Google Nexus 7 – Kindle Fire extinguisher?

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Google is looking to pour water on the prospects of Amazon’s latest Kindle Fire tablet before it debuts in the UK with a high-quality seven-inch device that’s made sweeter by the fact it’s available for less than £200

Many firms have tried to produce high-quality tablet PCs since Apple reinvigorated the dying format two-and-a-half years ago with its first iPad, yet very few have been able to come up with a credible competitor to Apple’s market-leading touchscreen device.

In much the same way as the iPod became synonymous with MP3 players, iPad is now the default name that springs to mind when consumers think of a tablet. Google wants to change that. And rather than rely on third parties to create the ultimate Android tablet, it has decided to team up with Taiwanese hardware manufacturer Asus to create the Nexus 7.

Firing at the kindle
By creating the Nexus 7 itself, Google has made a tablet that is, in part, an attempt to spur on other manufacturers to create other Android tablets that can stand as worthy competitors to the Apple iPad.

But neither Google nor Asus is as stupid as to try to compete with Apple directly.

Instead they have decided to target a market currently occupied in the US by one of the few non-Apple tablet success stories – the Amazon Kindle Fire.

The Kindle Fire is designed primarily for consuming content that Amazon hopes you will buy from its packed online stores and uses a customised version of Android that doesn’t link directly to Google’s online services, instead keeping users firmly tied to Amazon’s own services.

That Amazon is using the Google-made operating system, but bypassing the services that actually make Google money, can’t be going down well at Google HQ. And while Google isn’t trying to make an iPad killer, it looks like it has decided to go after the Amazon Kindle Fire instead.

Considering the Kindle Fire isn’t currently available in the UK, it looks like the Nexus 7 will have a clear run at the pockets of British consumers. Although with rumours circulating that the Amazon tablet could reach UK shores in the coming months, the battle may be about to start heating up.

Quality design
The first major indicator that the Nexus 7 isn’t designed to go up against the iPad is its size. Google has opted to equip the device with a seven-inch screen, rather than the iPad range’s 9.7-inch format.

The front of the Nexus is featureless apart from a small 1.2-megapixel camera at the top of the device. Google has not bothered with a rear-facing camera, saving money in an area that is unlikely to be a priority for many, especially since so many of us already have high-quality cameras on our mobile phones.

The entire front of the chassis is taken up with an edge-to-edge sheet of scratch-resistant Corning glass. Unfortunately, this is not the same ultra-tough Corning Gorilla Glass seen on smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S III and the Nokia Lumia 900, so it will still need protection to keep it looking its best. It is pleasingly resilient, however, and gives the chassis a high-quality look and feel.

The soft, textured rear panel feels great and makes the Nexus 7 comfortable and secure to carry and hold. Even the Nexus and Asus branding is handled subtly, blending in well but clearly visible when viewed at the right angle.

The curved edges mean you can feel the power and volume controls on the upper right-hand side of the device, without them sticking out obtrusively. A Micro USB 2.0 port and 3.5mm audio jack can be found along the base of the device.

Gorgeous display
The seven-inch LED-backlit IPS screen looks fantastic and is very sharp and clear when viewing photos, watching movies and even reading text. Its 800 x 1,280-pixel resolution can’t hope to match the iPad’s incredible 1,536 x 2,048-pixel Retina display, but the screen is still superb, particularly considering the surprisingly low price.

Usability also impresses. The capacitive screen responds well and we were able to flick through pages, select apps and customise the interface with a light touch, making it a pleasure to use.

Three software buttons line the bottom of the screen, letting you navigate backwards, get instant access to the home screen and view all open apps at a glance. By making these common buttons part of the OS interface, it lends the front of the chassis a minimalist style, without sacrificing any usability.

The only bug we noticed was that the screen of our review sample flickered as it tried to find the right brightness balance. This was easily solved by switching off the automatic brightness setting, however, and should be easily fixed via software updates.

A fixed view
The second clear indication that Google isn’t going after the iPad directly comes when you first start using the device.

Google has decided to build a tablet that is designed to be mainly used in portrait mode, making it feel like an oversized smartphone more than a tablet during use.

The primary home screen only displays in portrait mode, and auto-rotate for other tasks is switched off by default. It’s a strange choice that has upset some reviewers, but we found that on a device of this size, tasks such as working with email were more comfortable in portrait mode.

It’s only the home screen that is locked to portrait mode, though. A quick tap of the screen orientation lock icon in the Android notification panel lets you enjoy all your apps in landscape mode if you prefer.

Of course, video content is a major part of any tablet’s appeal and the Nexus is fine, switching to landscape mode when you want to watch films or play games.

The seven-inch screen is just the right size for handheld gaming and we found that graphics run very smoothly and almost on a par with top-end handheld games consoles.

Films look equally impressive and again the screen is pretty much the perfect size for watching a video while maintaining a firm grip on both the tablet and a train handrail when on a crowded commute.

Full article in Mobile News issue 521 (August 27, 2012).

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