Nexus 7, after one week

I have never owned any Android product before, but the excitement around the recent release of the Nexus 7 was too much too ignore. I found The Verge's review particularly interesting, but it was after reading this review on Tech Crunch from an iPad lover that I immediately found my way over to Google's product page to buy one. The page said "shipping soon", so I was surprised when I received a shipping notice the next morning, and even more surprised when the tablet arrived at my door the following day. Anyone who has ordered from Apple can relate to the week (or more) that you spend refreshing a shipment tracking web site and following the item's journey from China to the United States, and eventually to your door. Google makes a very good first impression here before you ever even open the box.

First impressions
The packaging is very minimal... very much like an Apple product, with its simple image on the top, open at the ends so that a box containing the actual contents can slide out. Inside the box is the tablet, a cord, a power adapter, and a tiny little "getting started" fold-out. Once again, a very positive experience... far different from the intimidation you've experienced if you've ever bought something made by, or for, Microsoft.

In the past, any time I've picked up a friend's Android phone and tried to do anything, I've hated it. All past iterations of the Android system have frustrated me... even angered me. Movement seemed to track slower than your finger movements. Actions seemed to lag behind touches. On the few occasions when I've tried to use an Android device, I've come away feeling as if user actions were completely separated from the devices feedback... as if the device and the user were not participating in the same interaction.

My experience with the Nexus 7 is quite the opposite. It's widely reported that Google declared a war on "lag", putting a lot of attention and energy into resolving that for JellyBean (the latest version of Android). And it shows. I don't know how much my experience has to do with JellyBean, and how much has to do with the hardware in the Nexus 7, but as a user of the device, I don't really care where the difference comes from, I only care that it works well. And it does. Touches feel more immediate. Swiping feels more natural. Oh, and the screen: it's gorgeous, with high resolution and crisp colors. This isn't like any other Android device I've seen.

The form factor is definitely a major feature here. It's hard to imagine the difference between 7-inches (Nexus 7) and 10-inches (eg, iPad) until you have it in your hand. Not hands... hand. That's the biggest difference, if you ask me. The Nexus 7 fits comfortable in one hand. And it's light, too, so you won't mind having it in your hand. (Unlike the brick that is the Kindle Fire.)

Google is obviously not oblivious to this, and they're clearly pushing it as a media device. When you turn it on, the home screen shows you options to read books and magazines, or watch movies. They even include a few for free, to get you interested. And it's a good move, because text renders very nicely. In fact, with its crips display and comfortable form factor I find this device is a natural fit for reading, and have used it extensively for reading over the past week.

Text input sucks
As a 5-year iOS user, I can't help noticing some things that still bother me. The biggest of these is the keyboard. Android's keyboard, if I can get right to the point, it sucks. It's awful. Horrible. And not just because of its flat, blocky, boring keys -- they're terrible -- but also because I'm spoiled by Apple's keyboard technology, which actually increases the "hit space" around likely next keys, so that, for example, typing an "F" makes it easier to type an "A", rather than mistakenly hitting the "S" which is right next to it. Typing on iOS is smooth, comfortable, and fast. I just don't get that same feeling with Android.

But where the keyboard is awful, they do make up for it with Google's extensive experience with typed, and mistyped, words. I feel like all those years of experience with a search engine have payed off in Android's suggesting/autocorrection routines. I may mistype a lot more on this awful keyboard, but the system seems to correct my words very well, maybe even better than my iPhone or iPad do.

I'd love to call that a draw, but unfortunately, Android also falls down embarrassingly when it comes to placing a cursor, or setting cut/copy/paste markers. When using my Nexus 7, I desperately long for iOS's ability to magnify the text around your finger for easier cursor placement. If I mistype something, I find it easier to clumsily place the cursor ahead of the mistake, and then backspace over entire words to correct the little mistakes. That just isn't good.

In fairness, though, I will say that the actual cut, copy, and paste commands at the top of the device are more intuitive than Apple's "tap and hope you get a copy command" solution. Also, if I do make a spelling error, and I manage to get the word selected, Android's suggest/replace feature seems better than that of iOS.

An Android newbie
As a first-time user of Android, there is a lot to be discovered. And quite a bit to be appreciated! Google's own apps are pretty nice. Chrome on the Nexus 7 is a very useful browser. Nearly identical to its desktop brother. The GMail app feels almost like a real mail application, rather than a dumbed down mobile app. The photo gallery has a slick appearance and really nice transitions. I realize my opinion here is quite subjective, but it just feels like this is the form factor that Android was meant for.

