Nexus 10 review: The so-so Android tablet

Google's Samsung-made 'pure' Android tablet simply doesn't match up in quality or experience to Samsung's own Note 10.1

Google's Samsung-made 'pure' Android tablet simply doesn't match up in quality or experience to Samsung's own Note 10.1

Maybe Google should stop trying to get into the hardware business. In the early days of Android, when there were some really crappy Android smartphones with poorly designed interface overlays being rushed to market to compete with the Apple iPhone, it made sense for Google to produce its own "pure" reference model (the problematic Nexus One) to steer the market to better quality. Even a year ago, it was logical to produce a reference model, the Galaxy Nexus, to showcase Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich."

But today, Google's line of Nexus devices -- the Nexus 4 smartphone, Nexus 7 mini tablet, and Nexus 10 full-size tablet -- showcase not quality but mediocrity. Google's other Nexus product, the Apple TV-like Nexus Q media interface box, was so bad that Google pulled it from the market before it shipped, based on widespread criticism of the beta units last spring.

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Android 4.2 "Jelly Bean": More misses than hits in its new featuresThe Nexus 10's claim to fame is Android 4.2 "Jelly Bean," an update to the Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" release introduced in June's Nexus 7 and now making its way to Android devices from other manufacturers. Android 4.2 adds four software features to tablets.

The handiest is the ability to have multiple user accounts on the tablet. You switch user accounts at the lock screen that appears when you start the tablet or awaken it, much as you do in OS X or Windows. Each user has a separate instance of Android, so parents and kids don't get in each other's way; in a business scenario, personal and work personas could be kept separated.

Android 4.2 also lets you place some widgets, such as email or calendar, on your lock screen. (Each user account can have separate widgets; tap the user account bubble first to determine which account gets the added widgets.) The process is not intuitive. You have to swipe to the right on the lock screen to activate the widget box, then slide the widget box to "rotate" until a + (plus) icon appears, and finally tap the + icon to add a widget. You can have as many as four widgets, but you can add them only one by one.

It's nice to be able to scroll through your appointments or emails on the lock screen. You get more interaction with these apps than in iOS's lock screen notifications. But you can't add widgets to an account that has a PIN or password requirement imposed by Exchange or a mobile management tool -- only the clock widget is available. That's no doubt a security issue, but it greatly limits the utility of the widgets for business users. However, if you imposed a PIN or password yourself on the device through the Settings app (and if your server doesn't require its use), you can add widgets to the lock screen.

I was also frustrated that the screen would fade out while I was using the lock screen widgets. Android doesn't detect that you're using the screen to keep the tablet awake. Also, the selection of lock screen widgets is tiny. At this point, lock screen widgets is more a toy feature than a compelling one.

Note that to access the new multiuser and lock screen widget capabilities, you need to update the "Jelly Bean" software. Although Google says devices ship with that update, the loaner unit Google sent InfoWorld did not have it. Worse, the Settings app claimed the software was current, even though it was not. After we contacted Google, the update appeared an hour or so later. That may be a coincidence, but if these features don't appear on your unit, check for updates periodically.

The third new capability is the enhanced Camera app, which provides the kinds of controls over white balance and high dynamic range that you'd expect on a digital camera. These controls appear in a circular overlay menu onscreen. They make the Camera app much more capable than iOS's Camera app, though the menu overlays are often hard to distinguish. As with iOS, there are now postproduction tools in the Android Camera app such as cropping and color filters (but no red-eye removal as in iOS).

The fourth addition is support for the Miracast wireless streaming standard that builds on the Wi-Fi Direct standard, providing a way to share video to TVs and other devices. Many Android devices have supported the DLNA standard, but it's unevenly implemented by both device makers and home entertainment hardware vendors, making it an unreliable mess. Thus, Google has moved on to Miracast as its hope to match what Apple's proprietary AirPlay protocol enticingly delivers.

The probem is that Miracast is so new that few products support it yet (2013 is supposed to be the year they begin to arrive) -- it's a promise you can't take advantage of. The only good news is that the Wi-Fi Alliance is behind it; that's the group that created the Wi-Fi interoperability standard that made all those 802.11 protocols work across devices. The hope is that the Wi-Fi Alliance will ensure Miracast doesn't get fragmented as DLNA did.

