When you step into your typical Noel Leeming store you'll find at least 10 different tablets on display. Most of them are terrible. Same goes for the $150-or-so tablets that are offered on various daily deal sites. Others, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, look like well-built and well-specced devices. But all of these tablets will leave you wanting. You'll be bored with them after a few weeks, wondering what all the tablet-fuss was about and you'll never touch it again or only reluctantly. Why? Because by itself, out-of-the-box, a tablet doesn't actually do that much. You can browse the web and send emails.That's about it. The real value comes with the content. And to make it easy to use and consume content, you need integration. Very tight integration between the device itself and the content.
Apple were the first to figure this out. iPads are amazingly simple to use. You can buy music, movies, books with one click. There's a wealth of apps to do anything you can think off and everything 'just works'. Amazon.com saw this, knew that they had the content, and understood that the only way to make this integration work and be a seamless experience for the end-user was to manufacture a tablet themselves. And that's why the Kindle Fire was such an amazing success, in the US and even here in New Zealand. Not because the hardware was that great, it's well-built, but relatively under-specced. But because the integration was perfect, it was very focused on the services that Amazon offers and it was extremely easy to use.
Now there is a third player, Google. Google also has lots of content and have recently merged all of that under one banner: 'Google Play'. At first they tried to focus on the content and leave the devices to others, like Samsung, until they realised that it was not the seamless experience that consumers want. So now they have also decided to sell their own fully integrated tablet, the Google Nexus 7.
We won't go into too much detail on the technical specifications, because frankly they don't really matter that much. The Nexus looks sleek and is easy to hold in one hand, especially with the non-slip back surface. Definitely more suitable to hold in one hand for periods of time than the iPad. Not as solid as the Kindle Fire, but quite a bit lighter. The lay-out of ports and buttons seems a bit off though. We keep searching for a on/off button at the top (it's on the side). And the headphone jack is on the wrong side (at the bottom). If you've got earplugs in it, say for listening to music in bed while reading, you can't rest it at the bottom, because the plug sticks out. In theory that shouldn't matter with auto-rotating screens, but it does (more on that later).
Google partnered with Asus for manufacturing and design of the hardware. Asus are a reputable Taiwanese company and have been around for many years. They are better known for computer-parts than for whole computer systems. While they are not renowned for quality control (like Samsung in recent years), they don't have a bad reputation either.
The Nexus 7 is running the Android operating system. More importantly it is running the latest version of Android, 4.1, normally referred to as 'Jelly Bean'. This is important, because earlier versions of Android were really designed for smaller smartphones and did not work well on larger tablets. And because the Nexus 7 is built by the same company that's creating the Android operating system (Google), there is a much tighter integration. It's also avoiding the unnecessary 'extras' (often derided as crapware or bloatware) that manufacturers like HTC and Samsung normally add on top of Android to make it look more like their own.
The Nexus 7 has got quite a high resolution (1280x800), which is nice for movies and graphics, but more importantly in daily use, it makes the screen feel bigger than the smallish 7" that it is. It means that websites will actually fit on the screen and you'll have to do less scrolling. It's not without compromises (you may need your reading glasses or bring the tablet quite close to your eyes), but it effectively makes a full-size screen very portable. More useable than any smartphone screen, more portable than an iPad 10" screen.
The most common question we get on our auctions is: "does it have a SD card slot?". No it does not. And yes, most of the cheapo Chinese tablets will have one. And no, neither the iPad nor the Kindle Fire has one. Yes, part of that may be because the manufacturer wants you to upgrade to a higher priced model with more memory. But mostly, having a SD-slot is a solution that creates its own problem. Copying files around is such a 20th-century approach, back from the days of the floppy-disk. Sure, you need a certain amount of storage to store apps, books and various files. But 8GB is normally enough for that. For everything else there is 'The Cloud'.
