My first impressions of the Nexus 7 and Android

For the past six years my primary computing devices have been iPhones, iPads and Apple computers. Five days ago I was given an ASUS Nexus 7 by my employer for testing purposes. Here are some of my first impressions.

The Device

  • The form factor of the Nexus 7 feels strange. Having used iPhones and iPads for years a 16:9 screen feels alien for browsing the web and reading books and other written content.
  • The build quality is good. To be honest I was surprised by this. It's not comparable to current Apple tablets or even the Microsoft Surface 2, but on the other hand the Nexus 7 costs a lot less. With the exception of the SIM card slot I'd equate the build quality and the perceived density of the device to an iPhone 3G.
  • I'm not a fan of soft-touch coatings on devices and the Nexus 7 is no exception. They feel interesting for a while, but when they wear off the devices look crappy. Admittedly the coating on this tablet is among the best I've seen so far and I'll reserve my judgement for when it has been used a few months.
  • The cameras, both front and back, are decent but nothing to write home about — which is perfectly fine for me as they only need to deliver good video quality for video calls and the occasional snapshot.
  • The display itself is stunning; colours are great, viewing angles, too. Watching videos on it feels more natural than reading articles on the internet.
  • The speakers are lousy, but at least the headphone port is decent.
  • The buttons on the side are nice and firm and react precisely.

The Operating System

  • One thing I noticed immediately was that the interface is a bit laggy. This tablet is one of the fastest Android devices out there, yet iOS 7 on my iPad 2 from 2011 feels more responsive.
  • The system (Android 4.4.2) is a bit overwhelming to be honest. The amount of customisablity—some, it seems, just for the sake of it—often has me second-guessing myself. I won't deny that Android is powerful, but it demands a lot from the user. The learning curve is very steep and I think that the average user won't ever scratch the surface of what it can do.
  • The way Android approaches home screens and applications reminds me very much of Windows. Instead of a number of apps I have five small desktops that I can customise to a certain degree, but all my apps still reside in the applications menu (like the start menu). Another system I feel reminded of is my old Psion 5mx running EPOC32, the precursor to Symbian.
  • I'm not thrilled by the widgets. I already installed a good number of apps but with the exception of a few, widgets are rarely more useful than an icon with a badge. I have a good weather widget installed and the GMail widget, but most widgets seem to have been designed as an afterthought. Google's widgets show that there's potential, but I've seen nothing really compelling so far.
  • The way notifications are handled is great. Same goes for quick access to core features of the device. Apple has nailed the latter with Control Center in iOS 7, but it's very clear that Android was the inspiration. Notifications are something that Apple definitely needs to work on, because right now it's neither here nor there.
  • Having access to the filesystem has certain upsides but also a lot of downsides. Personally I like not having to deal with a filesystem in iOS, but it's great that on Android more than one app can access the same file without requiring me to move it between apps. Allowing an app to see, open and modify all files it's capable of opening on the entire device, is something I will need before I can truly start replacing my laptop with an iPad.

The Software

There are very few applications I miss. The ones I do miss are pretty specialised apps that not many other people will find useful, but the most important ones all have fairly decent equivalents or acutal counterparts. The biggest drawback I see in most apps is that they don't integrate (well) with the third-party services I use (like Pinboard) but your mileage may vary.

  • RSS: On iOS I use Reeder 2 syncing with Feedbin. On Android I found Press. It's only a few bucks and possibly the best RSS reader on Android right now. It reminds me heavily of the old Reeder on the iPad and I really enjoy using it.
  • Riposte + Whisper is what I use on iOS for ADN and ADN private messages, on Android Robin is my app of choice at the moment. It looks great, makes even greater use of the tablet's screen (especially in landscape mode) and is very responsive. The only oddity is that I can't seem to filter out conversations as well as in Riposte.
  • Twitter: Nothing beats Twitterrific on iOS for me, on Android Falcon Pro seems the way to go, even if setting it up is more than convoluted thanks to Twitter.
  • Movies: AVPlayer HD might have a slightly odd interface, but has very meaningful gesture controls and deals well with different file formats. On Android the VLC beta is the way to go for now.
  • Skype: I use the service very often and the Android app is not only a lot nicer than the iOS app, it's easier to use and more responsive. It was a very pleasant surprise.
  • Dropbox: Similar to Skype, the Dropbox app seems a lot more useful on Android than on iOS and the UI is much nicer.

So, these are my first impressions of the device and the software. In a few weeks I'll write some more, once I've really gotten to know both.

Alex Hoffmann @mangochutney