Tablets are kind of a big deal. They’re not going to unseat PCs anytime soon, but in just a couple of years, they’ve become prized accessories for an awful lot of consumers. Right now, the hottest tablet on the market is Google’s new Nexus 7.
The Nexus 7 is Google’s first attempt at selling its own tablet, and the company has taken an interesting approach. Instead of targeting the $499 iPad and its 10″ competition, the 7″ Nexus starts at just $199. The smaller size and affordable price tag make Google’s latest look like more of a rival for Amazon’s Kindle Fire. Make no mistake, though: the Nexus 7 is an entirely different animal.
Unlike the Kindle Fire, which has a relatively slow processor, a netbook-like 1024×600 display resolution, and an old version of Android that’s been heavily customized and locked into Amazon’s ecosystem, the Nexus 7 more closely resembles a cutting-edge tablet. It has a Tegra 3 SoC, just like leading Android alternatives. The tablet’s IPS panel boasts 1280×800 pixels, matching the resolution of most 10-inchers. Perhaps most importantly, the device comes loaded with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, the very latest version of Google smartphone and tablet OS.
That combination of elements makes the Nexus 7 rather unique in the burgeoning tablet market—and a potential bargain. We’ve been playing with ours for more than a week now. Let’s take a closer look.
The tweener of tablets
The first thing you’ll notice about the Nexus 7 is that it’s sort of a tweener, wedged between 10″ tablets and new “superphones” with screen sizes in the 4-5″ range. Modern superphones are really just miniature tablets, and the Nexus 7 provides an incremental step between them and larger slates. Here’s how the Nexus’ 7.8″ x 4.7″ footprint looks next to Samsung’s Galaxy S III and Asus’ Transformer Pad Infinity. I’m sure you can guess which one is the 10″ tablet and which is the handset.
Yep, there’s your mid-way point. The Nexus 7 fills the gap between the Galaxy S III and Transformer Pad Infinity quite nicely. However, at 10.4 mm thick, it’s a little beefier than those devices. For reference, we’ve stacked all three on top of Asus’ first-generation Transformer tablet, which is a little thicker than the Nexus.
Really, you’re only looking at differences of a few millimeters. While the Nexus 7 may not be as svelte as some other touchscreen devices, it’s lighter than most tablets. The Nexus tips the scales at 0.75 lbs, or a little more than half the weight of the Transformer Pad Infinity. The difference is immediately noticeable, especially when holding the device with one hand.
Whether the weight savings matters when the Nexus 7 is slung over a shoulder with a bunch of other gear is debatable. The smaller proportions should make the tablet easier to stuff into a bag than its 10″ peers, though. My girlfriend tells me the Nexus is small enough to be purse-sized, but only just. It will surely slip into hipster man-purses alongside a Moleskine notebook, and one could probably squeeze the Nexus 7 into an ironic fanny pack. The tablet’s a little too long for the pockets of my cargo shorts, though.
Google seems to expect folks to tuck the Nexus 7 into the back of their pants. At least that’s the message I get from this bizarre promotional video, in which UFC star Georges St. Pierre fights off a trio of ninjas with a Nexus 7 pressed up against his underoos. Hope he didn’t break a sweat.
A touch of style
Then again, the Nexus 7’s synthetic back looks like it might be somewhat absorbent. The material reminds me a little of pleather; it has a soft feel, and the black surface resists ugly fingerprints and smudges. There’s enough texture for a good grip, too.
The back isn’t quite leather, but the silver band running around the outside edge is real metal according to Asus, which manufactures the Nexus 7 to Google’s specifications. There’s no need to worry about holding the Nexus wrong. The metal strip doesn’t seem to hamper the tablet’s Wi-Fi or GPS performance.
The Nexus 7’s only ports are located at the bottom of the device. There’s a 3.5-mm audio jack for headsets and a Micro USB port for the included charger. USB peripherals and storage devices can be connected, as well, but only after rooting the tablet and installing third-party software. Google seems intent on users tapping into cloud-based storage, which may be why the Nexus 7 lacks an SD slot. The tablet itself comes with 8GB or 16GB of internal storage.
The speaker can also be found along the bottom edge of the device. It’s located in the middle and shouldn’t be obscured when you’re holding the tablet in portrait mode. Switching to landscape mode can muffle the speaker depending on how the tablet is held.
The speaker’s sound quality is only average, but we have to give credit to Google for the built-in microphones. There are two of them on the device, and they do a good job of picking up Skype chatter and input for voice searches, even when one holds the Nexus at arm’s length. You’ll want to be in a reasonably quiet environment to get the best results, though.
