The Nexus 7 proved Google can design good hardware, but can it take on the iPad?
Tablets are in a funny phase. For years, Google and Microsoft were content to sit back while hardware partners used their software to make tablets. But as the iPad gobbled up the market, it became clear that the strategy that worked for Microsoft with PCs wasn't going to work with tablets. So both companies got in the game, Google with the Nexus 7 and Microsoft with the Surface.
Google certainly shook up the 7-inch tablet market — it's the best Android tablet I've used, and the only one I've purchased — and now the company's hunting bigger game. The new Nexus 10 is unequivocally aimed directly at the iPad's heart, and its biggest selling point: the Nexus 10's display is every bit as high-res and retina-quality as the latest iPad. Add in promises of long battery life, a bleeding-edge processor promising class-leading performance, and plenty of content at your fingertips, and the Nexus 10 matches the iPad all the way down the spec sheet. It even bests its price tag, starting at just $399. But how does it do in the real world? Read on.
Google's developing a hardware aesthetic
In a stunning, shocking twist you'd never see coming, the Nexus 10 looks and feels a lot like the Nexus 7. It also looks and feels a lot like the Nexus 4 — Google's quietly built an impressively cohesive lineup of devices over the last several months. I do wish the Nexus 10 looked a little more like the Nexus 7, though, particularly on the back: the soft-touch, Steve-McQueen-gloves material on the back of the Nexus 7 is grippy and comfortable, and just feels much better than the smooth back of the Nexus 10. The 10-inch model even has a small strip of the dimpled stuff at the top of its rear, which both breaks up the cohesive look and serves as a reminder of what could have been. That stripe, incidentally, is removable — you can pull it off and attach in its place a folio cover for the tablet, which is a pretty clever way of integrating it. Otherwise, the back is dominated by a gigantic indented "NEXUS" and a much smaller, also indented "SAMSUNG." I promise, there will never be any question what device you're using, and who made it. Oddly missing, though? Any mention of Google on the hardware.
Warm and comfortable in a way the iPad isn't
In general, this is a really well-built device, and in many ways I prefer its design to the iPad. The iPad feels very metallic and cold, industrial even — this tablet feels more comfortable, more usable, and more friendly in a way. Its aggressively rounded corners remind me of the TouchPad, as does its plain face. There are long, thin speakers on either side of the display, and they're perfectly implemented: they blend in so well you probably won't notice them, but they provide front-firing stereo audio that's both better and louder than most tablets I've tested. It's not great sound, mind you, only better — but I'll take what I can get.
At 1.33 pounds it's just about the same weight as the iPad, and at 8.9mm thick it's slightly thinner. When you're holding the device in landscape, it's really comfortable, but the 16:10 device is so long and skinny (10.3 inches tall vs. 6.9 inches wide) that it feels top-heavy when you pick it up in portrait. The iPad's much more amenable to being held both ways — in portrait for reading and browsing, landscape for movies and games — while the Nexus 10 is very clearly designed to be held sideways and used in landscape.
The tablet's power button is on its flat top edge, on the left next to the volume controls. Just around the corner on the left side rest the 3.5mm headphone jack and the Micro USB port. The headphone jack was apparently too wide for the edge, and it actually takes a small notch out of the back — it looks really odd, but doesn't seem to cause any problems. A Micro HDMI jack lives all by its lonesome on the right side, and on the bottom there's only the six pogo pins for connecting to... something. There's a theoretical dock using the pins to charge (which are on the Nexus 7 and Galaxy Nexus as well), but the ecosystem for it is currently nonexistent.
Your retinas will be pleased
At one point I sat for almost an hour, eyes flicking back and forth, trying to decide whether the latest-gen iPad or the Nexus 10 has a better screen. It's a huge, huge compliment to Google and Samsung that I couldn't decide, and called it a draw. (I think the iPad renders text slightly better and the Nexus 10's images popped a bit more, but I'm seriously nitpicking.) The Nexus 10's screen is absolutely phenomenal — its ridiculous 2560 x 1600 resolution (that's 300ppi, if you're counting) makes text look insanely sharp, its colors are really accurate, and its viewing angles are so good that I can actually lay the tablet down on my chest while I lie in bed and still comfortably watch a movie.
In a lot of ways, going beyond 1080p creates diminishing returns — movies do look better on the Nexus 10 than on the 1920 x 1200 Asus Transformer Pad Infinity, but only slightly. Where you really feel every extra pixel is text: reading in the Kindle app or Instapaper, or even in Chrome, is just a far better experience than most. Individual pixels are totally invisible, text is crisp and sharp and nicely contrasted — it's just great. The only problem is that it's a 16:10 display, which is just terrible for reading at this size: it's way too awkwardly tall in portrait, and too short and wide in landscape. Holding it in landscape and using the two-page Kindle view seems to be the way to go, but even with a great screen the Nexus 10 isn't as good a reading device as the iPad.
Much like when the iPad first got its Retina display, the Nexus 10's screen's biggest problem is that it throws into stark relief just how low-res most things are. A lot of sites upgraded their assets in response to the iPad, so they look much better on the Nexus 10 as well, but it's still glaringly obvious how bad most pictures, GIFs, and site logos look. Same goes for apps: a lot of apps were designed for 4-inch screens with resolutions like 800 x 480, so things like headers and splash screens become a blurry mess on this huge, high-res display. It's also obvious which app icons are designed for high resolutions (like Google's apps, for instance) and which aren't. The most obvious difference might be the magazines in Google Play, though. Some are now "HD Magazines," updated for this resolution, and they look absolutely print-level gorgeous. Others look fuzzy and low-res. As with the iPad, I expect developers and site owners will catch up, but for now the great screen makes a lot of things look bad.
