First hands on at I/O

Make no mistake; the Nexus 7 is a game changer. Google has. hit. it. out. of. the. park. this time. I have no doubt that Google’s first Nexus Tablet will be the best-selling 7-inch tablet this summer and might actually give the iPad a run for its money if marketed well and in enough places.

Frankly, as did many in the audience at Google I/O, I knew a lot of what was coming beforehand. A 7-inch Jellybean tablet from Asus was rumored for months. The devil is in the details, however…

Hardware:

Google rattled off exactly what I wanted to hear at I/O: 720P display, way lighter (340 grams) than a Kindle Fire (413 grams), and a blazing Tegra 3 quad-core CPU with 12 GPU cores (!?). It is priced at $199, while the first hit ($25) of Google Play media is free. Unlike Wi-Fi iPads or Kindle Fires, it has a real GPS. Combined with downloadable Maps, this is huge for free navigation). It has a front-facing 1.2-megapixel camera that makes it a fantastic portable video conferencing machine, but it can also take better pictures and videos than many tablets with sub 1-megapixel displays.

Google pulled a very smart move from T-Mobile’s Galaxy S devices here. It includes a super high-quality movie from the Play Store. Watching full-quality “Avatar” and “Inception” on 480-by-800 pixel Galaxy S devices were huge selling points. While the screenplay of Transformers is painful, the video quality and sound are easily the best I have seen on a 7-inch tablet and will blow away people who plan to use this thing to watch video. It makes the Kindle Fire look like something you would find in a drugstore electronics aisle.

The single speaker in the back is not anything to write home about, but I believe it matches Apple’s iPad, which is mildly impressive on a device half of its size. Pumping sound via Bluetooth is a better experience, and this easily hooks up with the home Jambox or receiver/stereo. For $300, you can add the Nexus Q A/V streaming system, which works nicely, but I do not think will find a big market. That does not mean the Q isn’t some of the best hardware thinking I have seen in a while. Google should be commended.

I love the backing on the 7. It has a light “pleather” feel and feels great in the hand. While it is not as thin as the top-end 10-inch tablets, it is noticeably thinner than the Kindle. Perhaps most importantly, it shaves off significant weight vs. a metal back.

It is impossible to overstate the importance here. When reading in bed, or carrying a tablet in your pocket, the lightness of the Nexus 7 is a huge winner. It is still big enough to enjoy a 720P movie on a plane or subway but after 30 minutes of holding an iPad-type of tablet and you’ll notice the strain on your wrists.

On the downside, plastic has its problems. I have already heard it stains easily and we’ll know in a few months how it stands up to the elements over the long term..

The only option missing from the Nexus 7 in my eyes are cellular radios, which would have obviously driven up the $199 price. (Maybe a Micro SD Card slot would have been nice too, but those kill the pricing scheme).

Ecosystem

But even with specs this good, it needs a cohesive OS and ecosystem of content to go up against the Kindle Fire and, of course, Apple. To my surprise, Google delivers on both. While Google is not yet rivaling Amazon or Apple in the breadth content, it has enough music, videos, books, and mags to keep you busy and entertained. Obviously, if you upload your music collection to Google Play, it is all there already. The video and magazine section, which has beefed up, includes lots of great content.

For me, content services are not a huge deal. I mostly just want to watch Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Crackle, and listen to Spotify—which were all available at launch. It will be interesting to see if Amazon builds out Prime services for this device. It will not run Adobe’s Flash/Air, so it would have to be a native app unlike what is delivered to the Android-powered Google TV. It will be interesting to see if/when the network video services show up here (if not XDA members have a thing to say about this).  In a way, the Kindle Fire has helped here by  already paving the way for these types of services.

Software:

Android 4.1 Jellybean is a fantastic update to Ice Cream Sandwich and might be the highlight of the 7. Not only is it more polished and quicker in almost every area, but also it added breakout features like Google Now, improved Maps, and fantastic additions to Notifications. As you might imagine, everything is super-fast and super smooth, but there is a game changer here.

Google’s long discussed “Zero Click,” or Serendipitous search, shows up first. When you open Google Now, Google gives you some weather, traffic, and other handy information based on your preferences, your location, and the time of day. This is going to be big for Google. It is going to tie into phones and eventually its Google Glass product.

Perhaps the most noticeable improvement is to Google’s Voice recognition, which both predates and blows away Apple’s Siri in speed and often in functionality. If you are on a relatively speedy connection, expect an answer almost instantly. The cards metaphor is also something extremely easy to understand. This is a product with both Apple’s level of polish and unlimited possibilities.

There are some rough edges, however. For instance, some of the magazine content gets cut off (avoidable by switching to tablet view), most of the content is only available in landscape view and many apps aren’t yet optimized for the devices form factor.

In fact, one of the biggest dilemmas is that there are a bunch of 720P phones out there but this device’s 720P display calls for an entirely different interface – so how do developer attack this?

7-inch vs. 10 inch:

The elephant in the room is Apple’s iPad. How does the Nexus 7 stack up against the 10-inch tablet?

Apples and Oranges.

A 7-inch device is portable in many ways that the iPad is not. You can hold it with one hand to read in bed. You can slip it in your jacket pocket/purse/big back pants pocket on your way out the door. You can easily hold it with one hand. On the other hand, you are not getting the full 10-inch tablet experience here. Even though there are more usable pixels than the iPad, there is a huge difference in experience.

This is not just a great tablet from Google. It is a statement.

If there is one thing Google is saying with the Nexus 7, it is that Android device makers who refuse to update their devices to the latest version of Android will do so at their own peril. Most Android devices are stuck at 2.3.x currently. That is a travesty. Using 4.1 on my Galaxy Nexus blows away any hardware advantages of HTC’s One or Samsung’s S3 line.

I have recommended non-Nexus devices in the past to friends and colleagues. No more. If you want anything close to the full power of Android, you simply have to get a Nexus device. Expecting Samsung, HTC, or anyone else to update their devices to Google’s latest software in a timely fashion without dousing it with bloatware and uninspired skins is no longer a rationale thought.

You WANT Android 4.1 and all the latest updates. The only way to know you will get it is to go Nexus.

Wrap up:

Something strange happened after the announcement and my initial review. An absurdly large number of people I talk to about technology went out and bought this device right after it was announced. I am not talking about Android fans or early adopters here—these are Apple fans in the Apple ecosystem, newbies to tablets, and people who generally do not care about technology. If the Kindle was a hit at $199, then this is going to blow that away. Apple fans curious about Android are snapping this up.

This thing is going to be big. Apple knows it and has already started alerting the press that it will build a 7-inch competitor. Amazon is expected to launch a competitor soon, as well. It will be interesting to see how these fare. But, for now, Google has a hit…if it can make enough of these and avoid any major catastrophes.