Note the lack of a lens on the back of the Nexus 7. Google elected to leave a rear-facing camera off the device, which suits us just fine. Taking pictures with a tablet has always felt awkward, and it looks supremely dorky. The front-facing shooter offers a 1.2-megapixel resolution and should be sufficient for video calls.
|Processor||Nvidia Tegra 3 T30L 1.2/1.3GHz with GeForce graphics|
|Display||7″ IPS TFT with 1280×800 resolution|
|Ports||1 analog audio headphone/mic port
1 Micro USB
|Input devices||10-finger capacitive touchscreen|
|Dimensions||7.8″ x 4.7″ x 0.41″ (198 x 120 x 10.4 mm)|
|Weight||0.75 lbs (340 grams)|
Under the hood, the Nexus 7 features the same Nvidia Tegra 3 T30L processor found in the Transformer Pad 300, which starts at $380. This SoC has a novel architecture that alternates between a single, low-power “companion” core and a cluster of four high-speed cores. All the cores are based on the ARM Cortex-A9. While the companion core tops out at 500MHz, the quad-core cluster can ramp clock speeds up to 1.2GHz with all cores active or 1.3GHz with a single core. The chip is intelligent enough to cut power to unneeded cores, and it can dynamically adjust clock speeds based on system demand.
The Tegra 3’s five CPU cores are complemented by an integrated GeForce GPU boasting 12 “cores” of its own. Nvidia has revealed little about the nuts and bolts of this graphics processor, but it typically refers to ALUs as graphics cores. We do know the built-in GeForce has dedicated logic for video encoding and decoding.
A trio of wireless connectivity options round out the Nexus 7’s spec sheet. 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are a given, of course, and Google has added Near Field Communication (NFC) to the mix. The tablet also features a GPS unit, an accelerometer, and a gyroscope. Despite the bargain price, Google has left few features on the cutting-room floor. It’s worth noting that there’s no option for cellular broadband, though. You’ll need to tether or seek out Wi-Fi hotspots when on the go.
It might seem like a small detail, but I’ve gotta give Google credit for equipping the Nexus 7 with a tiny wall charger coated in matte plastic. Asus has been using glossy wall warts for its Transformer tablets, and they always seem to get coated with fingerprints here in the Benchmarking Sweatshop. Unfortunately, the Nexus’ accompanying cable has glossy plugs on either end. I had to wipe those down with a microfiber cloth to make sure the accumulated smudges didn’t show up in the picture above.
Lots of pixels on a smaller screen
After unpacking the Nexus 7, I was excited to see that the screen’s bezel is much narrower on the left and right edges when the tablet is held in portrait mode. Typical tablet bezels measure around 20 mm wide, but the Nexus’ screen is framed by only 10 mm of bezel on two sides. Smaller bezels are better, right?
On a monitor, sure, but not necessarily on a handheld device. When I hold a tablet in one hand, my thumb naturally rests on the bezel. 20-mm bezels have plenty of room for the thumbs on my XL-sized hands, but the Nexus 7’s narrower frame does not. Unless I’m careful, my thumb invariably activates the touchscreen, generating unwanted clicks and sometimes messing with gestures I’m performing with the other hand. I’m learning to hold the device with my thumb in a more vertical position, which seems to stave off inadvertent screen contact. Because the Nexus 7 is so small, it can also be cradled in one hand, with the edges securely pinched between one’s thumb and fingertips and no contact with the bezel at all.
The Corning glass panel that stretches across the screen and the surrounding bezel is highly reflective, but the LCD’s backlight has more than enough punch to overpower reflections in normal indoor lighting. The picture above was taken with the brightness set at just 25%, which is where it stayed for most of our testing.
While the lower brightness level is sufficient for indoor use, you’ll need to crank the slider all the way up to do any reading in direct sunlight. Even then, anything other than dark text on a light background is difficult to make out.
According to our colorimeter, the screen has a maximum luminosity of 298 cd/m², putting the Nexus 7 at the low end of the tablets we’ve tested. That’s not a surprise given the price tag, and it certainly doesn’t impede the tablet’s readability when the backlight isn’t forced to compete with the hail of photons raining down from the sun.
Another factor that affects the display’s readability is its pixel density and overall size. 1280×800 pixels packed into a 7″ panel works out to 216 PPI, or pixels per inch. That’s much higher than the 149 PPI offered by the same resolution on a 10″ panel and pretty close to the 224 PPI delivered by the 10″, 1920×1200 Transformer Pad Infinity.
