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Nexus 7 a good rival for the iPad, in a compact size

The Nexus 7 is flexible device. Add Bluetooth mouse keyboard you've got one world's most totable full-functiworkstations. Andy Ihnatko Photo

The Nexus 7 is a flexible device. Add a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, and you've got one of the world's most totable full-function workstations. Andy Ihnatko Photo

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Updated: August 17, 2012 7:12AM

Google’s new Nexus 7, a 7-inch Android tablet available from starting from $199, is a remarkable device. Many slates have attempted to tap into some part of the success of the iPad. I’ve tried most of them. Usually, they’re not even worth writing about. What’s the point of a tablet that costs the same as the iPad, does nothing as well as the iPad, and offers no unique features?

In all that time, the only standouts were the ASUS Transformer Prime (whose easy transformation into an ultralight notebook is very much in tune with how many people use their iPads) and Amazon’s Kindle Fire (which seems like it’s obviously designed to be a “Kindle with added benefits” rather than a fully-functioning tablet).

I liked and appreciated both of those machines. The iPad was still the only tablet I could wholeheartedly recommend.

And now I add the Nexus 7 to that podium. Google, and its hardware partner ASUS, have managed to create a tablet that is almost 100 percent successful and which delivers a hell of a lot of value for not a whole lot of money. I can’t even say that the iPad is necessarily a better tablet. It’s like comparing “Die Hard” to “Casablanca.” They’re both top-drawer examples, but targeted towards different audiences.

I’ll say this, though: In its own way, the Nexus 7 is every bit as groundbreaking as the iPad. I even wonder if it’ll mark a similarly significant moment in the history of computing.

As I look at these two tablets here on my desk, I can’t help but think of the Apple II and the Commodore 64. Apple launched the entire personal computer industry by selling the first desktop that presented the consumer with “the whole enchilada.” The Apple II, II+, and //e were powerful and flexible and easy to operate. Apple quickly damn-near owned the marketplace.

In 1982, Commodore released the 64. It wasn’t nearly as powerful or as flexible as the Apple. But it also wasn’t nearly as expensive. At $595, it cost half as much as an Apple II+. Thanks to that price, and the company’s success in making the machine available to consumers through conventional retail channels, the 64 put real computing within the practical reach of millions of households that would otherwise have been left out of the computing revolution. By 1982, Apple had sold 750,000 desktops. Eventually, Commodore would sell more than 10 million 64s.

The iPad is already a popular consumer device (60 million units sold worldwide, and counting). Still, I wonder if the Nexus 7 will have the same populist effect on the tablet market. There are many people for whom an iPad is just too darn big, or too darn expensive. Speaking even more broadly, there are many people for whom a conventional laptop is way too spendy an item, or overkill for what they actually need.

The Nexus 7 is a real computer and it costs just $199. That feels like a potentially exceptional moment. Not just for the tablet market, but for the history of computing in general ... which all too often is a story of exclusion.

And I have no qualms about describing the Nexus as a “real computer.” It impressed me a lot in the past couple of weeks. In fact, my review was delayed for a bit as I kept discovering new things that it could do. It’s far more than a glorified media player.

The first impression you get from the Nexus 7 is its top-quality build. The hardware is designed and built by ASUS, which routinely produces high-quality hardware at low price points, so the fact that it’s a tight, slim package that feels great in your hand isn’t much of a surprise. Its grippy, rubberized back is studded with dimples, like a golf ball. Which means that when you’re playing Scrabble in the park and you get so frustrated by the tiles you drew that you finally throw the Nexus with all of your might, the dimples will create that extra aerodynamic loft you’ll need to clear the row of benches and make it all the way into the pond.

The screen is an HD-quality 1280x800 display with 216 pixels per inch of resolution, and it uses the same IPS technology as the iPad. Text is sharp and easy to read. Details and colors in HD videos pop, without the distracting, overcooked appearance that’s the bane of many phone and tablet screens. Battery life is excellent; I could get a full eight to 10 hours of use out of it.

Most of its hardware specs are in line with the iPad’s. There’s GPS plus the usual smattering of tilt and motion sensors for gaming. The Nexus has just one 1.2 megapixel camera, which faces front for videoconferencing.

There’s a modern quad-core Tegra 3 CPU under the hood, and the device runs Jelly Bean, aka Android 4.1, aka the very latest edition of the OS. Add those two together and you get a liquid-fast tablet that responds to your touches and swipes instantly. This might be the most responsive Android device I’ve ever used. There’s none of the lag that I’ve historically associated with Android in the past few years, nor any of the lack of responsiveness that I often see with the Kindle Fire.

Another similarity with the iPad: there’s no memory card slot, which is a bummer on a device that excels at playing onboard media and which only has 8 gigs of internal storage in its $199 configuration. For $249, you get 16 gigs, but that’s still not a lot of room to play around in. I know that the vogue across the hardware industry is to claim “You don’t need storage! The remarkable and frabtasticular Cloud can handle all of your content!” I still wish there were more to work with here. You can’t count on having functional WiFi where and when you need it, and managing a tiny slice of onboard storage for all of your must-have documents and content is a major pain.

