I’ve had the Google Nexus 7 for a week, during which time I’ve used it as my primary tablet and RSS reader, Google+ interface, and e-mail console, as well as tea timer.
During this time I’ve put it through it’s paces, installed and de-installed apps, bought books and tried to get podcasts (Both video and audio) and used it to read a web comic, and even as my IM client.
I feel I’ve given it a fair shake so here’s my use-review:
It’ll be nice when it’s finished. Great for reading web pages, mediocre to poor at everything else. If the adage ‘You get what you pay for’ is applied, then you’re getting your money’s worth for a $199 tablet and a free operating system.
The chrome browser on the Nexus 7 is a mix of outstanding, salted with strange design choices.
It renders pages perfectly, it lets you tap to zoom on screen elements and has a pop-up magnifier if you try to tap a link and it’s not obvious which one you were aiming for.
You can even use the settings and specify how big the text should be when zoomed – A big plus over Safari which would occasionally zoom text that was still too small to read.
Youtube videos can play in-page, and screen rotation is smooth and responsive.
And then you end up jabbing the screen and wondering why you can’t close a tab, because the hit area for the close button is too small.
You can’t scroll the Frequently visited/bookmarks/Other Devices pages – But you can on iOS and even the desktop if you have a trackpad.
The “getting started” page says you can swipe from the edge of the screen to scroll through tabs. Swiping right to left… scrolls the tabs to the right. And vice versa. on iOS this is reversed, e.g “The sensible way to do it”.
On iOS scrolling tabs will show you a grayscale preview of the site on that tab. On Android, it’s the site, or a blank page.
The hardware is first rate. The screen is smooth and slick as a sheet of oil, and makes a dandy mirror for checking your hair – And the back has a soft texture that’s pleasant to hold and run one’s fingers across, nicely hitting the sweet point between having enough grip that your Nexus 7 (N7) won’t slip out of your fingers like a bar of wet soap in a prison shower, and glomping your fingers like a particularly over-attached octopod.
There are only three buttons on the pleasingly solid chassis – Power, Volume up and Volume down – The latter of which get co-opted by some apps as navigation buttons, which may be a little disconcerting if you happen to be trying to change volume.
The virtual Back – Home – Recent apps buttons at the bottom of the screen are also useful, if amazingly prone to being pressed if you happen to be holding the tablet or using the exceedingly good keyboard.
As far as the screen is concerned, the touch response is quite fine, beating the iPad 1 in response,. The image produced is sharp, gorgeously clear with brilliant vibrance and colour – The contrast is high enough that when it’s set to a black background with white text, the screen blends into the bezel making it appear that the text and images are floating on the surface of the glass – It’s really quite attractive, and very easy to read.
Due to having a whole Gigabyte of RAM, and five CPU cores and 12 GPU cores (Though one of the CPU cores isn’t counted as it’s pretty much there to assist the other four cores and do background tasks while using small amounts of power), the response is usually quite fast and smooth.
The N7 can handle real websites with ease, as long as they don’t need plugins, and using Chrome on this tablet is a joy – it makes things so easy and pleasant, with tap-to-zoom, pinch and zoom and some clever page synchronisation between mobile and desktop versions of Chrome.
But if you like Opera, or any other browser available for Android, then you can install them and make them default. That is one major feature that puts Android over iOS – The ability to define a default app for a given task.
Voice search work surprisingly well, Google Now is fun and useful, the notification centre is so good that even Apple copies it, and the way you can integrate apps and have Android use them to e.g. make phone calls or share to their services is also extremely useful.
Don’t plan on enjoying any audio that’s not piped through the headphone port. The built in speaker is rhaspy and pops tending to fail at higher volumes, and unlike the staggeringly loud iPhone and iPad speakers, you’ll struggle to hear the N7 even at full volume if there’s any background noise because that “higher volume” that it breaks down at isn’t very loud.
As for the OS and the bundled apps… Unfortunately, the whole thing feels rushed
Speech to Text and Text to Speech
The Text to Speech feature which is the second half of Google’s Siri competitor is woefully mishandled. In the default book app, you can for instance have Alice in Wonderland read to you by TTS (Text To Speech). That’s great, it lets you put your N7 on a shelf and listen to your book while you do other things, or take it out and walk…
… but that’s the book that comes with the N7 as a free sample demonstrating Google Play Books. On downloading other books, the speech option is missing.
