Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tablet Wars: The Nexus 7

You may recall my glee in getting a Kindle Fire for Christmas. And glee it was - it was my first real tablet, it was quick, it was affordable, and it did most of what I needed it to do.

Sometimes, though, "most" can be a dealbreaker. That was the case with the Kindle Fire, as ultimately the lack of native Google Apps support, especially for someone who travels and uses those apps for work, made the entire experience difficult. Combine that with the Amazon Silk browser being super fast but having tremendous difficulty in web pages that required editing or text, and it was just getting frustrating.

Thankfully, the Google Nexus 7 landed last month. At a $199 price point, and with my Kindle Fire retaining significant resale value, it was pretty difficult to resist. The good news is that the Kindle Fire is still a great tablet. The better news is that the Nexus 7 is the best tablet I've ever used, and that includes my wife's iPad.

First, the specs. 7 inch screen, which is a perfect size for this. As you can see, it's super thin - the Kindle feels like a rather large brick in comparison to this thing. The buttons are all in one place, and not somewhere that the thing will randomly turn off, and with the 16gb or 32gb models, space really isn't a concern. I loaded it with a ton of Kindle books and used the Spotify app, and I still have a ton of space if I want to use it for games and such. It really looks sleek and sweet - I got a lot of questions from people on my business trips about it, and they were very impressed by the size and feel of the tablet.

A selling point for this is the Jellybean "Project Butter" initiative, to try and get things to run a lot more smoothly. I had a Droid X until recently running Honeycomb, and that tended to drag after a time. My wife and I upgraded to Galaxy SIIIs, and while those are fast and smooth, the Jellybean OS is still a significant improvement. Everything works seamlessly, and whatever it is I want to do on the tablet appears to get the job done. I'm not getting the functionality of the desktop that I prefer, but that's not the point. And, to its credit, after essentially being away from my desktop for two weeks, even that feels slow in comparison. Pretty significant.

The Google integration is top-notch, as you'd expect. Google Now is creepy impressive - I was in Charlotte and Orlando with a stop at home, and it synced that information up for weather reports for those days in the cities I'd be in. That's cool. Google Docs works great, GMail is integrated perfectly, even Google Talk is a pleasant experience for the first time, well, ever. You can see my Wonder Woman wallpaper in the top image - it pulled that from my Google Account that is linked to Fruitless Pursuits, which was kind of mind-blowing in that simple way. Often it's the little things that impress me the most about technology, and the Nexus 7 is really no different in that regard, especially when it comes to apps.

Even better are a lot of the non-Google Apps. In what might be the greatest condemnation for the Kindle Fire, the Kindle App for the Nexus 7 is a better experience than the Kindle reader on the Fire. While the Fire is supposed to be a multimedia app from start to finish, you'd think that the book app would be the bread and butter, but alas. Also, Comixology is a much better experience on the Nexus 7, and it appears it may have a better catalog available as well. Netflix is great as well, the Nook app is servicable, and with a native Facebook app (something the Kindle Fire did not have at the time I got rid of it), the hell that is Facebook is more pleasant to navigate in tablet form.

Battery life is also impressive. I've been a mess the last month or so, and fractured my foot in a dodgeball game, so I've spent a lot more time on the couch as opposed to a desk chair, and with moderate evening use of mail, Twitter, Facebook, Google Docs, and Google Reader, a charge lasts 2-3 nights worth. The Kindle Fire had slightly less battery life, but it wasn't a dealbreaker by any measure.

Now the downsides a bit. My Nexus 7 did arrive with a slight broken screen - essentially, the glass for the screen was lifting on the left hand side. To Google's credit, they got me a new tablet almost immediately, but by the way the guy on the phone was talking, it sounds like a common problem. Be aware of it. Also, we're early in its shelf life, but the widgets leave a lot to be desired. I put an ESPN scoreboard widget on my home page, and the minute I opened the tablet without Wi-Fi, the thing permanently broke. Not fun. The Google Reader widgets aren't great, either, and with no good Kindle or Nook widgets at this time, it limits customization ability. Finally, the case situation is terrible - the Google Play store rarely has the "official" case in stock when I'm looking for it, and with no shipping options, it's effectively asking me to pay a 25% shipping charge for a lightweight piece of plastic. It's unfortunate. I have a soft, but bulky, leather protective case for travel, but when I'm using the Nexus 7, I typically take it out.

Overall, as I said, the Nexus 7 is the best tablet I've had an opportunity to play with. As the iPad Mini is set to be announced in the next couple weeks, the Nexus 7 - especially for the value, never mind the experience - may be a better alternative for people looking for a tablet and who are married to (or at least dating) the Google experience. I have no regrets whatsoever, and I think it's worth a very close look, if not an outright purchase.

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