Google Nexus 7 review: Google Nexus 7

Google Nexus 7 screenshot
Jelly Bean offers multiple home screens for you to fill with your favourite apps and widgets.

If you're familiar with Android, you won't feel out of place here. The usual multiple home screens are present for you to fill with apps and live widgets. You can dive into larger grids of apps to view the ones you don't want displayed on your home pages. Google has kept the interface fairly straightforward but has made some changes aimed at making it a viable Kindle Fire rival.

Firstly, the row of icons at the bottom of each home page has been littered with shortcuts to your books, movies and music libraries, saving you the effort of digging them out from the app grids. There's also direct access to the Chrome browser, the Google Play store and a handy folder full of Google apps like Gmail, Google Plus and YouTube. Of course, these free apps can be downloaded and placed within quick reach on any Android tablet but it's nice to have them so close to hand as standard.

Google has slapped some big widgets on the home page to show off your library and recommended content, which you'll either find handy or annoying, depending on how used to Android you are already. They're easily removed by pressing and holding and dragging them to the Remove icon.

Pressing and holding was once the way you'd also pop new widgets down onto the home page, but doing that on the Nexus only brings up the option to change the wallpaper. If you'd like to put anything else down, navigate to the apps and widgets list and select what you want. Perhaps Google thinks this is a more logical way to operate and will help new users quickly customise their tablet, but I think forcing someone to dive into an extra menu is counter-productive.

Google Nexus 7 screenshot
Instead of pressing and holding on a home screen, you'll find widgets in pages with your apps.

It's also no longer possible to view the home pages in landscape orientation. If you've been busy playing Minecraft in landscape and quickly navigate back to the home screen, you'll need to flip it back around. It's likely this has been done to ensure you always get the same view every time you return to the home screen. It's not going to be a huge problem for most people but I think it's a little odd to remove this function.

Swiping around the home screens and loading menus is a very smooth affair. This is not just due to the powerful quad-core processor lurking under the hood, but also because of something Google calls Project Butter, which increases the frame rate of the screen to 60 frames per second. As a result, transitions look delicious and a whole lot better than the often stuttery attempts seen on similarly-priced slates.

It's not just the interface that's been tweaked. The notifications bar has also been given a boost. When you get a new message or an app needs to tell you something, an alert appears in your notifications bar. Previously, notifications wouldn't tell you much, but they now have a lot more info packed in. Each alert expands as it reaches the top of the list, or you can expand any notification with a two-finger gesture. Once they're expanded, you see the actual message or update rather than just a one-line alert.

For example, calendar alerts let you email everybody in the meeting with a pre-programmed response if you're running late, while photos appear as thumbnails and can be shared to Google Plus from the notifications bar, without opening the app. These alerts can be dismissed in one tap to clear them out of the way. If you've got a bunch of stuff waiting for your attention, it's a very quick and easy way to fly through them all without having to open a different app for each item.

Google Now

A swish new feature of Jelly Bean is Google Now. It's a service that tailors info specifically for you based on your location and your tablet search habits.

Rather than using an app icon, you're required to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to access Google Now. You'll then be met with a search bar, your local weather information and a card showing nearby restaurants. The idea is Google Now will eventually learn your movements and habits and offer advice based on them.

Google Nexus 7 screenshot
The first things you'll see on Google Now is your local weather and nearby restaurants -- perfect if you're peckish.

For example, if Tuesday mornings usually see you scuttling across town to a meeting, Google Now will be able to bring up a handy reminder beforehand, complete with directions and traffic information to your location without you needing to search for it. If you're near a train station or a bus stop, it's able to give you live departures information.

Google Now also knows what you like just by your searches. You don't even need to tell your tablet which team you support -- it works that out from your searches and gives you up-to-date news about your team. There are 10 'cards' showing different types of info at the moment, but Google promises it's already in the process of creating more, so Google Now could become more handy down the line.

While the live traffic service does seem particularly useful when you're on your way to a meeting, it's not going to be much use on the Nexus 7 as it doesn't have 3G data. As soon as you leave your Wi-Fi connection, you won't be able to see the updates. Google Now seems like it will be a much more useful service when it eventually comes to smart phones.

Voice control

Jelly Bean boasts an update to Android's voice control service, promising better recognition and improved answers to whatever random nonsense pops into your head. I took it for a spin and found that the updates had in fact made it more usable, even recognising my northern, Yorkshire twang.

When I asked, "Where's the pub?" it immediately brought up a snapshot of the local map and highlighted the pub that was right outside our office -- a perfect result for a pint in a panic. It's also a good deal better than iOS's Siri , which is not yet able to search for businesses in the UK, although this is something that's being addressed in iOS 6 in the autumn.

Google Nexus 7 screenshot
With its support for UK businesses, Android can tell you exactly where your nearest drink is to be found.

I had a similarly positive result when I asked, "What's the weather like in Barcelona?" The device immediately brought up a five-day forecast and read aloud the current weather.

It's not free from quirks though. When I asked, "Where is the nearest petrol station?" it started well by showing my current location at our office in south London, but oddly decided that that the nearest station was 11 miles away in west London. Interestingly, I don't live far from the location it chose and I had taken the Nexus home with me several times, so I suspect it was trying to be clever and was expecting me to be driving back that way.

Google Nexus 7 screenshot
An 11-mile drive isn't exactly what I'd call a 'nearby' for a petrol station, especially if I'm running low on fuel.

