Google's Nexus 7 ($199 for 8GB, $249 for 16GB) is a game-changer. The first tablet with Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean," it's the most bang for the buck you can get in the market right now. It's versatile, well-built, fast, and a lot of fun to use. It basically renders every 7-inch tablet priced at more than $300 pretty much irrelevant. If you're looking for a small tablet to surf the Internet and play games, this is the one to buy. It easily unseats the Amazon Kindle Fire ($199, 4 stars) as our Editors' Choice for small tablets.
Physical Features and Internet
The Nexus 7 feels well-built, even classy for a $200 tablet—and trust me, I've handled plenty of cheap tablets. Kudos go to the hardware manufacturer, Asus, a company that typically builds good stuff. A Gorilla Glass screen dominates the front of the tablet, and around back, there's a slightly grippy, stippled black rubber 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.
Turn the tablet on using the prominent Power button at the top right corner, and you'll see a perfectly fine 1280-by-800, 7-inch IPS LCD with a huge black bezel around it. The screen is higher-res than the Kindle Fire, which clocks in at 1280-by-600. This is one monster of a bezel, and it makes you wonder if the screen could have been larger, or the tablet smaller. The answer is "probably not for $200."
The display is bright enough to see indoors and out, on par with the Kindle Fire's, although it's more reflective and less saturated than the high-end AMOLED screens used by the far more expensive tablets like the Toshiba Excite 7.7 ($499.99, 3.5 stars) and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 ($699.99, 3.5 stars).
A Wi-Fi-only device, the Nexus 7 connects to the Internet using 802.11 b/g/n, albeit only on the 2.4GHz band. I had no problem hooking into several WPA2-protected networks, although it dropped off of one of them at one point during testing. The tablet supports Bluetooth for audio and NFC to transfer files to other NFC-equipped Android devices. Interestingly, Google Wallet doesn't appear in Google Play on the Nexus 7, so, for now, at least, it doesn't look like you can make NFC credit-card payments here.
Performance and Apps
The quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 chipset inside is one of the fastest mobile processors around. This unit runs at 1.3GHz in single core mode, and 1.2GHz when two to four cores are active. It's far faster than the Kindle Fire's older dual-core chipset. While our Antutu system benchmark won't run on the new version of Android, we ran a bunch of other benchmarks, including Geekbench and Quadrant for system scores, Browsermark and Sunspider for the Web, and Nenamark for graphics.
System-wise, the Nexus 7 performed on par with other recent Tegra 3 tablets like the Toshiba Excite 7.7 . Geekbench is a cross-platform benchmark, and the Tegra 3 tablets score considerably higher on it than the dual-core Apple iPad does—in this case, 1,472 to the iPad's 761. Graphics performance was rock-solid with a 55.9 fps rating in Nenamark, higher than the Excite 7.7 and the Asus Transformer Pad TF300 ($379, 4 stars).
Games just rock here. I downloaded a few of Nvidia's Tegra Zone titles, and both Zen Pinball and Riptide GP had the smooth ease of control which marks a really good gaming experience. There was no jerkiness, no lag, and no compromises. The Kindle Fire has games, but they aren't as glamorous as the Tegra Zone entries.
This is the first Google device to install Chrome as the default browser, and that's great; it's about 30 percent faster than the older stock Android browser, and it has a better tab interface.
The performance news gets even better with Android 4.1 thanks to "Butter." That's Google's code-name for a project that makes everything in the Android UI smoother, and it works. Screen transitions are indeed smoother, and there's no lag with the touch keyboard. The whole experience feels more polished and professional than previous Android iterations.
Butter doesn't solve everything, though. Android has problems with processing stylus touch inputs that can make it difficult to use drawing programs. I tried Sketchbook Pro with a stylus and still saw a lag. Android 4.1 apparently fixes this, but consumers won't see the advantage yet because the apps involved need to be retooled for the new OS.
Thus we get to the stickiest issue with Android tablets: The perpetual lack of great apps designed to use high-end hardware. This is less of a problem with Tegra-powered 7-inch tablets than with larger tablets, or those with different chipsets, but it's still an issue. Apps designed for 4-inch phone screens don't look so bad on 7-inch tablets (although they don't look great), and Nvidia has been busily helping developers churn out a few dozen super-high-end games for its chips.
You're going to find the range of apps designed for Android tablets to be in the single-digit thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands you'll find on the iPad. But the success of this tablet might improve that, and you certainly have some decent apps to start working with. The list on the Tablified Market ($1.49, 4 stars) is an excellent starting point.
