I’m pretty impressed at how the display is almost exactly the same color as the bezels when the screen is turned off or when you’re looking at a black screen – giving the illusion that you really do have an edge-to-edge display.
For instance, when reading an eBook with a black background and white text, the background sort of blends in with the rest of the edges to make it look like the white text is floating in the center of a screen that’s bigger than it really is.
Part of the reason for that is the new screen — not only is the 1920 x 1200 pixel display one of the sharpest you’ll find on any 7 inch tablet, but Google says it also shows 30 percent more colors than last year’s Nexus 7 tablet display.
The new screen is also noticeably brighter than its predecessor when you crank up the backlight.
Here’s the thing about display quality though: there are some phones or tablets that look so much better than others that it’s hard to go home again. When I bought a Google Nexus One smartphone with a 3.7 inch, 800 x 480 screen, it was so much better than my 3.5 inch, 480 x 320 pixel iPod touch screen that it was hard to use the latter without noticing it.
Likewise, when I bought an HTC One X with a 4.7 inch, 1280 x 720 pixel display, it made my old Nexus One screen look pixelated.
But the differences between the 1920 x 1200 pixel screen on this year’s Nexus 7 and the 1280 x 800 pixel screen on last year’s model are of a different caliber. While there’s no doubt that the new screen is better, I don’t find it painful to pick up the old tablet after using the new one.
If I had a choice between the two, I’d certainly pick the new tablet display. But they’re both high-quality screens with high pixel density, and photos, videos, and other content look great on both — with a few exceptions.
The color reproduction and brightness are certainly noticeably better on the new model. And the new Nexus 7 is the first 7 inch tablet I’ve used where I think digital comic books actually look pretty good. Up until now, I’ve found the text and images on comics too tiny to see on tablets with small screens. But they look great on this tablet.
On the back of the tablet you’ll find a series of speakers. If you hold the tablet in landscape mode, they’ll be on the left and right sides, along the rounded edges of the Nexus 7.
Google worked with Fraunhofer to offer surround sound capabilities through those speakers, and they do sound pretty good — but honestly, surround sound is a relative term when you’re using a 7 inch tablet.
The truth is, the speakers just aren’t far enough apart from one another for you to really make out more than a little bit of the stereo effect.
Music, games, and movies certainly sound a little better on tablets with stereo speakers than those with a single speaker, but you’ll get much more of the impact if you plug in headphones or external speakers.
The audio is reasonably loud considering the small size of the tablet, but since the speakers are on the back, audio can be muffled if the Nexus 7 is placed flat on a table, desk, or on your lap. It’s also easy to distort the audio a bit by gripping the tablet so that your hand covers a speaker.
I’ve also noticed that there’s a brief audio dropout when you rotate the screen from portrait to landscape mode or vice versa. This is likely a side effect of the surround sound features — in order to simulate a larger speaker array, the Nexus 7 has to make adjustments when the tablet shifts position.
The 2013 Nexus 7 is one of the first devices to ship with Google Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. It’s a relatively minor software update from Android 4.2, but Google has added support for restricted user profiles, enhanced security, and a few other subtle changes.
But some of the biggest changes are under the hood — including a feature that improves responsiveness on the original Nexus 7 and other tablets.
So while the new model has more memory, a faster processor, and scores better on benchmarks, both tablets are pretty zippy when performing most tasks.
But what sets both Nexus 7 tablets apart from most other tablets on the market is their membership in the Google Nexus family. They ship with Android software that comes straight from Google, which means there are no skins or extra apps like Samsung’s TouchWiz or HTC’s Sense software. And when Google pushes out Android software updates, the Nexus devices are first in line to receive new features, bug fixes, and security improvements.
The new Nexus 7 ships today with Android 4.3, but when the next version of Android is ready to go, this tablet will likely be one of the first to receive an over-the-air software update.
For now, the software looks a lot like Android 4.2. It has the same notification area, app drawer, lock screen, and home screen. But there are a few little changes. For instance, the clock in the status bar disappears when you’re looking at a larger clock widget on the lock screen.
And when you’re using some full-screen apps like the Kindle app for Android, the clock still shows up in the upper right corner, but the notification bar disappears so you won’t be distracted every time a new email or instant message notification comes in.
