In 2008, when the Eee PC was revolutionizing the computing world and driving every manufacturer to make cheaper and smaller laptops, Sony washed its hands of the whole thing. The "race to the bottom," the company said, would profoundly impact the industry, killing profit margins and flooding the market with cheap, terrible machines. Sony was wrong, its stance lasting about a year before joining the competition with its own VAIO W.
Four years on we're buying better laptops than ever before and, with the netbook class now more or less dead, that downward competition seems to have shifted to the tablet front. A flood of cheap, truly awful slates preceded Amazon's Kindle Fire, the $200 tablet from a major brand that looks to have been the proper catalyst in plunging prices. The latest challenger to enter the competition is ASUS, partnering with Google to create the first Nexus tablet, a device that not only will amaze with its MSRP, but with its quality. It's called the Nexus 7, it too is $200, and it's better than Amazon's offering in every way but one.%Gallery-159346%
Though that low cost is the big talking point about this tablet, you'd certainly never know it just by holding the thing. Okay, so there's more polycarbonate than panache here, but the design of the Nexus 7 feels reasonably high-end, starting with that rubberized back. Yes, it is rubber, but it's very nicely textured, nice enough to fool one tech journalist into thinking it was leather.
Though the cost is the big talking point about this tablet, you'd certainly never know it just by holding the thing.
No cow shed its skin to cover the back of this tablet, of that we can assure you, but the dimpled pattern here is not unlike the sort you might find on leather-wrapped racecar steering wheels. While there's no MOMO logo to be found, the feel is much the same and, we presume, rather more durable. There are two other logos to be found, though, starting with the Nexus branding embossed in big letters on the top, with a much smaller ASUS graphic on the bottom. That's it, though: understated and sophisticated. Just how we like it. (Even the FCC logo and other noise are on a piece of plastic you can easily peel off.) There's also no camera lens poking out here, as the 1.2-megapixel shooter up front is all you get.
Move further down toward the bottom of the back and you'll find the device's single speaker. It's a slit that runs roughly two-thirds of the way across the back, centered and sitting about a half-inch above the bottom -- which is, by the way, where you'll find the tablet's only ports. Centered down there is a micro-USB connector and, to the far right side when looking at the display, the 3.5mm headphone jack. That's it. Thankfully, ASUS's proprietary connector found on the Transformer tablets doesn't make an appearance here, but neither do we get a dedicated HDMI output, which is a bit of a bummer. (
You can, of course, use an MHL adapter if you like.)
On the left edge of the device, similar dock contacts to those found on the Galaxy Nexus can be found, presumably waiting to be tickled by some future accessory, while up top you'll find ... nothing. Just the silvery ring that runs around the full device. It looks like brushed metal, but feels more like plastic. Even so, the tablet has a very sturdy, strong feel to it -- but that's partly thanks to it being just a little bit chunky.
It measures 10.45mm (0.41 inches) thick, which is just half a millimeter thinner than the Kindle Fire -- itself no slender belle. But, crucially, it weighs much less: 340g (12 ounces) versus 413g (14.6 ounces) for the Fire. That's a very noticeable difference and it makes the Nexus 7 much nicer to carry around. Its curved edges, too, make it far more comfortable.
On the inside is an NVIDIA Tegra 3 quad-core processor running at 1.2GHz (though it can step up to 1.3GHz when it wants to) and paired with 1GB of RAM with either eight or 16 gigs of flash storage (doubling the capacity will cost you a $50 premium). As there's no microSD expansion here, you'll probably want to pay the extra cash. WiFi (802.11b/g/n) is your only option for data connectivity, though there's naturally Bluetooth and NFC, not to mention GPS, an accelerometer, a digital compass and a gyroscope, too.
Display and sound
Budget tablets typically make the biggest sacrifices on the display front, and certainly the 1,024 x 600 resolution on the Kindle Fire feels a bit constricting at this point. Not so with the Nexus 7, which is fronted by a very nice 1,280 x 800 IPS panel rated at 400 nits of brightness. While more pixels is always better -- the new iPad and its Retina display having made us yearn for ridiculously high resolutions in all our devices -- WXGA feels perfectly adequate here. Text is rendered very well and 720p videos look great.
Much of that, though, is thanks to the other, less quantifiable aspects of the screen. Viewing angles are top-notch, with contrast staying strong regardless of which side you're coming from. And, it's plenty bright, too, a properly nice screen that, like everything else here, is just a little nicer than you'd expect given the cost.
