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News Not Written About: Google Has Dumbed Down The Nexus 7

Nexus 7 Lock Screen At First Boot

I’ve got me a Google/Asus Nexus 7 Tablet (yep, I’m so excited that I’m going with “I’ve got me . . . “). I ordered it right before the pre-order period ended, and it arrived a bit under a week later. And it’s as cool as all the many, many reviews of the Nexus 7 say it is; the Nexus 7 is an absolutely amazing tablet computer, doing way more stuff for $200 than any device I’ve seen.

The Nexus 7 is a small-form-factor tablet. If you like the iPad’s nearly-ten-inch screen, your reaction to the Nexus 7 could stop at “it just looks like an e-Reader“. And with a size similar to the Amazon Kindle, to which it’s often compared, the statement is fair. But I’ve worked with an iPad, and find it unwieldy. As a net-book replacement the iPad rocks; it’s thinner, lighter, and feels a lot more powerful. But it’s too small to type on comfortably and too large to hold in one hand; just one reason I ultimately feel like the iPad is a toy masquerading as a tool. The Nexus 7 suffers from no such issues, and most people will find watching 720p video every bit as comfortable on the 7-inch Nexus 7 screen as they do on the 9.7-inch iPad.

The Nexus 7 does everything it does well. Everything. Mine suffers from none of the build quality problems that have started to get talked about; it feels solid, yet light and portable. Its screen is beautiful;  I’ve watched hi-def movies and TV programs on the Nexus 7. Pure and simple: if you want a tablet, you want the Nexus 7.

But I find myself incredibly disappointed in Google’s tablet. The Nexus 7 could have been a lot more, and Google dumbed it down on purpose.

While the technical support person I spoke with at Google wasn’t an official Google/Nexus 7 spokesperson, after I walked her down the road I’m about to describe to you, she admitted what I’m talking about. Google went out of their way to make the Nexus 7 be unable to do things that it can do. And as much as I’m happy that I have a tablet as great as the Nexus 7, I’m mostly disappointed.

Strap in; this might be a bumpy ride.

Let me make a few things clear: I love how great an e-Reader the Nexus 7 is. I love that I can watch videos on it and they look great. It plays music from my Google Music collection. My Nexus 7 acts almost like my Android-based Galaxy Nexus Smartphone, but with Android 4.1 on it the Nexus 7 does a few things that earlier Android devices don’t do. And while I find Google’s magazine reader App clunky and the price of magazines in the Google Play Store ridiculous, the addition of a magazine app to everything else it can do really does make it so that if you see your Nexus 7 tablet as a media consumption device, you have everything you need in one place. Again: the Nexus 7 is a great tablet.

What the Nexus 7 isn’t is the business change it could and should have been. And that’s why I’m devoting such a long piece to the Nexus 7 as though being a reviewer was still my gig; it could have changed your life. Instead, the Nexus 7 is just a great way to spend $200

When you first turn on your Nexus 7, the device walks you through a simple setup procedure that anyone who’s activated an Android Phone is familiar with. What was both amazing and creepy was that without me ever telling the Nexus 7 who I was it knew, and helpfully filled in my suggested e-mail address. I presume the Nexus 7 deduced that information because I’ve previously signed into Google services via the wireless router in my home and it recognized me, but . . . can you say “privacy violation”? Google can; they’ve already promised not to keep information like what routers they find belonging to whom.

Nevertheless I found this pretty cool, and as I’ve said here before, I KNOW Google knows a lot about me and is using the information in ways that I might not like if I thought about them—and so I don’t think about them. This is the tipping point for Google Now, a service built into Android 4.1 that out-Siris Apple Siri, giving you information before you ask for it; again, one of those things that’s both very cool, and kind of creepy.

But regardless of where you stand on privacy issues and how Google uses your information, this became the first of many places where I found the Nexus 7’s implementation to be less than it could have been even as it was demonstrating how amazing it can be. See the screen shot at the top of this piece? My Nexus 7, once granted permission to download information from my Google account, helpfully inserted the emergency contact information I post on my Galaxy Nexus phone’s boot-up screen—but failed to download my Apps, which is what the Nexus 7 said it was going to do.

