Behold: the Nexus 7 2.0. The latest iteration of Google's small tablet takes everything we loved about the original and improves on it, all without adding much to the price. Google and ASUS -- the OEM in charge of designing the new device -- whipped up the first Nexus 7 in just four months, an impressive feat for any company tasked with building a quality product. This go-round, the two tech giants had much more time to perfect the device, which bodes well for the quality here, we'd say.
On first glance, the new Nexus certainly bears an obvious resemblance to its predecessor, but closer inspection shows that ASUS actually made a few significant changes. Weighing 10.23 ounces (290g) for the WiFi-only model and 10.55 ounces (299g) for the LTE version, it's quite a bit lighter than the first edition, which tipped the scales at 11.99 ounces. At 200 x 114 x 8.7 mm (7.87 x 4.49 x 0.34 in), it's 1.5mm taller, 6mm narrower and 1.8mm thinner as well. As you can imagine, then, while we didn't have a problem fitting the first tablet into our khaki pants pockets, this second-gen model is even easier to hold and tote around.
In terms of aesthetics, ASUS eschewed the plastic faux-metal edges and the dimpled rubber back of the original, opting instead for an all-black, all-plastic exterior with a matte finish on the rear cover. We'll admit that the rubber on last year's device was an unconventional choice, yet it helped make the device feel surprisingly durable. And besides, the textured material just felt pleasant to put your fingers on. That's all been removed, likely in an effort to make the tablet as compact as possible. All told, the difference is subtle, but still noticeable: the new Nexus is still a very solid device, but it feels just a tad more... vulnerable. Fortunately, its matte back at least offers a good grip while staying (mostly) immune to fingerprints. Always a plus.
On the front, the bezels surrounding the display are noticeably narrower -- ASUS shaved off about 2.75mm on each side -- but on the top and bottom they're as wide as they ever were. According to the two companies, the idea is to ensure most users will have a place to hold the Nexus while using it in landscape mode (this is especially handy for games, we've noticed). Since those bezels have remained the same size even as the tablet has gotten narrower, the front looks a little awkward proportionally speaking, given the screen's 16:10 aspect ratio. We suspect the top and bottom bezels could have been trimmed a bit too, and it wouldn't actually have had much of an effect on the user experience.
While we're lingering on the tablet's front face, let's see what else is there. One thing you won't find on the device is a set of capacitive soft keys, since the Nexus 7 makes use of virtual navigation buttons instead. Above the display sits a front-facing camera, but it's curiously in a different spot than last time around. The OG version's camera was centered toward the very top, whereas this model puts the lens closer to the display and off to the right. If we had to guess, we'd wager that this was intended to make it easier to take selfies without worrying about your thumb getting in the way, but that doesn't explain why it didn't get pushed even closer to the right side of the device, since our thumbs still covered the lens on occasion.
When you flip over the Nexus, the first thing you'll notice -- aside from the lack of dimples, of course -- is that ASUS added a 5-megapixel camera in the top left corner (sorry, no LED flash). There are also three machine-drilled speaker grilles: a long one up top and two shorter ones on the bottom. That means you'll benefit from stereo sound, a nice step up from the mono setup on the original. Cosmetically, the other major difference is that the Nexus logo is now displayed vertically in the center of the back cover, compared to the original's horizontal logo, which was located closer to the top. The 3.5mm headphone jack, meanwhile, now sits the top instead of the bottom. Finally, the power button and volume rocker live on the right side just above the mic, while the micro-USB SlimPort connector is sandwiched in between the speakers on the bottom. (As a sidenote, the Nexus 7 also supports USB OTG.)
Under the hood, the 2013 Nexus matches the original's in total internal storage. While it initially launched with only 8GB and 16GB versions (at $199 and $249 respectively), Google dropped the baseline 8GB, lowered the price of the 16GB and added a 32GB model at the higher pricing tier. The Nexus 7 once again offers 16 and 32 gigs ($269) for now, although we'd certainly love to see a 64GB option come out down the road. Additional storage is important because the device still doesn't have a microSD slot, and we have a feeling that consumers will want to load the tablet up with HD movies and loads of music to take advantage of that sharper screen and stereo speaker setup. Obviously, then, storage space is of the essence.