The "Jelly Bean" keyboard has been modified to provide the new Input Method key (to switch keyboard layouts) that gets in the way of typing, though you get used to its presence after a while and learn to ignore it. I much prefer the onscreen keyboard that Samsung provides in its Galaxy Note 10.1; not only does it have an extra row for numerals, but its key size and spacing ease typing onscreen.

Finally, the "Jelly Bean" UI is designed to promote Google's inferior set of Google Play media apps and services, putting those front and center each time you restart the tablet, even if your primary use of the tablet is for other purposes. It's a minor annoyance, but an ongoing one.

The Chrome browser is a step backwardAs part of the "pure" Android experience Google is promoting, the Nexus 10 comes with the Chrome browser rather than the stock Android Internet browser long featured on this mobile operating system. That's too bad, as Chrome is quite inferior to the (now former?) stock browser, especially the Android 4.1 version in the Samsung Galaxy Note II "phablet." Chrome is less HTML5-compatible than the stock browser, and its support of AJAX controls, such as for JavaScript menus and TinyMCE controls, is weak, so many forms-oriented sites are impossible to use. It also frustratingly displays many desktop sites as mobile sites, even when you enable the Prefer Desktop option.

I get why Google wants to make Chrome its standard browser across all platforms, but it should have ensured that the Android version was at least on a par with its predecessor. If you want a serious Android browsing experience, opt for the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 instead, especially once it gets its own "Jelly Bean" update in the next month or so.

Unexciting hardware on tapThe Samsung-built Nexus 10 hardware itself is an uninspired black slab -- Google's current design preference. Its capabilities are what you'd expect: the usual cameras, MicroUSB port, MicroHDMI port (not a given on all Android tablets), speakers, microphone, Bluetooth radio, Wi-Fi radio, and near-field communications (NFC) capability, which is fast becoming an Android standard. There's also a Pogo Pin connector for a magnetically attached charger cable, though none is yet avalable. The MicroUSB port handles charging for you -- in fact, the Nexus 10 comes with a USB charger block. There's no cellular model available for travelers.

All in all, it's like a Toyota Corolla: Everything you need is there, but nothing to make your heart leap, though a few details will annoy you. One is the set of built-in speakers; the sound is hollow and flat, unpleasant for music and only tolerable for movies. If you want decent sound in an Android tablet, get a Samsung Galaxy 10.1. The Note 10.1's video display is also truer and more pleasant.

This may or may not be a hardware issue -- it's hard to tell, given Google's lack of customer support -- but apps routinely crashed on the Nexus 10, frequently popping up "The application has stopped" alerts for the Calendar, Clock, and Play Video apps. (Whoever heard of the Clock app crashing?!) I've never experienced this issue on other Android devices, including the Nexus 4 smartphone that runs the same Android version; I surmise it's an issue with the system's CPU and/or memory bus.

Finally, the Nexus 10 takes a disappointing approach to adding a protective cover. A plastic cover over the camera can be pulled off (with some difficulty) to be replaced with a cover that affixes to the same area. I'd be concerned about how often the plastic tabs will hold if you remove the cover frequently. Google provided InfoWorld with such a cover, though they're not available at its online store for purchase and do not come with the Nexus 10 itself. It provides minimal protection and can't tilt the tablet up for easier typing as Apple's and Samsung's tablet covers do. Why bother?

Skip the Nexus 10 and get a Note 10.1 insteadOther than the app crashes on my evaluation unit, there's nothing really bad about the Nexus 10. It's just that there's nothing really special either.

Better tablets at roughly the same price ($400 for 16GB of storage, $500 for 32GB) are available. For example, the Galaxy Note 10.1 offers a better user interface and pen capabilities for a little more ($500 and $550, respectively).

Google's hardware and software are clearly aimed at a middle market and no longer serve as an aspirational model. You can do better, and there's no reason not to.

This article, "Nexus 10 review: The so-so Android tablet," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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This story, "Nexus 10 review: The so-so Android tablet" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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