Google's announcement of the Nexus 7 tablet raised many of the same questions as Microsoft's announcement of its Surface tablet, earlier in June: What is it, really? Why does it exist? Why would a major platform vendor compete with its OEM partners by releasing its own branded hardware?
There's one major difference between the Nexus 7 and the Surface, though. The Nexus 7 exists, here and now. Google handed out 6,000 of the Asus-manufactured devices to attendees at its Google I/O developer conference last week, and it expects to begin shipping the tablet to paying customers by late July. With product in hand, I explored what the Nexus 7 has to offer.
The Nexus 7 is a low-cost tablet. It lists at $199 for a version with 8GB of storage and $249 for one with 16GB. (Neither model has an SD card slot for expansion.) That pits it against Amazon's similarly priced Kindle Fire, which by most estimates is the best-selling Android tablet so far.
For the price, the Nexus 7 is a nice piece of gear. It fits comfortably in one hand, and it weighs about as much as a thick paperback book (340 grams). Its back is coated with a pleasing textured rubber. Its overall build quality is what you'd expect of a costlier device.
With its 7-inch screen, the Nexus 7 isn't the largest Android tablet around, and it's considerably smaller than the iPad. Still, its 1,280-by-800 resolution is the same as that of the 10.1-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab. That puts it at 216ppi (pixels per inch) -- less than the 326ppi of the iPad's Retina Display, but noticeably better than the Galaxy Tab's 149ppi. Its colors are perhaps not as vibrant as some screens, but graphics look sharp.
Introducing "Jelly Bean" and mobile Chrome Much has been made of the fact that the Nexus 7 is the first device to ship with the next generation of the Android OS, code-named "Jelly Bean." But "Jelly Bean" is Android 4.1, not 5.0. Most of the changes from Android 4.0 ("Ice Cream Sandwich") are incremental -- though, admittedly, few Android owners have seen that version.
"Jelly Bean" brings some minor UI improvements. It's easier to move and resize widgets on the home screens, and you can group icons into folders to save space. Overall UI animations are smoother, though how much this is attributable to OS improvements and how much to the Nexus 7's quad-core Tegra 3 CPU is hard to say.
"Jelly Bean" features a new, on-device voice recognition engine that integrates with most text-input widgets on the device. The new, voice-integrated Google Search with speech synthesis is clearly designed to compete with Apple's Siri.
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