The model we reviewed is a 32GB WiFi-only unit, with 26.1 gigs of that storage space actually accessible to the user. An LTE version ($359) is also coming soon, though you can't buy it just yet. On that particular model, ASUS managed to squeeze six LTE frequencies (bands 1, 2, 4, 5, 13 and 17), pentaband HSPA+ and quadband GSM / EDGE into its North American version, which means it will be compatible with AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile in the US, as well as a smattering of operators in other parts of the globe. This is actually a pretty huge feat, as we haven't seen a device that's compatible with both Verizon and AT&T LTE before. There's also a European option, which provides seven LTE bands (1/2/3/4/5/7/20), pentaband HSPA+ and quadband GSM / EDGE. Not too shabby.
Finally, anyone who enjoyed the optional dock with the first Nexus 7 will be disappointed to see that it's MIA here. The new tablet does, however, offer Qi wireless charging out of the box. We tried it on multiple charging pads, including the Nokia Fatboy, Energizer dual pad and Samsung GS4 pad, and it worked perfectly every time. If you're not equipped, you might at least be pleased to know that iFixit's teardown of the device revealed a Qualcomm PM8921 Quick Charge Battery Management IC, which allows for faster charging than conventional plugs (as long as you're using compatible adapters).
When the Nexus 7 debuted last week, there wasn't any confusion as to which feature Google most wanted to emphasize: the display easily got the most lip service during the event. Last year's model had a perfectly acceptable 1,280 x 800 pixel IPS LCD panel, which was more than reasonable for a $200 tablet. In this industry, however, a "perfectly acceptable" screen can magically transform into a piece of junk in a matter of months. Not to worry, though, as the new Nexus 7 has an increased resolution of 1,920 x 1,200, which translates to a pixel density of 323 pixels per inch, up from a puny 216 ppi on the OG model.
This is a massive improvement, and that improvement is obvious just as much in side-by-side comparisons. We know this can easily be said of any 1080p (or equivalent) screen, but the Nexus 7's display is simply beautiful. It offers more natural colors than the last-gen model, with amazingly crisp fonts and a generally much better canvas for playing games or watching movies. At the risk of sounding like we're making a shameless plug (we sort of are), we loaded up the latest issue of Distro on both tablets. In short, the difference is astounding: the text here is bolder and easier to read, and the high-resolution screen exposes details in images that we simply couldn't see on the older screen. This isn't constrained to just Distro, of course; we noticed this with all the media we viewed. On top of all that, the screen delivers some great viewing angles, and is bright enough that you should have little problem reading it in direct sunlight. Simply put: the display itself is top-notch, but the fact that it's built into such an inexpensive tablet is even more impressive. In fact, it's a good enough reason you might want to seriously consider grabbing one of these for yourself.
With new Nexus devices, Google typically introduces the next version of Android along with them. Unsurprisingly, then, the tablet comes with Android 4.3 out of the box. This piece of firmware still has the same Jelly Bean name Google has been using since version 4.1 debuted on the original Nexus 7 last year. Frankly, not a whole lot has changed this time around, but that doesn't mean everything has just stayed the same since the last upgrade came out almost nine months ago.
The biggest improvement here adds restrictions to the multiple accounts feature that we already enjoy on tablets running Android 4.2. Before Google unveiled that version of the OS, the ability to switch accounts was pretty much nonexistent on mobile operating systems (though Microsoft introduced a similar feature called Kid's Corner on the same exact day). At any rate, the first iteration of the firmware generally worked fine, but there was a problem: there wasn't a way to add passwords or lock specific apps, an issue for parents who wanted to ensure their children weren't getting into something they shouldn't be. Fortunately, Google's addressed that issue -- much to your 7-year-old's dismay. Interestingly, multiple user support is still MIA on Android smartphones, but Google engineer Dan Morrill explained recently on Reddit that his team is still figuring out the best way to handle phone-specific concerns like SMS and phone calls. Morrill said:
"Suppose you have device sharing enabled and then a call comes in. Who gets it? Do you punch through to the current user? Only the owner gets it? If only the owner can answer, does it ring for the second user? Is it worse to annoy the current user with a ringing phone they can't answer, or worse for dad to miss a call from his boss because Junior was playing Angry Birds?"
We wouldn't expect to see multiple user support on Android phones right away, but it appears that the issue is at least on Google's radar, so hopefully a solution is on the way.
If you're a sucker for beautifully designed games with smooth graphics and copious detail, you may have been waiting for Open GL ES 3.0 to show up on Android. Fortunately, 4.3 officially supports the standard, and is currently available on the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10, in addition to the tablet we're reviewing today. Essentially, ES 3.0 brings acceleration of advanced visual effects, texture compression, 32-bit floating point support and more. There's also improved multi-threading across multiple CPU cores.