July 5, 2012 -- There are a lot of things you can buy for $200: a plane ticket from New York to Orlando (if you book it early enough), two tickets to see Madonna in concert (again, if you get them early enough), and a pair of nice shoes. You can also buy a 7-inch Android tablet.
In fact, you have a selection of three 7-inch tablets to choose from at that price: the Amazon Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet, and the most recent addition, Google's Nexus 7.
The last one in that list is the newest kid on the block, and is the result of a partnership between Google and Asus. But is the latecomer the best $200 tablet on the market?
Hardware-wise the Nexus 7 single-handedly beats the $200 tablet competition, especially on screen quality. The tablet has a 1280 x 800-resolution IPS display, which is higher resolution than the displays on both B&N's and Amazon's tablets. Books and HD video look very crisp on the tablet and you can see what's on screen from all angles. It's not as crisp as the Retina Display on the new iPad, but that's a sacrifice I expect at this price.
I also prefer the design to the others. While the Nook Tablet has a unique design with a hook in its right corner, the Nexus 7 is more solidly built. It also has a nice grippy, rubberish back, which not only makes it comfortable to hold but gives it more personality than the Kindle Fire's plain jane design.
The 10.45-mm thick tablet, weighs only .74 pounds and is very easy to hold up in one hand. You'll want to check out our guide to tablet sizes -- but the 7-inch size is really best for one-handed use and reading while lying down.And despite its small size, the tablet still lasts long on a charge; the tablet lasts two days of on and off use before needing a charge.
The Nexus 7 doesn't have a camera on its back, which might be disappointing to some, but it does have a front-facing camera. However, you can really only use the front cam for video chatting since there is no camera app on the tablet. Video chatting with a friend through Google's Chat app was smooth experience, though he did complain about the quality being a bit grainy.
However, what the Nexus lacks in camera hardware it makes up for with its internal hardware. The tablet is powered by a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and 1GB of RAM, which makes the tablet very snappy. Swiping through menus is smooth and scrolling through long webpages is what Google's Android team is hoping I'll describe as buttery.
And that's because one of the new features in Android 4.1, or Jelly Bean, is its "Butter" enhancements, which refers to the new "buttery graphics and silky transitions." The software has been made to respond faster to finger swipes and gestures. And in use that new feature holds up: apps open fast and scrolling in the new Chrome browser is faster than not only the Kindle Fire but other Android tablets on the market.
But there are some other new features in Jelly Bean that also make it better than those other Android tablets out there. (The Nexus 7 is the first device to run Android 4.1 -- Jelly Bean.) Google has enhanced the notification tray with expandable notifications, which show more about your alerts. But the biggest addition is Google Now, a voice-enabled search option similar to Apple's Siri.
Tap the microphone on the search bar or hold down the home button and you can ask Google Now to search for the best restaurants in the area or for the name of the cast in "Nurse Jackie." The results will show up as cards in the app. But the uses extend beyond just search. You can ask Google Now for the weather in New York and it will state out loud -- in a much nicer and gentler voice than Siri -- the current temperature there. And it can do even more: It regularly shows the directions to locations you search for and once it learns your daily patterns it will show your weather, your favorite team's score, etc.
I found the service to be consistently accurate, however, it does require a web connection, so testing some of the other features on-the-go was challenging. The Nexus 7 isn't available with 3G or 4G service; there is only a WiFi model available. Additionally, the tablet comes with only 8GB of storage; you can upgrade to the 16GB version for $50 more.
But where Google is hoping you will spend most of your time on this tablet is in its newly revamped Google Play store, which is where you can buy books, movies, TV shows, magazines, music, and apps. In an attempt to go head to head with Apple's iTunes and Amazon's multimedia content offerings, Google has beefed up its offerings, but while there is a good amount of selection now, it lacks the breadth of the competition.
For instance I came up empty handed when I went to search for an episode of "Glee" and "Gossip Girl" in the store (don't judge my media choices!). Similarly, they didn't have some of the magazines I like to read, including People, Wired, and US Weekly. Nevertheless, the content that is in the store looks very nice on the tablet -- magazine images look very vivid and movies are crisp.
Although, there's a slight exception to that statement though when it comes to apps in the Google Play Store. While phone apps do look more acceptable on the smaller screen than on 10-inch tablets, they still aren't as compelling or immersive as the ones available for the iPad. As a whole, iPad apps are sleeker and take advantage of the large screen; apps like Twitter or Flipboard are good examples. (Google is hoping the Nexus tablet urges developers to start focusing more on tablet apps.)
And that's where paying more for a tablet will make the difference. The iPad continues to provide a nicer app experience and better screen. However, for $200 the Nexus 7 isn't only the best of the $200 options but it is really the best choice among any of the Android tablets thanks to its improved software and its top-notch hardware.
Of course, there still are a lot of things you can spend your $200 on, but the Nexus 7 is absolutely the best tablet you can get for that amount of cash.