Hands On Google's Nexus 7 Tablet

Technology Editor Bill Wong calls his experience with Google Nexus "fun, educational, and frustrating."

My Google Nexus 7 (Fig. 1) showed up this week and I have been giving it quite a workout. At times it has been fun, educational and frustrating. Some of the latter is due to Android in general versus something specific to the Nexus 7 but there are some caveats.


Figure 1. Google's Nexus 7 tablet runs NVidia's quad core Tegra 3 sytem-on-chip.

Setup of Nexus 7 went rather well. I have three access points and getting them linked was as easy as entering there passwords. Email setup for GMail was part of the set up wizard and I used the Corporate mail support for work. I have a Droid Razr so this process was the same as on the phone. No surprises so far.

Next came the host of apps I have on the Razr. I only added about a quarter of them but one was the Backlight widget. It does work with the Nexus 7 but beware of the defaults. I didn't and it was a pain getting things working again. The default settings include four light levels starting with a value of 1. Turns out that this essentially turns off the backlight leveling a black screen. The first time I hit it I thought the system had crashed so I tried a power cycle. The system started up fine but when it got to the login screen it was black again.

I am not the first person to run into this. The trick, sort of, is to take it out into the sun or use a very bright light. You can vaguely make out what is on the screen. The problem I had was that I selected a graphical password and the tiny dots are very hard to see without the backlight on. The highlight when there is an error made it easier to find the points to trace.

After signing in, the next step was to find the Backlight! app and tap it so it would change the backlight setting. Alternatively, you can use the Nexus 7 configuration to change the current setting. Both are hard to do when the backlight is off. The minimum is now 30.

I also loaded FBReader since I read a lot. It also has a backlight control and I have to be careful since it is possible to turn off the backlight using that app. The trick is to turn it back on immediately since it is  matter of sliding your finger up or down on the left side.

One surprise was the default system settings. One default is the system is locked in portrait mode. Many will simply use it in this manner because video playback apps do switch to landscape mode but I like to use it in landscape mode for apps like email. The layout is better from my viewpoint. Turning on automatic orientation switching is hidden in the system Accessibility menu, not the Display menu. It is funny to read other web posts complaining about the lack of this facility although I think that there should be a configuration wizard that would run through details like this.

Another app I installed is ColorNote. It is a simple text editor and checklist I used often. I am actually writing this blog in ColorNote and will then paste it into the web page on our website. I am also using a folding Bluetooth keyboard. It turns out that the most popular tablet add-on other than a case/cover is a keyboard for those tablets with Bluetooth support.

I am hoping to use the tablet on the road but I may still need my laptop because the Adobe page layout software only runs on Windows. On the other hand, PDF files, email and a web browser are sufficient most of the time.

This brings me back to the Nexus 7. Charging takes about 4 hours and it gets about twice that in general use. It actually fares better than a smartphone when not in use because it is not hammering away on 4G connections. The front-facing camera works but is nothing to write home about. There is actually an app to start up the camera app so you can take pictures. It is just low res and hard to aim. Still, it can be useful in a pinch. The primary use is for video calls and it does that well.

Video and audio calls have decent voice input support but the speaker leaves a lot to be desired.

Having lots of WiFi available is necessary even with the 16 Gbyte unit I have. There is only about 13 Gbytes when starting and an additional half a gig is used by the system. I have about 11 Gbytes free right now but that is only a couple of movie files.

Streaming movies via WiFi is fine if you have at least 802. 11g but 802.11n is better. Videos are one of the items easily rented or purchased via Google Play. The tablet comes with about half a dozen books and magazines in the library but additional ones need to be purchased or downloaded.

I tend to buy my books from publishers that don't use DRM (copy protection) and I use Calibre to manage them. The problem is that the Nexus 7 only support a USB MTP connection. This is fine for file transfer but Calibre doesn't like MTP yet. This just means an extra step to copy the book files but it is annoying.

New: I have been getting some reader feedback that I should mention some of the other file transfer options available to user since MTP is not always an alternative. In particular, Linux support for MTP is only in some of the latest versions so some may need to utilize alternatives like ES File Explorer.  ES File Explorer supports local browsing as well as FTP and CIFS/SMB/Samba network file shares. It is even possible to browse and then open files for viewing including PDF and video files so you do not have to copy files to the tablet to make use of them.

At this point I will give the Nexus 7 a thumbs up. The user interface is smooth. It runs the latest version of Android, Android 4.1 aka "Jelly Bean," that is slightly different from my other Android devices so it takes a little time to acclimate oneself. I have not yet hit the storage boundary that is the main issue I have with the current design. A rear facing camera would be nice but at least my Razr has a decent camera on it.

Most of my reservations about the tablet taking over the heavy lifting of a laptop has to do with the limited functionality of apps that populate our smartphones and tablets. It is not really a matter of performance since the NVidia quad core Tegra 3 in the Nexus 7 is more than a match for laptops of a couple years ago. In the meantime, I'll be searching for a decent set of apps for the Nexus 7.

In a little bit it will be plugged in the charger. Nightly charging will likely be a habit. It is not as conservative as my Kindle that runs for a week but it beats the latest laptop in battery life.

P.S. The text was uploaded from the Nexus 7 but I had to revert to the browser on my laptop to handle the image. I found all the browsers to be lacking in functionality and compatibility especially when it comes to Javascript interfaces. That is not surprising given how content management system (CMS) interfaces are often temperamental when it comes to browsers. 

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