Before Google I/O 2012, Android tablets hadn’t been all that successful, due in large part to their high price and lack of serious support from Google. Then, however, Google introduced the $199 Nexus 7 tablet and started a battle of who could make the best, most affordable tablet. More than a year later, it’s quite clear that Google was the winner of that battle. Other manufacturers could not release an affordable tablet that was worth buying– and its biggest 7-inch competitor, the iPad mini, remains a full $100 above the Nexus 7’s asking price.
When the first rumors hit claiming that the device would cost $229, $30 more than the original model, I was a tad worried, but once Google officially announced the specifications, all that worry went away. The new Nexus 7 improves on its predecessor in just about every way imaginable. It has a faster processor, higher resolution screen, a new rear camera, the latest version of Android, and more. All that doesn’t necessarily mean the device is better, however. Is the Nexus 7 still king of the Android tablet market? Can it compete with the iPad mini?
The original Nexus 7 had a really unique, faux-leather, soft-touch feel to it that you either loved or hated. I really didn’t mind it, but the biggest issues it had was fingerprints and other “gunk” being attracted to it. The 2013 Nexus 7’s new matte finish is still soft to the touch and looks much more professional than the original. It’s all-black and very sleek-looking. Best of all, it doesn’t attract gunk and fingerprints. Overall, I’d take the new design, look, and feel over the old any day of the week.
As far as size goes, ASUS – the Nexus 7 manufacturer – was able to trim off about 2.75mm of bezel from beside the screen, but the top and bottom bezels are still hilariously huge in comparison. The company says that it did this so the user would have a place to hold the device while using it in landscape mode, but I think it would have been more beneficial to shave the bezels a tad more for an overall more compact design. The result of such large top and bottom bezels is a really disproportionate look and a design much taller than it should be.
The 2013 Nexus 7 is considerably lighter than the original, coming in at 10.23 ounces versus 11.9 ounces. It’s also 6mm narrower and 1.8mm thinner, but thanks to the larger bezels, it’s 1.5mm taller, measuring in at 200 x 114 x 8.7 mm.
The Nexus 7 does not have any capacitive buttons whatsoever, with the main controls residing as software buttons. The right-hand side is home to the volume rocker and power button while the microUSB charging port is on the bottom and the 3.5mm headphone jack is up top. Entirely new on the 2013 revision of the device is a 5MP rear facing camera, which is located in the upper left corner of the back. Also new is the addition of dual speakers, which sound really, really good for a 7-inch tablet – despite the fact that they aren’t front facing.
The device is very easy to hold with one hand, which is a great selling point for someone who is always on the move. Google demoed the device as being used mainly in landscape orientation, which is why the Nexus branding on the back is printed sideways. I’ve always preferred using tablets in portrait orientation, but because of the large top and bottom bezels, the new Nexus 7 feels a little bit more at home in landscape.
One of the biggest complaints I had with the original Nexus 7 was the lackluster display. As someone who used a Retina iPad, the Nexus 7’s low resolution panel was nearly unbearable. With the second generation model, however, Google has finally upped the screen resolution to a whopping 1920 x 1200 resolution. For those doing the math, that’s 323 pixels per inch, which Google says makes it the sharpest 7-inch display ever.
In real world usage, the Nexus 7’s display is wonderful. Colors are vivid, but not over-saturated, and text is incredibly crisp. The viewing angles are stunning and the IPS panel is really bright. My current tablet of choice is the iPad mini, and as we’re all well aware of, its display is horrible. The Nexus 7 blows the iPad mini’s panel out of the water in just about every way imaginable.
Alongside the new Nexus 7, Google also revealed the latest version of its operating system. Android 4.3 is a relatively minor update and is the third iteration of Jelly Bean, so it’s still likely that we will see something new this fall. Android 4.3 adds a few under the hood features, but nothing that normal consumers will notice on first boot. For one, the operating system now supports Bluetooth LE, which should greatly improve Android’s compatibility and performance with things like wearable devices and car stereo systems.
