posted by Thom Holwerda on Sat 11th Aug 2012 17:22 UTC

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Jelly Bean

Software is more important than hardware - and this is where the Nexus 7 stumbles when it comes to arguably the most important aspect of a tablet: the browser. I'm starting with this complaint, because I don't want it to be buried under the otherwise fantastic Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.

Chrome on the desktop is - by a huge margin - my favourite browser. I find it a better browser than any others because it's fast, gets out of the way, and has a superior tabbed browsing implementation. My only complaint is how it doesn't integrate very well with the rest of Windows (visually), something they will have to address once Chrome hits Metro.

On my Galaxy SII, Chrome isn't without its issues. It tends to stutter when typing in an address in the address bar, and during page loading it often feels as if it's locking up. I also get the occasional force close. However, considering I was running a custom ROM (CM9) which wasn't even stable yet, I'm willing to concede the issue could lie somewhere else in the stack.

No such excuses for the Nexus 7, however. Force closes I haven't seen yet, but during page loading, the browser still often becomes unresponsive, and the loading itself will often take longer than it should - especially considering the quad-core processor and 120Mbit/s connection I'm on. This is not just the case with notoriously slow and sluggish sites like The Verge, but also prim 'n' proper sites like OSNews or Daring Fireball.

Furthermore, typing in the address bar is an exercise in frustration, as it will often take seconds for the device to catch up with your typing (it seems searching through bookmarks, history, and relevant Google search queries slows everything down). The close tab button is also far too small, and will often not register your touch - or it will register, but only a few seconds later. This kind of touch delay is only found in Chrome, and nowhere else. It's puzzling.

Considering just how important the browser is for a tablet, this is unacceptable - especially on a device with a pure Google software stack, where it has full control over all possible optimisation paths. Google has a lot of work to do on Chrome for mobile devices, and I'm hoping stuff like this gets fixed in updates soon enough.

Moving on from the browser, though, Android Jelly Bean on a tablet is fantastic. This is my first experience with Android on a tablet, so I can't compare it to previous versions to see how much progress has been made, but what I'm seeing here before me is a joy to use, well thought-out, and by no means behind the competition. In fact, I'd argue it's ahead.

The built-in applications like Gmail, People, and Calendar are all properly tablet-optimised and have clean, simple, and easy to use UIs which all follow the same basic UI guidelines. There are a few oddities here, behaviour-wise, though. On some applications, you can swipe the main content to the right to reveal the left-hand navigation bar; on some, you can't, and you need to use the top-left button to do so. Even others will only allow you to hide the navigation bar with a swipe; not reveal it. It's all a bit willy-nilly, and while you can limit yourself to the top-left button for a consistent experience, Google needs to either make the swipe behaviour consistent, or remove it altogether and solely rely on the button.

An odd exception here is the Play Store application, which, for some reason, is entirely identical to its smartphone cousin. It looks out of place, and it still doesn't have sorting options for installed/all applications. The Play Store needs work, and lots of it, for tablets and smartphones.

As far as third party applications go, it's a bit of a hit and miss. Many applications have tablet support, but it's clear that for quite a few of those, tablets were an afterthought, and not a prime concern as it is for many iOS developers. It's a bit less of an issue considering how relatively well Android applications scale to different resolutions, but ideal it is not. It is, however, fascinating to see just how many developers rushed to improve their tablet support the moment the Nexus 7 went on sale, and over the first few days after, it seemed as if almost all application updates said something about tablet support.

In other words, the situation is improving, but it's not on iOS levels just yet.

This last line certainly doesn't apply to Android 4.1 as a whole. Project Butter may sound like marketing speak - and, effectively, it is - but the improvements Google has made to touch performance and the graphics stack are very noticeable. Ice Cream Sandwich was a huge improvement over Gingerbread already, but Jelly Bean moves it up a notch for a completely and utterly fluent experience. Aside from the already-mentioned issues in Chrome, Jelly Bean is (drumroll) buttery smooth.

