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Google Nexus 7 (32GB, HSPA+) review: Still the best small tablet

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The Good The Nexus 7 features a sharp screen, a comfortable design, and great battery life at a low starting price. Android 4.2 adds some welcome and useful features.

The Bad Android still needs more tablet-optimized apps, newer games have frame rate issues, and HSPA+ speeds seem particularly location-dependent.

The Bottom Line With its excellent design, useful software features, and low starting price, the Nexus 7 is the cheapest way to experience the best that the Android OS has to offer.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8

Several months after its debut, the Nexus 7 is still an excellent tablet. The 8GB version is gone and the tablet now starts at $199 for 16GB. Paying $249 nets you the 32GB version, and the 32GB version with HSPA+ is available for $299.

Since the debut of the Nexus 7, we've seen the release of three major small tablets: the Kindle Fire HD, the iPad Mini, and the Nook HD. Each tablet has its own strengths; your choice will eventually come down to which tablet best fits your needs.

However, thanks to its low price, great battery life, sharp screen, and complete and open Android 4.2 environment, overall, the Nexus 7 is still the best small tablet you can buy.

Aside from its new SIM card slot and slightly heavier weight, the Nexus 7 with HSPA+ is identical in look and feel to the original Wi-Fi-only version. It's yet another black tablet in a long line of black tablets; however, it does its best to break from the cookie-cutter mold of most slates. Chief among those efforts is a leathery, grippy back texture, similar to what we've seen on the Acer Iconia Tab A510, but with both "Nexus" and "Asus" embossed on it. It may not look like much, but this seemingly small bit of design panache makes the tablet one of the most comfortable I've ever held.

Then there's the bezel. Held in portrait mode, the right and left side bezels of the tablet are refreshingly thin, while the top and bottom are thicker than what I usually find on 7-inch tablets. While the thicker bezels can be useful as a place to rest your thumbs while holding the tablet, they are a bit too thick for my taste and make the tablet feel needlessly long.

Google Nexus 7 Amazon Kindle Fire HD Barnes & Noble Nook HD Apple iPad Mini
Weight in pounds 0.76 0.86 0.68 0.68
Width in inches (landscape) 7.8 7.7 7.65 7.87
Height in inches 4.7 5.4 5 5.3
Depth in inches 0.4 0.4 0.43 0.28
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.8 0.9 0.3/0.5

Speaking of holding, the Nexus 7 is noticeably lighter than the Kindle Fire HD, but isn't as wispy as the iPad Mini or Nook HD. It's the same thickness as the Fire HD and a bit thinner than the Nook HD, but it can't compete with the iPad Mini's slightness.

When the Nexus 7 is held in portrait mode and viewed from the front, the 1.2-megapixel front camera sitting in the middle of the top bezel is its lone distinguishable feature. On the right edge toward the top is the power/lock button, closely followed by the volume rocker. Following the right edge down and around to the bottom reveals a headphone jack, with a Micro-USB port in the middle of bottom edge. Right above that, on the back, is a horizontally aligned 2-inch-long speaker slit. The HSPA+ version of the tablet houses a SIM card slot in the middle of the left edge.

Enter the cellular option! Eric Franklin/CNET

That's it, though. No memory expansion, no HDMI-out, and no back camera. Their exclusion is likely a cost-saving measure, but this simplified design also serves to make the tablet that much more approachable for the tablet layman.

Android 4.0, the second
If you've seen Android 4.1 on the Wi-Fi version of the Nexus 7, visually you'll have a good idea of what to expect from version 4.2. It has the same controlled, focused feel and is less intimidating to the uninitiated than the typical Android tablet interface. It also feels less constrained than its original implementation.

The now-familiar tray on the bottom of the home screen is by default filled with Google services apps such as Play, Music, Books, YouTube, and Magazines. There's also a folder housing Chrome as well as Google Maps, Google Plus, Gmail, and other services. Directly in the middle of the tray is the apps button. Swiping up from the home button and across the apps button takes you to Google Now, Google's predictive personalized helper.

The apps tray now features smaller icons than before. Eric Franklin/CNET

Google Now uses voice recognition to field queries and displays information such as the current weather, local bus schedules, and nearby restaurants you may be interested in. The thought is that Google Now will give you information when you need it. If it's 5 p.m. and you're about to leave work, it will conceivably update you with traffic information without you having to fetch it. The information would just appear in Google Now at the right time. I've spent a few weeks using Google Now and while I can appreciate its value, since I walk to work, don't travel much, and am not really into sports, its usefulness to me is very limited.

The new new
There are quite a few new features in Android 4.2; some interesting and useful, others just kind of cool. First, the Gesture Type feature is Google's native OS answer to Swype. I'm not a Swype user, but I was impressed by Gesture Type's ability to accurately interpret my finger sliding and determine, for the most part, what I wanted to type. It did, however, have trouble with the word "badass," which is kind of unacceptable to me.

Tablet settings can now be accessed much more quickly. Simply swipe down from the top-right corner to reveal a tray of shortcuts, including brightness, Wi-Fi settings, general settings, battery life, airplane mode, and so on.

That smooth textured back kind of makes the Nexus 7's design. Eric Franklin/CNET

Magnification attempts to take advantage of the screen's 1,280x800-pixel resolution. After enabling in settings, if you tap the screen three times in quick succession, assets on the screen will magnify in the section where you tapped. This is different from zooming, which scales images and text and applies anti-aliasing to smooth things out. Magnify simply makes things bigger. It's a nice feature for those with poor eyesight, but I was disappointed by the lack of anti-aliasing.

Daydreams is essentially an interactive screensaver that plays when the tablet is asleep and charging. You can choose to display a clock, colors, jelly beans, or, my favorite implementation, Google Currents. Stories from your feed will slowly scroll across the screen, and tapping any of them opens the story in the Currents app.

Gmail gets a new design and a new, awesome feature. Awesome to me, at least. When viewing your inbox, you can now swipe messages away to archive them. As a person who gets a lot of spam in his inbox, this well-implemented addition is one of those details that seems small on paper, but makes a huge difference to your experience.

Thanks to its comfortable design and sharp screen, the Nexus 7 is one of the best e-readers out there. Eric Franklin/CNET

Multi screen
Multi Screen implements users accounts in Android 4.2. Simply add a new user from the Settings>Users menu and follow the steps to setup an additional user account. New user accounts and all content on those accounts can be deleted by the tablet owner (the primary account) at any time. Also, any other user accounts on the tablet can accept updated app permissions on behalf of the additional account.

To switch to a new user you're required to enter the lock screen, select the user icon and then unlock the tablet. This is a less elegant solution than the Nook HD's implementation of profiles which allows you to simply tap the user account at the top of the screen, select your new user, and watch your content change to the new user's content before your eyes.

Also, the Nook HD lets you to set up multiple child and adult profiles, allowing parents to have more than one administrative account. As far as I can tell, only one administrative account per tablet is allowed in Android 4.2.

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