Why the Nexus 7 succeeded where others failed

The Nexus 7 is the most popular pure Android tablet. Did it get there simply by way of its low price, or is there a more complex explanation?

I've been using this photo for Nexus 7 blogs for about a year now, because, like the tablet, it's still the best, despite its age.
Josh Miller/CNET

The Nexus 7 is the most popular pure Android tablet available. How do I know? Well, data compiled by Handset Detective and a bit of clever maths by analyst Ben Evans are certainly strong indicators. But also, everyone and their mother seems to have one. Especially in the U.S., but other markets have also been strong supporters.

I'd even say that the Nexus 7 deserves a decidedly corpulent chunk of credit for giving the overall Android tablet market a boost. Yes, Amazon found success with the first version of the Kindle Fire, but the lack of expected tablet features (no camera, no volume button) and an intentionally closed-off OS left those looking to do something more than watch movies, TV shows, or read books unsatisfied.

So why has the Nexus 7 (deftly built by Asus) found so much success where other Android tablets seemingly haven't? (Remember the $400 7-inch Springboard? Neither do most.) Short answer: it's nearly a perfect combination of power, design, and features at a relatively low price, and as such is the first tablet to really get the whole high-quality/low-price tablet thing right. The long answer is a bit more complicated than that, so let's dive right in.

It's fast (enough)

The Nexus 7 houses the Tegra 3 system-on-chip, which includes a quad-core CPU and a 12-core GPU. That's enough horsepower to smoothly run the latest Android games while rendering 1,024,000 pixels (1,280x800 resolution). It's a fast chip by tablet standards, but even at the tablet's launch, it wasn't the fastest. Also, while apps load fast, they don't load superfast. Just fast enough that it doesn't test the patience of most users.

So while it may not win any benchmark contests, it also won't leave you staring impatiently at your screen for long periods of time, twiddling your thumbs while you wait for a large app to load.

No, it's not console quality, but the Nexus 7's performance is nothing to shake a phased plasma rifle at. Eric Franklin/CNET

Lesson learned: The Nexus 7 was never the most powerful tablet -- the third-generation iPad had it beat at launch, as did the Transformer Prime -- but it didn't have to be. It simply utilized high-quality components (in this case: a pretty powerful CPU/GPU combo, fast RAM, and an optimized OS), resulting in apps that opened quickly, games that ran smoothly, and Web pages that downloaded with all due haste. If a tablet can manage that, most users will walk away with a positive impression and will likely tell their friends when the time comes.

Its screen is densely packed

With pixels, that is. Screen quality is one of those things difficult to appreciate before experiencing an actual quality screen. And by "quality screen," I simply mean one that delivers sharp images and wide viewing angles, so no matter which angle you view the screen from, you can still clearly see its contents. The Nexus 7 features a 1,280x800-pixel resolution, equaling 216 pixels per inch (ppi). The in-plane switching (IPS) panel delivers the wide viewing angles.

The Nexus 7 makes for one of the best reading experiences you can have, this side of a dedicated e-reader. Eric Franklin/CNET

Recently some 7-inch tablets (like the HP Slate 7 and the Asus Memo Pad ME172V) have cropped up looking to get a piece of the Nexus 7's success. But while these upstarts feature lower prices, they make the mistake of not taking screen quality as seriously. The ostensible thought is that a cheaper screen will cut down on costs, making for a more appealing overall package. At least from a price perspective.

But the vast majority of your interactions with a tablet are conducted through its screen. So you look at it. A lot. And while your eyes may eventually adapt to the lower resolution, as more apps get released that take advantage of high resolutions, you might eventually find yourself pining for something sharper.

Of course, resolution won't be as important to everyone, but I'm willing to bet that people who are tech savvy enough to even know what a Nexus 7 is will also appreciate its screen clarity. With the advent of HDTV, Blu-ray, and computer monitors and laptop screens that feature a minimum resolution of 1,280x720, we're quickly getting to a point where jagged images stand out to us. Even if rough text on a tablet screen doesn't necessarily bother us, today we're much more likely to notice it than we were just a few years ago.

