Google Nexus 7 (32GB, HSPA+) review:

Still the best small tablet

Lock screen
"More information on lock screens!" is what Android fans have demanded for years. Actually, I don't know if that's true, but that's what Google is delivering anyway. Now you can add multiple email inboxes, calendars, and clocks to the lock screen. You can also add a widget called "What's this song?", which is a song identifier added to Android in 4.0, now quickly available on your lock screen.

The widget will listen to a song (either playing on the device or from another device and within seconds identify said song and conveniently provide you with a link to the Google Play store to purchase it. I can see this being useful at times, but it's definitely a weird choice for the lock screen.

Play's better, but...
Over the last several months, the Google Play store has improved by leaps and bounds in not only the quantity of its offerings, but also their relative quality. However, compared with Apple's App Store, Play is still lacking in apps that take particular advantage of the increased processing power, higher resolution, and wide aspect ratio of tablets. Also, aside from the most popular apps (like Angry Birds), Android releases of some of the best apps can lag months or more behind their iPad counterparts and are often of lower quality. Google is attempting to rectify this, but I'd love to see it happen faster.

Hardware features
The Nexus 7 houses a 1.3GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and 1GB of RAM. It also has 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi support, Bluetooth, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, GPS, and support for Google's NFC-based technology, Android Beam.

With Android Beam you can send Web pages, maps, and files, but not apps, to a compatible Android device. To work, the two devices have to touch back-to-back, and in the case of the Nexus 7, the device must touch the upper-right corner of the other tablet's back to work. And work it does. Web pages or maps travel quickly; pictures and larger files obviously take a bit more time to copy over.

Offerings in the Google Play store have vastly improved since this time last year. Eric Franklin/CNET

The Nexus 7 sports a 1,280x800-pixel-resolution IPS screen; however, since its original release, two new 7-inch tablets with more impressive screens have launched. The Nexus 7's screen is still sharp and bright, but the Kindle Fire HD delivers a glossier, more vibrant screen with colors that pop much more dramatically. The Nook HD has an even higher resolution, delivering even sharper text and video. The Nexus 7, though, outclasses the iPad Mini's screen's 1,024x768-pixel resolution and delivers sharper text and images than Apple's 7.9-inch tablet.

Tested spec Google Nexus 7 Amazon Kindle Fire HD Barnes & Noble Nook HD
Maximum brightness 288 cd/m2 394 cd/m2 455 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.28 cd/m2 0.41 cd/m2 0.53 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 1,028:1 960:1 858:1

The Nexus 7's screen is responsive to touch and swipe, but possibly could use just a bit more sensitivity calibration, as some of my swipes would only half take. Navigating through menus is still smooth and swift, bringing very little of the navigational wonkiness that most Android tablets inherit.

Riptide GP ran smoothly, and, of course, it includes the Tegra 3 water-splash effects; however, the frame rate does drop when the resolution is cranked to max.

This speaks to my feeling that the 1.3GHz version of the Tegra 3 processor is beginning to show its age. I looked at two recent graphics-intensive games from Gameloft, N.O.V.A. 3 and Asphalt 7, and saw fair to poor performance on the Nexus 7 at times. While Asphalt 7's frame rate is lower here than on other Tegra 3 tablets, it's still very playable. The Nexus 7 has trouble keeping up with N.O.V.A. 3's heavily dense polygonal environments, however, and as a result runs at a very low, sometimes unplayable framerate. On the other hand, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, another recent, graphically impressive game, played much more smoothly. Hopefully Gameloft will update its games with optimizations that deliver improved frame rates soon.

Yeah, I know, screenshots are terrible at representing low frame rates, but trust me, playing this sequence in N.O.V.A. 3 was like watching a slideshow. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

That said, Tegra 3 has video chops. I got a 1080p movie to play on the tablet, and it looked great, especially with the screen's high pixel density.

Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.

Video battery life (in hours)
Google Nexus 7 (Wi-Fi only) 10.3
Google Nexus 7 (3G) 9

HSPA+ speeds
For $299, the Nexus 7 is available with 32GB of storage and an HSPA+ connection. You can choose either a prepaid or postpaid AT&T DataConnect plan with no long-term contract. The tablet is also compatible with AT&T's Share Plans, which let you share usage across devices.

Android 4.2 includes a new feature that allows you to swipe through similar music as songs stream to your device. Screenshot: Eric Franklin/CNET

HSPA+ is like an "uber 3G" or "4G light," and the technology's performance on the Nexus 7 reflects that. While 4G LTE devices are known to rival Wi-Fi networks in speed, downloading a 272MB app on the Nexus 7 using HSPA+ with full bars took about twice as long (4.7 minutes versus 2.5 minutes) as it did with the Nexus 7 connected to a secure Wi-Fi network. Also, download performance seemed to be particularly location-dependent. From about 100 feet away, again with full bars, the Nexus 7 using HSPA+ took over 11 minutes to complete the download. Your performance of course will vary, depending on location.

For some, simply the inclusion of a cellular connection will be worth the extra $50. Speaking of which, paying an extra $50 (over the $249 Wi-Fi version) is a much better deal than the $130 more Apple and Amazon charge for 4G LTE versions of the iPad Mini and Kindle Fire HD 8.9, receptively. Make no mistake, 4G is demonstrably faster than HSPA+, but whether it's worth the extra cash some companies are charging is up to you to determine.

Thanks to some of the new features in Android 4.2, the Nexus 7 gets mostly better with age, but should you buy it? While that decision will depend on what your needs are, the Nexus 7 is still the overall best small tablet.

The Kindle Fire HD has a better screen and excels as a pure media consumption device, especially if you're an Amazon Prime member. The Nook HD's higher-resolution screen delivers sharper movies and books, and its thin, grippy design makes it a joy to hold.

The Nexus 7 delivers with a low price, a comfortable design, and its trump card: the latest and greatest version of Android. Android 4.2 seamlessly builds on version 4.1 with useful features like multiuser, lock screen customization, and Gesture Type. It's also a complete and open Android experience, and unlike the Fire HD and Nook HD, the Nexus 7 features a full, uncurated apps store.

But, what about the iPad Mini? Would it sound like a cop-out if I say it's a toss-up? Probably, but there's no escaping that these are two of the best small tablets yet produced, though again, it will depend on your needs. The Nexus 7 represents the best that Android has to offer at a very attractive price. The iPad Mini is more expensive, but offers a larger if lower-resolution screen, better apps support, faster performance, and longer battery life. Both are excellent tablets. The iPad is overall the better performer, but the Nexus 7 edges past it in value. And given that it's a better value, the Nexus 7 wins the crown as the current best small tablet.

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