Google has also added the Google Keep note-taking app to the list of apps that come preloaded.
You also get Gmail, Google Maps, the Google Play Store, and other apps, but that was also true of older versions of Android running on older Nexus devices.
Some folks may have hoped Google’s new tablet would ship with Android 5.0 Key Lime Pie instead of a minor update to Jelly Bean. But at this point Android is pretty easy to use, has a consistent look and feel across phones and tablets with different screen sizes and resolutions, and runs pretty smoothly — especially on a device like the new Nexus 7 with a fast processor and lots of RAM.
If you don’t like the way Android looks, you can always try rooting your tablet and installing a custom ROM like Paranoid Android or just replacing the launcher with a third party app like Nova or Smart Launcher.
And if you want new features like the ability to sync app data across devices, track a missing phone, or use social elements in your games, Google has started rolling out those sorts of updates through the Google Play Services app rather than through major operating system updates.
That means the company can push new features and services without releasing a new version of Android and waiting for device makers and wireless carriers to approve it.
While that may not matter much to folks who buy a Nexus device, since they’d get the latest software either way, it goes a long way toward making Android a more unified platform since folks who buy Samsung, HTC, LG, or Asus devices can now all get access to some of the same features at roughly the same time.
A note on screen size
Google’s new Nexus 7 is one of the best tablets around for reading, watching videos, or playing games. Personally I prefer tablets with 7 inch screens to models with 10 inch displays, because I’m more interested in reading than watching films on a handheld device — and at 10 ounces, the Nexus 7 is lighter than most books, and not much heavier than an E Ink Kindle.
The only thing I’ve preferred to do on tablets with larger screens is read comic books and magazines, because they tend to be designed for 11 inch pages and text and graphics can be hard to make out on smaller screens.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason, but I find that I don’t mind reading them on the new Nexus 7.
Maybe that’s because the screen is sharp enough that if text looks too small, I can just hold the tablet closer to my eyes and everything still looks pretty good.
I’m not much of a gamer, but when I do play games on a tablet, I also prefer a 7 inch screen. That’s because it’s easy to hold the tablet in two hands and reach any on-screen buttons with my thumbs. It can be tough to do that on a larger display.
Meanwhile, some games that can be a bit tricky to play on a phone-sized screen because the buttons are too close together, or because your fingers cover too much of the action, look great on the Nexus 7′s larger, high resolution display.
As a result, I’ve rediscovered my love of/obsession with Wind Up Knight, reminded myself that I drive much better in real life than in video games with Redline Rush, and got eaten by countless zombies in Dead Trigger while testing the Nexus 7 for this review — often while I told myself I was sitting down to read an eBook.
One of the reasons I found myself playing games on this tablet more than I usually do is because they just worked so well. They load quickly, they sound pretty good on the stereo speakers, and I haven’t encountered any serious stuttering in any title I’ve tried.
When it takes just a second or two to flip from the web browser or Kindle app over to a platformer or first-person shooter, it’s kind of hard to resist the urge to play a few rounds. I haven’t decided if that’s a good thing for my productivity, but it certainly says something about how much fun you can have with this tablet — if you can stay focused on the task you want to use it for.
I ran the usual benchmarks (including Vellamo, CF-Bench, Antutu, Quadrant, and GFXBench) on the new Nexus 7 and confirmed that it’s one of the most powerful Android devices I’ve ever reviewed. But I’m not going to bother listing the results here.
Benchmarks sometimes benchmarks provide a nice way to compare one tablet with another, but they can also an unreliable way to demonstrate real-world performance, especially when device makers start gaming the system.
Here’s what you need to know: most Android phones and tablets aren’t as fast as the new Nexus 7 — and that means most developers are writing Android apps designed to run on devices that are slower than this tablet.
As a result, you’re unlikely to encounter very many apps or games that don’t run brilliantly on this tablet. It will also load games, reboot, and perform other basic tasks more quickly than most Android devices.
There may be some exceptions. For instance, some game developers are writing software designed specifically for NVIDIA’s Tegra 4 chipset. Those games, which usually have “THD” in their titles, will offer advanced graphics only when you run them on a device with NVIDIA’s new chip.