Let’s see how the on-screen text looks up close. The pictures below are of the Chrome browser’s output on three tablets: the Nexus 7, the original Transformer (which has 10″, 1280×800 display), and the Transformer Pad Infinity. Each tablet was configured in portrait mode, with the browsers zoomed in to show only the main text column from Scott’s article on Nvidia’s “Big Kepler” GPU. The camera lens was placed exactly 5″ from the surface of the screens, and all the images were cropped and resized in the same way. That should give us a sense of the relative differences in text and pixel size.
The Nexus 7’s pixels look almost as small as those of the Infinity. They’re tiny compared to the old Transformer and pretty much invisible to the naked eye when holding the tablet at a reasonable distance. Thanks to its higher PPI, the Nexus 7’s text is much clearer than the old Transformer’s, with fewer jagged edges. The Infinity’s text output is crisper still, but the iPad 3’s 264-PPI Retina panel tops them all.
There’s also the matter of size. As you can see, the Nexus 7’s text is substantially smaller. Remember that we’re browsing a desktop site with the main text column filling the screen on all three tablets. Sites optimized for mobile devices should default to a larger font, and some folks might find surfing mobile sites on the Nexus more comfortable as a result. My less-than-perfect eyes can still make out the text on desktop versions of the handful of sites I read regularly, so I haven’t resorted to browsing their mobile variants. Text size is less of an issue with apps like Gmail and the Kindle e-reader, which feature adjustable font sizes.
Our final step in display analysis probes the screen’s color reproduction using our colorimeter. Below are the color gamut graphs for the Nexus 7 and a handful of other recent tablets at a screen brightness of ~120 cd/m². Click the buttons under the graph to load up the one associated with each tablet. You might have to wait a second or two for a new image to load after each click.
The Nexus 7’s IPS panel covers a decent swath of the spectrum. It’s definitely biased toward blue and red tones and a little short on shades of green and yellow. Neither the Nexus 7 nor the Transformers comes close to matching the glorious color reproduction of the iPad 3’s Retina panel.
We can also use our colorimeter to measure color temperature. Here, we’re looking for a value close to 6500K, which is the temperature of typical daylight. Again, clicking on the buttons below the graph will load up the plot for each tablet.
Although the Nexus 7 rarely hits the 6500K mark exactly, it comes closer to the ideal over a much broader range of gray levels than the high-PPI Transformer Pad Infinity and iPad 3. The Transformer Pad 300 produces slightly better results than the Nexus 7 at all but the 10% gray level. To my eyes, the Google tablet’s whites look neutral, with no apparent hint of other tones.
Some of that whiteness invades the colors, which look a tad washed out versus the Transformer Pad Infinity. I flipped through a collection of particularly colorful images on both tablets side by side, and the difference was hard to miss. On the Nexus 7, blue skies looked slightly hazier, my dog’s copper coat appeared a bit sun-bleached, and green foliage lacked a smidgen of lushness. It was as if a little life had been sucked from the rainbow.
The Tegra 3 SoC may be responsible for the paler tones. The Nexus 7 takes advantage of the chip’s Pixel Rendering Intensity and Saturation Management (PRISM) scheme, which is supposed to conserve battery life by dimming the backlight and “enhancing” the colors to compensate. Some richness may be lost in the translation.
Don’t get me wrong; the Nexus 7’s display still looks good overall, and it’s a heckuva lot better than the cheap TN panels we’ve seen in all too many netbooks in the same price range. The 7″ display has wide viewing angles, too. Just don’t expect its output to be quite as vivid as the best examples on the market. Naturally, those displays are reserved for high-end tablets that cost a lot more than the Nexus.
Butter makes a good Android lubricant
The Nexus 7 features the latest version of Android, version 4.1 Jelly Bean, and the new release is really a big step forward. Its most compelling feature is a series of responsiveness optimizations that fall under the Project Butter umbrella. I don’t know where Google comes up with these code names, but slathering jelly beans in butter sounds like something Homer Simpson might do.
Project Butter aims to improve responsiveness in several ways, including the requisite internal latency reductions. More specifically, everything in the OS, from app rendering to touchscreen processing to screen composition, now runs at 60Hz and is synchronized with the refresh rate of the LCD using vsync. Triple buffering has also been implemented to ensure the OS always has a new frame ready for the next display refresh. The end result is a more fluid user interface than Android 4.0, otherwise known as Ice Cream Sandwich.
