Nexus 7 FHD Review

by Mike Shea on 6 August 2013

30 Second Summary

The Nexus 7 full high definition (FHD) tablet is the best high-DPI tablet I've used and I wish Apple had an iPad Mini this good. These days the tablet we choose has less to do with the device and more to do with the stack of online services in which we choose to live. If you're wired into Google's stack (Android phone, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Play, Google Docs, Google TV) the Nexus 7 will fit in perfectly into your life. If you're wired into Apple's ecosystem (iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iTunes Match, App Store), the Nexus won't fit as well. As a device, the Nexus 7 looks beautiful, feels great, runs a long time, and is priced right. It's a great way to experiment with Android. How it fits into your life, however, is all about the stack in which you live.

An Apple Fanboy Crosses the Tracks

As an Apple fanboy, I surprised everyone, even myself, by buying a Nexus 7. Two features in particular drove my decision: the price, and the high PPI screen. I'm a sucker for a high pixel density screen and at 323 PPI, the Nexus 7 is wonderful. The lower PPI screen on the iPad Mini steered me away from buying one, as much as I liked the size an weight of it. The price of the Nexus 7, at $230, is far friendlier than the $330 of the iPad mini. Right now, the Nexus 7 is the strongest 7" tablet on the market at the best price. I found no major fault with the hardware and only quibbles with the software.

The Perfect Reader

The high pixel density of the Nexus 7 screen; mixed with services like Kindle, Twitter, Gmail, Google Plus, and Instapaper; make it a nearly perfect reading device. It's size and weight make it extremely comfortable to hold and carry around, only slightly taller and a bit heavier than a typical Kindle.

As a big RPG gamer I have a lot of full-sized PDFs of RPG sourcebooks I like to have on hand. I didn't expect to be able to read these on the Nexus 7's smaller screen. I was surprised to discover that I could, in fact, read full-sized PDFs on the Nexus 7 without zooming in, even on PDFs with very small fonts. This is a huge testament to the high pixel density display. This year, the Nexus 7 is the only tablet I'll need to bring to Gencon.

Reading all sorts of other text on the unit is as good as we could want. Kindle books look great. Instapaper's saved web pages look great. Twitter and Google Plus look fine.

For anyone who guffaws at the need for high-PPI screens, text rendering is the big answer. The higher the pixel density, the easier it will be for everyone to read on it. High pixel density makes text look fantastic. Again, this is the number one difference between the Nexus 7 and the iPad Mini.

Buying Into the Stacks

These days, when we choose a phone or tablet, we're really looking for a window into our stack of services in the commercialized internet. Five major technology companies all work hard to build top-to-bottom ecosystems to handle our data, our content, our actions, our experiences, our social networks, and our device: Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google. Here's futurist Bruce Sterling talking about the Stacks in his Annual State of the World for 2013:

In order to become a "Stack," or one of the "Big Five" — Amazon Facebook Google Apple Microsoft — you need an "ecosystem," or rather a factory farm of comprehensive services that surround the "user" with fences he doesn't see. Basically, you corral Stack livestock by luring them with free services, then watching them in ways they can't become aware of, and won't object to. So you can't just baldly sell them a commodity service in a box; you have to inveigle them into an organized Stack that features most, if not all, of the following:

An operating system, a dedicated way to sell cultural material (music, movies, books, apps), tools for productivity, an advertising business, some popular post-Internet device that isn't an old-school desktop computer (tablets, phones, phablets, Surfaces, whatever's next), a search engine, a dedicated social network, a "payment solution" or private bank, and maybe a Cloud, a private high-speed backbone, or a voice-activated AI service if you are looking ahead.

This likely sounds familiar to you. We might not be all-in into a single stack. We might use Google for mail, calendar, photo sharing, and documents while we use Apple for music, photos, movies, TV shows, and apps. We likely use Amazon for books and Dropbox for file storage.

