A short time ago I tried swapping my iPhone for a Windows Phone 7. If you read my posts on the subject, then you know I learned a lot of interesting things, good and bad, about the platform. This time I’m focused on my tablet. I’m back to try one of the most heavily discussed gadgets this year, the Google Nexus 7.
A Little Perspective…
I have always loved playing with new gadgets. That’s why I was interested in the Nexus 7. But understand this: I come into this as a die-hard iPad user. I have been one ever since the first generation iPad (which I bought just a few weeks after it’s launch). I currently have a current generation iPad 3. So, at this point, I am not wholesale swapping from the iPad to the Nexus. I think they really meet somewhat different needs. So this time around, I’m just going to talk a bit about my initial impressions of the Nexus 7 from the perspective of a long-time iPad fan and a strong iTunes content user.
So, Why an Android Device…
Well there are a couple of things at play here, but the biggest driver for me is that I am giving up an Android phone from work (which I had pretty much already stopped using as a phone because I really disliked the Android Gingerbread OS). It was laggy, with weird pauses, and things generally didn’t work very well on it. That said, I still have a few apps on it that I want to keep using. The current Android OS revision, Jellybean is getting good reviews, even if Android device manufacturers seem to have a difficult time getting the OS out there into the hands of real users. So finding a device that ran Jellybean was critical. I really didn’t need another phone since I already have both an iPhone and a Windows Phone that I like a lot.
The second driver for me is that, although I really like my iPad 3, I keep hearing from people who seem to prefer the smaller 7″ format. Because I read a lot of technical documents on my iPad, a 7″ format isn’t likely ideal for me (the higher-resolution screen on the iPad 3 is FAR superior to any of the 7″ tablets out there and means less eye fatigue due to clearer type). But still I wondered if there was a place in my life for a smaller device. Reading paperbacks? Playing games? Light web browsing? In any case, I was curious, but we haven’t seen an iPad Mini (yet). So…since the Nexus 7 has received a large amount of favorable press and reviews and it has a relatively low price tag, I decided to bite.
I was worried because stories on the web made it seem like it would be difficult to find one in stock, but I think that stories of it being “sold out everywhere” have been overstated since I found them readily at numerous places in both the Columbus, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan markets. So I picked one up and started my latest adventure.
Unboxing the Nexus 7 and Turning It On…
I was anxious to unbox the Nexus and see if Android had actually improved and if the device was going to live up to its hype, but I found myself annoyed as I opened the box because the plastic wrap the device was packaged in was put on poorly and the whole mess was stuck to the box lid. Not an auspicious start! But eventually I managed to cut the device out of the poor packaging and plug it in to charge it so the fun could finally begin!
When I turned The Nexus 7 on and completed the Google setup (a very nice clean process), I was greeted with clutter on the screen. You are presented with tiles that represent free movies, books, etc. that you have access to that also link you to Google Play to retrieve the items and purchase more things. Once I cleared away the clutter, though, the home screen looked a lot like other Android devices I have had and used. I don’t know, I guess I was expecting more from Jellybean, but the home screen basically still looks a lot like the iPhone home screen – rows of icons with a lower area hosting the most common apps. Functional, but not really any different from any iPhone or, for that matter, any old Palm OS device I had years ago. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it’s very clean and functional.
Let’s Talk about the Good Stuff…
Let’s talk about the biggest thing first. The rumors are true. The OS lag is finally gone. I have not experienced ANY delay or lag in the OS at all. Google has finally been successful at correcting something that should have been fixed a long time ago, but I am happy to admit, it actually pleases me to be able to say that the OS is smooth. It’s a great thing to see since the random delays and pauses of Android were one of my biggest complaints. In its Jellybean incarnation, the OS feels absolutely smooth and fast. It is a really pleasant surprise and completely unexpected in a device at the low-end of the cost spectrum. Google did an excellent job on that! The OS is finally actually usable!
The device, although thicker than the iPad 3, is reasonably light. It isn’t as light as I hoped and I really don’t find myself getting “less” tired holding it than holding the iPad 3 (which is itself much lighter than my original iPad), but it is definitely smaller and more convenient to carry around (although I don’t have a proper case or sleeve yet!). The screen, although not as bright and clear as the iPad 3, was still very nice and very usable. The iPad, with its better contrasts and it’s much higher resolution will lead to much less eye strain over time, but the Nexus 7, again, is still nicer than I expected at this price point.
Another pleasant surprise was Google Navigate. Although I continue to be disappointed that Google and Apple never came to terms for updating Google Maps or releasing Google Navigate for iOS, I find that I like Google Navigate. Especially for the price of free. I think paid alternatives like Navigon and iGo and Sygic offer more complete solutions and features, but Google Navigate is an excellent app and it looks great running on the Nexus 7!
In general, I don’t find the OS nearly as flexible or customizable (as shipped) as I hoped (and I am NOT about to run an alternate launcher on the device). I do however, like a few of the little touches like the “live” wallpapers. They are clever and entertaining and, under Jellybean, don’t appear to impact the performance of the device. Along similar lines, I have not played with the widgets too much yet, but I’m not a big fan of those types of apps on my desktop either so I suspect they won’t ever be a big part of the experience for me.
I like the fact that Google did what Google does best. When given my Google login credentials only once, the device went out and set up any and all associated Google services I had including Google Play and getting books I had purchased in the past via Google Books. It makes initial setup that much easier, especially if you are heavily invested in Google’s services.
As a little side note – the Amazon Kindle App works very well on Android and takes you smoothly to the Kindle store (a service I wish had not been removed from the iOS versions of their app).