I opted to go with the 8GB version of the Nexus 7. If you can get yours hands on one there’s also a 16 GB version, and it would seem like a great idea since expanding memory on the Nexus 7 is somewhere between clunky and impossible, but I did a bit of math and I’m happy with my choice. Here’s why:

The files baked into the Nexus 7 take up about 2 GB of space. That leaves me with 6 GB of room to store whatever I keep in my Nexus 7, and for practical purposes that’s as good as the 14 GB that would be available in a 16 GB Nexus 7. With twenty books from my never-quite-get-to-them-all reading list backed up in my Nexus 7 taking up less than 1/50 of one gigabyte, a half-dozen magazines downloaded, nearly fifty Apps and their data, all of the pictures I’ve taken and uploaded to Google’s Picasa photo service in the last fours years, and a 2.5 hour high-definition movie, I’ve used four of my six gigabytes of available space.

Yes, that means there’s only room for a few hours of video in an 8GB Nexus 7, but there’s only room for a few more hours in the 16 GB version of the device, so you need to manage your space carefully on either. This is the reason that before I started streaming music from the cloud I always bought the largest iPods I could get my hands on; my music collection has ballooned to over 50 GB in size, and moving files on and off an MP3 player defeats the purpose for me.

So, reality check: even if you spent $700 on the highest-end 64 GB iPad, you could still only fit a couple of dozen movies on it at 720p resolution and maybe a quarter as many once movies start getting remastered for Apple’s ridiculous “Retina Display”. You’re managing those movies, friends; the 8GB Nexus 7 is plenty.

If I wanted to say bad things about the Nexus 7 as a media machine, I’d be out of ideas. Sure, Google omitted a rear-facing camera, but think about how clumsy it would be to snap pictures with a tablet, or for that matter how often you’ve seen anyone actually using the camera on their iPad.  And you’re carrying a phone anyway, right (hint: the need to keep carrying a phone is the problem with the Nexus 7)?

The Nexus 7’s front-facing camera is designed to be used for video chatting by programs like Skype, and can’t be used as a camera at all unless you download software that makes it function. Of course, this doesn’t really matter unless you’re planning to take photo-booth style pictures of yourself. Other things that can work, but Google has intentionally omitted (did I hear someone say “the Nexus 7 won’t work as a phone“?) matter much more.

Here’s what Google hasn’t omitted from the Nexus 7: this thing makes your media . . . just . . . plain . . . work, and it works for what seems to be just about the eight or nine hours of heavy use between charges that Google claims for the Nexus 7. Sitting on a shelf and checking a few things in the background—like e-mail and news feeds— expect the Nexus 7 to work for two to three days, or eliminate as many background actions as you can and a powered-on Nexus 7 will stay alive for what looks to be about ten days. All of that is great, but now think about what “background use” means, like, oh, being a telephone, and you realize that absent that kind of functionality you can just turn the Nexus 7 off entirely, using the nine-hour battery as you need, over a period of weeks or months.

But if you lived like that, why would you need a tablet at all? Here’s where the inconsistencies in the Nexus 7’s form versus its function start to pile up, and start to eliminate Google’s tablet as a business change device.

I started reading a book on my Nexus 7. I went away for a while and opened that same book, originally purchased from and downloaded to the Nexus 7, on my Galaxy Nexus phone. Sure enough, the book was in my library and my progress was correctly set on the second device. Why should “what device I’m using” matter, anyway? Start reading, move to another tablet, SmartPhone, or even a computer, and pick up where you left off. Perfect!

Movies and TV work the same way, except of course for their size; while you can download a book in a few seconds, the same isn’t true for other media. And . . . wait . . . you can’t download movies at all on a computer, and when you stream them you get standard definition 480p video on your computer, even if you paid extra for high-definition 720p video. And you can download those 720p videos to SmartPhones and Nexus 7 Tablets.

This is, no doubt, at least partially a licensing issue between Google and media companies; if you could download a film to your computer it would be easy to pirate the video, right? Well, I successfully transferred a downloaded 720p video out of my Nexus 7 to my computer and could have played pirate if I was so inclined. Google has made things harder here, without real effect, at the expense of usability and consistency (phone . . . phone . . . phone . . .).

