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Jelly Bean on a 7" tablet
Like other Nexus-branded devices, Google's new tablet serves up the OS without any embellishment. This is Android 4.1 as Google intended it, with no extra skins, widgets, or features tacked on. Nexus devices are also first in line when new Android flavors are ready for public consumption. Third-party tablet makers can take months to port new OS releases to their products, if they bother at all.

As if Project Butter's interface lubrication weren't enough reason to want Android 4.1, the OS includes a number of other enhancements. Some are better than others, and a few things are a little frustrating. Let's start with the home screen, since that's the first thing that pops up to greet the user.

The screenshot above isn't the default configuration; I've moved things around and added a few widgets. Doing so was even easier than on Ice Cream Sandwich. With Jelly Bean, home-screen icons move out of the way when you try to drag another icon onto the same spot on the grid. They also reshuffle to make way for widgets. If there isn't enough room, widgets will resize themselves automatically to fit. Unwanted icons and widgets can be tossed off the screen with a quick flick, as well.

One of the nicest things about Android is the highly configurable home screen. Jelly Bean makes the customization process that much easier, especially for folks who really like to load up on apps and widgets.

Unfortunately, Google has also made the Nexus 7's home screen more restrictive. The screen is locked into portrait mode, with no option to rotate to a landscape configuration without third-party tools. This limitation doesn't affect applications, including Google's own, which are free to rotate with changes to the tablet's physical orientation.

For most apps, portrait mode works best, and the locked home screen isn't an issue. However, movies and games definitely favor the landscape orientation. Exiting an app in landscape mode to find the home screen rotated 90 degrees is an annoyance that could have been avoided easily.

Chrome is the default browser for Jelly Bean. In fact, it's the only one that comes with the OS. The old Android browser is nowhere to be found, and for the most part, I don't miss it. Chrome for Android nicely synchronizes with Chrome on my desktop. It's also good at avoiding the mobile versions of websites, which are prone to pop up on the old browser.

That said, I miss the old browser's quick controls, which allow users to drag in an array of navigation buttons from either side of the screen. Navigating with Chrome is a little slower without the quick controls, and I hope Google brings them back. A more robust suite of navigation gestures would be even better. Right now, Chrome gestures seem to be limited to quick flicks to switch between tabs.

As you can see above, Chrome doesn't fill the entire screen. Android letterboxes the browser and other applications with a status bar up top and a navigation bar below. Two bars seem excessive given the screen real estate they consume. In portrait mode, applications are given only 1161 vertical pixels, 119 fewer than the 1280 available on the screen. Rotating to portrait mode yields an effective resolution of 1280x692, sacrificing 108 vertical pixels.

If the bars were packed with useful information, they would be easier to tolerate. But the one below never has more than the three small icons you see pictured. The status bar up top is usually pretty spartan. It doesn't even display the date, and the battery life indicator lacks a numerical percentage. A decent amount of screen area could be saved if Google consolidated the two bars.

Swiping down from the top status bar reveals the notification area, which displays messages related to incoming email, calendar events, application updates, and the like. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen launches Google Now, a new feature in Jelly Bean that loads relevant information automatically based on your preferences, schedule, and geographic location.

If you have an upcoming appointment at a different location, Google Now will tell you how early you need to leave. It's capable of checking traffic reports to suggest alternate routes for your morning commute, and if the GPS detects you're at a transit stop, Google Now will tell you when the next bus or train is scheduled to arrive. Weather report? Check.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. Google Now can show airline flight status based on recent searches. It knows to display translation and currency conversion information when you're traveling, and it'll even keep track of sports scores for your favorite teams. Best of all, Google Now compiles and displays this information automatically. Users can decide which info "cards" are displayed and adjust the priority level associated with each one.

The Google Now interface also includes search functionality. Questions and search criteria can be typed in using the on-screen keyboard or spoken, Siri-style. The voice recognition works well, and you don't need to be online to use it. Google's voice recognition engine has been integrated into the operating system, allowing dictation without a 'net connection.

One thing Google didn't integrate into the OS is a file manager. Worry not, though. When connected to a PC, the Nexus 7 yields full access to the contents of its internal storage. Files and folders can be dragged to and from the device with ease. File management apps are available via the Google Play store, too.

Incidentally, Google includes a $25 Play credit with the Nexus 7. Users can spend that credit on applications, games, or selections from the Play store's growing media library. I highly recommend Jump Desktop for RDC sessions. The Play store also has a number of games optimized for the Nexus' Tegra 3 processor. To be honest, though, most of the things I do with a tablet are covered nicely by Android's native applications and the ones Google and others offer for free.