Audio, however, isn't exactly fighting above its class. The speakers integrated in the back and peeking out through a slender slit toward the bottom deliver a decent amount of sound that isn't too unpleasant to listen to. It passes the "loud enough to fill a hotel room" test but the quality at those levels will leave you reaching for your earbuds.
Performance and battery life
When Jen-Hsun Huang teased Tegra 3-powered tablets would drop under $200 this summer he obviously knew what was coming, but what we didn't know was just how far back those tablets would have to be scaled to make that price point. If you've been reading all the way through to here (and we love you for it) you'll know we haven't yet found a real compromise made to achieve that price. Compromises will not be found in this section, either.
Okay, so a 35-second boot time does leave a little bit to be desired, but once you're inside the OS, applications load quickly and respond briskly, even graphics-heavy ones like the Google Play magazine app. Webpages are rendered promptly and swiping through them is snappy. Sure, there are the occasional stutters and hiccups here that even a coating of Butter doesn't completely eliminate, but we've experienced those with even the top-shelf tablets, like the recent Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 with its 1.7GHz version of the Tegra 3 processor.
If benchmarks are to be believed, this little guy actually performs better than its bigger brothers.
ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700
ASUS Transformer Prime
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)
GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps)
SunSpider: lower scores are better
Since there were plenty of people freaking out about the new iPad getting warm when gaming and doing other intensive tasks we'll point out briefly that the Nexus 7 was noticeably increasing in temperature as these benchmarks cooked away. But, at no point did it become disconcertingly hot. Just a little toasty.
Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7
Apple iPad 2
Acer Iconia Tab A510
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime
10:17 / 16:34 (keyboard dock)
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
Apple iPad (2012)
9:52 (HSPA) / 9:37 (LTE)
Apple iPad (2011)
ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity TF700
9:25 / 14:43 (keyboard dock)
Toshiba Excite 10
Motorola Xoom 2
Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1
ASUS Transformer Pad TF300
8:29 / 12:04 (keyboard dock)
And of course a tablet is only good for as long as you can use the thing, and we were quite impressed by the longevity here. We came within spitting distance of 10 hours on a charge using out standard rundown test, which has the tablet connected on WiFi and looping a video endlessly. That's very, very good for a budget 7-incher and bests many bigger, more expensive slates.
The Nexus 7 is the first device shipping with Android 4.1. We'll defer to our full review of Jelly Bean for full impressions, as it's far too much to get into here, but there are a few aspects of the latest additions to Android that are worth pointing out.
Like those magazine subscriptions we mentioned above, for example. The Play Magazines app is a perfectly respectable reader that has a great selection of content and very smooth performance. While pinch-to-zoom is quite fluid, thanks to the reasonably high-res screen you won't necessarily have to do so as often as you might on the Fire. That's because text is clear and readable if you still have the eyesight to match -- though should you want something a bit easier to parse there's a handy text view.
In terms of pricing, though, we found many magazines to be slightly more expensive here than they are on the Fire. Music, too, tends to cost a dollar or two more per album than what Amazon offers in its MP3 download store. Thankfully, since all that music is DRM-free, there's nothing stopping you from loading up your tablet with what you've bought elsewhere. Nothing, at least, other than the somewhat limited amount of internal storage.
You can finally uninstall that ancient Chrome to Phone plugin.
And then, of course, there's the new stock browser, Chrome. Not a lot has changed since our first impressions a few months ago, so it's still a nice step up from the boring, old Browser app on previous versions of Android. Rendering performance is generally good, and the ability to import open tabs from a desktop browsing session is very handy, indeed. You can finally uninstall that ancient Chrome to Phone plugin.
The Nexus 7 is an amazing package for something that costs a penny less than $200. It feels like something that could sell for much more. It has a great screen, solid performance and a clean, clear, uncluttered version of Google's latest operating system, Jelly Bean. From a pure hardware standpoint it beats the Kindle in every way possible -- except for content. Amazon's selection almost always trumps that of Google's, both in terms of variety and cost, but that's one wonderful problem to have, because almost all of that content is just as available on the Nexus 7 as it is on the Fire. The only major exception is Amazon Instant Video, and with Netflix, we can live with that.
So, while we tend to prefer larger tablets that better differentiate themselves from phones, if you've been toying with the idea of getting a real Android slate but didn't want to spend big bucks for a big device, this is what you've been waiting for. This is the best Android tablet for less than $200 and the best budget 7-inch tablet on the market. For the moment. The race to the bottom in the tablet space is, after all, just getting started and, if the Nexus 7 is any indication of what's to come, we're in for a very good ride.
Update: We received some bogus information on the MHL. We've now confirmed that the Nexus 7 does not support MHL, meaning there's no way to connect this over HDMI to get video output.