Google Nexus 7 (32GB, Unlocked) review

The Nexus 7 is the best small tablet on the market, but we'd rather tether it to a 4G smartphone than use the built-in cellular modem here.
Photo of Google Nexus 7 (32GB, Unlocked)

The Google Nexus 7 ($299 for 32GB, unlocked), made by Asus, is the best small tablet available today. We’ve said that before in our Editors’ Choice review of the original model. Now it has up to 32GB storage and 3G wireless with either AT&T or T-Mobile. While we welcome the increased headroom, we’re not as enthusiastic about a modem which can’t hit either of those carriers’ fastest networks. Still, though, if you’re looking for an affordable tablet with cellular connectivity, this is the one to buy.

Physical Features and Battery Life
This Nexus 7 looks just like the earlier Nexus 7, except for one tiny change: A MicroSIM slot tucked into the left side. Use a paperclip or similar tool to pop it out, and you can slip your SIM card in; our tablet auto-configured itself for both AT&T and T-Mobile.

The tablet has a 7-inch, 1,280-by-800 Gorilla Glass screen and a slightly grippy, stippled black rubber back panel. At 7.8 by 4.7 by 0.4 inches (HWD) and 12 ounces, it’s comfortable to hold in one hand for long periods. Unlike the Apple iPad mini, it’s easy to get your hand around the Nexus 7, and the textured back prevents you from dropping it. The Power and Volume buttons on the right are nicely designed, easy to find and not loose.

The Nexus 7′s IPS LCD screen is decent, but it’s been outpaced by Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The screen on the Amazon Kindle Fire HD is brighter, the Barnes & Noble Nook HD’s screen is both brighter and sharper, and at 215 pixels per inch it’s less dense than the “retina” screens we’re seeing on the Apple iPad 4 and many smartphones. The Nexus 7 is still noticeably sharper than the iPad mini, though, which clocks in at only 162 pixels per inch. As for brightness, according to Dr. Raymond Soneira of DisplayMate Labs, the Nexus 7 only hits 372 cd/m2, as opposed to the Kindle Fire HD’s 434 and the iPad mini’s 388. The difference between the brighter Kindle Fire HD and the other two tablets is noticeable.

There’s a noticeable lack of ports and doors on this tablet, except for the headphone jack on top, the MicroUSB charging/syncing port on the bottom, and that SIM card door. Most notably missing, of course, are a microSD card slot and a removable battery, but those are both becoming rarer nowadays.

Battery life, as always, is excellent here. I got 10 hours, 50 minutes of video playback with the screen at maximum brightness, easily surpassing the iPad mini’s 7 hours, 37 minutes, the Amazon Kindle Fire HD’s 7 hours, and the Nook HD’s 5 hours, 16 minutes.

Note: The slideshow below is of the non-3G model.

Android 4.2, Apps and Performance
The Nexus 7 now runs Android 4.2. We have a full review of Android 4.1 and a rundown of the new features in 4.2; the most important is multiple user support, which I got to try on this Nexus 7. 

Multiple user support lets you set up several different user profiles which each have their own accounts, wallpapers, settings, and app libraries. For security, each user can set up his or her own PIN or password, and only the tablet’s “owner” (the first user) can create or eliminate user accounts.

App permissions are attached to each user, so users can’t share apps without “downloading” them separately. But the apps don’t get downloaded twice, as I found when I told the Nexus to install Asphalt 7 Heat on a second user account and it “downloaded” the 1.4GB file in less than a second. Users also can’t share data files; it’s like they have two different tablets.

The Android 4.2 lock screen now has functional widgets, too, although they’re limited to a calendar, clock, Gmail, and a Shazam-like “sound search.” Anything that makes a lock screen more informative is a plus in my book. You can only see one widget at a time, so choose wisely.

Some other Android 4.2 features aren’t as relevant here. Qualcomm’s Miracast wireless display technology isn’t widespread yet. Photo Sphere, which lets you take 360-degree panoramic pictures and post them to Google Maps, doesn’t really apply to a tablet without a rear camera.

Otherwise, the Nexus 7 is the same tablet we know and love, with a speedy 1.3GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and 1GB of RAM. The 1,280-by-800 screen and Tegra 3 processor are a good performance match. 

Raw benchmark scores aren’t up to the level of the 2,560-by-1,600 Google Nexus 10 tablet, but everything involving launching apps and displaying images went much more quickly and smoothly because of the comparatively lower-res display. Scores on the cross-platform benchmark Geekbench crushed the iPad mini, although the iPad mini did better on GLBenchmark 2.5 gaming frame rate tests, promising somewhat smoother gaming.

I ran some pretty heavy apps on the Nexus 7 and, as before, performance was fine. I saw some initial stuttering in the extremely heavy Need for Speed: Most Wanted game, but it smoothed out. Swiping through magazines, playing 1080p videos, and cuddling Kinectimals all went smoothly.

There’s a broad range of apps that work well on the Nexus 7, simply because apps formatted for phones still look good on its 3.75-inch wide, primarily portrait-mode screen. Those same apps fare much worse on the Google Nexus 10′s 8.5-inch wide, primarily landscape-mode screen, gaining huge, awkward buttons or acres of dead space. The Nexus also tops the Amazon Kindle Fire HD as it can download apps from both Amazon’s store and Google’s much larger collection.