Don’t take our word for it, though. We’ve managed to capture Project Butter’s payoff using a high-speed camera shooting 240 frames per second. In the videos below, you can see the difference between the Nexus 7’s UI animations and those of the Transformer and Transformer Pad Infinity, which are both running Ice Cream Sandwich. The first set of videos shows the application screen loading up before we return to the home screen.
Animations don’t necessarily execute any quicker on the Nexus than on the Transformers, but the results are much smoother. Even the Infinity, which has a faster Tegra 3 processor, suffers from visible hitching when compared to the Nexus 7. Incidentally, that UI hitching is called “janking” in programmer-speak.
When looking at these videos, keep in mind that the old Transformer uses a dual-core Tegra chip running at just 1GHz. I’m curious to see how much more responsive this older tablet would feel with a Jelly Bean update. Asus has committed to bringing Android 4.1 to the Transformer Pad Infinity, but the original Transformer may be too old to qualify for an upgrade.
Next, we’re going to look at Android’s multitasking interface. The difference should be easy to spot.
Ice Cream Sandwich exhibits a lot of janking on the Transformers. The Nexus 7 feels as smooth as it looks, and the improved responsiveness permeates the entire user interface. Even the touchscreen seems more responsive. Google has made optimizations there, too.
The most interesting touchscreen tweak is actually a response to the power-saving tech built into modern processors. SoCs like the Tegra 3 reduce the clock speed of their CPU cores during idle periods. To prevent idling processors from slowing the response to user input, Jelly Bean ramps up the CPU clock speed the moment it detects touchscreen contact.
To make touchscreen input feel more natural, the OS tracks touch events based on the anticipated position of one’s finger when the screen refreshes. The finger’s trajectory is used to determine that position, and the scheme works pretty well in practice. Compared to other Android tablets, the Nexus 7 seems to exhibit less latency when dragging icons around the home screen. We won’t be satisfied until the difference is illustrated by more high-speed footage, but there wasn’t enough time to make that happen for this review.
We also have plans for high-speed tests against the new iPad, which is the gold standard for tablet responsiveness. My seat-of-the-pants impression is that the Nexus 7’s UI is now on par with the iPad, at least in terms of smoothness. Since the tablets have different user interfaces, we’re going to have to get creative to come up with meaningful comparisons. Stay tuned.
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 1280×692, 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.
Our testing methods
The following page covers all the nerdy details related to our test methods and systems. If you’re already familiar with how we do things around here, feel free to skip ahead to the performance results.
To put the Nexus 7’s performance in perspective, we tested the tablet against a wide range of competitors, including the full lineup of Asus’ Transformers, the Galaxy Tab 10.1, the Kindle Fire, and the last two iPads. Most of the Transformers offer multiple operating modes with different performance levels. We tested those tablets in all of their possible configurations. Despite the fact that the Nexus 7 is also manufactured by Asus, the Google tablet has only one operating mode.
Here are the key details for the systems we tested:
|System||Processor||Screen size||Display resolution||Memory||Storage||OS|
|Galaxy Tab 10.1||Nvidia Tegra 2||10.1″||1280×800||1GB||16GB||Android 3.2|
|iPad 2||Apple A5||9.7″||1024×768||512MB||16GB||iOS 5.1|
|iPad 3||Apple A5X||9.7″||2048×1536||1GB||16GB||iOS 5.1.1|
|Kindle Fire||TI OMAP 4430||7″||1024×600||512MB||8GB||Android 2.3|
|Nexus 7||Nvidia Tegra 3||7″||1280×800||1GB||16GB||Android 4.1|
|Transformer||Nvidia Tegra 2||10.1″||1280×800||1GB||16GB||Android 4.0|
|Transformer Pad 300||Nvidia Tegra 3||10.1″||1280×800||1GB||64GB||Android 4.0|
|Transformer Pad Infinity||Nvidia Tegra 3||10.1″||1920×1200||1GB||64GB||Android 4.0|
|Transformer Prime||Nvidia Tegra 3||10.1″||1280×800||1GB||32GB||Android 4.0|
We’re still working out the best ways to test tablet performance, and I expect we’ll be using the high-speed camera more in future reviews. For now, standard benchmarks give us an easy way to assess relative performance across a broad array of contenders. We used the following test applications:
Unfortunately, the Kindle and the iPads won’t be able to participate in all our tests due the availability of benchmark applications on each platform. The Fire needs to be rooted to access the Play store, and the iPads run an entirely different operating system that requires separate binaries.