Restricted profiles are also new and allow for apps and in-app purchases to be disabled based on the user of the tablet. One of the biggest under the hood changes is OpenGL ES 3.0 support for high performance graphics. While this isn’t exactly a marketable, consumer-friendly feature, it should drastically improve gaming and graphic performance, though many apps will have to be optimized for it.
In day-to-day usage, I didn’t notice any performance improvements on Android 4.3 over Android 4.2. That’s not a bad thing, however, as Android 4.2 performance was great. Scrolling through any website was smooth as butter and bouncing back and forth between home screens was crisp with no lag whatsoever.
Over the years, Android’s app selection has improved greatly on phones, almost to the quality of the iOS app selection. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the tablet optimized app store. Google has been doing a lot to improve the issue, such as adding a section on the Play Store dedicated to showcasing the best tablet optimized apps, and while the selection has improved, I still have trouble finding a number of apps that compare to the ones I use regularly on my iPad. Ultimately, this is the biggest downside of using Android tablets over an iPad. Will it improve over time? Sure, but it may take a while.
In addition to the better screen, Google and ASUS bumped up the internals of the Nexus 7 as well. The device is now powered by a 1.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, Adreno 320 graphics and 2GB of RAM, which is very similar to the Nexus 4. The original Nexus 7 had a Tegra 3 chip under the hood, and while it performed very well, there was a nasty bug that caused the device to slow down overtime. Hopefully that won’t be the case with the 2013 Nexus 7, but it’s still too early to know.
The major spec improvement coupled with the aforementioned Android 4.3 improvements has made the Nexus 7 a true joy to use. Everything is snappy and loads incredibly quickly. I didn’t have any freezes or crashes during my time with the tablet, nor did I have any random reboots. For a device that is brand new and the first to ship with a new version of Android, the Nexus 7 was great to use. I usually can’t say that about many Android devices, especially so soon after launch.
Battery life with the Nexus 7 was also quite good. Many people were concerned that the higher resolution display would cause severe battery drain, but I had no trouble making it through at least one day of very heavy usage. Google rates the device as having 9 hours of battery life, and I easily found that to be true.
Missing from the 2012 Nexus 7 was a rear camera, but seeing that it was an affordable tablet, no one really thought too much of it. This time around, ASUS has added a 5MP rear facing camera to the device and I certainly won’t complain. I went into this review having pretty low expectations of the sensor, but after using it for awhile, I was pleasantly surprised. By no means does it compete with the 8MP+ shooters found on the iPhone 5, HTC One, and Galaxy S4, but it could get the job done in a pinch.
In well-lit conditions, the Nexus 7 was able to snap pretty decent and detailed images. Colors were nice, though a bit washed out in certain instances. Low-light performance was quite poor, as you’d expect. Even with the night mode enabled, they were still very noisy and showed little to no detail.
The camera interface is still largely the same as before. On the left hand side of the shutter button is an option to switch between panorama, Photo Sphere, and video modes. On the other side are settings to adjust the exposure, white balance, shooting mode, and much more. I’m not a fan of the interface, as I mentioned in my review of the Google Play Edition Galaxy S4. The wheel that the options are presented in is not very intuitive at all and it’s never clear what the icons are representing.
Google set the bar high with the original Nexus 7. After essentially ignoring the tablet market for 2 years, the device launched with a bang, costing just $199 and selling out incredibly quickly. A year later, the 2013 Nexus 7 is still the best tablet money can buy. Even though it comes in at $30 more than its predecessor, the performance and camera improvements are well worth it. It’s not often that anything running Android performs as stable and fluid as the Nexus 7 does. On top of that, you get a more sleek and professional design than ever before.
The real question, however, is whether the iPad mini or Nexus 7 is the 7-inch tablet to get. Apple’s offering comes in at $100 more and that’s not exactly chump change. iOS also offers a plethora of tablet-optimized apps, while Android still seriously lacks in that area. Before you buy anything, especially a Nexus 7, I think you need to check the Play Store to ensure that all the apps that you use are available on Android. If you’re happy with Android’s tablet app selection, then the Nexus 7 is easily the best tablet on the market. At just $229, it offers quite the bang for your buck.