Still, I did ask it where the nearest petrol station was, and I can't really consider an 11-mile trek to be nearby, so I'm chalking that up as a fail. It managed much better with, "How do I get to the Tate?" which immediately brought up the Maps app with directions from CNET UK Towers to the nearby Tate Modern gallery. Much better.

Google Nexus 7 screenshot
It proved more useful in directing me to the Tate Modern, although it's only around the corner.

Books, movies and apps

To help you enjoy your tablet as fully as possible, Google has whacked in shortcuts on the home bar to its books, movies and music sections of the Google Play store. Thankfully, they're rather easy to use. A quick tap on the book icon will immediately bring up your library, letting you browse through titles you already own and head over to the store to get more.

Google Nexus 7 screenshot
Your books are clearly displayed and you can hit the Google Play store icon to find more titles.

The store is a lot neater now than it used to be, letting you search by category, by new releases and by most popular. There's also a free section if you're desperate for literary treats but don't have any cash. When you click to purchase a book, it will immediately download and save to your library.

Google Nexus 7 screenshot
The Google Play store lets you browse by category, most popular or even look at what's available for free. It's all very easy.

Getting movies is a similarly easy process. Hit the icon and take a browse at films and videos already in your library -- including any personal videos you've transferred onto it. Hit the Play store button and you can browse what else is on offer. Although you can't yet buy films to own, there is quite a selection to rent.

These range from £1.49 -- the price to rent garden ornament-based animated comedy Gnomeo & Juliet in standard definition -- up to the more pricey £4.49 for Nazi-moon-nonsense Iron Sky in high definition. When you've downloaded the film, you have three days to watch it. Once you've pressed go, you have 48 hours to complete the film, so pick your times well.

Google Nexus 7 screenshot
Browsing for movies is simple but you'll have to make sure you have plenty of time to watch whatever you rent before it expires.

Other than its Books and Movies services and, of course, the other Google standard services, Gmail and YouTube, the Nexus hasn't been loaded up with much. Thankfully, you have full access to the Google Play store for all the app downloading you could want.

From there you can get Facebook and Twitter -- both have been updated recently, making them slightly more usable on touchscreen devices. Moreover, there are hundreds of thousands of social networking, productivity, shopping or gaming apps to pick from.

The Gmail and Google calendar apps are particularly easy to get to grips with for novice users as they sync easily with the Google account you register your device with. Once you pop in the necessary information, you can choose to automatically sync your email, calendars, contacts and even your Google Plus photos to the tablet. This saves you precious time in not having to input the same details on all the apps individually.

Power and performance

It's not just about the software on board though -- after all, what's the point in having all this fancy functionality if the tablet itself is too weak to power any of it?

To make sure it's got enough grunt to tackle the essentials, Asus has stuffed the rubberised shell with an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and 1GB of RAM. That's the same quad-core processor found in tablet beasts like the £500 Asus Transformer Prime , which I've found to be extremely powerful. So I was very keen to find out exactly what the Nexus is capable of -- especially as it costs several hundred pounds less than the Prime.

To see how it stacks up against its tablet competition, I booted up the Geekbench 2 benchmark test and was given a score of 1,536, which I was extremely impressed with. By comparison, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 -- also a 7-inch slate -- offered only 409 on the same test and comes at a higher price than the Nexus. So in terms of power, Google's own offering seems to offer considerably better value.

Google Nexus 7 screenshot
The Nexus 7 provided blistering results on the benchmark tests, putting it up there with the tablet elite like the Transformer Prime.

It performed similarly well on the CF-Bench test, where it scored 11,716. To put that into perspective, it managed to beat the £350 Sony Tablet S, which only achieved 5,399 on the same test. It even topped the Prime, which notched up 10,764. In terms of raw scores then, the Nexus 7 comes across as being an extremely potent little thing, and that's exactly how I found it to be in everyday use.

Swiping around the home screens was wonderful -- helped along by Project Butter -- and there was no visible lag when clicking on icons and having the apps open. Menus were swift to navigate and opening the multi-task bar to switch between live apps was instant and didn't trouble the little slate in the slightest.

The same was true when I used numerous apps at once. Even when I had several apps operating in the background -- including playing music in Spotify -- I still found it was able to switch between browser tabs in Chrome without hesitation. There's nothing worse than seeing a device severely struggle to put up with the tasks you really want it to do, but at no point was I in doubt that it was capable.

Google Nexus 7 screenshot
It's easily able to handle running numerous apps at once and switching between them using the multi-tasking bar was very responsive.

It handled 3D games well too, with Blood & Glory -- Android's answer to Infinity Blade -- rendered extremely smoothly, without the lag and stuttering that tells of a struggling processor. Swiping my finger across the screen to slash my opponent with the sword remained responsive and immediate at all times -- very satisfying.

Conclusion

The Google Nexus 7 might not be the most attractively designed tablet money can buy, but it's packed to the gills with high-performance components, a high-resolution screen and the latest Android Jelly Bean software.

It manages to offer enough power to keep even hardcore gadget geeks happy, while also being user-friendly enough for tech novices to get to grips with. Despite minor gripes such as the lack of a microSD card slot and no 3G connectivity, such an affordable price tag means it's very difficult to fault.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Wireless Connectivity IEEE 802.11g
  • Weight 340 g
  • Type Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean)
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