The included $25 credit at the Google Play store is a nice incentive to explore the store. The store itself is not terribly well-organized, but there is a decent amount of content there, but you might have to look a bit to find what you want (I haven’t really purchased anything with the credit yet)!
And Now, the Disappointments…
I have to say that Android apps continue to disappoint me far too often. Multiple times the Google Play store would indicate that an app was compatible with my device, but it still wouldn’t operate completely correctly. By way of illustration, the Detroit Free Press app, which Google Play tells me is compatible, installed and launched, but a couple of screens in, it refuses to scroll stories correctly or allow stories to open up when clicked on.
In another example, Flipboard wouldn’t let me add Google Reader to my sources for 2 days, but then finally decided to work correctly, but I still don’t know what the glitch was (might have been more about the Flipboard service). The point remains, however, that although many apps operate correctly with no problems, there are still many problems and inconsistencies. These kinds of inconsistencies happened to me a little too often and are the kinds of things that lead to frustration. The fact is that you rarely, if ever, experience these kinds of issues on iOS apps – the closed nature of the system mostly prevents that.
On the other side of the street were the big mainstream apps that weren’t available at all for my device. Among the biggest gaps? USA Today and CNN weren’t available. Why? On the iPad, if an app wasn’t available for the tablet you can almost always run the iPhone version. Why not here? No explanation is given.
What Isn’t Bad, but could be Better…
There were a few things that weren’t really bad, but really could have been better. For example, if I have credit on Google Play, I have to either purchase something or go to the Google Wallet to see how much that credit is. With iTunes it is displayed right on the main store page, and I can drill right into my account from there. It’s not that you can’t get the info you need from Google Play, but it’s a little harder to do. As I keep working with the Nexus 7 and with the whole current flavor of the Google ecosystem, I keep thinking how much things have improved on the platform over the last few years, but it continues to disappoint me that so many things (but not all things) are just a little bit harder to do or require a couple more steps in Android than in iOS.
For example, moving content to and from a Macintosh computer. First, you have to go out and get a program to install to allow it to happen. True, you have to also go get iTunes for iOS devices, but iTunes is a lot easier to find and install than the Android File Transfer for Macintosh. It’s not hidden, but it takes a little work to find it. And when you do find it and install it, you find out that it really does nothing more than create a limited USB file mount the Android device. Really? That the best Google could do? The Windows Phone 7 Connector does a better job than that. At least MS wrote an app that ties into the iPhoto and iTunes libraries to allow you to move data directly to/from there (when DRM permits). Google, with all its resources, should have done a better job with the Macintosh connection/transfer piece. To make Mac users find and run a special app just to mount the device the same way a USB mass storage device loads is a little silly. It’s workable, but Google really should have taken the time to make the hooks more useful and functional just like Microsoft did.
Another area that I’ve noticed a lot of improvements and changes is in the are of language keyboards. They have come a long way from the Froyo and Gingerbread days. Many languages have been added, but there are still some quirks. For example, I found that they included Serbian Cyrillic but not Latin keyboards (you can substitute the Croatian Latin keyboard instead), but it’s an annoying omission if that language is important to you.
On another note – I have to say that the audio is a bit weak on the device, both external and via earphones. It wasn’t unusable, but I kept wanting just a little more power.
Something that surprised me was that there is there no simple notepad type app included. Sure, you can get plenty of them at the Google Play store, but it’s such a simple and common thing that phones and PDAs have included since day one so why did they omit it?
I also wasn’t crazy about the Play Movies & TV app, It really does a poor job of organizing things. I copied movies from my Macintosh into the Movies folder on the Android File transfer and it dumps all that material into the area called “Personal Videos”. So movies from Google Play are under the “Movies” tab, but movies you bring from other sources are under “Personal Videos”. It can become a little confusing. Additionally, there’s no way to really separate music videos from other movies. So generally, I thought that media files are not well-organized on the device.
Funny thing is that, despite my criticisms, I like the Google Nexus 7. It isn’t perfect, but Android Jellybean is nice with many smaller improvements over earlier OS flavors, and the device has a lot of potential. Although the OS is finally wonderfully smooth, there are a still a lot of things that are a little clumsier or more difficult than they are on iOS or simply not as well fleshed out, especially in the area of media management. Additionally, the general inconsistencies around apps working, or not working, or partially working, is a bit frustrating. Maybe that’s simply the price you pay for a platform with so many different possibilities. Personally, however, I would like to see a little better testing and tagging in the Google Play store to make the end-user experience a little more consistent and a little less trying. And I think more effort needs to be made to make sure that high-profile apps like USA Today and CNN are available on as many different devices as possible! It’s weird that I can get them for my Windows Phone device, with its tiny market share, but I can’t get it for one of the hottest Android devices!
Many of my complaints are resolvable by getting third-party apps or add-ins, but my basic thought is that it shouldn’t be necessary. The included tools should be better than they are in many cases.
Make no mistake — the Android OS and the overall Google ecosystem has come a long way, but there is more that can (and should) be done. If you are an Android fan, this is one of the nicest Android devices out there, especially for the price. If you are an iOS fan, you’ll find a lot to like here too, especially if you are really longing for a 7″ tablet and don’t want to wait to see if Apple will release an iPad mini, but be aware that the overall experience is not nearly as seamless as you are used to with iOS devices. You may need to do a little more legwork than you are used to in order to get the system to the place you want it to be, especially if you are a Mac user. Once you do, you will likely be generally pleased with it – at least until the day we see an iPad Mini! Then all bets are off!