Nexus 7 tablet: Android no longer an also-ran

Small, cheap and highly functional, Google's Nexus 7 is an impressive device

There's no single facet of Google's new Nexus 7 that stands out as a game-changer on its own. However, the combination of a number of minor upsides is a powerful one, making the tablet into an intriguing contender in a competitive arena.

Android tablets seem to always launch in a haze of dizzy expectation among enthusiasts, but their popularity rarely extends far beyond that community. Show me an "iPad killer," and I'll show you a cobblestone on the Apple juggernaut's road to dominance.

FIRST LOOK: Google's Nexus 7 tablet

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Recently, however, that's begun to change. Rather than trying to make a better iPad -- remember, Apple's already very good at that -- devices like the Kindle Fire and, now, the Nexus 7 have begun to explore a slightly different subsector. Maybe they're smaller and less jaw-dropping than the iPad, but you can't argue with the $200 price tag. (The price goes up to $250 for a doubling of the device's internal storage to 16GB.)

In terms of bang for the buck, the Nexus 7 delivers in spades.

The display

The 1280x800, 7-inch screen is attractive and functional in normal use. Watching movies on the device carries all the usual pitfalls of viewing on a small screen, but I didn't feel like I was missing any details, even in the maniacally CGI-heavy "Transformers" movie that came pre-installed. It also picks up fingerprints more or less instantly, but it's hardly alone in that.

The feel

The Nexus 7 sits comfortably in one hand, though you're not going to be doing any single-hand thumb-typing unless your hands are the size of Kevin Garnett's. It's not absolutely feather-light -- but it definitely won't weigh your shoulder bag down too badly.

The interface

Android 4.1, also known as Jelly Bean, is the star here. Google has put a lot of effort into making Android more responsive and speedy, and the hard work pays off handsomely. A host of little interface tweaks and admirably complete integration for the Play store all contribute to the experience, and the Nexus 7 is a pleasure to use.

The media

Google's touting the Nexus 7 as a complete media device -- and not without reason. While it's not going to replace the HDTV in your living room for watching movies, it's a perfectly acceptable on-the-go option for video viewing. I really could have used a built-in podcasting option, though, as the Listen app (available through the Play store) is unspectacular and feels a little unloved.

The missing stuff

The conventional wisdom is that Google left out 3G/4G connectivity and a rear-facing camera in order to cut costs. At this point, both seem like inspired decisions -- with increasingly strict mobile data caps coming down from the major telecoms, fewer customers are likely to be willing to pay for those extra radios, as well as a pricey data plan. Also, taking a lot of snapshots with a tablet seems like a curious choice -- despite Apple's heavy promotion of the photographic excellence in its latest iPad, I can't help but think the form factor isn't great for anything photography-related, except for video chat. (The Nexus 7 does have a front-facing camera.)

The wrap

More to the point, the latest iPad costs $500, while the Nexus 7 costs $200. That extra Nexus 7-and-a-half gets you a rear-facing camera, an admittedly brilliant and hugely impressive display, Apple's apps and services and possible mobile data connectivity. Those are, undeniably, important advantages -- but are they worth $300 on their own?

Google's betting that, for a lot of people, the answer to that question is no. The Nexus 7 isn't going to set the world on fire, but for $200, it doesn't have to.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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