Also, I've mentioned that this is a very good device for reading and nowhere do I appreciate that more than in the Google Reader app (which I had to install separately). I've used RSS in various fashions for nearly a decade now, and Google Reader as my RSS client of choice for probably 6 years now, but while that's made things easier for me, I've never found an acceptable way of consuming my feeds. Until now. In fact, the one thing I do with my Nexus 7 more than anything else is read feeds on Google Reader... and for that alone it's worth every penny.

But the fun doesn't stop there. The calendar, YouTube, and Google Talk apps are also all very nice to use... a far different experience in my mind from iOS, where I consciously make an effort to avoid using those apps (or equivalents) when possible. And he integration with Picasa from the gallery app offers a robustness that can't really be match by iCloud.

Perhaps one of the nicest features of Android is the voice recognition. Unlike Siri, which uploads your speech to a server for processing, Android appears to process the speech-to-text right there on your device, and only use the network for fetching results. And the device seems to correctly understand my words much better than Siri, too.

Slick, but still not Apple slick
The praise kind of ends there, though, because there's still a lot about this platform that leaves me wanting... especially after being spoiled by Apple's care and polish for the last 5+ years. Beyond the awful keyboard, there's still a lot about this platform that just feels like it lacks polish.

While Google Play looks very slick when you first open it, it only takes a few minutes of searching for, and installing, apps before you really start to feel like the whole marketplace is quite a fragile environment where things can, and do, go wrong. Often. In 5+ years, I've maybe had problems installing from the iOS App Store only once or twice, and never wondered whether or not I'd be charged for a failed purchase, but that's already happened to me multiple times with Google Play in just the first week. In fact, one app appeared to fail, and then fail on retry, but when I closed the marketplace I found it had in fact installed. Then I received an email saying the charge was reversed due to failure, and now I have the app, in spite of the repeated failure, and I'm still not sure if I was charged for it at all!

A bigger indictment of the app marketplace, though, is that I can't seem to find anything unless I know the exact name of the app. Unlike the iOS App Store, where I can search for a topic and find several apps that do what I want, it seems like dozens of searches on Google Play return few or no results, yet when I search in a browser I do find dozens of apps that do what I want. I don't understand how a company whose most well-known product is market-leading search can fail so badly at search on their own product.

And with regard to the apps I'm finding, most of them are still quite terrible. Again, I've been spoiled by a world where I can find endless apps that do endless cool things on my iPhone or iPad, and even the free ones work well and are very nice to use. The ecosystem for Android is far inferior in that respect. I don't know if that's due to a lack of talented developers or if it's a symptom of a more fragile platform, but as I said above, I don't care. I'm an end-user and I don't like it.

Where it fits
Well, for starters, it fits in my back pocket, so that's awesome. That, by itself, makes this more likely to be the tablet that's with me. Perhaps my biggest complaint is just the lack of a 3G or 4G option, because that means when I travel I'm still going to reach for my iPad, even though this is a much more convenient, portable option.

I've also found several developer-friendly apps that are beginning to make me consider a world where the Nexus 7 is my most precious device for work-related tasks. Tools for Google App Engine and Amazon Web Services are a natural fit here, and I'm even dreaming of the possibility of connecting it to an EC2 instance and doing actual programming directly from my tablet. The apps aren't quite perfect for that kind of thing yet, but they're amazingly close.

Sure, it's not perfect. I've got several complaints, including those I've written about above, but in the end, I'm still quite fond of this device. If I'm going to read something, I want to read it on the Nexus, not on my iPad. If I'm going to type an email, I'd rather type it on the smaller frame of my Nexus than to fuss with the awkward typing experience on an iPad. And I find myself chatting regularly on my Nexus, in spite of the fact that I hate, hate, hate to chat from my iPad.

That doesn't make this a replacement. If I was going to play a game, or watch streaming video, I'd rather have the 10 inch iPad. Most web browsing will be more comfortable on the iPad. Games are better by far on the iPad. The point is, there are two very different use cases, and I wouldn't want to choose just one. I very much like the fact that I have both. It's no iPad-killer. It's not even a replacement. But it's still a pretty cool device and I'm excited to have it.
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