At this point, I think touch performance really comes down to personal preference. I personally very much prefer Windows Phone 7.5, which, to me, feels just right, while ICS and iOS were tied just behind. Now, though, Jelly Bean has overtaken iOS - I'm very much interested to see what iOS 6 brings to the table. Just to reiterate: this is an entirely personal experience, as I'm sure others will feel entirely differently. It reminds me a lot of ClearType vs. Mac OS X's font rendering; whether you prefer the former or the latter usually depends on which of the two you use primarily.

Application loading is also pretty much instant, but that was already the case on Gingerbread and ICS on my SII, so no differences there for me. However, on older devices, the move to Jelly Bean may mean the difference between frustrating lag and a usable experience, so I would certainly keep an eye out for CM10 or similar ROMs for your older devices.

As far as the graphical aspect of GUI goes though... Jelly Bean just obliterates iOS. I'm sure this will come to no surprise to any of you considering my deep-rooted hatred for skeuomorphic Microsoft BOB-esque user interface design. Android's Holo design language creates a very minimal, clutter-free graphical user interface that is distinctive, unique, fresh, relatively consistent, and decidedly digital - whereas iOS is an inconsistent mess of different visual styles with a very high Microsoft BOB-factor with wooden panelling, fake leather, stitching, and other childish stuff that just brings back unpleasant memories of Clippy and that stupid dog in Windows XP.

Android is clearly not as visually and behaviourally coherent as Metro, but it does manage to strike a nice and acceptable balance between the condescending visual nature of iOS and the starkness of Windows Phone 7. Metro can be a bit jarring when you first start using it, while there are no such issues with Android - which, I think, plays a big part in its success. I think Metro is superior, but just too different.

Jelly Bean is riddled with nice little improvements, too. For instance, the "open with..." dialog has been improved, making it less confusing than it was before; the same applies to the share menu (which is now a dialog). The keyboard does a better job at prediction and autocorrection (although it's still a bit too aggressive for my tastes). Widgets and icons move out of the way when moving widgets/icons around, and when a widget is too large to be placed somewhere, it will shrink automatically. The integration between the camera application and the Gallery is more seamless. All tiny details that add up to improve the user experience.

Probably the biggest improvement in Jelly Bean is the inclusion of Google Now and the new Search interface. Sadly, because (1) Google Now is not yet ready for The Netherlands, and (2) because I work from home and rarely travel, I didn't really get to see it in action all that much. I only actively noticed Google Now when it warned me - without setting reminders or anything - that I had to leave in 15 minutes if I still wanted to make it in time to friends in Amsterdam. For the rest, the only card it shows me is the weather in my hometown. If it really works as advertised, though, I can see how much of a boon this feature will be to frequent travellers and people who have to drive around a lot for appointments and such.

The new interface for Search is a very welcome improvement, and together with the improved voice search, is a very useful tool to quickly look up stuff. You don't have to open a browser or fiddle with slow-loading applications; type or speak in/to the permanently visible search field, and you're done. The results will show up in a nice and clean interface. Certainly an improvement over previous efforts.

All in all, Jelly Bean raises the bar for the competition, and refines some of the rougher edges of the Android user experience. I can't wait until CM10 on the SII matures a bit more, because the upgrade over ICS is totally worth it.


Conclusion

Never have I written a review where the conclusion is as straightforward as this one. This is not just a fantastic Android tablet for its price, nor is it just a fantastic Android tablet - this is a fantastic tablet, period.

If you have no specific preference for iOS, and just want a good tablet, the Nexus 7 is an absolute no-brainer. Save for the lower PPI screen and lack of a front-facing camera, the Nexus 7 holds its own against the iPad 3 (by lack of a better name). Add in the far, far lower price, and there's simply no reason to spend more than twice the Nexus 7's price just to get a higher resolution display. Heck, the Nexus 7 could be a lot worse than it is now, and it would still be a no-brainer.

If you prefer iOS, however, the choice is simple: you go for the iPad. Still, even if you prefer iOS, but want to know what this Android thing is all about, the Nexus 7 is close to cheap enough to be an impulse purchase (not in all countries and parts of the world, of course!). If you prefer Android - well, that's even more obvious.

I continue to be amazed at how much tablet Asus and Google have managed to shove into a $199 device. Feature-packed, fast, beautiful screen, long battery life, great software. If the rumours are true, and Apple really wants to enter the 7"-8" tablet space, the Nexus 7 isn't making it easy.

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