Notes on the Nexus 7

November 24th, 2012  |  Published in tech  |  3 Comments

I suppose the change in job surroundings probably had something to do with it, but once my Kindle 2 started circling the drain and I realized my iPad 3 was no good for commuting, I decided an iPad mini wasn’t automatically the very best choice for consolidating my tablet and e-reader, mostly because I’m not spoiled by the Retina display, exactly, but because the mini’s lack of one bothers me in a device I want to use mostly for reading.

It took a few days to find one on a showroom floor that was actually running, but after poking around at Best Buy, WalMart and a pair of office supply stores—all of which had units for sale but not for trying—I found a Nexus 7 at a Fred Meyer I could play with for a few minutes.

I don’t have a lot of time with Android. I was once sent an Android phone so I could review an instant messaging app and was left with a distinctly poor impression, mostly owing to the device itself, which was slow. I’ve played around with other peoples’ Android devices here and there, but never for more than a few minutes. So after ten minutes with a Nexus 7 at the Fred Meyer, I decided things were better enough to give one a shot.

So:

If you asked me to describe only the good things that come to mind when I think about my Nexus, I think I’d start with its physical characteristics (I’m treating it more like a Kindle replacement, so how good it feels in the hand and how crisp its display is matter a lot) and I’d give a cautiously respectful nod to how flexible Android itself is.

Some pros:

  • Very nice size. Easy to read one-handed on my daily Max commute. Grippy back that feels a bit more secure than the metal back of an iPad probably does.

  • A lot of apps register themselves as share/data handlers in ways I appreciate (e.g. sending a URL to Pocket or org-mode for Android). I think iOS must have this backwards, because I was astounded the first time I shared a link from an app and found so many possible recipient apps for the data. I’m guessing a few things in iOS are native handlers, and it’s on developers to name other handlers from within their apps. On Android, it seems more as if anything can declare itself a handler. It annoys me that Apple knows all about the value of system-wide services and isn’t doing it better in iOS.

  • Customizable in smart ways: You can designate hotspots where the device shouldn’t attempt to download updates or automatically do background data pulls as a way to conserve bandwidth for cases where you’re using your phone’s personal hotspot capabilities. I think Apple “solved” this by forcing users to explicitly request updates, and by imposing some pretty strict limitations on how long an app can run in the background.

  • Nice display. Not “Retina” quality, but close enough that I can’t tell a huge difference.

  • Clever gesture typing (you drag your finger over the keys and it figures out your intent rather than requiring you to peck each key).

  • The Google Play app store lets you try an app out for a few minutes and delete it for a refund if it doesn’t work out. I’ve done this four or five times in the last several days. There’s a “con” lurking under there, though.

And, finally, most of the Web services I use have an official Android app, including:

  • HipChat

  • Trello

  • Evernote

  • Pocket

  • Amazon Kindle

  • Netflix

  • Twitter

  • Facebook

  • Google+

After five days with it, I liked it a lot. As an e-book reader, I’d say “mission accomplished,” at least as far as using it with the Amazon Kindle app goes. But there are a few cons, too:

  • The notification interface feels a little busy and I haven’t yet figured out how to get in the sweet spot of looking over recent notifications without getting notified. So there are times where I feel a little pestered, or just bemused because an app has decided to make some icon up in the top left corner blink at me for reasons I’m not clear on. One thing I like about iOS, now that I know to do this, is being able to tell apps they can’t notify me about anything at install. If I use them enough that I think it’d be nice to hear from them, I go back and enable them in Message Center later.

  • Many of the apps I’ve tried that aren’t official apps from large Web services feel sloppy. The icons look cheesy or aren’t very descriptive, color schemes have a nasty Windows ’95-era flatness, and ad-driven trial editions place the ads over bits of the UI in a way that suggests slipshod design. From app to app, things aren’t very consistent, either. Lots of different color schemes, icon arrangements and configuration conventions. I’ve found myself using that refund feature a lot.

  • I feel like I have to “reach” to the top of the screen to do a lot more stuff in Android apps, but that could be because some of the apps I’ve used haven’t been built with a tablet form factor in mind and elements that would be thumb-able on a 3.5″ or 4″ screen simply aren’t on a 7″ screen. I read some Nexus enthusiasts on reddit arguing that apps “just working” in Android regardless of the display size is a great feature. I think it’s not so much. More on that below.

  • Some of that flexibility/customizability I mentioned as a pro contributes to a sense that there’s an awful lot that probably needs to be managed. I don’t know if I’d have more or less of a sense of that with an iPad, because I’ve been using iOS for years now. I’m sure there are ten or twelve things I do with any new iOS device to get it feeling more comfortable that I don’t even think about anymore. I also know there are a number of things in iOS where Apple simply requires your deference since there’s no changing them short of jailbreaking.

The biggest con for me—not you, me—is probably the missing iOS/iCloud/OS X ecosystem. I’m not horribly locked in to iTunes or anything like that. I do, however, enjoy the way Apple has integrated the messaging app on my iPhone with iCloud, and that in turn with Messages in Mountain Lion. I like the smooth integration between the notepad app on Mountain Lion and iOS. I like Siri and its integration with a bunch of things, too. Google provides an ecosystem that does a lot of similar things, but Google also mostly lives in a browser, and I’m not completely sold on life through a browser viewport.