The device we choose will often work best when it's tied closely to the stack in which we live. This isn't always true, though. Google services work better on Apple devices than Apple services work on Google devices. While it's a dick move on Apple's part not to spread their services to Android, it ends up giving us a choice of choosing an Apple device or moving our data to Google. The latter choice may not be so bad and here's a hypothesis outlined by Patrick Gibson that explains why:

Google is getting better at design faster than Apple is getting better at web services.

The Nexus 7 proves this trend. Google's services work flawlessly on the Nexus 7 and the device is as easy and fun to use as an iOS device, widgets aside (more on this in a moment). Android 4.3 doesn't quite get as perfectly smooth as iOS seems to be but it's very good and probably not noticeably different to most people. As Google continues to improve the design and interface of Android devices, which device we choose will all come down to the stack we live in.

The Tyranny of Customization

Android 4.3 works fine on the Nexus 7 and switching from iOS wasn't hard. One of the biggest stated advantages of the Android OS is also one of it's most painful: customization.

You'll have to pardon me as we step into an area that will definitely get some people's blood up. As a friend of mine stated, the desire for a well-designed and locked-down UI and the desire for deep UI customization comes down squarely in personal preference. I definitely fall in the former category.

We spend far more time customizing our computers than we should. Every time a developer puts in an option to customize something, they've given up on UI design. UI and UX engineers spend their entire careers understanding how people interact with computers yet we throw that all out the window when we give our grandmothers control over font selection and menu transparency.

No place is this more evident than the home screen of the Nexus 7. When you first power it up you are greeted with a massive window displaying public domain books Google already added to your library. If you heavily use the Google Play library, it may be useful to you. As most of us buy our books from Amazon, this isn't very useful.

Figuring out how to get rid of this giant useless window was my first interaction with the Android OS. Once accomplished, I'm left with a 2 million pixels of open space on the home screen. I must have spent 12 hours looking through widgets that would enrich my life with beautiful data on such a fantastic screen and I ended up with a clock and five icons.

The general Android applications screen alphabetizes all of the apps on the Nexus 7 which is very nice. Unfortunately, every downloaded app lands on both the home screen and in that app folder. There's no way to default to the app list, something I'd love to do. After much experimenting, I found no widget that offered me any information that helped me accomplish the important things in my life.

For many, the ability to deeply customize Android is its main sales feature. For me it enables people to waste a good deal of their lives on alerts and nonsense that does nothing to help them do what's really important to them.

In another example of useless distraction, the Nexus 7 defaults with a little light that blinks when you receive an email, even when the unit is asleep. It took me a Google Plus thread to figure out what it was for and then hunt down the option to turn that off. The last thing I need in my life is another goddamn blinking light.

There are lots of other small Androidy bits I had to figure out. Unlike iOS, you have direct access to the device's file system. However, it appears that the storage area is known as an "SD Card", even though it's internal memory. The Nexus 7 doesn't even have an SD slot. Once I figured it out, and downloaded an app to let me dork with the local file system, I could move PDFs from Drop Box to the Kindle Reader. It took a bit of googling to do so, however.

On Physical Design

Overall, the physical design of the device is fantastic. I do have a few minor quibbles, however. The device feels weirdly long. The screen is a 16x10 aspect ratio, great for HD movies, but not really that useful for other things. The device also has large 1 1/2" holding areas on the top and bottom but the sides are less than 1/2". If you're gripping it in your hand from the back, it's ok, but if you grab it on one side, you're fingers will touch the screen and create all sorts of crazy unintended actions. Gripping it from the bottom seemed fine. The speakers seemed adequate and I didn't really use the cameras much. Again, as a reading device, I don't plan to use those much anyway. Battery life appeared to run about 8 to 10 hours which is great for such a powerful display.

A Fantastic Reading Device

Overall, I'm very happy with the Nexus 7. As a reading tablet, it's excellent. The screen is the best I know of for a device this size. The software is fine to do what we typically want, even if it does lend itself to OCD levels of tweaking. If Apple comes out with an HD iPad Mini, I'll likely sell this and pick that one up only because I'm already buried in the Apple stack and it's just plain easier to stay there.

That said, for the money, I highly recommend the Nexus 7 FHD.