Some further notes on our methods:
- Our web-surfing tests were run inside the native browser on each device. Silk, the Kindle’s cloud-based web renderer, was disabled throughout because it actually delivers a slower real-world browsing experience than letting the device request pages itself.
- GLBenchmark was tested with its standard and offscreen modes. The standard tests run at the native resolution and often invoke vsync, which can’t be disabled. The offscreen tests run at 1280×720 but aren’t shown on the screen, preventing vsync from artificially limiting the performance of the graphics processor.
The iPad 2 and Galaxy Tab 10.1 were tested with an older version of GLBenchmark than the other tablets. We’ve included the results for reference, but they’re not directly comparable.
- We did our best to match the screen brightness of each tablet before our battery life tests. The original Transformer, the Transformer Prime, and the Transformer Pad 300 were all configured with a ~40% brightness level. The Infinity’s screen is a tad darker, so it took a brightness setting closer to 50%. Matching that level on the Nexus 7 took the brightness slider up to around 25%. That seemed a little low, but we confirmed with our colorimeter that the brightness levels were comparable.
All battery life testing was conducted with the Transformers running in balanced mode. After being run dry for a first test, those tablets were connected to their optional keyboard docks, which include secondary batteries, for a second round.
- The longest idle interval allowed by the Nexus 7 is 30 minutes, complicating our battery testing. We had to manually refresh the Nexus’ browser window every 29 minutes to ensure the tablet didn’t nap during our web-surfing test. Manual intervention wasn’t necessary to keep the Nexus awake during our movie playback test.
The tests and methods we employ are generally publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
Let’s see how the Nexus 7 stacks up against a wide range of competitors, including the latest iPads, the Kindle Fire, the Galaxy Tab 10.1, and all of Asus’ Transformer tablets. We’ll starting with Linpack, which measures raw CPU performance. Unfortunately, the iOS version of Linpack appears to be quite different from the one available on the Android Market, so the Apple tablets are going to sit out this round. Since the variant of Linpack available through the Amazon Appstore doesn’t specify whether it’s a single- or multithreaded build, the Kindle Fire will also be riding the pine.
The Nexus 7 scores higher than the Transformer Pad 300 in both tests. Since the two tablets use the same Tegra 3 T30L processor, it looks like Jelly Bean offers a nice boost to CPU performance over Ice Cream Sandwich. All the Transformers are running ICS, while the Galaxy Tab is saddled with an older version of Android.
In the multithreaded test, the Nexus cranks out more MFLOPs than even the Transformer Pad Infinity, whose Tegra 3 variant has much higher clock speeds than the T30L. Seems like Jelly Bean is not only faster for single-threaded loads, but also more adept at exploiting multi-core processors.
I wouldn’t make too much of the Transformer Prime’s high scores in the multithreaded test. We tested that tablet back in February with an older version of Ice Cream Sandwich. The Prime has since gone back to Asus, so we haven’t had the opportunity to retest it with a newer build of the OS.
Impressive. The Nexus 7 steals the top spot from the iPads, putting the Google tablet well ahead of its closest Android rival.
Google’s lead over the competition is even larger in Peacekeeper, where the Nexus 7 beats the second-place iPad 3 by nearly 100 points.
As it turns out, the Nexus 7’s strong web-browsing performance has more to do with Chrome than anything else. We ran SunSpider and Peacekeeper on the Transformer Pad Infinity using Chrome, and the tablet scored higher than the Nexus 7 in both benchmarks. It’s also worth noting that Chrome completes two of Peacekeeper’s seven HTML5 tests, while the default browsers on the other tablets can run just one of those tests.
Our look at graphics performance starts with GLBenchmark, which uses OpenGL ES 2.0 and is available for both Android and iOS. GLBenchmark isn’t available through the Amazon Appstore, forcing the Kindle out of the action for another round. The Transformer Prime will also have to sit this one out; GLBenchmark didn’t play nicely with Ice Cream Sandwich when we tested that tablet early last year. The Prime has since gone back to Asus, so we haven’t been able to retest it.
The Nexus 7 is a little bit faster than the Transformer Pad 300 in GLBenchmark, suggesting that Jelly Bean offers slightly better graphics performance than Ice Cream Sandwich. Although it has a higher-clocked Tegra processor with the same GeForce GPU, the Transformer Pad Infinity scores lower than the Nexus 7 in the standard tests because it’s rendering the scenes at a much higher 1920×1200 resolution.
