Thoughts on the Google Nexus 7

I recently bought with my own money a Google Nexus 7 and have so far spent a week with it. I'm trying my very hardest to be objective and ignore all my previous experiences with Android (which go back to the original Nexus phone).

Before I received the Nexus 7, I had expected to like the hardware and hate the software. I thought it would be like test-driving a Citroën car: great design ideas - can't wait until the Germans or Japanese put them in their cars. The reality was a little more subtle.

I'm going to try and evaluate the device on its own merits and, yes, I'm going to occasionally compare it to the iPad, the iPhone and the iOS ecosystem. The Android OS has been around since 2008. Android tablets since 2010. I don't think it's fair that the Android world should get to 'reset the clock' every time a new flagship device launches. It's time for the Android platform to stand up and be counted.

The Hardware

My general opinion of the whole market is that tablet hardware is not interesting, except insofar as it enables the user to have wonderful experiences of software (I wrote the same thing about the iPad 2 launch). This, I believe, is why Apple has had a new flagship app or two at every iPad launch so far. iWork, GarageBand, iMovie, iPhoto. The whole point of tablet computing is that the device becomes the thing you're doing with it.

In many ways, the most interesting thing about the Nexus 7 is the price. Even the size isn't novel: we have had 7" tablets for almost as long as the iPad - the 7" Samsung Galaxy Tab was launched in September 2010. It's just that the Kindle Fire and the Nexus 7 are now in that magical $200 range. I paid £169, shipped, for my Nexus 7. It's half the price of an iPad and it's half the screen space and half the storage. Seems about right. The question is: is it half of the experience?

The device itself is fast enough for most uses. The scrolling seems OK now that they've thrown 12(!) cores at it. It's certainly not as good as current iOS devices but it's fine. Navigating around the OS, launching apps and so on is all fine.

The Nexus 7 definitely lacks a few things. It's a shame that there's no cellular networking option on the Nexus 7. Not everyone wants that, I know, but I find it essential on my iPad. From an education point of view, one of the biggest shortcomings of the hardware device is that there's no way to connect it to a TV or projector display. There's no rear camera, just a front-facing camera. I'm not a big iPad photographer but I know that having the camera integrated is very valuable in the classroom for all kinds of quick-snap applications. In many ways, cameras are today as much of a data entry device as they are about photography.

So let's talk about the size. The Nexus 7 is basically half an iPad screen. The bezels on the Nexus 7 are not even all the way around as they are on the iPad. When held in portrait orientation, the two long edge bezels are substantially narrower than the top and bottom edges. I have found the device very difficult to handle as a result because I can't grip it with my thumb without activating the screen. The only way to make this grip comfortable is to hold the device parallel to the floor, which is obviously not good for reading, or make an easel with my little finger, which gets tiring quickly.

The day I received the Nexus 7, I sat on the sofa for an hour turning the device over in my hands and tried to decide what this device is actually for. Under what circumstances and for which tasks is a widescreen 7" tablet the absolutely optimal choice? It wasn't obvious to me right away and, to be quite honest, I'm still not sure.

I feel like the 7" size is neither fish nor fowl. It is, theoretically, more portable than a 10" tablet. Still, you could never say that the Nexus 7 disappears into a pocket the way a smartphone does. In a jacket pocket, you're still pretty conscious of its weight and shape. I wear bigger trousers than most of you and its not trouser-pocketable unless you wear cargo pants. I just don't feel that a 7" tablet is ever going to be a no-brainer carry the way my iPhone is.

To me, the biggest problem arising from the Nexus 7's form factor is data entry. In portrait orientation, the device looks like nothing so much as an iPhone app running at 2x on an iPad: a big, phone-like keyboard that you can two-thumb type on. In landscape, the keyboard is simply comical: you get four lines of text to type into and the keyboard (for me) will accommodate no more than two fingers on each hand. It's hard to overstate how much of a train wreck this is. It's just horrible.

The second thing I disliked about the hardware was the display. I'm aware that I may be spoilt by the retina display on my iPad but if one of the great strengths of the Nexus 7 is supposed to be as a reading device, we should critically evaluate the thing that you're going to stare at. I don't know if it's the Android font rendering or the display hardware itself but I found the Nexus 7 less than pleasant to read on. In a side-by-side comparison of the same apps (Kindle, Pocket and Flipboard) I honestly preferred reading on my iPhone 4S.

So far, the Nexus 7 has made me really appreciate how capable my iPhone is. I can get an equally fast device, with cellular networking, a rear camera and do more with it in an even more portable package. The 'do more with it' discussion leads us right into talking about software.

Software

Software is absolutely the heart of any computer system. Without software, a computer is a fancy space heater and a mobile device makes a great pocket handwarmer. As I said, I expected to like the Nexus 7 hardware and hate Android. In fact, I found the Android OS to be surprisingly OK. It's not iOS - the animations aren't as good, the font rendering isn't as good and the placement of the home, back and task switcher buttons immediately below the keyboard is highly questionable. Still, it's fast enough and it seems to work OK.

So the Nexus 7 is a fast-enough tablet at a low price with a decent operating system. The next question is: "so what?". What can we actually do with this thing?

First I asked for recommendations on Twitter for apps that uniquely showcased what an Android tablet could be. I got back two unique responses: Swype, a replacement keyboard, and DoubleTwist Alarm Clock. I should have interpreted that as an ominous sign.