The cloud is nothing more than a central area on the internet where content is stored. So when you want to watch a movie, you don't copy the movie-file from here to there, then onto a SD card or USB drive and then onto your tablet again. You simply connect your tablet to the cloud and then stream the movie from there. And to select a movie, you don't look for a file called mymovie[blah].avi on some C: drive. You simply click on a thumbnail or movie-name and it plays. You will never see a file-system and that's because you don't have to. Movies are never copied in their entirety to your device, just parts and pieces in the background while you watch and when you're finished, it's gone and doesn't take up space any more. Once you get your head around this, you'll start to understand why these successful tablets don't have a SD-card slot. SD-card slots make things complicated and more likely to fail.
And you can store everything in the cloud. Not just movies, but music as well, through services like Spotify, And even documents with services like DropBox. Now there is one issue with all this streaming from the Cloud. It's data-hungry. Not an issue in most of the world, where broadband is all-you-can-eat, but definitely a problem in NZ with it's data-caps and overpriced data-plans. And unfortunately the quite devastating news that the 'Pacific Fibre' is not being installed means that's not going to change any time soon. Fortunately most broadband plans these days come with a decent 30GB or 40GB data plan and for the average user that should be enough.
So why then are there 8GB and 16GB version of the Nexus 7? And more importantly, do I need to spend the extra money for the 16GB version when it's otherwise identical to the 8GB version? Probably not, as you wouldn't normally store all your files on the Nexus. The main exception would be if you are a very prolific gamer and expect to play lots of 3D graphics games. Games are downloaded in their entirety when they are installed and games like 'Asphalt 6: Adrenaline HD', can take up 500MB or more of space. Install five of those, and you'd run out of space quickly. Don't worry if your main gaming is puzzle-games, or games like Angry Birds, Temple Run, Fruit Ninja etc, they don't take up much space.
Integration is the key here, so the first thing you'll have to do is link the device to a google account. If you've got a @gmail.com email-address, you'll already have one. Just fill in the details. Content and purchases are linked to your google account rather than the device. So they'll stay with you if you decide to switch devices and you can install the same content on multiple devices without having to pay twice.
Once you've completed sign-up, you're shown a home-screen with a few apps pre-installed. These are all Google's own apps and as they are fully integrated and fully optimized for the Nexus 7, they are quite superb. The email client is very impressive, well laid-out and managing your emails is a breeze. If you've signed up with a gmail account, your email will be automatically configured. If you're still with xtra or any other email provider, set-up takes just a few steps. You can use multiple mail-accounts at the same time and easily switch between them.
Google Maps looks gorgeous. It's clever as well. Unlike the Kindle Fire, the Nexus has GPS, so it knows exactly where you are. It can also give you directions - for driving, walking and for public transport. The Nexus 7 does not have 3G, so you'd normally need a WiFi signal to be able to use the maps, but Google has come up with a clever feature for that as well. Click on the three dots at the top of the screen and click 'Make available offline'. Maps will ask you to mark a section of the map for download and will cache that part of the map, so you can still use it while you're outside of WiFi coverage. Very handy if you're in an unfamiliar city, load the map of the area you're going to be in while in the office or an internet cafe and you've got your perfect portable map.
The browser, Google's own Chrome, works great. It's speedy and as mentioned above, the high resolution screen makes sure websites can fully fit on the screen. Unfortunately both Stuff and the NZ Herald default to their mobile sites, which dumbs them down, as the screen can handle the normal desktop version of their websites. But just click on "view full site" and you'll see the desktop version. There's a clever function for dealing with the small buttons and links on the screen. If the browser can't quite figure out which of the two buttons you clicked, it will bring up a small zoom-window, so you can confirm the right one.
On to the content then. It's very easy to get free apps, just click on the icon, let it install and open it. There's a wide selection of apps available in the Google Play app store, many for free, and many more for a few dollars.
When you try to buy an app, you may get the following error: "An error occurred. Please try again". The error description is not very helpful and you can keep trying but it will keep returning the same error. The most likely reason is that you don't have a credit card assigned to your account yet. For payments, Google uses Google Wallet and in order to buy and pay for apps, you will have to get this set up. Easy though, go to the Google Wallet site in your browser, log in to your Google account and attach a credit card. Once you've done that, you should get a normal "accept & buy" button and you'll be able to buy the app.