That lack of storage is a bit more crucial with the Nexus than with the iPad because you can’t purchase a model with mobile broadband. WiFi is the only wireless Internet available.

But it’s not the only way to access the Internet from the Nexus 7. Amazingly, it works just fine with an Android-certified USB Ethernet dongle. You can plug the Nexus into a wired network and download webpages and content at the (likely) maximum speed of your home or office network, after spending $20 to $30 for the dongle and a cheap USB to micro-USB adapter.

The Nexus is yet another 2012 mobile device that wants to be ready for the fabled near-field communication revolution. It has a full NFC chipset and can swap data with other NFC-enabled tech just by bringing the two devices close together and hoping you’ve configured everything correctly. Some of us might even live long enough to pay for stuff by tapping an NFC device against a vending machine or a store checkout kiosk. Exercise and eat healthy until that day arrives.

It has full support of Bluetooth 4.1 and supports a wide range of devices. I could stream music straight to my office speakers without a hitch. It works great with all of the Bluetooth keyboards I tried.

Android also supports the use of a mouse. Here, Bluetooth support is a bit trickier. I finally got it working, but only after trying all three of the BT mouses I had in my office, buying a brand-new one of latest vintage, and then finally discovering that Android uses a type of mouse driver that requires a specially certified mouse.

But the micro-USB port comes to the rescue again: It works fine with USB mice. And USB keyboards. Hell, it even worked with a USB mouse plugged into a USB keyboard. The flexibility of the Nexus’ USB port is a thoroughly charming feature. It would have been so easy for Google and ASUS to decide that mouse support was silly, or that plugging in a wired device would degrade the Nexus’ battery life to a silly degree (it doesn’t, as far as I can tell). Kudos to them for allowing the user to decide whether or not these features make sense, instead of just arbitrarily limiting what the device can do.

And yes, a keyboard and a mouse do make sense...even on a little 7-inch tablet. Because the Nexus can indeed help you to get real work done. When I got my hands on an iPad for the first time, I didn’t really expect it to take over an enormous chunk of workload. Pairing a Bluetooth keyboard with it transforms the device from a humble touch-based content surfer to a functional business machine.

A keyboard delivers the same kind of boon to the Nexus. And the mouse support made me dearly wish that the iPad supported an external pointing device, too. It’s become second nature for me to take my hands off the keyboard to tap an onscreen button or select some text. Doing it with a mouse or a trackpad is my first nature, though, and it makes the work go so much faster.

Am I claiming that the Nexus is an appropriate computer for “real” work? God, no. But it’s a fantastic “bridge” device. The dominance of large-screen phones in the mobile market suggests that the whole balance of computing has shifted, and that there’s a real role for two-handed devices that are way more portable than a notebook...or even an iPad. I’ve stopped being surprised when people tell me that their phones serve their needs so well that they don’t even own a conventional computer.

That said, the Nexus is an attractive device for people who need to keep mobile and also need to have access to apps and docs. Verbatim makes a folding Bluetooth keyboard that’s even smaller than the Nexus 7, and yet is large enough for fast typing. If you need to keep on top of your email throughout the day, or you’re a columnist for a great metropolitan newspaper and are always just one text message away from needing to write 650 words on subject before the top of the hour, the two are an awesome combination.

It’s also not hampered by the largest frustration about Android devices. Normally, you can’t count on your shiny new phone or tablet ever receiving any of the new features associated with a fresh update to the operating system. Doesn’t matter that a phone was released in May and the new OS came out two months later: makers aren’t motivated to invest the money in enhancing a product that’s already been sold. The Nexus nameplate means that Google can update these devices directly ... and the company’s well-motivated to maintaining a fleet of devices that showcase everything that Android OS can do.

You can best understand the Nexus 7’s unique strengths and limitations by comparing it with the Kindle Fire and the iPad. The Fire isn’t nearly as nicely built as the Nexus. It’s not nearly as fast or responsive, and it runs a custom, forked version of Android that’s two generations old.

And none of those things are dealbreakers because Amazon did indeed design the Fire as an “e-reader with benefits.” When you wake up the Fire, you get right down to the business of entertainment. You see a slick app that organizes and presents all of your content. It never takes more than a second to get right back into any of the books, movies, albums, or games you’ve touched in the past day or two, and pick up where you left off. Finding and acquiring new content is fast and intuitive. You can install tablet apps on the thing, including word processors and the like. That’s kind of an afterthought, though.

The Nexus doesn’t benefit from that kind of singular purpose. This is an Android 4.1 tablet computer. Android has made several leaps in the past few months with their Google Play store. It’s much easier to navigate through the content stores and there’s much more content available.

(Though they’re still filling the shelves. For a limited time, the Nexus ships with a $25 Google Play Store credit. I quickly found a good book and a good album to try out. Then I went looking for a movie or a TV show that I was eager to watch. After three or four times trips through the whole catalogue, I finally gave up and picked “Blazing Saddles.” I’ve seen it a hundred times. Of course, I can always stand to see it again. As an American male, it’s important to make sure I can quote every passage and verse of the Holy Scriptures accurately.)