When I got my Nexus 7, the first thing I installed was the Kindle app. It's basically identical to the iOS version except the text rendering is substantially worse. It's perfectly functional though.

Next I installed Flipboard, which I love. It turns out that the Android version of Flipboard is basically identical to the iPhone version of Flipboard. Because it's the iPhone version and not the iPad version you end up with large chunks of white space everywhere as the interface is stretched out to 7".

After that I installed Pocket. Guess what? It's basically identical to the iOS version! Then I installed Dropbox. Guess what? Yup.

The only app that I found to be both Android-native in its design and actually better than the iOS equivalent was Evernote. I'm a big Evernote fan and I'm a huge fan of Evernote on Android. If they ported this version back to the iPad, I would be delighted. It's that good. Additionally, Evernote on Android also sold me on the idea of home screen widgets - about which I had been pretty sceptical until now. Very useful indeed.

After a morning's fiddling around I had basically turned my Nexus 7 into a smaller read-only version of my iPad. In some ways, that is quite attractive in itself: a smaller cheaper interface to some of your cloud services and the web. If you think of the Nexus 7 as a Kindle that can run Evernote, Pocket and Chrome for £160, that's not bad.

Yet, to me, it's not very ambitious. I look at my iPad and the kind of apps that fill my home screen are tools of substantial power. Many of these apps are universal and run on the iPhone too.

  • Flipboard (the real tablet version), Pocket, iBooks and Kindle
  • iTunes U and Piazza
  • Keynote, Pages and Numbers
  • OmniPlan, OmniGraffle, OmniGraphSketcher and OmniOutliner.
  • Penultimate, Book Creator, Diet Coda, iTeleport, Bento, PCalc
  • iThoughtsHD, Explain Everything, PDF Expert
  • iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand, Photos and Camera

Once you get beyond the apps whose business model is "be everywhere" - the Kindles, Evernotes and Pockets of this world - the Android app ecosystem is still severely lacking in high-quality, ambitious, powerful apps.

After living with the Nexus 7 for about 10 days now, I'm not even thinking about it in the same bracket as the iPad. I'm thinking about it in the same bracket as my iPhone. If you look at the Nexus 7 as a 'smaller iPad', you give up some functionality to gain some portability. Yet you give up a lot of functionality to gain a moderate amount of portability. It feels, to me, like a poor tradeoff: you don't get enough portability for the amount of functionality you give up.

If you look at it from the starting point of a smartphone-class device, you give up some portability to ostensibly get more functionality. Yet how much more functionality do you really get with the Nexus 7? You get a bigger screen but you give up cellular networking and a rear camera.

I think the truth is that this isn't about portability at all: it's about price. You give up features from smartphones (cameras, cellular) and full-size tablets (screen space, storage) to get to a $200 price point.

The software plays into this too. From the apps I have tried, it seems to me that 7" - particularly in the widescreen aspect ratio - isn't quite enough extra screen to take a step up in functionality from a phone to a tablet. Evernote probably does the best job of this but it's still crippled by the lack of height in landscape orientation.

The School Angle

My experience with two years of iPad in school is that the iPad can cover 99% of everything we want to do with a computer in school. I don't feel I could say the same about the Nexus 7. I think the 7" size is simply too small to use on a regular basis for creating work. My sense is that small devices like the Nexus 7 and iPod touch make great adjuncts to a computer suite but the iPad can replace the computer suite (I know because we've done it).

Secondly, the software just isn't there. The apps that I've mentioned that I'm enjoying on the Nexus 7 are not the apps we use in school. I don't mean that in the sense that iPhoto-the-exact-app isn't on Android; I mean it in the sense that there is nothing even close to iPhoto on Android.

I've written before about what I call the "GarageBand Test" that I apply to any new device or platform. It's simple: show me something as impressive as GarageBand on iOS. It doesn't have to be a music app, it just has to be an app that makes me say "wow, I had no idea you could do that on a device like this". I could specify dozens of such apps on iOS and, so far, I haven't been able to find one on Android. That's a problem.

Too often schools have bought the cheapest thing without much thought to what that thing is going to be used for and whether it's any good for that. I'm slightly nervous that this is going to happen again. Who am I kidding? I know it's going to happen again and that's a shame.

In Conclusion

I feel like I can't help damning the Nexus 7 with faint praise. It's a nicely built tablet, that's fast enough and has a workable OS. It has a good browser and some good built-in first-party apps. As a general-purpose device it's hobbled by a small keyboard. It lacks a cellular networking option and a rear camera. As a reading device - possibly its strongest suit - it's let down by poor font rendering and a sub-retina display.

People need different things from computing devices and I can't say that my needs and wants are the same as everyone's. If you only need the things that the Nexus 7 can do then I'm happy that you can get something to satisfy your needs. Even for me, the device almost justifies itself as a "Kindle that can run Evernote and Chrome".

I just find the Nexus 7 a weird mix. A device oriented towards portability that doesn't have cellular networking. A device that works well for watching video that has a small amount of internal storage. A device that seems good for reading, yet doesn't render text well. Not as portable as a smartphone yet nowhere near as powerful as an iPad.

Many reviewers have said that the Nexus 7 made them want Apple to build a 7" iPad. I disagree. The Nexus 7 has made me want a slightly bigger iPhone. I can get all of the software functionality I get from the Nexus 7 - and more - on my iPhone. If we are going to trade off functionality for portability, let's go all the way and make the thing really portable.

I say: bring on the 4.5" iPhone 5.