At Samsung's online-only "Galaxy Unpacked" event this week, the company unveiled two new Android-based tablets, Tab S7 and S7 Plus.
Google Nexus 10
Caption by: Rupert Goodwins
With the launch of the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10, Google's flagship Android brand is fully equipped for the consumer battle — but still not enterprise-friendly. It may have arrived the week after the iPad 4, Apple's most advanced iPad, and buck the trend for smaller devices, but the Nexus 10 Google/Samsung co-production is already getting more attention. The Android tablet has more memory, higher resolution and a 16:9 aspect ratio in its favour, and with the latest 4.2 version of the OS on-board it has every claim to be as usable as Apple's device.
The Wi-Fi-only Nexus 10 comes in 16GB and 32GB models and costs US$399, UK£319 or AU$469 for the former and US$499, UK£389 or AU$569 for the latter. We reviewed the 32GB model.
One main design cue that differentiates the Nexus 10 from the competition is the relatively large radius of its rounded corners, which together with the wide 2cm bezel gives the tablet a faint hint of a 1950s Bakelite television. Unlike those, however, the tablet is light enough to hold in one hand for extended periods, due to its use of plastic throughout the casework, while the back has a rubberised finish that secures even a light grasp.
This lack of weight makes the tablet feel slightly cheap and insubstantial on first contact, an impression amplified by the emphatic haptic buzz that accompanies use of the virtual keyboard. That gives a curiously hollow feel to the device for a few minutes, until one is sucked in to the sheer quality of how it actually behaves.
It will be a rare animal who isn't seduced by the combination of the stupidly high-quality screen (2560 by 1600 pixels, 300ppi), the lucidity of the Jelly Bean interface, and the fluidity of its actions. It's taken a while for Android devices to get the raw graphics firepower and enough iterations of the interface code to make the UI vanish during use, but it's got there now. Experienced Android users will soon learn the few changes in 4.2 — basically, a reassignment of how the setup and status areas are presented in the swipe-down bar at the top — and lose themselves in the familiarity of the rest. New users will appreciate how the commonest tasks in configuring the tablet and responding to events are presented in a logical and easily discovered hierarchy.
It's the mark of a mature and well-designed interface that it gets out of the way as much as possible, but no further. In 4.2, and especially in the Nexus 10, Google is approaching this balance. Once a few functions are learned — how to pull up the gallery of running apps and tap to switch, how to pin apps to the desktop — there's little in the way of configuring the tablet to work as you wish.
Again, the screen is the star. With its cinematic 16:9 aspect ratio and 10-inch diagonal size, there's more room to set things up than on the (4:3, 9.7in.) iPad, That fat bezel vanishes from perception and the device is hard to put down. Whether you're flicking through photo galleries or rummaging through the Google Play app store, browsing around the web or binging in YouTube, the combination of the Nexus 10's lightness (603g), its eye-filling display area and the simplicity of switching between tasks make it a compelling toy.
The committed Google user will get the best from all this. New Android devices, when presented with an existing Google account on setup, soak up the existing media and app choices from the cloud with little effort. Five minutes after configuring the Nexus 10, most of our account's apps were installed and the Google suite of email, talk, Google+ and so on were populated and active.
There are still some rough edges. Google security has various sorts of password, especially if you've set up two-factor authentication, and it's not always obvious whether you need to enter a one-shot device/app password or the main account password — a problem tacitly admitted by the way the interface gently chides you for using the wrong sort at the wrong time. This minor frustration is offset by the fact that you have the option of two-factor authentication in the first place — we've used this since it was introduced around 18 months ago, and it's worked very well.
Elsewhere, though, Android still lacks a head for business. IT managers and planners considering it for corporate deployment will look in vain for standard management tools like remote wipe or control, app white- or blacklisting, camera disable, USB device management and so on. Although it's possible to implement many of these features via third-party software (or for the truly heroic, a custom build of the OS), Google is clearly focused on the consumer market and is leaving enterprise to fend for itself. This is a shame, as the platform is delivering some exceptional hardware and developing into an ecosystem with considerable flexibility, openness and economy. All attributes the modern enterprise needs.
The Nexus 10 does have enterprise-class wireless networking hardware, with dual-band 802.11n supported alongside MIMO internal antennas (oddly, 5GHz 802 11a has dropped off the specifications — probably because nobody has ever cared very much).
Audio is very good, for a tablet. The Nexus 10 has stereo speakers along the shorter edges of the case that give plenty of volume and good separation when watching videos in landscape mode. It's not until you actually get proper stereo from a tablet that you realise how much you've missed it — if anyone still does comparative device shopping in the high street, this one feature may sell a substantial number of devices.
