Right up front, let me be clear about bias, because that’s a word that certainly gets tossed around after posts like this: I am an unabashed iOS/OSX user. My technology sprawl includes two 27 inch iMacs, a Thunderbolt Cinema Display, a MacBook Air, an iPad ‘3’ and my constantly-conjoined second brain, an iPhone 4S. My experience with Android before the Nexus 7 was precisely this: shit. As in: shitty. Android was clunky, ugly, lag-soaked and had such substandard third-party apps so as to make apps in general a complete afterthought outside of Google’s own. I tried to give Android a fair shake twice, only to run back to iOS’s polished embrace each time. And god, no regrets.
So. That said, what compelled me to even think about a Nexus 7? In a word, the buzz. A ton of Android tablets have been released, and none so much as stirred the slightest wave of interest outside of hardcore Android devotees. The Nexus 7, however, was immediately different. As evidenced by stellar sales and strong reviews, its shine is unmistakeable, even for diehard iOS fans like me. It became clear to me that it was time to take the plunge – again - this time without committing my phone to the platform. And for $199, you’re on the cusp of technology impulse purchase territory – especially seeing how you could turn around and sell it in a red second if you didn’t like it. And something must be clicking, somewhere: as I write this, the 16GB Nexus 7 is sold out on the Google Play store. Even Google wasn’t expecting this much fanfare surrounding its new tablet.
I’m not going to go all The Verge on you and give you the uber-detailed breakdown. If you want that, it’s out there. What I am going to give you is my impression of the Nexus 7 from the standpoint of an entrenched Apple user. Off we go.
Ever since Android got into the mobile game, I thought Google was taking far too long to make attractive its real core competency: its web and web app infrastructure. There is nobody on Earth who knows the cloud like Google, and increasingly, everything is done online. Why couldn’t Google make that value proposition attractive? It’s the world’s web mothership, something that is nearly impossible to build and refine the way Google has through years and hard-fought battles. Look at how Apple is struggling to get iCloud where it wants it.
Google’s failure to launch at a consumer appeal level is a testament to how hard user experience is to get right. Apple lives and dies by it, and Google is only just now beginning to understand. Matias Duarte is doing good work at Google, and the product is better for it.
Let me put it this way: over a four-day drip to Algonquin Provincial Park in Canada, I used the Nexus 7 exclusively, even with the iPad within arm’s reach. And the funny thing is that I wasn’t using the Nexus 7 begrudgingly: I found myself wanting to use it.
The Nexus 7 doesn’t have a Retina display, and the colors aren’t quite as vivid as my iPad ‘3’, but it’s nonetheless a very nice screen. Text in Instapaper or the Kindle app is sharp and clear, and colors are excellent. Viewing angles drop off about 30 degrees off center, but it’s not dramatic. Nobody outside of hardware nerds would notice.
One issue though: at the screen’s lowest brightness (as governed by auto brightness), the display flickers sometimes. It doesn’t happen every time, nor in every app. It’s bizarre. I’m hoping it’s a software issue. The geek zeitgeist suggests it might be something related to Tegra 3-powered tablets, but I can’t confirm. We’ll see.
Finally, an Android device that doesn’t absolutely need Swiftkey installed.
The Jelly Bean default keyboard is fantastic, and I find I can type on the Nexus 7 nearly as fast as I can on my iPad due to the smaller form factor. I have no delusions about typing two-handed (the Nexus 7 is pretty weak here, even in landscape); instead, I use the device like a giant phone and go at it in dual-thumb mode. It works surprisingly well, and Android’s auto-prediction is excellent. I really wish iOS would give you a ‘suggestion bar’ like Android does. It’s a great touch and real time-saver. In fact, this review was mostly written on the Nexus 7. It’s no iMac with a full keyboard, but its entirely serviceable.
Here’s the Achilles heel, and it’s a big one.
Outside of Google’s own apps, Android apps are a solid order of magnitude behind what you get on iOS. It’s jarring. Most Twitter clients are garbage (I hated Tweetcaster), so I’m stuck with the ‘official’ Twitter client on Android, a far, far cry from Tweetbot on iOS. In fact, that’s what hits you when you go back to the iPad after using the Nexus 7 – the realization of just how seriously fantastic iOS apps are.
I can’t stress this enough. If you are an app user (I say ‘if’ because I’ve met many Android users who mostly stick to what comes shipped with the OS), you’ll find Android ecosystem is doing okay on quantity, but the quality relative to what you see on iOS is tremendously disappointing. To my eyes, there’s no question top-flight developers are focusing on iOS first.
Android apps have light years of catching up to do, and the ridiculously fragmented Android ecosystem isn’t doing itself any favors. If I’m Google, I’m hoping the success of the Nexus 7 provides a foothold for developers to start creating some truly excellent apps – ones that aren’t available on iOS. If Android is going to win the hearts and minds of the Apple-leaning, it needs quality apps, not just warmed-over remakes of what’s been out on iOS for over a year. It also needs to get a ton of devices on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean as quick as humanly possible, but that’s another story altogether.
Google Now vs. Siri
Siri’s ‘beta-ness’ is growing old, and Google Now just highlights it.