Turning on the assistive screen reader will allow you to have these books read, at the cost of having every action bellowed at you by a robotic voice, an the touch controls altered to make you frantically double tap to open anything.
Voice Search (Occasionally called Assistant) will return results if you open Google Now and say “Google!” then submit a query – Unless you’re not form America in which case that feature is turned off and you must manually press an on screen button, which will then listen to your query and sometimes reply with a Google search for something unrelated, sometimes a Google search for the exact string that was recognized (Which may not be exactly what you said, because it may alter words depending on how confident it was in it’s detection) and sometimes it will pop up a little info card and read you a snippet of info.
But again, outside the US that’s all you get – You won’t get any of the images that Google showed off at Google IO.
Certain things aren’t finished.
You can tell Google’s Voice Search to turn off WiFi and it will tell you; “Sorry, device features are not yet supported’ – Though clearly they’re there enough to show up as a recognised command to generate an error message.
In the US, users get a nice female voice. In the UK, it’s male. There’s female voice files installed on the device, but selecting them has no effect – You’re stuck with a male voice.
These localisation quirks carry over into other areas. Using the dictation feature requires a user to bellow “Period!” to get a full stop – Which isn’t obvious since Google neglected to list the voice commands available and in the UK “.” is a full stop, and a period is either a span of time or the reason for tampons.
Given this is Google’s machine – It runs google apps, logged in under a google account on a Google operating system, the lack of integration is strange.
I can start an e-mail and specify a subject, but not the body. I can’t ask it to check my Gmail, I can’t tell it to make a call using Google Voice (Or Skype which is the default VoIP gateway for telephone numbers from the address book).
Even though there’s an option to spall check against my contacts list, Voice Assistant can’t handle names very well
And forget opening an app by naming it.
And if you’re blind or visually impaired and turn on the ‘Talkback’ feature – Get used to hearing “WEB CONTENT!”, because that’s all you’ll get if you try to have your email read to you.
Many apps have a hook into the speech API so you can get it to read articles and text.
Again, this would be great if it worked but hitting the ‘speak’ icon in any of the apps I’ve used makes Android try and ‘auto detect’ the correct language, declare I need to download the speech files, offer me French and German and then die.
I already have British English downloaded, British English as my region and language default, but I can’t get the OS to actually use those settings?
The most closed open system
Google’s managed to produce a tablet that’s fast, fluid and desirable, arguably beating Apple’s design sense.
They’ve also made Apple seem a lot more open and uninhibited about a lot of their apps.
Under iOS, a famously closed and controlled environment, you can easily import your e-books to iBooks. Even your PDF files!
On Google? Not so much. Google Play Books only lets you open books that you bought and downloaded form the Play store and won’t allow the import of any other files you might have.
Google advertises that you can upload your music to the cloud and access it via Google Play… But tends not to mention that this service is not available outside the USA.
Other services that Google advertises but doesn’t provide outside the US:
- TV show purchase
- TV show rental
- Movie purchase
You’re free to rent a film for 48 hours (Or 24 once you started watching it) but you can’t buy it. And get used to checking to see if an entire book series is available.
I bought the Sten omnibus, “Battlecry” – Books 1-3 of the series. And received book 3 on it’s own with the wrong title and cover slapped on. And no ‘read aloud’ facility.
There’s also no RSS reader, and of the apps that do ship with the N7, Navigation’s first act is to tell you not to use it because it’s Beta and might make you drive into a wall or something.
Not that you’d use the Google Navigate App without first setting up a WiFi hotspot – It doesn't work unless it’s got an Internet connection and the N7 only has WiFi.
Google Now is not the voice activated assistant. It sits under the Voice Search toolbar and some of it’s “cards” will pop up if you ask for information, but it’s actually a separate service that just happens to be semi-inaccessible unless you use voice search.
Simply typing into the search bar won’t work.
Google Now is a smart system that uses your N7’s GPS and WiFi as well as other sources such as the time and your calendar and any regular schedule you have to work out what information you like.
This is opt in.
