Google’s new Nexus 7: First impressions of a small “retina display” tablet

The newest “retina display” tablet is here, but it’s not from Apple(s aapl). The centerpiece of Google’s(s goog) new Nexus 7, which debuted on Wednesday, is the 7-inch high-resolution screen. How high? Asus, which builds the tablet for Google, crammed a 1920 x 1200 resolution panel on the small slate, which is thinner than its predecessor.
Google sent me a $269 32 GB Nexus 7 Wi-Fi review unit, along with the $35 Chromecast dongle for HDTV streaming, and although I’ve only just received the device, I’ve already formed some strong first impressions:

  • The screen is fantastic to my eye: Colors pop and the 323 pixels per inch offer total clarity for text at every size. Images look great too. It’s an IPS display so you can view the screen from nearly any angle.
    Nexus 7 display up close
  • The side bezels are smaller, which is nice, but I’m not a fan of the large bezels on the top and bottom. I realize they make the tablet easier to hold, particularly in landscape mode. Design-wise, I just don’t like the look, however. And the tablet can easily be held with one hand — it even fits in my small hands — so I’m not sure it needs the larger bezel.
  • Both the grippy back and the super glossy screen are big fingerprint magnets. Build quality in general, appears quite good.
    Nexus 7 rear
  • Google boosted the sound in this tablet with the addition of a second speaker. It supports Surround Sound as well. The speakers are left and right in landscape mode and offer solid sound; much better than last year’s model. I’ve heard louder speakers, but these are quite nice.
  • Having 2 GB of memory in the device makes a big difference to the overall performance, as compared to last year’s Nexus 7. So far, the interface and apps are all quite zippy, even when having a dozen apps open. The 1.5 GHz Qualcomm(s qcom) Snapdragon S4 Pro and Adreno 320 graphics seem to be plenty for power. Note that I haven’t yet played any of the new graphic-intensive games that will take advantage of Android 4.3 yet.
  • The rear camera addition is welcome but if you have a reasonably new smartphone, it probably takes better pics than the Nexus 7. Here’s an un-retouched sample from the 5 megapixel camera of Norm bathing himself while listening to the Beatles on the big screen via Chromecast — the lighting isn’t that good as we’re indoors and it’s overcast outside. There’s no HDR functionality, by the way.
    Nexus 7 camera snap of Norm
  • I can’t speak to the battery life yet, but I don’t see any significant drain when idling. Google advertises nine hours of active use for the 3950 mAh battery. That’s an extra hour compared to the prior model, which actually has a higher 4,325 mAh capacity battery.
  • The new Nexus has nearly every flavor of home Wi-Fi, save the newer 802.11 ac. That’s a shame, but I don’t believe this Qualcomm chip supports it. 802.11 a/b/g/n are all there and the tablet has dual-band support for both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz networks. I have an 802.11 ac router and the Nexus works fine on it. However, speed and range are a little bit less than the HTC One smartphone, which does have 802.11 ac support. Again, not a problem — particularly because most consumers don’t yet have 802.11 ac routers — just an observation.
  • The GPS radio quickly found my current location in Google Maps, which, of course, looks great on this display. You won’t see the new Android 4.3 toggle to use Wi-Fi as needed for location services because this is a Wi-Fi only tablet. I anticipate that function will be on the LTE model of the Nexus 7.
  • I won’t get too much into Nexus 7 usage with the Chromecast — my colleague Janko Roettgers, will surely have more to say about that device — but these two together make a great combo. I’ve already streamed music from the Play Music tablet app, YouTube videos and more. Setup and pairing took me all of three minutes.

Overall, I’m impressed with the new Nexus 7. I recently said that the most important feature on a tablet could be the display because it’s both your input and output for the device. And I can’t say enough about this screen: it’s fantastic.

Nexus 7 in hand

Sure, you need the right internals and software for a great tablet too. While the device doesn’t have the most cutting-edge chips inside, it seems to balance performance with expected battery life and solid usability. So far, it seems to be a solid package at a reasonable price.