Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nexus 7 impressions

I picked up a Nexus 7 last weekend, partially because I am on the Chrome team now and want to contribute to the Android version, and partially because I really wanted an Android device to play with again. :) I've been using it pretty consistently over the last week and felt like it would be a good time to share my first impressions.

So, first off let me get this out of the way: Yes, I'm a Google employee. I purchased the tablet for my own personal use at full price, however (I opted for the 8GB version). I'm certainly not being encouraged to say nice things about it. The opinons below are my own.

I'll tell you up front that I have been LOVING this little beauty! Though it's no doubt partially due to "new toy syndrome" I've been turning to it more than my phone lately for email/newfeeds/social networking/browsing/reading. There's so many things that it's surprisingly great at. Just off the top of my head:

  • The size is perfect. It actually fits comfortably in the front pocket of most of my jeans! It's exactly the right width to easily hold in one hand, and light enough that holding it for long periods is a non-issue. As much as I love the huge screens of iPad-sized tablets I'm reluctant to carry them around with me, but that's not an issue here.
  • The tablet's shape is very nice to hold. It sounds silly, I know, but the rubbery back and tapered edges are just easier to handle than the squared off edges of a Playbook or Kindle fire. I'm also a fan of the default orientation being portrait mode. It just feels better to me.
  • The battery life is awesome! I'll use it casually all day and it's still got more than 50% charge. In the same period and with the same use my iPhone's battery is typically around 25%. Granted, I'm not doing a ton of heavy gaming, but even for watching videos or chatting on Skype the battery holds out impressively.
  • The screen is very nice for it's size. Not "retina" nice (Damn you Apple! You've spoiled me!) but nothing to complain about either.
  • The software is pleasantly mature and nice to work with.

That last point is worth diving into more detail on. Taking a look back at the last time I switched OSes, from a Droid X to iPhone 4S, my primary plusses for the Apple device were:

  • iOS was more stable and responsive
  • iOS got more timely updates
  • iOS didn't let the carriers muck with it at all. No skins, no bloatware.
  • iOS had a better selection of Apps
Which pretty much all says "Apple's software is better". So has the Nexus 7 changed my opinions on that? In some cases, yes!
  • Jelly Bean on this device is "Buttery" smooth :) Whereas my Droid X was notably janky next to an iOS device I don't feel any lag at all here. Plus it's yet to crash on me, while my iPhone has been reasonably unstable lately (but I blame that on running a beta OS).
  • As a Nexus device (that's not beholden to any cell carrier) I should get future OS updates in a very timely manner. That's a huge plus for a developer like me.
  • Likewise, nobody is skinning this thing into oblivion. It's pure Android, and that's the way I like it! Granted, I wasn't a huge fan of the default Google Play library widgets everywhere, but that's an easy thing to remove an ignore (unlike Verizon's crap)
So that leaves apps, which is more complicated. On the whole the Android app ecosystem has been steadily improving, and most of the apps that I use on a day to day basis either have a decent Android version at this point or there's a reasonable alternative. The two problem areas are speed of availability and games. Many apps still start life on iOS and only make their way to Android when they've proven popular enough (Instagram, anyone?) It's getting better, but the gap is still there. When you're talking games it's worse, though. Many big name companies (SquareEnix, id Software) are completely happy to ignore Android entirely. Those games that do make the jump tend to be ad laden with no option to buy your way to a ad free experience (Angry Birds). So if you're a gamer or like to be on the bleeding edge of cool apps iOS is still the place for you.

Android's more open approach is becoming more important, though. As Apple ties more and more services into it's own ecosystem the ability to cleanly break out of that is becoming more attractive. I have a bunch of books in my Kindle library. I'm never going to start buying on iBooks because it doesn't make sense to split my library in two. As such, the Kindle reader's "second class" status on iOS hurts. It's absolutely silly to make me hunt down the Kindle store in the browser just because Apple wants a bigger slice of the pie. That's not by any stretch of the imagination a better user experience, it's just plain greedy.

(Mind you, just because I use Kindle for my books doesn't mean I want a Kindle Fire. Market lock-in is bad no matter who's doing it.)

Likewise with the browser: I use Chrome on iOS knowing full well that it's a slower, more limited browser simply because the UI is simply better in every way. But I'm being forced to make an artificial choice: Better UI, or more powerful, more integrated experience. On Android I don't have to awkwardly side-step the walled garden to get the experience I want. Same goes for things like Maps or Gmail, which are miles better than their iOS alternatives. Some people will care about this, some won't, but Apple is making it more and more of an issue as they bring increasing amounts of their ecosystem in-house.

In the end I feel it's a toss up, completely dependent on your needs and wants from your device. The practical side effect of that, though, is that most people don't know enough about their devices to want that extra freedom, and as such the more attractive choice for a lot of people, especially those that are non-technical, is Apple. I will say that using Android again has been a breath of fresh air for me, though, and a reminder of the little things I gave up moving to Apple.

So I'm back to being an Android fanboy then, right? Not so fast! The number one things iOS has going for it is consistency, and that's something that Android as a whole struggles with. I would gladly recommend the Nexus 7 to someone looking for a tablet. I would never recommend that someone get "an Android tablet/phone" though. There's simply too much skinned-beyond-recognition, sub-par, clunky crap out there. Put bluntly if you're going to get an Android device make it a Nexus or don't bother. And even that's not a free pass: Verizon has been doing their best to delay OS updates to Galaxy Nexus owners on their network, and other Nexus devices have been difficult to get and limited to certain carriers. So really it's just this one device, the Nexus 7, that promises a premium hassle free Android experience. In contrast, I can tell someone to get an iPhone or iPad and not spend an hour telling them very carefully which exact model to get and which to avoid. That's extremely valuable to a non-tech-savvy consumer that just wants their phone to work.

Perhaps the important point at this stage is that while Android still isn't a clear winner over iOS, it's no longer a clear loser either. Both systems are very usable and have their strengths, and it's great that there's a real, healthy competition in the market right now. It's just a little sad that Android still comes with a warning label attached: "Don't buy anything with a carrier logo on it!"

But you should totally get a Nexus 7! At $200 it's a steal for a truly excellent device!