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.