But while the Nexus 7 has a dashboard widget that shows you your most recent few plays, there isn’t anything like the same intimacy between the hardware and the content.

Still, the Nexus is a much, much better value than the Kindle Fire, and for the same amount of money. And remember that Amazon has released both a Kindle app and one that streams music from your Amazon MP3 collection. No access to Instant Video, alas, but a few downloads give it all of the native content you’d get from a Kindle.

Comparing the Nexus 7 to the iPad is mostly the same question as “Can I use this as a fully-featured tablet computer?” And the answer to that one is clearly yes. It only has two limitations on that front.

The most important one is, of course, its app library. There’s an almost shocking lack of tablet-optimized apps available for Android. The strict number of apps available for Android doesn’t concern me so much as the limited number of high-quality ones. Apple was smart enough to release iPad editions of its iWork apps along with the first iPad. Pages, Numbers, and Keynote would be world-class Office-style apps on any OS, let alone a mobile one.

On Android, there are two competing Office suites and even my favorite one (OfficeSuite Pro) is just...functional. I find myself relying on Google Docs for most of my Nexus 7 writing and editing. It’s a much cleaner and more useful app, because it comes with a limited feature set.

And that’s the story in category after category. My iPad has mostly replaced my MacBook as my travel computer thanks to that wonderful library. It seems like every month another iPad app is released (or improved) that allows me to cross out another function that I could only perform on my MacBook.

The Nexus 7’s other big limitation is, of course, its screen size. A conventional notebook screen gives you enough room for multiple windows and multiple apps. An iPad screen is big enough to let you focus on a single app in cozy comfort.

7 inches is way, way better than a phone screen and that’s about the best you can say about it. As much as I like the Nexus 7, when I move back to my iPad I instantly shed a slight feeling of user interface claustrophobia. If an interactive app can ever deliver that kind of “losing track of all time” immersive experience on a 7-inch screen, it’ll be a major breakthrough. You feel the limitations most keenly in a productivity app, like a word processor.

But this sounds like nitpicking. And though it’s a valid observation, it’s also fair to say that it’s the sort of limitation that someone who writes for a living would point out. Also, Google and ASUS certainly didn’t intend for this 7-inch device to replace an iPad. It’s fine for casual work. I could comfortably write the short print edition of this column with the Nexus. I moved to my MacBook for this bible-length review, however.

And the 7-inch size is, in fact, a huge feature. It slides in a back pocket. You won’t need to carry it around in a little bag or an obvious folio, as the iPad requires. It’s more likely to be at hand when you want or need it. I remind you that the “mobile” in the phrase “mobile computing” stands for “Mobile.” Further, though I love the iPad’s larger screen, I love the Nexus’ light weight and more manageable size just as much. I can spend a much longer time reading on the Nexus without finding a way to prop the device against something.

Finally, for all of my complaints about the size of the Android tablet app store, most of the iPad’s cross-platform hits are right here. Streaming apps (Netflix, HBO Go, Spotify), personal organizers like Evernote, cloud drive apps like Dropbox, sketch and note-taking’s not the largest store in the world, but there’s enough here to reasonably cover common needs.

The Nexus 7 is the best 7-inch tablet on the market. Out of context, that phrase could come across as a joke about the lack of available options, but no, I’m saying that it’s sincerely a great product. It’s built better than you’d expect in a $199 tablet, and it has far, far greater capabilities than you’d initially demand. Maybe the Nexus can’t fill every role you’d ever ask from a tablet, but it clearly wishes that it could, and tries to fill as many as possible without any artificially-induced limitations.

I only have one layer of doubt about the Nexus: the possibility of an iPad Mini. These rumors have been increasing in velocity over the coming year. The consensus guess (and let’s correctly label it as a guess) is that a 7.85-inch iPad might be released sometime in the fall, early enough for holiday shopping.

A hip-pocket sized tablet computer backed by the fully armed and operational iTunes battle station of apps, music and video would be amazing. But the first question in my mind would be price. Apple’s incredible success is based on maintaining high margins on hardware. If they sell it as a “tweener” device — pricing it somewhere between that of the latest-model iPhone and last year’s iPad — the door’s still wide open for Google. If Apple can sell an iPad Mini for anywhere within a nine-iron of the price of the Nexus ($249, say) it’s going to be a street fight.

The second question: would Apple screw the whole idea up? The one complaint that recurs in many of my reviews of recent Apple products is that the company isn’t afraid to delete features that it believes aren’t being used by the majority of consumers, or which simply don’t make sense to the company. I don’t think it’s necessarily a given that an iPad Mini would be as flexible, as useful, or as great a value as the Nexus 7.

I think it would...but I’m ready for anything. If Apple releases a $249 iPad Mini and it isn’t a full-featured iPad, it probably won’t be the best device in its price range. Google’s definitely raised the stakes here.

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