With the new Google tablet comes a new version of the Android operating system, though this one's not enough of a change to merit a new name — it's Android 4.2, but it's still Jelly Bean. Most of the changes in the new OS are minor, but they show Google's still working to refine and improve every aspect of the operating system.
The most noticeable software change is in the camera. You can now operate the whole thing with your thumb, via a circular menu that pops up wherever you tap. It's really clever, and makes the whole thing operable with one hand. Well, on a phone anyway — you'll unquestionably need two hands to operate the 5-megapixel camera on the Nexus 10. Oh, and please don't take pictures with your tablet — the Nexus 10's camera is okay, but not great, and probably not as good as whatever phone you're carrying.
Android 4.2 is nice, but nothing here will blow your mind
A lot of 4.2's new features are better-suited to a phone — check out our review of the Nexus 4 for more on how they work. On a tablet, they're mostly nice without being particularly significant. Google Now is more powerful than ever, grabbing information from your email and elsewhere to tell you when you have flights or reservations — but it requires internet connection to do anything, so you'll always have to be on Wi-Fi with the Nexus 10. Gmail has a great new scaling feature that lets you see the whole email at once and then pan and zoom around it, but there's so much real estate on a tablet that email width was never really an issue. I do like the new swipe-to-archive feature, which makes triaging a lot of email ridiculously simple.
I honestly thought the quick-access settings menu was a standard Android feature — it's virtually ubiquitous across skins and manufacturers, but evidently wasn't built-in before. Now it is a stock feature, via a menu accessible with a swipe down from the right side of the Nexus 10's notification bar; you can quickly change screen brightness, toggle wireless radios, and jump into the full settings menu. Notifications are accessible by dragging down from the left.
The only thing that really changed how I used the device is the new keyboard, which has Swype-like gesture typing built in. In fairness, it's really no different than any other Android tablet — you'd just have to download Swype to mimic the experience. The finger-sliding method of typing works great on the larger screen, which is too large for thumb typing — just hold the device in one hand and swipe around with the other.
Mostly, though, Android 4.2 is just faster, smoother, and more reliable than ever. So while it might not have blown my mind with new features, I'm still happy about the new version of Jelly Bean.
I was worried about how all the pixel-pushing would affect the Nexus 10's performance, but I needn't have been. I'm not sure what to credit — the ever-improving Android platform, or the Exynos 5250 Cortex-A15 processor powering the Nexus 10 — for the fact that the Nexus 10 is the fastest, smoothest, most reliable and powerful Android tablet I've ever used. (And I'm pretty sure I've used all of them.) Swiping through homescreens is smooth, apps launch a lot faster than I'm used to, and multitasking is an absolute breeze — even with 20-plus apps open, nothing seemed to slow down.
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In our benchmark tests, the Nexus 10 scored at the top of the charts without blowing away the competition, though that seems to be because it's simply powering so many pixels. On our one resolution-agnostic test, GLBenchmark, it absolutely demolished other tablets I've tested — I don't doubt Google when they say this is the fastest tablet out there, even if you don't see it all the time.
Not everything's perfect yet: scrolling in the browser can still be stuttery at times, and for some inexplicable reason the screen still takes forever to rotate. But apps don't crash nearly as often, and general slowness and lag is even closer to being totally eradicated (even if it's not gone yet).
High-def video looks great — there's the occasional frame-rate slowdown on 1080p footage, but it's rare, and it looks so good otherwise that I don't really care. The Nexus 10 is an absolute pleasure to use, even more so than the Nexus 7 — a tablet I've also really enjoyed.
One thing I hate about the Nexus 7 is its battery — I don't know if I have a bad unit or just bad luck, but the battery life on my smaller tablet is miserable. The Nexus 10, on the other hand, is really solid. My first experience with the tablet was to spend a day and a half basically doing nothing but work the tablet — downloading 20GB worth of movies and games, installing apps, watching said movies and playing said games. At the end of day two, I thought "oh crap, I bet the battery's about to die!" It was at 48 percent.
All that's missing is apps
The Nexus 10 feels like Google's open letter to developers. "Look how great Android tablets can be," the company seems to be saying, "if only you'd make great apps!" The Nexus 10's display is every bit the Retina's equal, the build quality is excellent, and it even has a half-decent set of speakers. Android 4.2 is more stable than ever, and Android does a lot of great things iOS simply doesn't. But you take it out of the box, say it's beautiful and fast... then what? Apple's tablet has 250,000-plus other apps that look and work great on a huge, high-res screen, and Android's ecosystem is leagues behind. The Nexus 10 is a great way to watch movies, but there's absolutely no way it's going to replace your laptop the way the iPad could.
Yes, the Nexus 10 wins on price — $399 for this incredible display is a nice deal. But consider the extra $100 you'll spend to get the iPad an entry fee to the App Store, and its many apps and accessories that just aren't available to the Nexus 10.
Google's now proven conclusively that it can design great Android hardware, but until developers prove they can design great Android software it's still hard to recommend the Nexus 10 over an iPad.