In less than three years, Android tablets have gone from an embarrassment nobody should buy to the cheapo alternative to the iPad to a surprisingly capable rival to Apple's tablet. Now, with Google's new Nexus 7, the iOS-or-Android decision has gotten tougher still.
This successor to last year's slightly wider and thicker Nexus 7 looks a lot like it until you turn it on - at which point its fabulously high-resolution screen makes both its ancestor and the iPad mini look bad. This 7-inch, 1920 by 1200 pixel display, like the gorgeous Retina Displays on full-sized iPads, makes even the smallest text look as sharp as print.
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But at $229 for a 16 gigabyte model, the new Nexus 7 costs about two-thirds as much as the 16 GB, $329 iPad mini. That advantage widens if you want more storage or mobile broadband. A 32 GB Nexus 7 costs $269, against $429 for a 32 GB iPad mini; the upcoming, 32 GB LTE Nexus 7 will cost $349, while a 16 GB LTE iPad mini will set you back $459.
Battery life represents another big advance, even though this has a lower-capacity battery than the 2012 model. In my usual test of nonstop Web-radio playback with the screen illuminated at its default brightness, the 32 GB Wi-Fi model loaned by Google PR didn't just blow past the company's "up to nine hours" estimate but outlasted every device I have tested, 17 hours and 16 minutes in one test, 15:27 in a second. That's kind of crazy.
Its standby time wasn't as terrific, but maintaining 94 percent of a charge after 24 hours left idle only falls just short of the iPad. And the Nexus 7 recharges over any micro-USB cable - or, less practically, a Qi cordless-charging surface - while Apple requires its proprietary, expensive Lightning connector.
(That said, I can only hope that the 2013 model doesn't suffer from the defect I and two other reviewers saw months after testing the 2012 version: Leaving it unplugged for too long resulted in it losing its ability to charge or boot up.)
This year's Nexus 7 also adds a 5-megapixel back camera, but its often washed-out, ill-exposed results suggests something's off with the software running it. That's also the case with its GPS, which I and other users have found sometimes stops working; Google says a patch is on the way.
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As a Nexus device, this tablet gets its updates direct from Google (it ships with the current 4.3 version of Android) instead of having them arrive months late or not at all.
The "but..." sentence in every Android tablet review is the one mentioning the selection of tablet-optimized apps. Here, Google remains well behind Apple; where iPad users have 375,000-plus apps for their tablets, Google won't even say how many tablet apps have been shipped for Android. And some Android apps, such as HBO Go and Electronic Arts' Need For Speed: Most Wanted, don't run on the Nexus 7.
But in practice, this obstacle can shrink a bit. First, phone-sized apps look better on the Nexus 7, where they automatically and cleanly fill the screen, than on an iPad mini, where they're either surrounded by a thick black border or crudely magnified, with text and images appearing as blurry bitmaps. Second, I spend most of my time on my own iPad mini just reading the Web.
If the worst thing you can say about the Nexus 7 is that it's only good for browsing through the world's largest collection of human knowledge and creativity - sort of like the reading-only Newspad in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, sadly without a Pan Am space shuttle to read it on - well, that's not so much of an insult.
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