The 5-megapixel rear camera is par for the course, and the 1.9-megapixel front-facing one is up to snuff. The new camera app in Android 4.2 has some useful extra modes: notably, it will prompt you through the creation of panoramas and Photo Spheres, where the screen creates a virtual space around the tablet that you fill in by taking pictures according to small blue dots superimposed on the scene. These prompt you to take enough pictures to generate an almost complete capture of the 3D space around you, creating an image that can be displayed as an immersive recreation of the scene. It takes a little while and can get nearby objects rather badly wrong, but does compensate well for differing light levels. Best kept for open spaces.
Another useful innovation is a pop-up options menu that appears after a long touch on the scene. Designed for thumb operation, this groups together exposure, picture type, flash and setup in a circle around the touched point. Although the icons and text that appear can be hard to read if they clash with bright parts of the picture, a twitch of the digit soon moves them somewhere better.
Other improvements in 4.2 include a gesture-driven keyboard where you can swipe out words. This is heavily influenced — in polite parlance — by Swype, the major differentiator being that the word it thinks you're skidding out follows your finger around the keyboard. This method loses its sparkle the bigger the keyboard gets, and in landscape mode you finds yourself making vigorous hand actions akin to Simon Rattle giving Beethoven's Fifth a good workout.
The Gmail interface is rather more excellent. At last, email text can be zoomed or made to fit the screen — an improvement of gem-like pleasure for those with less than perfect eyesight. Elsewhere, you can put widgets on the lock screen for first time.
The one hardware option we looked at was a book-style screen cover with a chamois-effect surface on one side and wipe-clean low-friction plastic on the other. It's fitted by removing a strip of plastic from the top of the tablet's rear surface and then pressing the cover hinge into the resulting gap. Multiple tiny clips snap into matching slots with a crackle like distant fireworks. As with the tablet itself, the book cover's initial impression of slight flimsiness belies the design's light but tough nature.
Performance & battery life
The Nexus 10's dual-core 1.7GHz Samsung Exynos 5 Dual CPU, quad-core Mali-T604 GPU and 2GB of RAM propel it to the forefront of tablet performance — at least insofar as we've been able to test it in the short time we've had with the device. It beats the (1GHz, dual-core Apple A5X) iPad 3 and the (1.3GHz, quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3) Nexus 7 on a pair of browser benchmarks, albeit not by very much:
However, the broader-based Geekbench test, which measures processor (integer and floating point) and memory performance, showed the Nexus 10 far outstripping the iPad 3 and the Nexus 7:
Unfortunately we didn't have a brand-new iPad 4, with its upgraded Apple A6X processor, but Geekbench results we've seen elsewhere suggest that the Nexus 10 has the beating of that too. One stand-out performance win for the Nexus 10 is in floating-point CPU figures, where it's four times faster than the iPad 3 (and, we expect, roughly 1.6 times the iPad 4). This is due to two Cortex-A15 VFP floating point units, one per core, that provides full hardware support for such mathematics. The practical advantages of this will include faster physics engines in games, quicker scaling and image manipulation, more efficient signal processing (in, for example, virtual synthesisers and audio manipulation), and other maths-intensive tasks.Google claims around 7 hours of web browsing and 9 hours of video watching for the Nexus 10, which given that it probably has around a 45Wh battery — Google only specifies the current capacity of 9000mAh (9Ah), but it's going to be a single cell Li-polymer — means that it takes around 7 watts. Given the maximum you can take from an ordinary USB port is 2.5W, some care is needed to manage power usage if you're away from a proper charger for any length of time. We didn't have time to run a full battery discharge test, but will update this review later with actual data.The Nexus 10's major weakness is the lack of Android tablet-specific apps (and, to a lesser extent, Android 4.2 compatible apps — at the time of writing, BBC Media Player was among the list of casualties). Apple claims over a quarter of a million iPad apps, but Google doesn't break out such figures from Play. There's a very great deal of Android-specific software, of course, and much of it works well enough on tablets. However, a lot doesn't, with tiny, unresizable fonts and grotesquely distorted layouts making them hard to love — or, indeed, use. However, with the Nexus 7 selling around a million units a month and reference devices like the Nexus 10 coming on-stream, there's a good chance that the momentum of existing smartphone apps will see the tablet format across this particular divide.Conculsion
The Nexus 10 deserves its place as the premier native Google tablet. In almost every respect it equals or outperforms the latest iPad 4, with Android 4.2 a worthy contender against iOS 6 — and substantially superior in the case of Google Maps, following Apple's self-inflicted mapping catastrophe. All this at a much lower price, reflecting Google's focus on advertising revenue over hardware margins. As with the other recent Nexus devices, it sets the standard for other manufacturers. If Google can persuade developers to fill in the gaps in the app market — and heavy sales are the only thing that will do that — then the Nexus 10 will deserve to be wildly popular.
Benchmarks and additional reporting by Charles McLellan.
Note: the prices (RRP=recommended retail price) quoted below are for the 32GB version of the Nexus 10, as reviewed here:
Caption by: Rupert Goodwins
Google Nexus 10
Caption by: Rupert Goodwins