Google's Nexus 7 douses Kindle Fire

Google's $199 media and entertainment tablet slays the Amazon rival with pure Android and a Chrome browser

Google's announcement of the Nexus 7 tablet raised many of the same questions as Microsoft's announcement of its Surface tablet, earlier in June: What is it, really? Why does it exist? Why would a major platform vendor compete with its OEM partners by releasing its own branded hardware?

There's one major difference between the Nexus 7 and the Surface, though. The Nexus 7 exists, here and now. Google handed out 6,000 of the Asus-manufactured devices to attendees at its Google I/O developer conference last week, and it expects to begin shipping the tablet to paying customers by late July. With product in hand, I explored what the Nexus 7 has to offer.

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The Nexus 7 is a low-cost tablet. It lists at $199 for a version with 8GB of storage and $249 for one with 16GB. (Neither model has an SD card slot for expansion.) That pits it against Amazon's similarly priced Kindle Fire, which by most estimates is the best-selling Android tablet so far.

For the price, the Nexus 7 is a nice piece of gear. It fits comfortably in one hand, and it weighs about as much as a thick paperback book (340 grams). Its back is coated with a pleasing textured rubber. Its overall build quality is what you'd expect of a costlier device.

With its 7-inch screen, the Nexus 7 isn't the largest Android tablet around, and it's considerably smaller than the iPad. Still, its 1,280-by-800 resolution is the same as that of the 10.1-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab. That puts it at 216ppi (pixels per inch) -- less than the 326ppi of the iPad's Retina Display, but noticeably better than the Galaxy Tab's 149ppi. Its colors are perhaps not as vibrant as some screens, but graphics look sharp.

Introducing "Jelly Bean" and mobile Chrome Much has been made of the fact that the Nexus 7 is the first device to ship with the next generation of the Android OS, code-named "Jelly Bean." But "Jelly Bean" is Android 4.1, not 5.0. Most of the changes from Android 4.0 ("Ice Cream Sandwich") are incremental -- though, admittedly, few Android owners have seen that version.

"Jelly Bean" brings some minor UI improvements. It's easier to move and resize widgets on the home screens, and you can group icons into folders to save space. Overall UI animations are smoother, though how much this is attributable to OS improvements and how much to the Nexus 7's quad-core Tegra 3 CPU is hard to say.

"Jelly Bean" features a new, on-device voice recognition engine that integrates with most text-input widgets on the device. The new, voice-integrated Google Search with speech synthesis is clearly designed to compete with Apple's Siri.

Then there's Google Now, a new search app that returns context-sensitive results on "cards." But since the Nexus 7 is Wi-Fi-only, Google Now's location-based searches will be less useful than they would be on smartphones.

The Nexus 7 is also the first Android device to ship with Chrome as its default browser. Chrome for Android isn't the same as desktop Chrome, however. It uses the same build of WebKit to render pages, but many websites still treat it as a mobile browser unless you force them to load their desktop layouts.

The Android version doesn't support Extensions, either, and it doesn't come bundled with Flash. Adobe has said it will not develop a Flash plug-in for this or any future versions of Android, so write that off. In my experience, even some complex HTML websites do not render identically on the Nexus 7 as on the desktop, which may rule out some Web applications.

The Nexus 7 includes NFC (Near-Field Communication) circuitry, Google's latest hobbyhorse. Press the tablet against another NFC-enabled tablet or handset, such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and you can trade contacts, photos, or other data wirelessly. It's cute, but it's not much easier than sharing data some other way (such as by email or MMS), and it's not particularly fast. Oddly, however, the Nexus 7 is not compatible with Google Wallet, which nixes Google's biggest application for NFC, mobile payments.

Playing the Kindle Fire What is the Nexus 7 good for? That's plain as soon as you start the device. The Nexus 7 is primarily a media consumption client, specifically for content from the Google Play store. By default, all five home screens are devoted to large widgets that highlight content from Google Play, including movies, music, books, and magazines.

As a media player, the Nexus 7 performs well. Its screen has ample resolution for high-definition video, and text in books and magazines looks crisp. Google says the battery can survive nine hours of video playback, and it boasts of the gaming capabilities of the Tegra 3's 12-core GPU.

The tablet comes preloaded with a variety of media to get you started. There is the book "The Bourne Dominion," by Eric van Lustbader; digital facsimiles of various magazines, including issues of Esquire, Popular Science, and Family Circle; songs by Merle Haggard, Coldplay, the Rolling Stones, and others; and a copy of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," a movie that currently enjoys a 35 percent approval rating on rottentomatoes.com.

But if Google has lousy taste in movies, it also has a very smart tablet offering in the Nexus 7. In pairing Google Play's media and entertainment offerings with superior hardware at the $199 price point, Google has set its sights squarely on Amazon and the Kindle Fire. One wonders if Samsung and other hardware partners of Google are also ducking for cover.

This article, "Google's Nexus 7 douses Kindle Fire," 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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