For wide, but not deep, pockets
Well, those people don't have to worry any more. Here's Google's Nexus 7 "tablet", with a 16:9 aspect ratio and 7in screen. And we can happily say that this is a "large" Android smartphone. Except it only comes in a Wi-Fi version.
Asus built this tablet to Google's recipe, to all appearances after Google decided that Amazon's Kindle Fire had found a profitable niche, during all the 10in Android tablets have been getting whomped by the iPad, which all in all has something like 60% of the entire tablet market.
The strange thing about the Nexus 7 is that it thinks that it's a phone. The first indication you get of this is when you turn it on and set it up. Hold the Nexus 7 in portrait mode, press the home key, and you're presented with a bright home screen.
This is not an accident, nor me overlooking a setting. This is intentional, according to Google's Dianne Hackborn, who posted an explanation. "Some people have commented that the UI on the Nexus 7 isn't a scaled down version of the 10" UI," Hackborn wrote. "This is somewhat true. It is as well not just the phone UI shown on a larger display. Various parts of the system and applications will use one or the other UI depending on what works best."
The trouble is that Google - for reasons best known to itself - has chosen to go with the phone UI not the tablet UI for this. It means that you can hold the phone - er, tablet - on its side or even upside-down and the home screen won't rotate.
It's small, light, the back is nicely contoured, and the front has no physical buttons. It's to tell the truth quite difficult to work out which is the top side; the headphone jack, it turns out, is on the bottom and the power button and volume rocker controls on the top right.
It's light enough, and slips - just about - into an inside jacket pocket. If it had phone capabilities, and voice control, you could nearly imagine this as a future of communication - big enough to watch videos on, however capable enough too to make phone calls. Yet VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) aside, this is a Wi-Fi only device. Google doesn't see it as a smartphone rival.
Is 1280x800. There's only a front-facing camera, for all those VOIP video calls you're going to make.
Non-rotating Home screen apart, you're dying to know what Android 4.1 - aka Jelly Bean - is like, aren't you? Then, I can report: it's very much like Honeycomb, except it's more like Ice Cream Sandwich. To tell the truth, it is ICS, however tweaked and twingled in ways too small to be very obvious.
The efforts of Hugo Barra
Despite the efforts of Hugo Barra and team, there are however inconsistencies throughout Android - just as where the "contextual menu" button is: at times it's at the top right of the screen, however sometimes it's at the bottom right.
Android for all that has the sporadic "Sorry, X has stopped working" where X is an app you were using - and where the notice may or may not mean that the app has died. A question: do you need to be told if an app has died? On the iPhone and iPad, where it happens such as often, you are simply dumped back in the home screen, so you have to infer that something's happened. Not user-informative, however error messages are inherently geeky, and can make people feel they've done something wrong - which clearly they as a rule haven't.
One new annoyance: Android's openness means that if you have multiple programs that can do something at that time you're presented with a choice of which one to perform it with. So, are you opening that PDF with Amazon Kindle, or the Adobe Reader? You prod "Reader". Nothing happens. You press again, Nevertheless nothing. Then and there you notice that the bottom dialog box as well has "Always" and "Just once". Previously anything can happen, you have to press one of those. They're so understated, even though, that you can easily miss them.
The range of software is growing
The range of software is growing, by degree, nevertheless the Nexus 7's insistence that it's sort of a phone means that often you'll want to hold it in portrait. And that's when it will feel most like a large phone - except clearly that it isn't a phone because it won't text, or make calls. And comparable apps on Android nevertheless often feel like the clunky sibling compared to iOS ones.
Acer has indicated to me that this was Google's idea; that what it wants is for everyone to use its services in the cloud. This would be great, and clever, if everyone was guaranteed excellent high-speed broadband connectivity everywhere. Sadly, we're not all on Google's work buses, so broadband isn't necessarily fast, or reliable.
Furthermore, 8GB - 8 gigabytes! - actually isn't very much even for music, and once you add a few apps, and some documents in Dropbox, and maybe a film, the idea of carrying this around and listening to music on the train without warning recedes. Google hasn't got any music deals lined up in the UK, which rules out streaming from Google Music and makes this less useful again. Clearly, there is Spotify, nevertheless when you're on the train you're either going to have to use your phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot or get a Spotify subscription for offline listening.
- Many places/plans have limited transfer caps. Canada's infamous for very high prices and very low transfer caps since our internet companies bought our media companies and now it's the only way they can stay solvent with Netflix on the market
Now, I've never greatly loved the 16:9 aspect ratio used by Android tablets; compared to the 4:3 ratio favoured by Apple with the iPad, the 16:9 seems to give you the option of "too narrow" if you're typing in portrait, or "too wide" in landscape. Anyway with the smaller screen, either way up is fine for typing.
Those in favour: price makes it very affordable; weight and size make it easily portable; good build quality; uses Android, which is familiar even if you haven't used it; good-enough initlal selection of films to rent.
Those against: niggles in software which you'll encounter repeatedly; doubts about battery life; limited storage; no expandable storage; no HDMI out; apps may treat it as a phone; "letterbox of letterbox" view of films; no 3G option.
So it will suit those with wide pockets who want some Android games, or a bit of music on the go.
The approach of Windows 8 on tablets - now less than six months away - will put extra pressure on Google, as its own Android products struggle against Amazon's forked version and the iPad's dominance. By Charles Arthur
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