Bottom line: Google Now smokes Siri in just about every test I threw at it. In fact, while Google Now isn’t perfect (there’s no personality, and it doesn’t do quite as well with natural language), it’s far better than Siri on her best day. Google Now is fast, does a lot of its voice parsing on-device, and returns focused Google results under the primary results card for a given query. If there is no primary results card (like you get when you ask, say, how old Nicklas Lidstrom is), you will get regular Google search results, as if you submitted a voice search. Which, in effect, you did.
I think Siri is one of the greatest Apple missteps in recent history, and I wish I could say I liked it more. Between not being available, mis-interpreting my speech, or just flat-out not knowing how to handle a query, Siri is a novelty to me. I use it to add items to a shopping list, and that’s it.
Google Now is a useful tool. See here, here and here to better understand why.
The old Android demon of horrific battery life has been banished – at least for the time being.
The Nexus 7 has battery life equivalent to what I get out of my iPad, perhaps a touch less. I didn’t do formal rundown tests, but what you should know is gone are the days when you could watch an Android device’s battery meter literally decrement in front of your eyes. If battery life is your concern, the Nexus 7 doesn’t disappoint.
Form Factor and Size
The 7.x inch tablet is for real. There’s no denying that.
I find holding and using the Nexus 7 to be very comfortable – the weight compares to my Kindle 3G Keyboard (which is for sale and has been used for about one hour, total – more on that later), and for reading, it’s a dream. The device is easy to pick up, use and store, having the same weight as a thin-ish trade paperback.
You wouldn’t think a few inches would make a difference, but it does. Big time. The iPad seems huge by comparison, and I suspect Apple knows this. I have every confidence we’ll see a 7.x (7.85?) inch iPad this fall, because no way Cupertino lets anyone else capture a nascent market segment.
And yes, the smaller tablet market is something Apple wants. Don’t think otherwise for a second.
Chrome on the Nexus 7 is extremely good, but Google hasn’t smoothed the rough edges Apple has with Safari.
I love Chrome. I know this is blasphemy for Apple purists, so you’ll have to send me a nasty email. Chrome is lighting fast, easy to sync across multiple machines, and has great standards support. Plus, its extension library is wide and deep.
On the desktop.
On mobile devices, Chrome shows its relative immaturity. Certain web pages scroll and zoom just a bit clumsily, and there are some rare non-responding touches and swipes. Don’t misunderstand me: the entire thing is a great browsing experience. Compared to Mobile Safari, though, it’s got a bit of work left to do.
However, the mere fact that I can mention browser quality on Android and iOS in the same few sentences without snide contrast is a first for me. Until Jelly Bean, browsing on Android was nowhere near what you got with Mobile Safari. That’s no longer the case.
I’ll just say this: I’ve had problems setting up every stock Android email client with Zimbra, the system I use for work. Every single one has failed outright or worked so weirdly that I had to search for alternative clients – before I rushed back to iOS’s excellent Mail.app.
On the Nexus 7, Google ships the first Android client that I configured to work with Zimbra. Not only did it work exactly as iOS’s Mail.app does, it was almost as easy to set up. Not quite the same, but again: close enough.
The Nexus 7 is mated to Google’s new Google Play store, which is its iTunes equivalent. And from casual kicking around, it’s quite well done.
But here’s the deal about software entrenchment: if you’re heavily invested in iOS apps, it’s a tough sell to convince someone to duplicate his purchases on another platform. Same applies to Android users who are contemplating iOS: are you really willing to cough up the cabbage again? I know I wouldn’t be outside of just a few key apps (Instapaper on Android, for instance), and that fact alone relegates any Android device I have to second-tier duty, mainly as a reader or smaller, lighter browsing machine.
The problem Google faces with Android is that most Android users aren’t heavily financially invested in apps. I’ve yet to find many Android users who actually pay for any apps, let alone many. For Google, this is a vulnerability: it lends itself to a financially frictionless move over to iOS. You can’t say the same thing the other way around.
The Nexus 7 is the first tablet to really make people notice something other than the iPad. Sure, the Kindle Fire had its buzz, and some folks said it was an iPad competitor, but that noise died quickly as the jagged edges of Android and the Fire revealed themselves.
I still don’t think the Nexus 7 is meant to be an iPad competitor – not yet. I see it as an entrant into a fledgling market segment and almost a loss-leading proof-of-concept on Google’s behalf. It’s Google’s own attempt to create a tablet for which it controlled both the hardware and the software, forging a flagship device. If it can gain a consumer and developer foothold, and then some great application support (how about a few top-shelf Nexus 7 exclusives?), we might talk, down the road, of the Nexus 7 (or somesuch model) being a legitimate competitor to the iPad.
Google should no longer be surprised by the demand for this device. The Nexus 7 isn’t perfect (what is?), but it’s the first Android tablet worth noticing – and using. I’ve said before that all Android needs is a real foothold to gather commercial momentum and become dangerous, and perhaps this is it. Will it truly shine as a long-term-use tablet, or will it prove to be the next Kindle Fire?
My money is on the former.