The Nexus 7 has a NFC (Near Field Communication) chip, so together with your Google Wallet you should eventually be able to pay for a pack of milk just by tapping your Nexus at a terminal in your local dairy, but expect that to be a while away yet in New Zealand.
Most of the apps work fine, but you will likely hit a problem that affects all Android based devices. Because there are so many different Android devices out there, each with a different screen resolution, developers usually don't bother optimizing the screen lay-out for each individual device. In practice that means that many apps, developed for a very small phone-screen, look a bit silly and sparse on your high-res Nexus screen. Popular apps should be coded in such a way that it looks at least reasonable, but expect that some niche apps will not quite behave as you'd like them to.
Yes, as it turns out the late Steve Jobs was right after all. Flash is dead. And now even Adobe, creator of Adobe Flash, have admitted that by stopping development on their mobile flash offerings. So the Nexus 7 does not support Flash.
That fact has gone largely unnoticed in the US, where most website owners have accepted reality and rebuild their websites around more modern standards. Less so in NZ, where the pace of internet change is notoriously slow and many companies simply don't have the budget or development skills to rebuild their site. The most obvious and somewhat annoying example of this is in our TV on demand websites. Both TVNZ and TV3 still have flash-based websites, so watching TV on your Nexus 7 is not going to be that easy. There are some work-arounds if you insist on getting Flash to work, but it's likely to be unstable and with every update of the OS, you may have to re-google for a workaround.
So far the Nexus 7 looks like a nicely-built, well working and easy-to-use tablet device, and we've only got some minor complaints. But it feels like something's missing. Where are the books, the movies, the music? Unfortunately for Kiwis, they are not there. Google Play has a large selection of books, movies and music available in the US, in the UK and to a lesser extent in Australia, but not in New Zealand. That will largely be due to publishing rights and the enormous amount of legal work that companies like Apple, Amazon and Google have to go through to sign up another country to their respective content stores. And New Zealand being such a small market, they may not bother. So let's hook it up to a VPN and see what a difference an ip-address makes.
A VPN or Virtual Private Network allows you to set up a secure connection (sometimes referred to as a 'tunnel') to a remote location. It is often used by companies for setting up secure connections between employee-home or branch locations and head-office. If you connect to the internet using a VPN, you first go into a private 'tunnel' until you reach the VPN end-point and that's where you'll enter the public internet. Using a VPN thus allows you to mask your origin and effectivly pretend that you are located somewhere else. That's because your ip-address will show as being from the location where the VPN end-point is located. This makes VPNs the easiest and most reliable way to circumvent geographical restrictions on devices like the Nexus 7. In order to use a VPN connection, you will need to sign up for an account with a VPN provider. Some claim to be free, but can be dodgy and unreliable. More reliable VPN providers, like StrongVPN will charge you around $10 a month.
You can use VPN connections in two ways. You can enter the vpn account-details you obtained from your vpn-provider in a client that runs on your mobile device. The Nexus 7 has a built-in VPN client for this. A nicer way is to get a VPN router. You hook the VPN router up to your current WiFi router and effectively create two wireless networks in your home. If you connect your device to your normal WiFi you will appear on the internet as a NZ internet user. Switch to your VPN WiFi and you will appear on the internet as a US internet user (or a UK internet user or wherever your VPN provider is located). Using a VPN router allows you to easily switch between the two different networks and will also allow other devices to use that same VPN connection. We will be offering pre-configured VPN routers shortly, so keep an eye on this space. A very easy way of checking what your location shows up as is to go to whatismyipaddress.com.
