Google Nexus 7 review: Sets the small slate standard

Google(s goog) didn’t surprise anyone when it announced its $199 8GB Nexus 7 tablet in late June; rumors of the small slate leaked on a weekly basis for months prior. What may surprise many consumers, however, is the overall experience of the 7-inch tablet, especially when compared to competitors in this price range.

Will the Nexus 7 be the “standard” for future tablets smaller than the iPad(s aapl) but bigger than a phone? After using a review unit for nearly two weeks, I think so, even though the Nexus 7 isn’t without a few minor flaws.

Can small be better than large when it comes to tablets?

Prefacing my review, let me share some quick back story, as I’ve been a fan of the small slate form factor since 2010. Few understood why I bought a 7-inch Galaxy Tab at that time. I believe you can’t understand the appeal until you actually try a small slate for a week or so. The ability to easily take the tablet everywhere showed me that size matters when it comes to mobility, prompting me to dump my original iPad. The iPad is a great tablet but it’s better suited for working in place; not for taking and using everywhere. Seven inch slates fit that purpose as even some diehard Apple fans are now noting.

Having said that, I took the current iPad and the Nexus 7 with me on vacation last week. Not once did I power up the iPad, because it’s a different class of device: It’s more akin to a laptop replacement for many. The Nexus 7, in contrast, is far more of a content consumption device on the go, similar to a smartphone. The two tablets have different use cases that you have to experience.

Hardware is great for the price

Google partnered with Asus to build the Nexus 7 and overall, the device feels well made and is comfortable in the hand. When holding it, you don’t think the Nexus 7 is a $199 tablet — $249 for model with double the memory — it feels more expensive, if that makes sense. The rubberized back makes it easy to hold in one hand. Curved edges add comfort. The 1280 x 800 display is sharp and bright. And once powered on, the Nexus 7 offers excellent Android performance rivaling or exceeding far more expensive devices.

Nvidia’s(s nvda) low cost Kai platform, powered by the Tegra 3 chip, is paired with a full gigabyte of RAM and keeps Android 4.1 humming. As I noted in my initial impressions, this hardware handles everything I can throw at it: high-definition videos, 3D games — Tegra-optimized games are stellar — web browsing, you name it. Part of this is the hardware, but equally important is Android 4.1 and the performance optimization that it brings. More on the software shortly.

I find very little of the “Android lag” experience here; the Nexus 7 performs better than the Asus Transformer Prime I reviewed back in February, even with similar hardware. There’s no rear camera, which may put some off, but it’s likely that most Nexus 7 owners have a solid shooter in their smartphone. The 1.2 megapixel front camera is great for GTalk video chatting and there’s even some fun video enhancements included: Big Nose, Small Eyes, and such to make GTalk more fun.

I’m a bit disappointed in the 8 GB of internal storage, mainly because there’s no memory expansion slot on the Nexus 7. The 8 GB may be fine for some, but during my vacation last week, I bumped into the capacity limit. I had just 233 MB of free space left after downloading two high-definition movies from Google Play, a few Kindle e-books and roughly a tenth of the apps I use on my Galaxy Nexus smartphone.

I did realize that I created some of my own storage mess: I had automatic photo sync set up in the Gallery app, so more than 700 photos from Google+ Instant Upload were on the device as well. You’ll want to make sure that’s off if you opt for the 8 GB model, in my opinion.

The external speaker is surprisingly loud for movies, music and chatting. You’ll have to rely on Wi-Fi for connectivity, which is supplemented with Bluetooth, GPS and NFC support for Google Wallet and “beaming” data to other devices. Battery life is as good as Google claims: I used the device for just over 8 hours of nearly constant use by the pool last week and sporadic use easily gets you thorough a full day.

Jelly Bean Software shines

Since this is a Nexus tablet, Google has first dibs to use Android 4.1, also known as Jelly Bean. Although the software is a “point release” and considered minor, it’s filled with useful new features and improvements. With each new iteration of Android, Google continues to make the user experience a better one.

Need examples? Individual notifications are actionable. Google Now provides contextual information I want, such as scores of my favorite sports teams or the estimated time to get home no matter where I’m at. Task switching is visually more appealing and refined. The software keyboard offers better word suggestions. That’s just to name a few.

Google’s “Project Butter” is what gives Android 4.1 its performance boosts in general and specifically with the user interface. The transitions are noticeably faster from Android 4.0 but if you don’t have two devices to compare the speed, here’s a high framerate video Google made to show the difference and give you an idea of what to expect.

Everything in Android 4.1 seems faster and the speed boost is welcome. I like Jelly Bean on the Nexus 7 so much that I’m passing up the Galaxy S III smartphone with Android 4.0. Why? My Galaxy Nexus phone now has Jelly Bean and it’s that good. And while the Kindle Fire has an intuitive user interface, I think most potential tablet buyers will be just fine with the stock Android 4.1 software. Google even made it a little easier to focus on consumption with the new My Library widget pre-installed to the main home screen showing movies, magazines, and music on the tablet. And since the tablet carries the Nexus brand, Google will continue to send future software updates directly to the tablet.

Google has accomplished something huge

The beauty of the Nexus 7 software — and hardware, for that matter — is that not only has Google showed its hardware partners how to create future Android tablets that are easy and fun to use, but it has done so in a device you can buy now, complete with a $25 Google Play store credit. There’s no need to wait for Samsung, HTC, Motorola or another hardware partner to build a better tablet. Google has already done it. And if given the choice between the current Kindle Fire(s amzn) and the Nexus 7, there’s little reason to consider the Fire. The Nexus can do more and do it better; the only Kindle content you wouldn’t have access to is Amazon’s video service.

As mentioned, I’ve opted to buy a 16 GB model for $249 because I know I’ll need the extra space. I recommend seriously considering this choice since you can’t expand the memory. The tablet is Wi-Fi only for connectivity; again, not a problem for most due to an expanding number of wireless hotspots and the ability to use a smartphone’s connection. Given that a 7-inch tablet is more likely to be used out and about than a larger tablet, you might expect mobile broadband support, but that adds to the cost up front and ongoing. It’s also common to use Wi-Fi on these low cost slates; neither the Kindle Fire nor the Nook Tablet(s bks) offer 3G support.

With the Nexus 7 Google has proven a few things: Small is beautiful when it comes to slates — perhaps leading Apple to finally enter this market — and Android can be appealing. Google made great strides for the latter point with Android 4.0 and the newer software takes another step forward. By combining low-cost, but very capable hardware, vastly improved software and an expanding media ecosystem in Google Play, the search giant has built the small slate to beat at an affordable price. I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a device that fits between your smartphone and your laptop.