The Nexus 7's screen was demonstrably better than the screens on most other 7-inch tablets at the time of release, and that was enough to be impressive at launch. It's certainly not as impressive now, but again, like its performance, it was good enough to deliver smooth text and images. Which is essentially what users want from their screens.

It rolls with the latest version of Android, always

The Nexus 7 shipped with Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) and was continually updated whenever a new version of the OS was released. The 4.1 update marked a vast improvement over the previous version of the OS, with smoother performance, more-accurate typing, a Siri-like voice assistant, and Google Now.

The tablet's release also coincided with the addition of movies, TV shows, and magazines to Google Play. Not to mention an app store that was growing in both quality and quantity.

Compared with Android 4.0, Jelly Bean's home screen felt much more focused, with iOS-like app arrangement while retaining the customizations Android has always been known for.

Android 4.2's settings shortcut menu is one of those small, but effective additions. Eric Franklin/CNET

For a good while the Nexus 7 was the only place you could access these exclusive Android features. And the trend has only continued. Google tablets (including the Nexus 10) still serve as guinea pigs for the latest version of Android, sometimes including new features and performance improvements months before another tablet catches up. That's powerful, useful support you don't get on non-Google Android tablets.

It's extremely comfy

Google and Asus got the Nexus 7's design right. Not perfect (I still feel that the bezel's too narrow), but right. It's no-frills, light, and (thanks to that glorious leather backside) comfortable. There are no jagged edges and no additions that could make using it more complicated for novice users.

Ahhh, so comfy. Eric Franklin/CNET
There's really not that much more to say about its design, and it's that inherent simplicity that makes it work. Nexus 7's designers knew what was important to include and what wasn't and applied that knowledge to appeal to the widest audience possible. It's not that ports are a bad idea; both microSD and HDMI can be incredibly useful on a tablet. However, rather than stuffing the Nexus 7 with too many physical bells and whistles, the designers went for an overall aesthetic and practical elegance that few tablets have come close to topping.

Priced to move

And move it has, if the numbers above are to be believed. Yep, the single most important reason that the Nexus 7 succeeded was its low price, but that price doesn't work unless the rest of its components are sound.

It's $200 for what was at the time the most powerful 7-inch tablet available, but there were a number of other factors. Chief among them was that the market was primed and ready. Before the Nexus 7, I found it difficult to strongly recommend a 7-inch tablet. They weren't bad, just not exceptional and were usually overpriced.

A whole year after the Nexus 7's release, however, and there's still no hesitation. When I'm asked what the best small tablet is, the answer flows from my lips with ease.

Other 7-inchers included more physical features, but at the end of the day, it didn't matter that the Nexus 7 didn't have a back camera, that it had no microSD or HDMI ports, or that you couldn't use the front camera for anything other than video chat. The bottom line was that you were getting a capable tablet with a high-res screen and a kick-ass version of Android you couldn't find on any other tablet. All for only $200.

Success in a nutshell, and the next Nexus

Of the five reasons I've given above, price is the one I've isolated as the main argument for the Nexus 7's success. However, and I want to make this point crystal clear: slapping a low price on just any old thing and expecting consumers to gobble it up will only lead to disappointment. And there are plenty of cheap but terrible tablets that can attest to this.

Consumers are becoming more savvy by the day, and there needs to be a minimum level of quality met by each device. The Nexus 7 raised the quality bar, and a year later few tablets have been able to reach it. And next week we could see the bar raised to even more-dizzying heights.

Rumors point to Google I/O (May 15 through 17) as the stage where the next version of the Nexus 7 will debut. While no one outside of Google knows or is officially allowed to say anything about its next 7-inch tablet, it's highly likely the company won't deviate too far from its previous success formula. That is, release a powerful, comfortable tablet with a feature-rich easy-to-use OS and a robust app ecosystem for a relatively low price.

If Google can do that -- and by "do that" I mean "do that" by 2013 standards -- we should all be in for something worthwhile.