Some sellers claim that the Nexus 7 comes with a $25 credit. It does, but only in the US. If you want to claim that $25 credit for the Google Play store in NZ, you will have to jump through a few hoops. The first is your ip-address. You will have to use a VPN to make your ip-address show up as a US location. Without a VPN you will not be able to get (or use) the credit. The second is your credit card. Officially you have to use a US credit card with your Google Wallet account to get the credit. You'll find various reports on the internet of people claiming the credit without a US credit card. We have been able to get the credit using our VPN and a regular kiwi credit card. You will have to be careful with your address details and make sure those are for a US address or it will fail. We've also had failures with kiwi-issued visa debit cards and it seems that if somewhere in the process you screw up, you will have to use a new email-address and a not-yet used credit card to be successful. So, yes, in theory the $25 credit can be obtained within NZ, but results are not guaranteed and you'll have to be prepared for a bit of trial-and-error to get it to work.
Once you've got your VPN working and have obtained the $25 credit, you'll be in for a treat. You're finally opening up the Nexus 7 to it's full potential. The Google Play store looks very different in the US. Rather than just an App Store, it is now a full content store, with Apps, Music, Magazines, Books, Movies & TV.
It is possible to buy all of the content in the App Store from within New Zealand. But, as with the $25 credit, there are a few things to look out for. Firstly you'll need your VPN, because without that the Play store will think you're in NZ and will only show you the Apps section of the Play Store and not any of the other sections. Secondly, when purchasing content, you'll need to make sure you've got your billing details set up with a US address. Otherwise you may get an error like 'Sorry, purchases are not enabled in your country at this time'. Make sure your billing details in Google Wallet don't have any references to NZ and you should be good to go. You should see a dropdown allowing you to choose between your Google Play credit balance or your credit card.
While it's great to have magazines on your Nexus, especially US magazines that are hard to get or expensive in New Zealand, reading them is not the most comfortable experience, due to the small 7" screen. You'll find yourself doing a lot of scrolling and zooming in-and-out to make the content readable. To comfortably read magazines, you really need a 10" display like that on the iPad, and contrast on the new iPad with retina display is still unbeatable.
Books are different. They don't rely on formatting of the page like magazines, and you can easily change the font-size to something that suits your eyesight. The Books app on the Nexus 7 has a day-mode (black-on-white) and a night-mode (white-on-black). Pricing for eBooks on the Google Play store is fairly similar to that on amazon.com. And of course, if you prefer amazon's store for books, or already have eBooks in your amazon/Kindle library, you can easily download the Kindle App and read your eBooks within that app instead.
Google Play Music is the music section of Google Play. It's a cloud-centered music service, meaning that rather than copying songs to your Nexus, you upload music to the cloud and then stream from there. The advantage is that once you've done this you can browse and play your music on any device. The downside of course is that you will have to be connected to the cloud. You can upload your current MP3 files to the cloud or buy songs in the Google Play Music store. Google's selection is limited compared to Amazon or iTunes, but they have just started providing the service, so that should improve over time. Interestingly, Google's store feels a lot more album focused than iTunes.
The Movies & TV section of the Google Play store has a large selection of current movies and recent TV shows. You can buy (around USD13) or rent (around USD4) movies, usually in both standard definition and high definition (HD), with a premium for the HD version. TV-shows are always bought and you can buy individual episodes or get a discount for buying a whole season, including seasons that haven't finished yet. TV episodes are usually available a few days after they are on TV in the US, which usually means 6-12 months before they are on air in NZ (if it all). Quality is excellent. Video starts playing pretty much instantly and there is none of the lag or stuttering that often plagues Youtube over here. Using a VPN always slows down your internet connection, but using StrongVPN over a standard Orcon broadband connection provided excellent streaming quality, and overall Google's video streaming service is as impressive as that of Amazon Prime.
The Apps section of Google Play is pretty much the same for the US and for NZ. Pricing between the NZ and US Apps is fairly consistent after applying current exchange rates. You get a little better pricing in the US, but not enough to worry about it.
The Nexus 7 is a great addition to the tablet market. It's well made, easy to use and works perfectly with all the Google apps. Unfortunately, unless you have a VPN, the content available in the Google Play store is limited to apps and that takes away some of the appeal.