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Google Nexus 7

“Wait… you have an iPad, a desktop, a Kindle, an iPhone… what the hell do you need a Nexus 7 for?”

It’s the first question I get asked with this thing. The answer I’m tempted to give is sheer technolust: who can resist getting another toy that seems to play a role, well, at least somewhere in the pantheon of devices available. The iPad allowed me to get rid of the laptop – so what would a 7 inch tablet do for me?

On the Multiplicity of Screens

I’m not going to try to do a walk through of what this device looks like – it’s been comprehensively reviewed elsewhere. The whole attraction to me of the Nexus 7 was the “middle role” – it is roughly the size of a Kindle, at least on the face, but yet offers much more functionality. For years I’ve mocked Android as being a piece of hacked together software, barely holding a complete face, but secretly I’ve also wanted to have a play with an Android device. It wasn’t until the Nexus came along though that I thought there was something affordable and also on the leading edge that I could sate my curiosity with, though.

In having the same dimensions as a Kindle, the Nexus allows you to hold it easily in one hand for nearly all tasks you’ll do with it – and there’s the key reason why I wanted it. Whereas when I wrote my response to the iPad’s introduction, that 10 inches was too small and hardly worthwhile, now it seems the iPad is massive. It’s weighty enough and large enough that you’ll use 2 hands to manipulate it most of the time, barring the occasions when you’ve got a stand available. When I use the Kindle – so light, so slim – I hardly notice the time spent with it. That’s the niche the Nexus fills – pocketable, at least in man-pockets and jackets, but still large enough to be meaningful. (though by no means is the Nexus slim or light like a Kindle – there’s some trade-off for the screen and usability…)

It is somewhat difficult to justify carrying around multiple devices that perform similar services – I think, for me, the Nexus fills a particular niche while commuting; while travelling, a Kindle would be my main device for reading while the iPad would be for more general web stuff. The 16:10 or so ratio of the Nexus provides a better view for watching movies etc, but it is awkward for widescreen browsing, vertical space a definite premium when the device is horizontal, and vice versa when vertical.

It would also appear I’m far too spoilt by retina class screens – between the latest iPad and iPhone, the relatively lower pixel density is obvious. It’s not so much of a problem with video, but with text it is extremely dependent on software rendering (Firefox is better than Chrome at text rendering, for instance).

Alphabetized Deserts

I’ve had a curiousity for Android from day 1, but somehow it had yet to attract me sufficiently to bring me to actually get an Android device. The phones were first bulky, then limited in capability, then limited in battery life – it’s only recently that a top of the line Android phone feels as well put together as an iPhone.

As for tablets, Android’s origin as a phone OS was clear up until very recently – the original Samsung Galaxy tab, similar in size to the Nexus, never quite jelled because the system tried to be driven as a large screen phone. With Jelly Bean, they’ve come some way to addressing these limitations, and now it feels like the OS at least understands that there’s more room to work with.

That said, it’s not as though the fundamental use language is any different – and in fact one of the most infuriating parts of the Nexus 7 is the fact that the home screen doesn’t turn sideways by default. You have to enable system-wide orientation detection – anyone familiar with tablets (read: iPads) will be very annoyed on first use that the system doesn’t orient itself horizontally. It’s not a good sign when the second thing I do after turning on a device is look up some basic functionality.

On the other hand, exploring the settings opens up a whole new world as far as iOS users are concerned – functionality like battery monitoring, memory & process management dev unlocking, native mounting… I can still claim something of a tinkerer/hacker mindset, and this instantly made me think of everything I’ve missed out on. A dedicated soft-button to switch apps? The tedious double-tap-home-to-switch mechanic on iOS now looks too complicated.

But then we get the other limitation: soft keys need the software to anticipate what you’re wanting to do. If I’m in the middle of a video or a game, I need to tap on the screen to get it to show me the soft button, and then it takes up formerly usable space. To unlock the screen, I specifically need to look for the power button – on the side ’round the back. I miss a home button: something on the front of the screen that tells me which way is up and something I can push any time to get a response.

The app experience also are somewhat… varied. The Play store does not make the distinction between the app types that the App Store does, or at least not to my knowledge; other than a couple of apps that seem to keep a distinction in mind, the design feels awfully like a one-size-fits-all principle has been followed. I don’t know whether there’s a switchable mode available to developers in the way it is available for iPad vs iPhone/iPod Touch, but that bundling of ‘HD’ and ‘standard’ mode apps is ingenious and something sorely missed here.

Twitter apps don’t make use of the extra space, browsers (other than Chrome) hide the tabs away to leave more room for content… little things that make the experience feel somewhat lacking. Where my first reaction to the iPad was “It’s just a large iPhone”, and I was proven soundly wrong, the Nexus 7 and its app experience doesn’t seem to be able to shake that impression.

A Challenger Appears

All this makes me sounds rather down on the device, perhaps – my overall impression though is that this a solid device, and one that establishes a standard for things to be judged from here on. I’m not a fan of ‘phablets’ – monstrosities that don’t quite know whether they’re trying to be a phone or tablet and fail at both. Battery life is solid, the display is very nice, and the design overall leaves me with the impression that this is a well built device. It’s not about to replace an iPad for me, not by a long shot, but as a middle device to use on a daily commute is far easier to pick up a Nexus 7 and play.

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