Nexus 7 first look: It’s here to snuff Kindle’s Fire

Being East Coast–based, I wasn’t able to attend this year’s Google I/O event(s goog), but our team was on-site to cover all the news. And there was no lack of it, either: I’m still processing the many moving parts that make up Google’s mobile strategy. While I ponder, Google sent me a few review units of the new devices, and the Nexus 7 tablet was the first I looked at. Make no mistake, this tablet is aimed squarely at low-cost consumption slates, such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire(s amzn) and the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet(s bks).

That may sound obvious based on the price: Google is selling the Nexus 7 in an 8 GB model for $199, while $50 doubles the capacity. However, if you had any doubts on the audience Google is targeting with the Nexus 7, they will disappear as soon you turn on the device for the first time.

A consumption-focused first impression

When I heard Google was going to use six dock icons on the Nexus instead of the traditional four, I wondered why. It makes sense now and not just because there’s room for six icons plus the Apps launcher button: Every one of the six is a shortcut to Google services, and five of the six are media items. You can move these around or replace them.

The leftmost icon is actually a folder of Google’s nonmedia apps: Chrome, Maps, Talk, Gmail and so on. After that, you’ll see, in this order: Books, Magazines, Movies, Music, Play Store. If you have used a Kindle Fire before, you’ll note the similarities, although Amazon accomplishes this with tabs on the main user interface. But there’s more.

Nexus 7 has five home screens, and guess what takes up the entire main screen? A widget called My Library. The widget automatically surfaces media content you have purchased or rented from the Google Play store. Like all widgets, you can move it, delete it or resize it, but it makes an interesting first impression. I recently rented but haven’t watched Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and it’s now a tap away. The device came preloaded with Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and it’s there too in the widget.

I hit the Google Music icon, and all the albums I previously uploaded to my music storage locker already showed; there was no setup involved, because the device and your media accounts are linked by a synced Google account. I streamed some of Christina Perri’s lovestrong album, and the widget now shows the album cover so I can quickly go back to her music later. Again I’m reminded of the Kindle Fire. When you consume media on the device, a shortcut to it is added to the main bookshelf user interface for a fast return.

It’s a consumer tablet that will appeal to the geeks too

Of course, unlike the other small, inexpensive slates on the market, Google’s Nexus 7 is a full Android tablet right out of the box. There’s no hacking to be done here if you want access to apps in the market or to install the apps you want. I’m guessing we will shortly see custom ROM software for the Nexus 7 to improve the experience for the Android geeks like me. So with its $199 slate, Google is easily able to cater to both audiences: those who want a simple, easy-to-use consumption device with occasional tablet use and those who want a complete Android tablet experience.

I already like what I see here in the review unit, and I’m likely to get my own device; I preordered but can always cancel. But I’ll have a full review after using the device for a few days while on vacation next week. And I’ll be sure to hand it over to my wife, who uses a Kindle Fire every day. I would suggest that Amazon and Barnes & Noble be worried, but Google still has work to do on the media-store front.