Except for the music player, all the Apps from Google Play can be disabled on the Nexus 7. Cool; unlike on the Galaxy Nexus where the Play Store Apps can’t be turned off, Google has made you master of your own Nexus 7 domain.

The Nexus 7 is the most flexible, most powerful Android device yet. You’re in complete control of how you use it. There’s no garbage from side deals that Google had to make with phone carriers, because the Nexus 7 isn’t a phone, Period.

Oh yeah, there’s that “not a phone” issue.

The Nexus 7 connects to the world via Wi-Fi, and only via Wi-Fi. And the Wi-Fi reception on the Nexus 7 is the most solid Wi-Fi I’ve ever seen. Seriously. There’s no 4G, 3G, or any other carrier connection. But find Wi-Fi, and you’re golden. Don’t have Wi-Fi? You simply have no connectivity, and you know that before you buy a Nexus 7.

It might seem, then, that my complaint about “no phone” is misplaced. Except for this:

Google has a couple of Apps for computers and SmartPhones that patch your device into the phone system over WiFi. Using Google Voice and Google Talk, anywhere you have Wi-Fi you can make phone calls. Google Voice and Google Talk are a bit confusing to master, but once you figure things out you can dial a phone number from your device and speak to someone on a regular phone, cell phone, or whatever.

But Google has disabled Google Voice on the Nexus 7.

Not “it won’t work”. It does work, for outbound calls only, by adding third-party software like Talkatone, and you can bypass Google Talk entirely and get both inbound and outbound calls using Skype Online Number. But Google, which lets you tap into the phone system over WiFi from any other device, has specifically and intentionally disabled Google Voice on the Nexus 7.

And the reason? Again, this comes from a technical support person at Google, rather than an executive or a product manager, but the only answer seems to be “because the Nexus 7 isn’t a phone“. Uh-huh. Neither’s my computer, but it works, and is what Google Voice was designed for.

A small nit to pick? View the Nexus 7 as “a tablet” and think of it as just that—an amazingly cool, ground-breakingly inexpensive portable way to consume media—and it’s even less than that; it’s meaningless. But see the Nexus 7, as I do, as a device that is so perfect it could change the world and the way people do business, and the fact that Google went out of its way to dumb the device down makes it . . . just another toy, albeit a less expensive, high-quality toy.

Let’s go with one more example of questionable choices at Google to bring the “what are they thinking?” question into even clearer focus.

The Google Nexus 7 Phone Interface Versus The Google Nexus 7 Tablet Interface

Google’s Nexus 7 Phone Interface Next To Google’s Nexus 7 Tablet Interface

On the left side of this image you see the interface of the Nexus 7. It looks exactly like an Android phone looks, presumably because people are familiar with the Android phone interface and Google didn’t want to confuse millions of loyal, phone-based Android users. On the right side you see my Nexus 7 after I tweaked nothing more than—you won’t believe this—the dots displayed per inch of screen space. Like magic, the Nexus 7 adopted an entirely different interface; one designed for “tablets”.

So on the Nexus 7 Google wants us to see what we see when we look at an Android phone, but then went out of their way to stop the Nexus 7 from doing something both Android phones and computers can do, when they already have a tablet interface designed and built into Android and the Nexus 7.

Once again, the Nexus 7 is an amazing feat of engineering, and the best tablet on the market today. If you want a tablet, and can find one, buy a Nexus 7.

As for why Google dumbed the Nexus 7 down, that whole “because it isn’t a phone” thing just doesn’t hold water, especially since Google is already charging for international calls placed using Google Voice and will undoubtedly do so for domestic calls as soon as they’re comfortable explaining why. But I’m disappointed. I was hoping to jump into Google’s ever-deepening vat of Kool Aid, and maybe eliminate my need for a phone through carriers like Verizon Wireless, altogether.  And I could have, but Google stopped me.

Now I’m going to go watch a movie on my Nexus 7.


