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REVIEW | Google's Nexus 7 is the budget tablet to beat

12:08 PM, Jul 4, 2012   |    comments
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A Nexus 7 tablet is shown at the Google Developers Conference on June 27, 2012 in San Francisco. (Photo by Mathew Sumner/Getty Images)

(USA Today) -- Google's brand new Nexus 7 represents a clean slate for Android tablets. It also may be the answer for consumers asking, "Which tablet should I buy now?" - certainly those conscious of cost and not wedded to a bigger display.

Though you'll find decent tablet computers that run on Google's Android mobile operating system, none has truly distinguished itself so far. Android slates, even the best of them, live in the shadow of the Apple iPad. Google's software isn't as friendly for tablets as is Apple's iOS. The total number of Android apps designed for tablets is skimpy by comparison with Apple. And Android is barely even recognizable on the Kindle Fire from Amazon and the Nook Color from Barnes & Noble - both of which put their own custom user interface on top of Android.

But Nexus 7 aims to light a fire under Android tablets and comes with the latest Android software, version 4.1 Jelly Bean. In two to three weeks, the device ships to consumers who pre-ordered it. And, with a major assist from Taiwanese hardware partner Asus, it is a dandy if imperfect offering that may do well, especially given its sweet $199 price, which matches the Fire, and deeply undercuts the iPad.

The 12-ounce Nexus 7 is thin and light, fast and fluid and responsive to the touch. Switching apps is a breeze. Its rubbery back is comfortable to hold, and it feels like a tablet that costs more. I like the improvements Google has made with Jelly Bean. The battery life is good. The standard Google Chrome browser was fine.

Google sweetens the deal further by throwing in the Transformers: Dark of the Moon movie, The Bourne Dominion eBook, music from Coldplay and the Rolling Stones, and some magazines, a new category for the Google Play Store. Plus there's a $25 credit to purchase, movies, music, apps, books and magazines in Google Play.

Other Nexus 7 features:

Search. Building on its strengths in search, Google includes a potentially helpful location-based feature called Google Now, which tells you the weather or nearby bus and train schedules without you having to request it. There's also a voice search feature, similar to Apple's Siri. Sometimes Google responds to a voice query with its own clear female voice, such as when I asked it to tell me how old Barack Obama is or how the Yankees did. Other times, if answers are more ambiguous, you get standard Google search results without the voice - and they are not always on the mark. When I asked for "some nearby interesting places" from my location in New Jersey, results were given for LA and Toronto.

Screen size. On the hardware side, the Nexus 7 is no match for the iPad, but then it's $300 cheaper than the least expensive of the latest Apple tablets. The 7-inch screen on the Nexus 7, however impressive, is far smaller than the near 10-inch display on the iPad and not as sharp as its super-crisp "Retina display." I found reading magazines a bit of a challenge.

Camera. The most recent iPads have rear-facing cameras to complement the front-facing one. On the Nexus 7 you get only a front camera, which you can use for Skype calls, video chats via Google+ Hangouts, and to unlock the screen through facial recognition. Fortunately, you can also unlock the screen with a passcode should your face not be recognized, as was sometimes the case with my mug.

Connectivity. The Nexus 7 also lacks any of the cellular connectivity options available on certain iPads. With Google's device it's Wi-Fi or bust. But Google has beefed up offline options, giving you the ability, for example, to dictate via voice when you are without Internet access, and to follow your location on a map you've saved through the latest version of Google Maps.

Of course, in evaluating any tablet, you must take into account the company that will for the most part supply your apps and entertainment offerings. Apple is still the undisputed apps champion and the leader in music and movies. Amazon is still the mainstay in books - though Google will quibble - and is no slouch when it comes to entertainment. Google is pushing hard on Google Play, but still has some catching up to do. Of course, you can still read your purchased Kindle books and play Amazon music on the Nexus, as with any Android tablet.

The other logical product to compare Nexus 7 to is the Kindle Fire. The two black slates look a fair bit alike, but Fire is a tad shorter and noticeably heavier. From a hardware perspective though, Nexus 7 douses Fire.

It has features that the Fire is missing, including a camera, microphone, Bluetooth, GPS and NFC (near-field communications), which is wireless technology that works with the Android Beam feature as a way to share content with other devices. NFC will also handle mobile payments, although the Google Wallet app is not yet available for the device.

Nexus 7 also boasts a superior screen and more robust (Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core) processor than the Kindle. I was impressed by the gameplay and avid graphics on the Temple Run game.

Amazon claims a big advantage for the Fire, especially for consumers who spend $79 a year for Amazon Prime. That service gives you more than 10,000 free streaming movie and TV show choices you can play on the Fire, plus a lending library with more than 150,000 free titles to borrow. And stay tuned. Amazon is almost certainly readying a next version Fire device, a hot topic on the rumor mill.

I do wish Nexus 7 provided more memory than the supplied 8 GB in the $199 version and 16GB in a model that costs $50 more. There's no SD card slot for expanding memory, or an HDMI connector for connecting the tablet to a high-definition TV. I did wirelessly stream music and movies to an HDTV by taking advantage of the $299 Nexus Q, an interesting wireless streaming black dome that Google introduced last week. But obviously not everyone is going to do that.

I didn't run a formal battery test but had no problem getting more than a full day out of the Nexus 7 over several days of mixed usage. Google claims you'll get eight hours of movie watching off a full charge and up to 10 hours of Web-viewing or book-reading time.

If you have the extra money, I'd still choose the iPad. But if you're looking for a solid smaller-screen tablet on a budget, the Nexus 7 is now the one to beat.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Google Nexus 7

$199, play.google.com

Pro. Thin and light at sweet price. Jelly Bean. Excellent screen. Fast, fluid. Includes $25 spending credit.

Con. No cellular connectivity. No rear camera. Fewer tablet-specific apps. Limited storage.

(Edward C. Baig, USA Today)

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