Katherine Boehret

Recent Columns by Katherine Boehret

The Digital Solution

Google’s New Nexus 7: The Budget Tablet to Beat

Does size still matter? Just a year ago, Google introduced its Nexus 7, a mini tablet for $199 that posed a real challenge to Apple’s bigger, pricier iPad. Three months later, Apple retaliated with its own small tablet, the iPad mini, though its $329 price wasn’t, well, mini enough for some.

Now, a year after the introduction of the first Nexus 7, Google has unveiled a revamped version of its mini tablet with better features and a slightly bigger $229 price tag.

Starting July 30, this new Nexus 7 is available in a dozen retail outlets including Best Buy, Walmart and Amazon.

I tested it for the past week and found myself drawn to this sturdy, elegant, responsive device from a company once known primarily for its search prowess.

The most notable difference between this new Nexus 7 and the iPad mini is screen quality: The Nexus has a resolution of 1920 x 1200 with 323 pixels per inch, and the iPad mini’s screen resolution is just 1024 x 768 and 163 pixels per inch. It is also slightly lighter than its Apple rival.

So what’s not to like about the new Nexus 7? For one thing, its seven-inch screen isn’t as big as the nearly eight-inch iPad mini’s. While an inch of difference isn’t remarkable, smartphone screens are growing to over five inches, making the Nexus 7 look more like one of those than a tablet.

Another drawback: In my test, the new Nexus 7’s battery life was underwhelming. Compared with the same battery test of the iPad mini and first Nexus 7, it fell short at just six hours; the others clocked in at 10 hours and 27 minutes and 10 hours and 44 minutes, respectively. Google claims the battery life can last over nine hours, but the company tests it in Airplane mode (Internet connection off), with screen brightness set to 44 percent while playing video. I keep Wi-Fi on in the background and screen brightness at 75 percent while playing video.

This new mini tablet comes in two sizes that are Wi-Fi-only: a $229 16 gigabyte model and a $269 32GB model. A version with a built-in LTE Internet connection on Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile will be available in coming weeks for $349 with 32GB. Meanwhile, Apple’s iPad mini is available in three flavors each of Wi-Fi-only and LTE: 16GB, 32GB and 64GB models ranging in price from $329 to $659.

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Sorry, kids, no shopping sprees: The new Nexus 7 allows for different restrictions and degrees of access on each user’s profile.

The new Nexus 7 runs Android 4.3, the latest iteration of Google’s Jelly Bean mobile operating system. While not a major upgrade from the last Jelly Bean release in October, it does add a few new features.

One notable extra is Restricted Profiles. Rather than simply giving you the ability to create multiple user accounts for one tablet, Restricted Profiles allow user accounts with preset restrictions on access to apps and content. I tested this by creating a Restricted Profile named “Pretend Kiddo” in Settings, Users, Add User or Profile. I then went down a list of my device’s apps and switched access on or off, according to what I wanted Pretend Kiddo to be able to access. Certain apps in this list clearly say “This app can access your accounts,” so you know what you’re turning on or off.

Creating a Restricted Profile requires that the primary tablet owner use a lockscreen, so that other users without full access can’t get to everything else. In addition to limiting what the Restricted Profile can access, specific app settings, such as in-app purchases and age restrictions, can also be tweaked.

Another new Android feature allows users to play games against friends while keeping track of their achievements using Google Play Games. This is a lot like Game Center on Apple’s iOS.

The Nexus 7 also caught up to the iPad mini in cameras: It now has a built-in rear-facing camera, unlike its predecessor, which only had a front-facing one. Both iPad mini and new Nexus 7 cameras have the same megapixel counts: Five megapixels on the rear-facing camera and 1.2 megapixels on the front-facing one. Neither device has a built-in flash.

I snapped photos both indoors and outside in natural light, and found the outdoor images looked better, though the inside ones were adequate.

I downloaded and watched movies and TV shows on the Nexus 7, admiring its impressively sharp, colorful — albeit smallish — screen, which I usually kept in landscape view. Built-in surround-sound speakers placed on both ends of the tablet emulated a six-speaker system, giving it a rich tone.

At only 0.64 of a pound, this tablet was lightweight enough to hold for long periods without causing my arm to ache. I also found it easy to prop up on kitchen counters and coffee tables because its back and sides aren’t slippery.

Google’s new Nexus 7 has a lot to offer, if you’re looking for a tiny tablet that packs a punch. If you’re used to a larger tablet screen, its seven-inch screen size might bug you. But for many people, it will make on-the-go gaming, video watching and reading a delightfully portable experience.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com.


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