Google makes the Android operating system, and it sells Android hardware. So why wouldn't Google attempt to produce the best hardware possible, with the most up-to-date features, and then sell it at a price that does both Google and Android a favour?
We can't think of a reason why not. Partnering with Asus in the production of the Nexus 7, Google has given every budget Android tablet maker a jolt — and perhaps also upset Amazon's Kindle Fire ambitions too. Even so, despite the Nexus 7's manifold plus points, Google hasn't got everything right.
The Nexus 7 is a 7-inch tablet, and as such is something of a rarity. Tablets outside the budget sector have standardised on 10.1in. screens (Apple's iPad has a slightly smaller 9.7in. display, but still counts as a larger-format device).
The 7-inch design has its merits. It is smaller, lighter and thus easier to carry and hold than 10.1in. tablets, and while its screen might not be as good for video watching, for example, it's fine for many tasks. And perhaps significantly for Google, it's a good size for e-book reading.
We note this because, with Google's Play e-book reader on-board and clients for Kindle and other reading platforms available, the Nexus 7 could rival similarly sized dedicated e-readers — most particularly those from Amazon. Google's battery life quotes even include a specific one for e-reading time, confirming that the search giant is well aware of this potential market.
As it happens, the Nexus 7's dimensions are similar to those of a standard paperback book, at 198.5mm wide by 120mm by 10.45mm thick. It weighs just 340g, which makes it very easy to pop into a pocket or backpack without thinking twice.
The 7in. LED-backlit IPS screen has a resolution of 1,280 by 800 pixels, or 216 pixels per inch (ppi). That doesn't approach the iPad Retina display's 264ppi, but images are still sharp and clear. Reading e-books is slightly harder on the eye than it is with e-ink displays, though.
More generally the screen suffers a little outdoors, coping poorly with bright direct sunlight, and is also a little too reflective for our tastes. These criticisms can be levelled at plenty of other tablets, though.
The Nexus 7's build quality is astonishing for a sub-£200 (inc. VAT) device, and it outclasses any other budget Android tablet on the market in this respect. The Gorilla Glass front and soft-touch, easy-to-grip, stippled back are joined together by a silver metal frame running around the edges of the chassis. These features, along with rounded corners, subtle Nexus and Asus branding on the back, and the absence of front buttons all combine to deliver a high-quality look and feel.
The buttons are all hidden on the edges, which curve slightly backwards in the same way as those on the iPad. This makes finding the power button and volume rocker on the right-hand side a little bit challenging at first, although they are quite tactile as they sit a little proud of their surroundings. There are two connectors on the bottom edge — Micro-USB and a headphone jack.
There are two versions of the Nexus 7 available: one with 8GB of internal storage for £159.99 (inc. VAT; £132.50 ex. VAT) and one with 16GB for £199 (inc. VAT; £165.83 ex. VAT). Our 16GB review sample had just 13GB available, so we'd imagine there's rather less than 8GB free on the entry-level model. With that in mind it's frustrating that there's no microSD slot for storage expansion (and although USB On The Go is supported on the Nexus 7, you can't mount USB storage devices via the Micro-USB port unless you root the OS).
What you do get is an extremely smooth and fast user experience, thanks to the Nexus 7's quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and 1GB of RAM.
The Nexus 7 has hit the headlines in part thanks to being the first device we've seen to run Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean). This is an evolutionary development from Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) rather than a major step up, and Jelly Bean's many tweaks are aimed at making the Android experience smoother and sleeker rather than at adding any standout new features.
Still, there are some novel features — notably Google Now, which attempts to second-guess what you might be searching for. Results are displayed on-screen as cards. Early on you'll probably just get local weather reports, but as you use the Nexus 7 more and more it will deliver additional information relevant to your location and, maybe, even relevant to what you actually want to know at the time.
The Nexus 7 has Bluetooth and GPS capability, along with NFC. There's a front-facing 1.2-megapixel camera, but no rear camera. We can live with the lack of a rear camera, but it's a pity there's no HDMI port. Another notable absence is integrated mobile broadband: this is a Wi-Fi-only (802.11b/g/n) device. On the subject of Wi-Fi, there's no DLNA client, which seems odd — unless it's part of a Google strategy to get people to store more of their data in the cloud and stream it over Wi-Fi from remote rather than local locations.
For those who like to use Flash-enabled websites that are not yet compliant with Adobe Air and HTML5, the lack of support for Flash in Android 4.1 will irritate. On the plus side, Chrome — now the browser of choice for Android — delivered a smooth browsing experience.
Google doesn't add third-party applications to the Nexus 7 as other hardware manufacturers do, but that's hardly a problem as you can browse Google Play yourself and select the most useful apps.
Performance & battery life
Battery life is good too. The Nexus 7 has a 4,325mAh battery that Google claims is good for 9 hours of video playback, 10 hours of web browsing, 10 hours of e-book reading and 300 hours on standby.
We managed a day of general use easily during testing, and suspect that many people will be able to use the device for a weekend without requiring a recharge. Thankfully the Nexus 7 charges via a Micro-USB connection rather than the proprietary port favoured by some tablet manufacturers — many users will routinely carry a Micro-USB cable for charging their smartphone.
Although it has some notable omissions, the Nexus 7's 7-inch form factor, quad-core processor and Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) OS are considerable draws. The hardware design and build quality are excellent thanks to the involvement of Asus. On top of all that is the game-changing price: any hardware manufacturer aiming at the sub-£200 end of the tablet market has got a big problem on its hands.