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Tech Lab

Google’s new mini-tablet shakes up the market and comes out on top

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / July 5, 2012
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Is it just me, or has tablet computing become insufferably dull? That’s what happens when a single company, in this case Apple Inc., dominates the market. It’s the mighty iPad versus a host of hapless rivals, many with names I can no longer remember, because they’ve been so completely clobbered.

Well, here’s a tablet I’m likely to remember for quite awhile — Nexus 7. It’s the first tablet to carry the brand name of Internet titan Google Inc., and it goes on sale in mid-July. It’s also the best of the mini-tablets — devices with a diagonal screen size of around 7 inches.

That’s where the action is these days, as Amazon.com proved last Christmas. Its 7-inch Kindle Fire became the first tablet of any size to steal away customers from the iPad. Rival bookseller Barnes & Noble Inc. didn’t do nearly as well with its Nook Tablet, but it was better than the Fire, with a sharper, brighter screen and more graceful design. In the 7-inch market, the Nook Tablet ranked as best-of-breed.

Until now. The Nexus 7 was built to dominate, and it does. Its hulking quad-core processor is mated with a massive 12-core video chip, resulting in superb gaming performance. I downloaded a couple of shooter games from Google’s online store. They performed flawlessly — no stuttering, no graphic glitches. And the images glowed forth from the best screen I’ve seen on a 7-inch tablet — not quite up to the standard of Apple’s vaunted Retina display, but pretty close, and more than good enough for games or high-definition movies.

Google’s hardware partner, the Taiwanese computer maker Asustek Computer Inc., stuffed all this power into a compact and elegant package. The Nexus 7’s rounded edges and smooth plastic backside let it rest comfortably in the hand. It weighs no more than a paperback novel, so it’s well-suited for extended use. While I haven’t had the chance to do an exhaustive battery test, Google and Asus claim it can handle 10 hours of e-reading or nine hours of movie viewing without a recharge.

In addition, you get features not found on other mini-tablets.

There’s a GPS chip, for instance, so you can run all sorts of location-sensitive apps. You get Bluetooth wireless connectivity, so you can easily share files with other devices.

Google is also continuing to push its obsession with “near-field communications,” or NFC, a technology that has to catch on, but just might. NFC-enabled devices have little chips inside that let them communicate with other devices through physical contact. That way, you can share data with someone you just met, by pressing his device against yours.

It works, too. I punched up a map of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center on the Nexus 7, then fed the map into an NFC-equipped Android phone in just a few seconds. You can do the same with other kinds of data, like photos or songs. While there’s still no great demand for NFC, I figure it’s just a matter of time, and Google will be ready.

Certain design choices might seem a bit more debatable. There’s no rear-facing camera on the Nexus 7; just one on the front, for use in videoconferencing. Then again, the Nook and Kindle Fire have no cameras at all. Besides, I’ve seen wedding guests take photos with their iPads, and it’s not pretty.

More disappointing is the lack of an external memory slot, one of the Nook Tablet’s best features. With the Nexus 7, you get 8 gigabytes of memory for $199 or 16 gigs for $249, and that’s it.

The Nexus 7 includes the newest version of the Android operating system, codenamed Jelly Bean. Silly name, nice software. Wake up the tablet and you get a screenful of links to your most recent activities — the music you were listening to or the e-book you were reading. Up top, a toolbar launches a slick new feature called Google Now that tells you what Google thinks you need to know, based on your previous searches. You can set it up to instantly present the weather, traffic, or the latest sports scores, whenever you launch the program.

A newly enhanced speech recognition system isn’t as sophisticated as Apple’s Siri service. Still, it recognized my words with very high accuracy and consistently served up relevant Web pages. Besides, it did know the score of the Red Sox game, which counts for something.

In all, the outstanding Nexus 7 proves there’s ample room for innovation and competition among the mini-tablets. For now, anyway.

The Bloomberg news service reported earlier this week that Apple plans to release a 7-incher of its own by October. If that happens, the entire tablet market could become all-iPad, all the time. I’m getting bored just thinking about it.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @watha.

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Nexus vs. other tablets

Nexus vs. other tablets

Take a look at how the Nexus 7 tablet compares to the iPad and Kindle Fire, as well as Microsoft's recently announced Surface.

Google Nexus 7 tablet
Price: $199 with 8 gigabytes of data storage; $249 with 16 gigabytes.
No memory card slot for extra storage; 1.3 gigahertz quad-core processor; 7-inch 1280 x 800 display; 1.2 megapixel frontfacing camera; no camera on back

Amazon.com Kindle Fire tablet
Price: $199 with 8 gigabytes of data storage.
No memory card slot for extra storage; 1-gigahertz dual-core processor; 7-inch 1024 x 600 display; no camera

Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet
Price: $199 with 8 gigabytes of data storage; $249 with 16 gigabytes.
Accepts up to 32 gigabytes of additional data via microSD memory slot; 1-gigahertz dual-core processor; 7-inch 1024 X 600 display; no camera