Of course, we should also note the dominating performance of the iPads in the offscreen tests. Apple’s tablet processors have much more potent graphics hardware than the Tegra 3.
We have one more graphics performance test: Basemark ES 2.0 Taiji. Unfortunately, the free version isn’t yet available on iOS, so the iPads will have to join the Kindle on the sidelines.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Nexus 7 has a big lead over the Transformers in Basemark. This test may tax the CPU more than GLBenchmark, and thus benefit from whatever optimizations are responsible for the Nexus 7’s improved Linpack performance.
Testing battery life is quite time-consuming when you’re looking at run times in the 10-hour range, so we only have comparative numbers for the Transformers. First, we’ll tackle web surfing. Our browser test loads up a version of the TR home page and refreshes it every 45 seconds. New ads are loaded each time, and browser plugins are set to “on demand” to prevent Flash from burning through the battery.
Although it finishes in the middle of the pack, a closer inspection of the numbers reveals that the Nexus 7 is beaten only by the Transformer tablets paired with their optional keyboard docks, which boast auxiliary batteries. The Google tablet’s 10 hours of web-surfing time is better than all the other stand-alone tablets we’ve tested.
Our second battery life test repeats an hour-long 480p video clip encoded with H.264. We use the ad-supported DicePlayer app, which works with the video decoding mojo in the Tegra 2 and 3 SoCs. This test is run in airplane mode, with Wi-Fi disabled.
The Nexus 7 ran this test for about 30 minutes longer than its next-closest competitor, the Transformer Pad 300. Obviously, the Google tablet didn’t match the run times offered by the dock-equipped Transformers and their secondary power cells.
We haven’t had enough time to test it yet, but the Nexus 7 seems to have much lower standby power than the Transformers. Google says the tablet will run for 300 hours on standby, which is much longer than we’d expect from the Asus tablets given our experience with them. The iPad 3 also offers impressively low standby power; we’ll have to compare it to the Nexus and the other tablets we have in-house.
The Nexus 7 is not a perfect tablet. Despite all its buttery smoothness, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean still has some annoying quirks. The lack of expandable storage is disappointing, too, especially since there’s a midget USB port on board. Then there’s the screen, which is smaller than what you’ll find on 10-inchers and not quite as vibrant as the best tablet displays we’ve used.
But the Nexus 7 starts at just $199. For 200 bucks, we can forgive a few flaws.
Well, except for the premium on the 16GB version. There’s no way another 8GB of NAND costs anything close to the $50 Google is charging. The $25 Play credit does little to soften the blow, since it also comes with the 8GB version.
Even at $250, though, the Nexus 7 is a sweet deal. It’ll easily last more than 10 hours on a single charge. The 7″ screen has a decent resolution, and its pixels are small enough to deliver crisp text and sharp images. Plus, you’re getting a Tegra 3 SoC with plenty of horsepower. Thanks to Jelly Bean’s responsiveness optimizations, Android feels much more fluid on the Nexus 7 than the other Tegra 3 tablets we’ve used. Until those rivals get upgraded to the same OS or something better comes along, the Nexus 7 will be the fastest Android tablet around. Thanks to Google Now, it will also be the smartest.
Really, it’s amazing how much the bar has been raised for budget 7″ tablets. We’ve come a long way since the Kindle Fire, which isn’t even a year old. Amazon’s first foray into the tablet market quickly became the best-selling Android tablet, and I suspect it won’t be long before that title is passed to the Nexus 7. Then again, new Kindle tablets are purportedly on the way. Rumors also suggest Apple is working on a cheaper, smaller version of the iPad. The market for mini tablets looks like it’s about to get a lot more crowded.
The Nexus 7 is good enough that I wouldn’t hold my breath hoping for something substantially better from the other guys. After all, the tablet’s most frustrating weaknesses—the lack of expandable storage and USB peripheral support—are likely to persist in anything released by Amazon or Apple. While Acer’s upcoming 7″ Iconia A110 has a Micro SD slot and the same Tegra 3 processor as the Nexus, the screen offers only 1024×600 pixels, and there’s no word on Jelly Bean support.
Overall, the Nexus 7 makes fewer compromises than any other tablet in its price range. More importantly, it’s a very good tablet with a ticket to future Android updates. Those factors make the Nexus 7 an obvious Editor’s Choice. Were it not for my preference for 10″ devices, I’d have ordered one for myself already.