It’s also very useful. For instance it can tell you if there’s anything interesting close by, or where to find a café – Warn you about the weather and tell you how long it will take to get to your next appointment, and even let you know ahead of time that your regular route has bad traffic.
It’ll notice you’re in a foreign country and do some translating for you, convert currency and a host of other things…
… as long as you have a WiFi connection when you need that information.
As for the regular stuff – There’s no way to tell it that you regularly take the bus, cycle or walk, so everything assumes the use of a car.
It’ll happily tell you your appointment of 2 miles away is '”five minutes” travel, or that there are some great Cafés '”Ten minutes away” – In another town that 45 minutes by bus.
As for public transport, again this seems to be something only Americans have because it just doesn’t work for we poor barbarians. It may sporadically pop up and tell me that the train I wanted left, but it won’t tell me when my next bus is – And it won’t let me define where my local bus stop is. It wants me to go stand at the stop so the GPS will locate it then use the WiFi that’s no longer available to fetch and error message telling me that Google doesn't know how to look up the public transport for my area (Which has three different bus companies working the route.)
And if you do download the maps to local storage and use them, jsut watch out – it tends to locate addresses some 100m form their actual location, with no facility for correction.
Which may be part of the reason iOS now uses OpenMaps, which at least will put your address at it’s proper location, instead of e.g. the middle of a bowling green.
Other headbang moments:
Google Voice Search Assistant will set timers:
”Set a three minute tea timer” I say.
“Setting timer T for two minutes” Google says.
“Set an eight minute timer!” I say.
“Setting timer for 6 minutes” Google says.
And where do these timers go? The clock app. Fair enough. There’s no to-do app and Voice Search can’t talk to Google Calendar.
Opening Clock shows three dozen alarm instances because it doesn’t have any culling of old, finished timers. It’s just going to keep making them until it hits it’s maximum limit and stop working.
The Youtube app plays everything at maximum resolution. In the 6 days I’ve been using this tablet, I’ve blown through 564Mb of Youtube and watched perhaps six videos. There doesn’t seem to be any setting for changing the default resolution or asking for a lower res strream.
The Tablet also sucks down data with alarming gusto – One week of use is 2.68 Gb – And only 500Mb was video – 300mb was the Google Currents app, which I loaded exactly once and then quit because it was hard to navigate and wasn’t displaying anything I wanted to read.
500mb further was the RSS reader which was set to not download anything to offline storage, and can’t display video or audio (It offloads that to Youtube).
I suspect the RSS widget I have running is pulling down a lot of content.
Luckily you can specify WiFi accounts as 'mobile hotspots and the OS will throttle data use to prevent apps doing background downloads or force them to warn you if they’re going to do a large download.
The last piece of the puzzle is software. To get the most out of the N7 or any other Android device, you need software. Apps.
At the moment Android Apps range from '”Mostly good if a little buggy and unpolished” to “Terrible”.
Which includes Google’s own apps.
Gmail is mostly nice with lots of moments of wondering if something broke as an out-of-theme control pops up, or the Google+ app forgets it was set to notify you of things and then jerkily re-draws it’s screen with lots of placeholder images – Or displays an image with a large icon and some text covering the bottom third so you can’t actually look at it.
Which is doubly odd because the Google+ for iOS app is nearly perfect with none of these problems
I can only assume that Android is just a really nasty OS to dev for, or that it’s considered OK to release beta software and patch it in a year or so. Most apps are designed for phones, there’s no way to filter for apps for tablets, and almost everything looks like crap, like it was laid out early in the design process and then the designer quit to make iPad apps.
Nothing looks good, and for a touch screen interface you mostly find the controls are drawn super tiny.
As for podcasts – Even the top rated app for Podcasts of Audio and Video (Price? $7!) is frankly disappointing. It struggles with downlaoding and displaying content. After fighting with the time limited trial, I gave up – Even Apple’s half hearted and under featured podcast app works better, and iOS has the superlative Downcast, which one day I hope will be ported to Android because there’s simply no competition for it on that platform.
This in fact is the whole Android App problem: Not one of these apps is actually any better than “Mediocre”, and many fall short even of that.
Google’s own Google Reader app doesn’t even have a tablet version, and the scaled up Phone UI made me tap through four levels to get to the article – Then opened it in Chrome.
Overall C- Must Try harder.