It’s been more than two years since the first iPad hit the market and it's still the best-selling tablet despite a slew of challengers, commanding more than 60 per cent of global sales. Apple’s days of having the tablet market cornered may be numbered, though, as Google launches its Nexus 7.
The "7" in the title comes from the seven-inch high-definition screen, which means the tablet itself is about half the size of the iPad. Indeed, you could easily stack two of the smaller Google tablets side by side on the bigger Apple one.
The Nexus 7 is therefore just big enough to watch movies and play games on, but also a lot smaller, lighter and portable than an iPad, so it can fit in a purse and even a large jacket pocket.
The biggest selling point is its price tag. The version of the Nexus 7 with 8 gigabytes of memory sells for only $209 in Canada, while the 16 GB model is $259. That’s half the price of the current iPad and $200 less than the older iPad 2.
Amazon has been doing well in the United States with its similarly priced Kindle Fire tablet, released late last year. By most analyst estimates, the Fire — which runs Google’s Android operating system — has become the only non-iPad tablet that matters as a result when it comes to calculating market share. The problem for Canadians is that it’s not available outside the U.S.
Some room for improvement
There are trade-offs with Google’s device, to be sure. The screen doesn’t have the sharpness of Apple’s vaunted Retina display, which is obvious when text is zoomed in on, but there’s no real difference when watching HD movies.
The Nexus 7 also doesn’t have a rear camera — it only has a 1.2 megapixel front-facing camera for video conferencing. This isn’t a major drawback, though, as the case for why tablets need rear cameras has yet to be made.
The biggest problem with Google’s device, which is built by Taiwan’s Asus, is its relatively small memory. Eight gigabytes is barely enough to store music and photos, so the 16GB version is probably going to be necessary if you plan to load a bunch of videos on to it.
Like the iPad, Google’s tablet doesn't have an SD slot for additional memory, nor does it have an HDMI port so that it can be connected to a TV or monitor. It does, however, have a standardized micro-USB slot for connecting to a charger and a computer.
The Nexus 7 is also wi-fi only, with no cellular option — but this is probably a good thing for most users. A number of third-party manufacturers have seen their Android tablets flop as a result of trying to sell them like cellphones, complete with term contracts through wireless carriers. So far, the majority of tablet owners have been using them at home as a sort of second-screen alternative to the television or computer, forgoing data plans and the associated contracts in the process. Not having cellular capability is therefore no big loss for most people.
On the upside, the Nexus 7 has some features that make it unique.
It runs on Jelly Bean, the latest version of Android, which packs some nifty new capabilities. Chief among those is Google Now, a suite of widgets that are location- and context-aware. The various tools can tap into traffic and public transit apps to tell you when the next bus is arriving, how busy your commute is looking, what the weather forecast is for your area, or whether your scheduled flight has been delayed.
Google is also making a concerted effort with Jelly Bean to combat Siri, Apple’s voice-activated personal assistant. Many of the Nexus 7’s capabilities can accept voice commands, from dictating e-mails to plotting map directions. Voice options have been available on Android devices for some time, but they’re more front-and-centre in this tablet.
One other fun feature — also found in some Android smartphones — is face recognition, which can be used instead of a traditional PIN or swipe pattern to unlock the Nexus 7. Simply take a picture of your face and the tablet will unlock itself when it recognizes you. It’s nowhere near as secure as a PIN, but it’s also a little more fun to use.
Apple’s big advantage when it comes to both smartphones and tablets is its app store. Not only can the company boast about volume, with hundreds of thousands of apps — more than 100,000 of them optimized for the iPad — it also generally has the highest quality apps, simply because it’s often the first platform that developers design for.
Android may be behind Apple in the app race, but it’s coming along. The Nexus 7 can access the Google Play marketplace, where all of the important apps and games — Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Angry Birds and so on — can be found. The store also stocks ebooks for purchase and movies for rent, with a limited selection that is pretty much par for the course in Canada. Google even throws in a $25 store credit with the tablet purchase.
Early reports raised questions about the tablet’s battery life, but I didn’t encounter any problems. Google boasts nine hours of HD video playback under ideal conditions, and I got close to that in tests at about seven hours.
The weirdest thing about the Nexus 7 is that its home screen is stuck in a vertical orientation. While most other apps switch between horizontal and vertical depending on how you’re holding the tablet, the home screen doesn’t budge. This will supposedly be fixed in a future software update, but it’s a bizarre function that initially made me wonder if there was something wrong with the tablet.
In the end, though, Google has managed to get the right formula down for a proper iPad competitor. The hardware is solid with a nice compact feel, while the software has some neat features. The app and media offerings aren’t as robust as Apple’s, but there’s enough to cover all the key bases.
Most importantly, the price tag is right on. Google may very well be selling the Nexus 7 at a loss, but that’s for the company — not consumers — to worry about.
For anyone who was waiting for tablets to drop in price, or for a viable alternative to the iPad to surface, that time has come. There are, of course, rumours that Apple will soon counter the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire with a smaller and cheaper iPad, but until it actually happens it’s all just speculation.