On Yet Another Hand

A lot of those notes were written a few days ago. Since then, the newness of the thing has worn off a little, I’m through that new device phase where I’m willing to accept that this or that peeve is me just not getting something, and some things just annoy.

While my main purpose for buying a 7″ tablet is to have something I can manage one-handed on my commute, I’d like to do other stuff besides read books. I’ve found a few Twitter clients, a reddit reader and an RSS reader, for instance, and there wasn’t much way to avoid comparing them to Tweetbot, Alien Blue and Mr. Reader. They don’t compare very favorably at all. They feel cramped despite having 7″ to walk around in, their type can be pretty tiny (in a way you wouldn’t mind on a phone but that feels exhausting when the amount of text in such a small font goes on for so long), and it’s pretty hard to hit the right link or button. Android does some nice things to help solve that problem (Chrome for Android does, anyhow) by zooming in on proximal links so you can hit a big, fat target instead of mashing two links at once, but in other apps it’s just a bunch of tiny buttons and links that are hard to hit just so and eventually make you feel mistrustful and burdened because it’s so easy to hit the wrong one.

One other annoyance—I’m not going to catalog every one I’ve experienced—comes from the automatic brightness setting, which is far too aggressive. I can be sitting and reading in a room where the light isn’t changing and the display brightness dips up and down every minute or so. Since the Nexus 7’s battery life isn’t stellar, automatic brightness is a common sense battery saving measure, but it’s a nuisance right now, which means screen brightness becomes A Thing You Have to Manage if you aren’t near an outlet most of the day and don’t want to worry about your battery. Either that, or just put it in airplane mode a lot.

If I were interested in having a 10″ tablet to use as a notebook replacement, I’d probably prefer an Android tablet because it would walk closer to the laptop/productivity side of the tablet/laptop divide, and I’d appreciate that. With a 7″ tablet I want to use primarily to read books or saved articles on the Max or on a break at work, the things that make iOS more limited aren’t such big liabilities, and the relatively staid and low-maintenance approach Apple pushes on iOS seems like more of a plus.

More Hands!

But I’m keeping the thing. I thought for a day or two that I might get rid of it and get an iPad mini instead, but it’s good enough for its central purpose right now, which is reading books and saved articles on the train, and I get the impression that the software catalog is improving. With the new cellular data Nexus 7s and the growing sense that 7″ is a good screen size for tablets, I think the device will improve over time as it becomes a desirable target for developers and the software grows up around it. As I noted earlier, most of the web services I use have Android apps, and those apps tend to be the most polished that I’ve seen. It’d be nice to have a deeper catalog of independent apps, but I think I believe that mainly because a 10″ iPad is smooth and powerful enough to do an awful lot more than I expect of an ebook reader with benefits. In other words, I don’t really need a deeper catalog of apps for this thing, and I need a few more weeks to let that sink in.

I also think that at some point it will either die, or I’ll decide to hand it off to Ben, and by then Apple will have improved the iPad mini’s display enough to justify a bit more of that $120 premium it’s charging now. Once that Retina mini comes along, it’ll be more tempting. Once that Retina mini comes along and is on the market for six months and starts popping up at a nice discount for refurbs, it’ll be even more tempting. By that time, though, there’s a good chance I’ll be feeling better about Android in general and won’t care. We’ll see. Meanwhile, I’ve got a decent Kindle replacement for my commute.

One Quick Update: Anandtech is of the opinion that we should not hold our breath for a Retina mini. It makes sense. I think I’m still going to keep the Nexus 7 for now and see what the next-gen mini looks like. I don’t think Apple meant to make a mini at first, so I’d like to see how it does iterating the design once it has a generation of feedback.

Responses

  1. Michael Burton says:

    November 25th, 2012 at 8:22 am (#)

    sniff I’m so… proud! (smile) Seriously though, Android really cut its teeth on the cell phone and many of the apps have not “grown up” to 7 inches yet, which is a bit unfortunate. And the standards for apps is, well pretty non-existent, and there was no Steve Jobs “Do It This Way” majordomo, so sadly it’s a bunch of geeks (sadly) defining the size and color of buttons. But overall I’m still hooked into the realm. I’ll send you an email a bit later with the apps I use and why…

  2. m. hall says:

    November 25th, 2012 at 10:06 pm (#)

    Sure seems like 7″ is probably going to be where Android tablets find an in, and that’ll have to change the focus of developers.

    It’ll be interesting to see what the post-holiday numbers look like. It’s not hard to find a Wi-Fi Nexus 7 most places (except Best Buy, which is strange to me). It’s almost impossible to find an iPad mini. I asked at a Best Buy and they told me they usually ran out within hours of getting them unless I wanted a 64GB white one.

  3. So, here’s the thing about that Nexus 7 :: dot unplanned says:

    December 1st, 2012 at 2:10 pm (#)

    […] think I’m probably going to have to own my last post because, you know, we’re not big on memory holes around here. And in my own defense, I meant […]

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