  1. So your complaint is Google didn’t make the tablet function as a phone by default?
    If you want to do that, you can. As you mentioned Talkatone works for inbound and outbound calls.
    For Google Voice to function as a phone would be inconsistent with what they currently allow on the iPod touch and iPad, let alone other Android tablets. For those you must choose a phone to dial (call back dialing) when you select someone’s number. If texting didn’t work on the Nexus 7 via Google Voice, then I would call a foul.
    If you want a phone replacement get a Sony Mylo 2 or Nokia N810. Yes those devices weren’t terribly successful, but they were designed for what you want; a phone replacement.
    Nokia had SIP functionality built into its e71 in 2008, which I used for several years.
    Separately, your Nexus 7 knew who you were because you preordered from the Play store. To not be automatically linked to that Google account you needed to check or uncheck a box during the checkout process. No privacy violation involved.
    I kept waiting for you to mention actual technical limitations in this article, but you kept waxing poetic about how Google made a mistake by not making industry disrupting software decisions – all of which can be worked around with 3rd party software.
    What about lacking video out? That’s pretty critical for a portable media device, perhaps Google thinks it is always appropriate/convenient to have a Nexus Q around. It really isn’t, and I’m seriously considering not purchasing one for that limitation. It’s more than capable hardware wise to output video to a TV or projector. My sub-200Mhz 5th generation iPod can output video through its headphone jack. This ability is more critical now than it was in 2005, yet they deliberately left it out.
    I don’t know if Cyanogen mod (or similar) can write software to override this failure and provide a way for HDMI via microUSB or if it’s a lost cause.

    • Ben, I hear you and appreciate the detail of your comment. But let me be clear: my issue with the Nexus 7 IS that Google went out of their way with the Nexus 7 (like, for real) to make it unable to do something that it could have done had they not intentionally crippled it. Technical specs? There’s nothing to be said about the Nexus 7 that hasn’t been repeated ad infinitum, everywhere. The title of this piece was “News Not Written About”; why rehash the same old stuff?

      And to be clear, again, Google didn’t leave anything OUT of the Nexus 7. They didn’t MISS something (which would have been about those technical specs, as I think about it). With the Nexus 7, Google planted a stake in the ground that says, in big block letters, “WE HAVE CRIPPLED THIS OTHERWISE VERY COOL ITEM”.

      Which would be fine if they’d had a business reason for doing it. And what I talked about in the article was mostly that they don’t seem to, and that the (admittedly lower level) Google employees I spoke to reached the same conclusion I did when we walked through things together.

      I’ll repeat: The Nexus 7 is a GREAT tablet in a lot of ways, and with a couple of weeks having passed, I can say that I USE the darned thing.

      But I don’t get why Google crippled the Nexus 7 in this way, and believe in my bones that had they not done that they’d have had something truly revolutionary on their hands instead of the “just one more tablet but it sure is cheap!” toy that this Nexus 7 is.

  2. Let me summarize this article for anyone who happened to skip down here before reading. “THE NEXUS 7 ISN’T A PHONE OMG!!” OK there I saved you so much time it’s unimaginable.

    • SURE, seriously.

      Listen: I accept your summary and the attendant snark. And maybe that’s what you think I was saying, because I hammered the point VERY hard.But it isn’t.

      As I said, the Nexus 7 is the best tablet yet. PERIOD. I’m throwing the cost, the build quality, the performance, Android 4.1, etc. into that statement. My issue is that GOOGLE WENT OUT OF ITS WAY TO CRIPPLE THE NEXUS 7—yes, in just this one regard—for no reason that I can figure out and no reason that any Google employee with whom I’ve spoken can enumerate.

      Let me say that again, in a slightly different way: Google went out of its way to make the Nexus 7 unable to do something that every other computer can do. Not “they left something out”; Google crippled the Nexus 7 on purpose. Had they just let it do what it can do, the Nexus 7 would have been a genuine only-device-you-need-and-it-fits-in-your-pocket-and-costs-a-whopping-200-bucks revolution.

      More clear?

      • Glad I’m not the only one who feels this way. Anybody who says “but it’s not a phone” doesn’t realize that, for a product to deliver a seamless experience, it should be able to smoothly transition the functionality between phone, computer, tablet, etc. For example, I had to hunt down an app (Tablet Talk) that could sync and allow me to text message using my Nexus 7 via the network using my galaxy s3.