(Next Page: Connectivity and Conclusions)

Connectivity
The Nexus 7 is an HSPA+ 21 device on the 850/900/AWS/1800/1900/2100 bands, which means it’ll work with T-Mobile, AT&T, and other carriers which use their networks; it doesn’t work on Verizon, Sprint or MetroPCS. Since this is an unlocked device, you don’t need to sign up for a contract. And at $299, the Nexus 7 is really cheap for a cellular-connected tablet. Without a contract, the competing T-Mobile Springboard  costs $399 and the cellular iPad mini costs $459.

If T-Mobile works well where you live, it offers the best deal at 3.5GB for $30/month. That beats AT&T’s 3GB for $30 and similar plans from H2O Wireless, Simple Mobile, and Straight Talk.

But the Nexus 7′s cellular performance is disappointing on both AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s networks. The problem is the modem: HSPA+ 21 doesn’t cut it for heavy data usage now that T-Mobile is running at HSPA+ 42 and AT&T is rolling out LTE.

HSPA+ 21 is fine for downloading maps if you intend to use the Nexus 7 as an in-car GPS. But if you’re looking to surf the Web or download apps, many faster options are available.

On AT&T’s network in New York I got an average of 2Mbps down, which is perfectly in line with what we saw on AT&T 3G in our 30-city Fastest Mobile Networks tests earlier this year.

But on a Samsung Galaxy S III  with AT&T’s LTE network in the same location, I averaged 12.5Mbps down. That makes for much faster Web page loads, map renderings, and app downloads.

So obviously, the solution is to tether your Nexus 7 to something faster. Tethering the Nexus to an AT&T Elevate hotspot  on the LTE network bumped speeds up to a more respectable 6Mbps. That was about as fast as the Nexus got on any 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network in our crowded office, though in the past I’ve seen 8Mbps figures on this tablet.

Adding 5GB of data and mobile hotspot capability to any Verizon phone will cost you an extra $30/month, right in line with that T-Mobile plan. So tethering to a Verizon smartphone would be a good choice to get the Nexus 7 onto LTE.

My T-Mobile SIM cards wouldn’t work in the Nexus 7 because it requires a special tablet SIM. But our 30-city tests showed that T-Mobile’s HSPA+ 42 network is, in fact, about twice as fast as HSPA+ 21.

That said, if HSPA+ 21 is the best network you have where you live—say, you’re on T-Mobile in Memphis or AT&T in Starkville, MS—the Nexus 7 works just fine. But most Americans are currently covered by faster networks.

The Nexus 7 also lacks some useful features in most cellular devices. You can’t use it as a hotspot, and it’s missing both voice calling and SMS. The lack of SMS bit me when I tried to get a T-Mobile password which the service would only send by text messaging.

Conclusion
There are now three models of the Google Nexus 7: The 16GB unit at $199, the 32GB model at $249, and this 32GB, cellular model at $299. The 32GB model gives you 27.5 GB of free space.

The best value small tablet in the U.S. right now, and our top pick, is the middle model—32GB, no cellular. Instead of getting built-in cellular, go for Wi-Fi tethering with a smartphone, which gives you a wider range of carriers, plans, networks, and speeds. But since the Nexus 7 doesn’t have a microSD card slot, it’s smart to buy the model with more storage.

While other small tablets outpace the Nexus 7 on individual features, the Nexus 7 is the best balanced of the bunch. Both the Amazon Kindle Fire and Nook HD have better screens, but they clamp down too hard on your app options. The Apple iPad mini has more apps and a rear camera, but it’s expensive and awkwardly shaped, and the Nexus offers a better screen and better battery life. The T-Mobile Springboard and Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0)  are also good Android tablets, but the Nexus 7 is a better value for the money.

The Nexus 7 is well-priced, well-built, and user-friendly, with the latest version of Android and plenty of apps. But we think paying extra for a subpar modem isn’t a great deal, so this model won’t get our Editors’ Choice—we’ll leave that with the Wi-Fi-only unit.

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Specifications
Wi-Fi (802.11x) Compatibility 2.4GHz
Screen Resolution 1280 x 800 pixels
Dimensions 7.8 by 4.7 by 0.4 inches
Graphics Card Nvidia Tegra 3
Battery Life 10 hours 50 minutes
Graphics Manufacturer Nvidia
Processor Speed 1.3 GHz
Storage Capacity (as Tested) 32 GB
Storage Type SSD
Service Provider AT&T, T-Mobile
Operating System Google Android 4.2
Battery Size 4325 mAh
Weight 12 oz
RAM 1 GB
CPU nVidia Tegra 3 Quad-Core
Screen Size Type Widescreen
Bluetooth Yes
Cellular Technology HSPA+
Tablet Type Slate
Front Camera Resolution 1.2 MP
GPS Yes
Screen Size 7 inches
Ports micro USB

Verdict
The Nexus 7 is the best small tablet on the market, but we'd rather tether it to a 4G smartphone than use the built-in modem here.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc