When life presents challenges, one can always try to cope by buying a new
toy. In this case, said new toy is the Nexus 7 tablet,
the first "pure Android" tablet offered directly by Google; it is
meant to showcase what Android can be on this type of device. The initial
indications are that it is selling well, suggesting that the frantic effort
to prepare Android for tablets are finally beginning to bear some fruit.
What follows are your editor's impressions of this device and the
associated "Jelly Bean" Android release.
The Nexus 7 (N7) is an intermediate-size tablet — larger than even the biggest
phones, but smaller than, say, a Xoom or iPad device. It features a 7"
1280x800 display and weighs in at 340 grams. There's 1GB of RAM, and
up to 16GB of storage; the CPU is a quad-core Tegra3 processor. The notion
of a quad-core system that fits easily into a back pocket is amusing to us
old-timers, but that's the age we live in now. The N7 features WiFi
connectivity and Bluetooth, but there is no cellular connectivity; it has
802.11n support, but cannot access the 5GHz band where 802.11n networks
often live. The
only camera is a front-facing 1.2 megapixel device; the N7 does not even
have the camera application installed by default.
The N7 runs Android 4.1.1, the "Jelly Bean" release. 4.1.1 offers a lot of enhancements
over 4.0, but is, for the most part, similar in appearance and
functionality. The first impression, once the setup formalities are done,
can be a little disconcerting: the home screen is dominated by a large ad
for Google's "Play Magazines" service. It makes one think that "pure
Android" devices might be going the crapware route, but the ad widget is
easily disposed of and never appears again.
As of this writing, there is no CyanogenMod build available for the N7.
That is unsurprising, given the newness of the hardware and the fact that
CyanogenMod has not yet moved to the Jelly Bean release. But the N7 is an
unlocked (or, at least, easily unlockable) device, so one can expect that
alternative distributions will become available for it in due time.
Using the N7
Android on tablets has matured considerably since the initial "Honeycomb"
release featured on the Xoom. For the most part, things work nicely, at
least as far as the standard Google applications are concerned. The
ability of third-party applications to work well on larger screens is still
highly variable. One bit of remaining confusion is the "menu" button,
which appears in different places in different applications, or is absent
altogether. Playing the "find the menu" game is a common part of learning
any new application. One gets the sense that the Android developers would
like to do away with menus altogether, but there are many practical
difficulties in doing so.
Perhaps the most jarring change is the switch to Chrome as the built-in web
browser. The standard Android browser wasn't perfect, but it had
accumulated some nice features over the years. Chrome is capable and
fully-featured, and it arguably makes sense for Google to focus on
supporting a single browser. But your editor misses the "auto-fit pages"
option and the "quick controls" provided by the Android browser. Getting
around with Chrome just seems to be a slower process requiring more taps
and gestures. Undoubtedly there is a way to get the Android browser onto
the N7, but, so far, time has been short and a quick search came up empty.
The N7's front-facing camera is clearly not meant for any sort of
photographic use, unless one is especially interested in self portraits.
It is useful for the "face unlock" feature, naturally. It is also clearly
meant for use with applications like Skype; the N7 should make a very nice
video network phone. Unfortunately, video calls in Skype fail to work on
your editor's device. Some searching indicates that it works for some
people and fails for others; sometimes installing the camera application
helps, but not in this case. At this time, the N7 does not appear to be
ready for this kind of use.
One need not have an especially conspiracy-theoretical mindset to surmise
that Skype's owner (a small company called "Microsoft") might just have an
incentive to ensure that Skype works better on its own operating system
than on Android. But the truth of the matter is probably more prosaic: by
all accounts, the Skype application is just not an example of stellar
software engineering. Unfortunately, it is an example of
proprietary software, so there is no way for anybody but Skype to fix it.
There should really be a place for a free-software video calling
application that (1) actually works, and (2) can be verified to
lack backdoors for government agencies and anybody else interested in
listening in on conversations. But that application does not seem to exist
at this time, alas.
Another obvious use case for a 7" tablet is as an electronic book reader.
The N7 has
some obvious disadvantages relative to the current crop of electronic-ink
readers, though: it weighs about twice as much, has a fraction of the
battery life, and has a backlit screen that is harder to stare at for
hours. Still, it is worth considering for this role; its presence in the
travel bag is more easily justified if it can displace another device.
The N7 hardware, in the end, puts in a credible, though not stellar,
performance as a book reader. The extra weight is noticeable, but the
tablet still weighs less than most books. The rated battery life for
reading is about nine hours, possibly extendable by turning off the
wireless interface. Nine hours will get one through an international
travel experience of moderate length, but one misses the battery life of a
proper reader device that can go for weeks at a time without a recharge.
The lack of dedicated buttons for page-turning and the like (which are
commonly present on dedicated readers) is not a huge problem. The backlit
display can actually be advantageous in situations where turning on the
lights is frowned upon — when the spouse is sleeping, or on some airplanes,
On the software side, there are a number of reading applications available,
ranging from the ultra-proprietary Google Books and Kindle applications to
the (nice) GPL-licensed FBReader
program. Experience shows that the rendering of text does not always work
as well in applications like FBReader or Aldiko, though; white space used
sections within chapters can disappear, for example, and block quotes can
be smashed into the surrounding paragraphs. Readers like Kindle do better
in this regard. Another annoyance is that the tablet uses the MTP
protocol over the USB connection, meaning that it does not work easily with
Calibre. One can, of course, move book files manually or use Calibre's
built-in web server to get books onto the device, but it would be a lot
nicer if Calibre could just manage the on-device library directly.
In summary, while the experience for users of walled-garden book services
is probably pretty good, it remains a bit rough for those wanting to take
charge of the books that they so foolishly think they, by virtue of having
paid for them, actually own.
Beyond that, for content that goes beyond pure text — anything with
pictures, for example — a tablet can provide a nicer experience. And, of
course, the tablet offers the full Internet and all the other Android
applications; whether that is considered to be an advantage in a book
reader is almost certainly in the eye of the user.
In the long term, it
seems clear that general-purpose tablets will displace dedicated reader
devices, but the N7, arguably, is not quite there yet.
In general, though, the N7 works nicely as a media consumption device. It
plays videos nicely and is a pleasant device for wandering around on the
web. For people who are fully hooked into the Google machine it naturally
provides a nicely integrated interface into all of the related services.
For the rest of us the experience is a bit more uneven; your editor still
yearns for a better email client, for example. But, even with its
limitations, the N7 fills in nicely where one does not want to deal with a
laptop, but where a phone screen is simply too limiting. This new tablet
from Google is a nice device overall; it is likely to remain in active use
for some time.
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