        One thing I notice about Google in general is that they always get close to the finish line but trip and fall. They come out with amazingly useful services, yet they always leave a quirk or two that irritates me as a user.

        • A smart comment, to be sure, and not just because we agree 😉

          I’m amazed at how many people have missed this, and even more so that people have argued here. Thanks for chiming in!

  3. Thanks Fred!!! That’s the main reason I was going to buy one, to make WiFi calls via Google Voice/Talk. Google said Nexus 7 runs all the Google services we use, wrong!

  4. OK first of all, how old is the author of this article? I recommend you Google the word “hyperboly” I guess I do the same thing when passionate…

    Second, why is the service 4.91MB and 4.95MB running on my nexus 7. Does it serve any purpose? Is it part of the stock install or did some app enable it?

    • So Adam, are you saying that you have an issue with the way I write, but are still looking for advice? Cool, man . . .

      I don’t know for sure whether the phone services are part of the stock install, but since the Nexus 7 screams “it can be a phone but Google stopped their app from working“, I’m going with “stock install”, And that makes sense, the Nexus 7 DOES work as an IP telephony device, it’s just Google Voice that doesn’t work correctly . . . at least, not until you route its traffic through a gateway.

      By the way, you spelled “hyperbole” incorrectly.

  5. Hey Jeff, did you by any chance, buy the device from the Play Store? Or did you get it off a retail shop somewhere else?

    If you did get it from the Play Store, did you see an option that is along the lines of “personalise it with my Google account”? There is another option that is to pick it as a gift. I am assuming you pick the former.

    • Sean, it was from the PlaySotore, and solve-the-mystery-wise, I’ll bet you’ve hit it on the head. I don’t believe I actually told Google to personalize my Nexus 7 for me, but maybe just by virtue of being logged into Google when I placed the order that defaulted.

      VERY cool catch, and I like said, I’m guessing you’re right!

  6. I know this is an old topic but i just came upon it while searching for something else.

    It could be that google wasn’t it known that the nexus 7 is “not a phone” because if it was then it could use multiuser (4.2 upgrade.) The idea of a multiuser phone was patented by a troll, (before that NO ONE had thought of a phone that could be shared by multiple people – that spinny phone in my house growing up be damned.)

    That’s why 4.2 on the tablet has multiuser and 4.2 on a phone doesn’t.

    • Matt . . . GREAT thought. You could be right!

  7. Hi,
    In a search to answer a question about our Nexus 7 tablets, my husband ran across your site. At the same time, I was going through all the apps that wanted updating, and was disappointed that so many of them wanted access to the camera. Whereas my husband lets his apps update automatically, I’m picky.

    Is there any good reason why I should be allowing these apps to access my camera, to take pics and videos without asking permission? For example, the latest update to Google Chrome:

    “Note: This version requests two new permissions. Camera and Modify Audio Settings, to support WebRTC, an experimental feature under development.”

    This info shows if you click on Update:
    “New. Camera. Allows the app to take pictures and videos with the camera. This permission allows the app to use the camera at any time without your confirmation.”

    Why would anyone allow software on their tablet (or phone, or laptop) to take pictures or videos without their permission? Especially a web browser. (As opposed to say Skype or something where the app is applicable to camera usage.)

    Thank you,

    • No good answer, Rhea.

      Problem is, no good un-answer, either. Your Skype question is well thought out; “if I don’t need this app to use my camera, why would I give it permission to do so?” On the other hand, MOST apps ask for permissions with purposes that might not be immediately apparent, so unless you want to spend a lot of time scrutinizing this stuff you need to learn to chill out.

      Now let me be specific about what that means:

      Don’t side-load apps you don’t “know”. Don’t use App stores you don’t trust (in other words, for most people, unless it’s the Google App Store, you shouldn’t be there). And if you MUST use an app you found through some unusual means, have software in your device that watches bad stuff for you. I use Avast! Mobile Security.

      I admire your healthy dose of paranoia, but I think it’s GENERALLY a good bet that apps you find following these suggestions are unlikely to do anything that’s really a problem. And if they do, Avast! will tell you.



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