GOOGLE's Nexus brand showcases its latest Android software and its manufacturing partners' advances in hardware. Now it has ventured beyond smartphones to unveil the Nexus 7 - the brand's first tablet, which is manufactured by Asus.
- GOOGLE NEXUS 7 (four stars)
Android tablets have so far struggled to entertain us in the same way as Apple's iPad, which is probably why the new Nexus 7 makes such a song and dance about its home screen.
The seven-inch display shows movie posters and covers of books, magazines and albums prominently so you can immediately see whatever items you last looked at and pick them up again with a tap of a finger.
Pre-installed icons along the bottom also take you to book, music, movie and magazine collections.
This "entertainment first" approach is reminiscent of Amazon's Kindle Fire - another $199 tablet, with which the Nexus 7 compares favourably.
In fact, the Google device, the size of the thinnest of paperback books, seems more of a rival to e-reader tablets such as the Kindle or Barnes & Noble's Nook, than to the larger iPad.
The Nexus 7 is light at 340g and can be held easily in one hand. Reading a book is a pleasant experience, thanks to its 1280x800-pixel HD screen and the silky swipes that enable page turns.
The design has none of the rough edges of the Fire - the rubberised back has a classy feel and improves your grip. It has the same limited connectivity as the Fire - just a micro-USB port and headphone socket - but a decent front-facing camera has been added for video-conferencing.
The processor - quad-core Tegra 3 - is more powerful than the Fire's, and battery life is better at nine hours for HD video playback, compared to the Fire's seven-and-a-half hours.
While both have only 8Gb of storage, a $249 16Gb version of the Nexus 7 is available. Both versions can be ordered now in the US, UK, Canada and Australia for delivery later this month. It comes with a $25 credit to use in the Google Play store, and pre-installed content such as the latest Transformers movie, Bourne-series novel and Coldplay album.
The Fire aims to lock its owners into using Amazon services, and all the indications are that the Nexus 7 will also require users to operate within a more closed Google ecosystem, with the emphasis on its Play store, cloud services and compatibility with other Android devices.
Using a Galaxy Nexus smartphone, I was able to use the NFC short-range wireless technology - which allows data to be swapped between devices - to transfer a photo from the phone to the tablet wirelessly. This is a new feature of the Android 4.1 operating system, which Google developers have code-named Jellybean.
Google has unveiled a host of new software features alongside the Nexus 7. Its entertainment appeal is further enhanced with a magazine store, an improved YouTube app and a widget that can identify any music you are listening to on the TV or radio and allow you to buy it.
Google Now is a new version of Google's search app that is aware of your location and interests and can serve up relevant data such as local weather, sports scores and the time of your next bus - although I found the information limited and often irrelevant.
Notifications are also much improved on earlier Android devices. The pull-down menu can now give full previews of e-mails and photos and allow you to take action on alerts without having to open a separate app.
Photos can be reviewed with a swipe as soon as they are taken.
Both smartphone and tablet can control the Nexus Q, a spherical new device for streaming audio and video to sound systems and TVs. But they will summon only media content stored in Google's cloud.
Amazon could make things hotter for Google with a Fire update and Apple itself is rumoured to be planning a seven-inch iPad for later this year. For now, however, Google has set the bar on price and features for these pocket entertainment tablets.
ASK THE TECH EXPERT
- THE PROBLEM: Are business-card scanners a good investment or can a smartphone app deal with them just as well these days?
- THE ANSWER: Scanners come with software that import business card information into your smartphone contacts better than many apps. But apps that use a smartphone's camera to "scan" business cards are much cheaper. My favourite is Cardmunch, an iPhone app linked to Linkedin. You take a photo of a business card and it automatically imports the details into your contacts and merges them with the person's LinkedIn profile.
© 2012 The Financial Times Limited