For more on the many improvements in Android, see our full review of Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" (4.5 stars).
Google Don't Play That, Or the Winter Of This Content
When you start up your Nexus 7, you'll see splashy ads for Google's new Play app market. Swipe to the right and you get suggestions from the Play store. The bottom bar on the UI is reserved for Play store icons.
Fortunately, you can throw all of those widgets and icons away, because the Play store isn't all that. Play has a bookstore that isn't nearly as large as Kindle or Nook (both of which run just fine on the Nexus 7), a magazine store that plays second fiddle to Zinio (ditto), and a video store that crashed every time I tried to run it. (Google says that shouldn't be happening, and they're trying to help me fix it.) Google also says the tablet will come with preloaded content and a $25 credit for the Google Play store. Our tablet came with the new book, The Bourne Imperative and a hodgepodge of music and magazine issues, but no store credit.
I'm not that bothered about Google Play's problems, because there are enough streaming video apps that look good here. Netflix, WatchESPN, Crackle, Hulu+ and TV.com all played fine on the tablet, offering up a solid array of movies and TV shows. Only HBO GO is missing from the Nexus 7's market, and probably not for long.
The Kindle Fire is definitely easier to use to start, because it defaults to Amazon's excellent store and has a simplified interface. But the Nexus 7 can match it with a few well-chosen downloads.
The tablet also does a good job with your own media, although you have to be careful about codecs and file sizes. The built-in speakers are fine for personal use, although they don't fill a room; sound through headphones, on the other hand, is great, with plenty of bass. The tablet played all of our MPEG4 and H.264 videos up to 1080p resolution, but there's no support for DivX, Xvid or WMV files. In terms of music, it handled all the usual music formats except WMA.
Major music and video buffs will find two disappointments here, though. The big one is that the tablet only comes with 8GB or 16GB of non-expandable storage. (The Kindle Fire only comes in an 8GB model, but can rely on trading files in and out of Amazon's cloud often.) I strongly suggest that anyone who intends to store their own movies on here get the 16GB version. The minor one is that there's no MHL, HDMI or any other way to hook the tablet up to a TV.
There's no rear camera, and the tablet doesn't come with a camera app. And that's fine! Rear cameras on tablets are awkward to use, and they're typically not great anyway. I downloaded a simple third-party camera app to check out the quality of the 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera, and it's predictably noisy, designed for video-chat apps rather than anything else.
Conclusions: The Best Small-Screen Tablet You Can Buy
Simply put, the Nexus 7 delivers the best balance of price and performance you'll find in the tablet market right now, so it's an easy Editors' Choice for best small-screen tablet. That said, there are still reasons you might want to buy some of our other top-rated tablets.
The Amazon Kindle Fire is even easier to use if you want to read books and watch Amazon Prime videos, but the Nexus 7 outpaces it with much higher performance and a better Web browser. Yes, Amazon is probably coming out with a new Kindle Fire soon, but we know nothing about that tablet, and can't make any predictions based on it. The Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet ($249, 4 stars) still makes a better ebook reader. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (7.0) ($249.99, 4 stars) is a better choice for those with large media libraries, as it accepts large memory cards and has an MHL output for HDTVs. With these options around, it's hard to justify spending more than $300 for a 7-inch tablet. Sorry Toshiba, as lovely as your Excite 7.7 design is, it just costs too much money for what it can accomplish.
Meanwhile, our large-screen Editor's Choice, the New Apple iPad, is a totally different beast. It's much bigger, heavier, and more powerful with a cellular option, and a much wider array of apps. And it costs more than twice as much as the Nexus 7. Think of the iPad as a better replacement for another home PC, while the Nexus 7 is for toting around wherever you go.
Google has delivered a powerful, good-looking tablet for an almost shockingly low price here. I wouldn't get too worked up about the Google Play store, as the Kindle app, Comixology, and various video apps make up for the lack of content. And while Android still falls far short of the iPad in terms of high-quality tablet-designed apps, it's ahead of the Kindle Fire considering that it runs every app the Fire does, and more.
The Nexus 7 doesn't magically solve Android's problem with a lack of tablet apps. But it may turn the vicious cycle into a virtuous one, and the spread of these affordable, high-quality Android tablets will cause app developers to start writing for these devices. That makes it our enthusiastic Editors' Choice over the slower, less capable Kindle Fire.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.