But the Adreno 320 graphics core in the 2013 Nexus 7 tablet is still powerful enough to handle most HD video and 3D graphics tasks you can throw at it. Android 4.3 also adds support for OpenGL 3.0 graphics.
All told, it’s pretty remarkable just how much you can do with a tablet that sells for as little as $229.
You can also do those things for a pretty long time — Google promises up to 9 hours of battery life, and that seems about right for mixed-use including surfing the web over WiFi, watching a few short videos, and maybe a little light gaming.
The tablet won’t last as long if you use it primarily for playing games that require 3D graphics. But it may last longer than you’d expect if you only use it lightly.
The battery drains slowly when the screen is off — so you could probably go a couple of days at a time without charging the tablet if you just pick it up from time to time to look something up on the internet, play a short YouTube video or two, and maybe listen to some music.
A note on the growing Google ecosystem
It’s also worth noting that Google is positioning the new Nexus 7 as part of a growing ecosystem of Google products. I doubt the company expects anyone to buy a Nexus 4 smartphone, Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets, and a Chromebook Pixel. But the company is now offering devices in a range of sizes, and all of them are designed to make it easy to interact with Google apps and services ranging from Gmail and Google Maps to the Google Now.
The company still makes most of its money from advertising, not from developing software or hardware products. But the more you use those Google apps, and the more time you consequently spend online, the more likely you are to encounter ads that help Google pay the bills.
Likewise, Google recently released the Chromecast $35 media streaming device. I doubt the company’s making much money at all by selling the hardware at that price. But the platform makes streaming internet video to a TV incredibly easy.
Just fire up an app or website on your Android device or on a PC using the Chrome web browser and you can access online video on your TV.
Google might make a few bucks by selling or renting you content through the Google Play Movies & TV store, but Chromecast also works with Netflix and other online video sites. Essentially, Google is looking to bridge the gap between the internet and your TV — because just like with Android and Chrome, the Chromecast is a device to lock you into using Google’s products and services and to get you spending more time using the internet.
Ultimately, that’s how Google makes its money — but this might be a case where what’s good for Google is also good for consumers.
It turns out the Nexus 7 makes a pretty excellent TV remote control when you fire up the YouTube, Google Play Movies, or Netflix apps and connect to a Chromecast device on your wireless network.
Should you buy the new Nexus 7? That depends. If you have last year’s model, you might want to hold out another year to see what else Google can cram into an affordable 7 inch tablet. But if you do decide to upgrade you’ll get a better screen, a faster processor, slightly longer battery life, and generally one of the best Android tablets released to date.
If you don’t already have a tablet, the 2013 Nexus 7 is certainly one of the best Android options around. But tablets aren’t necessarily for everyone.
This is a great device for casual web browsing, playing certain types of games, or watching videos on a plane, train, or while lying in bed. But I’d rather have a laptop if I were writing a novel (or a Nexus 7 tablet review, for that matter), creating or editing a spreadsheet, editing photos or videos, or performing other tasks that may be easier with a larger screen, a physical keyboard, and a faster processor.
Personally, I still have a tough time fitting tablets into my life. Almost everything that I can do on a 7 inch tablet, I can also do on my 4.7 inch smartphone — and since I usually have my phone with me at all times, it’s the device that typically wins out.
But not only does a tablet like the Nexus 7 have a larger screen than my phone, it also has longer battery life — and I’m not all that worried about the battery dying during the day. I can read, game, or watch as much as I want on the Nexus 7 without worrying that once the battery runs down, I won’t be able to receive phone calls. That’s something I often worry about when deciding whether to pull my phone out of my pocket on the go.
So typically when I’m reviewing a tablet, what I like to do is read an eBook on it. That’s something I usually do with an E Ink Kindle. But by making myself read a book on a tablet, I find it in my hands all the time for at least a few days — and once it’s there, I find myself using it to do other things that I might normally do on my phone.
The new Nexus 7 is one of the first tablets that I’ve found myself doing that so often with, that I could easily see it replacing my phone for common tasks… if only it were small enough to fit in my pants pocket the way my phone is.