Tablets are still used primarily as media consumption devices, whether you’re looking over movies, reading over web pages, checking email or listening to music. Apple’s long held the fort with its highly successful line of iPad tablets, with most competitors matching on price, but lacking the kinds of features and application portfolio you get with an iPad.
There’s just one challenge here: while the iPad’s not a hugely expensive proposition, it’s not exactly cheap, and that’s something that a select few tablets have taken head on. The problem with cheap tablets to date is that they’ve been cheap but lacking in quality; you generally got older versions of Android, poor quality screens or limited scope for advancement.
Enter Google, with a rebranded Asus tablet called the Nexus 7; it promised a high quality Android experience — running the latest version of Android with access to all of Google’s entertainment goodies. To make matters sweeter for Australians, we were chosen as one of the launch markets for the Nexus 7, which you can buy in either an 8GB or 16GB variation, at $249 and $299 respectively — plus $19 shipping. Alternately, by the end of the month, you’ll be able to purchase it at a variety of retailers with the shipping costs built in.
But should you? It’s an interesting question; just prior to my own Nexus 7 turning up, I was sent a review sample of Kogan’s even cheaper 10 inch “Agora” tablet. It’s an interesting compromise machine that hits the old targets for cheap Android tablets; it does run “Ice Cream Sandwich” (the version of Android immediately prior to “Jelly Bean”), with HDMI output for TV presentation and the capability to add storage via MicroSD card. On the downside the screen, battery life and processor performance is pretty mediocre. You get what you pay for at $179; it’s cheap and cheerful stuff in essence.
The Nexus 7 is a little more expensive, but the experience is a lot better. For a start, the internal processor is a lot faster, and that, combined with some of the optimisation that Google’s put into Jelly Bean leads to a much more enjoyable tablet experience. Whether or not you prefer a 7 or 10 inch display screen is largely a matter of taste; you can’t get the Nexus 7 in anything but a 7 inch configuration just yet, but I haven’t found that to be too much of a problem in day to day use, and the added portability of the smaller tablet size is a definite boon.
It’s not all plain sailing, though. The Nexus 7 has no MicroSD expansion capabilities, which means whichever version you buy is set with all the memory it’ll ever have. As such, the 8GB version is tough to recommend; you’d be better off having a little extra memory for the price difference you pay.
The other factor that affects the Nexus 7 is that, while Google’s launched the hardware in Australia, it doesn’t have the full range of services that back it up in the United States available here. This ranges from full use of “Google Now”, which learns your habits as you use the tablet to present virtual cards to you based on the current context. So in theory if you were near a railway station (and had Wi-Fi connectivity; the Nexus 7 has no inbuilt 3G/4G), it would dig up the railway timetables. The problem here is that Google doesn’t have access to a lot of Australian information sources beyond weather; as such Google Now is a bit more like Google Wait, as you’re almost always better off using the integrated Chrome browser to search for the information you need instead.
Google also offers a range of music and TV services overseas that have yet to launch here but that are optimised for the Nexus 7. It’s part of the reason (aside from keeping the price down) that the onboard memory is so low; Google just figures you’ll stream everything. That only works if the services are there to use, but so far, they’re not.
Certainly, put head to head with the Kogan, I’d pick the Nexus 7 in a heartbeat, even though it’s a more expensive proposition. For those who don’t want an iPad — which still has a marked edge in terms of application support, screen quality and overall battery life — the Nexus 7 is definitively the next best thing, and an interesting challenge for anyone else making an Android tablet. It’s cheap — and it is pretty darned good too.