Google's brand new Nexus 7 represents a clean slate for Android tablets. It also may be the answer for consumers asking, "Which tablet should I buy now?" — certainly those conscious of cost and not wedded to a bigger display.
Though you'll find decent tablet computers that run on Google's Android mobile operating system, none has truly distinguished itself so far. Android slates, even the best of them, live in the shadow of the Apple iPad. Google's software isn't as friendly for tablets as is Apple's iOS. The total number of Android apps designed for tablets is skimpy by comparison with Apple. And Android is barely even recognizable on the Kindle Fire from Amazon and the Nook Color from Barnes & Noble — both of which put their own custom user interface on top of Android.
But Nexus 7 aims to light a fire under Android tablets and comes with the latest Android software, version 4.1 Jelly Bean. In two to three weeks, the device ships to consumers who pre-ordered it. And, with a major assist from Taiwanese hardware partner Asus, it is a dandy if imperfect offering that may do well, especially given its sweet $199 price, which matches the Fire, and deeply undercuts the iPad.
The 12-ounce Nexus 7 is thin and light, fast and fluid and responsive to the touch. Switching apps is a breeze. Its rubbery back is comfortable to hold, and it feels like a tablet that costs more. I like the improvements Google has made with Jelly Bean. The battery life is good. The standard Google Chrome browser was fine.
Google sweetens the deal further by throwing in the Transformers: Dark of the Moon movie, The Bourne Dominion eBook, music from Coldplay and the Rolling Stones, and some magazines, a new category for the Google Play Store. Plus there's a $25 credit to purchase, movies, music, apps, books and magazines in Google Play.
Other Nexus 7 features:
Search. Building on its strengths in search, Google includes a potentially helpful location-based feature called Google Now, which tells you the weather or nearby bus and train schedules without you having to request it. There's also a voice search feature, similar to Apple's Siri. Sometimes Google responds to a voice query with its own clear female voice, such as when I asked it to tell me how old Barack Obama is or how the Yankees did. Other times, if answers are more ambiguous, you get standard Google search results without the voice — and they are not always on the mark. When I asked for "some nearby interesting places" from my location in New Jersey, results were given for LA and Toronto.
Screen size. On the hardware side, the Nexus 7 is no match for the iPad, but then it's $300 cheaper than the least expensive of the latest Apple tablets. The 7-inch screen on the Nexus 7, however impressive, is far smaller than the near 10-inch display on the iPad and not as sharp as its super-crisp "Retina display." I found reading magazines a bit of a challenge.
Camera. The most recent iPads have rear-facing cameras to complement the front-facing one. On the Nexus 7 you get only a front camera, which you can use for Skype calls, video chats via Google+ Hangouts, and to unlock the screen through facial recognition. Fortunately, you can also unlock the screen with a passcode should your face not be recognized, as was sometimes the case with my mug.