A Year with the Nexus 7 and iPad

Update: After the release of the 2013 Nexus 7, it did present a compelling enough product for such a reasonable price that I did pick one up, and it is simply excellent. It is a massive amount of computing value, and we have been extremely satisfied with the device. With the release of Android 4.3 for the original Nexus 7, I would report that the majority of issues that I detail below seem to have been resolved, courtesy of periodic fstrim calls being added to the device. It is eminently usable again, so very pleased about that.

In March of last year I purchased my first ever Apple device: A 3rd Generation, “retina-display” iPad. This joined a collection of Android tablets that had come through the house in the years prior, such as the iffy Acer A500 and the atrocious Viewsonic gTablet.

Several months later we received a Nexus 7 from Staples. A week later I finally got the launch day Nexus 7 I had ordered from Google, that released marred, as all Google releases inevitably are, by a number of logistical missteps.

The family goes through a lot of devices. I’ve been a mobile development hobbyist for years (back to Windows CE on the Compaq iPaq) — my professional pursuits instead primarily focused on the development of advanced business systems — though it has since developed into a significant professional pursuit, the market simply too exciting and incredible to ignore.

So I’ve been using the iPad for about 15 months, and the Nexus 7s for about 10 months. I’ve been using and evangelizing Android — sometimes more for the theoretical than the actual — since the HTC G1/Dream, and have gone through a variety of Android smartphones including the G2/Magic, HTC One, Galaxy S II, Galaxy S III, and Nexus 4.

In the shadow of a rumored release of the Nexus 7 2nd generation, I thought it an appropriate time to post some very brief experiences and impressions of both, from the perspective of a family that has lived and loved both for a year, and have seen how the devices have aged.

Let me start by pointing out the significant cost difference between the devices: the two Nexus 7s combined cost less than the full-sized iPad, and the later released iPad Mini still pushes a 50% or so price premium.

Firstly, the iPad. This device has been the go-to device for all members of the household, from my two-year-old son through to my wife and I. If you’re looking to do web browsing to read up on the news, check out Reddit or Hacker News, want to watch a movie on TMN Go or check the weather, it is absolutely the device you prefer, without question.

After a few tumbles dented in the corners, the device was outfitted with a stylish Cookie Monster protective case, the original Smart Cover relegated to a closet somewhere.

My kids have filled and re-filled the storage on the device many times over taking pictures. We’ve gone through hundreds if not thousands of apps and app updates, and have downloaded and played a large number of movies from the iTunes store, some of them AirPlay streamed to the AppleTV device.

It has been very heavily used and abused.

The screen is as good as the day we got the device. The battery is still a champion.

Software and responsiveness-wise the device has only gotten better with the various updates Apple has pushed out. The flash storage has been rewritten many, many times over and is seemingly as spritely as the day we the got the device.

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A few nights back we did a camp out in the backyard and the iPad served as the moviestation from afar, presenting a movie through TMNGo via the home wifi to the tent a good 200 feet back in the yard without a hiccup. The next morning the battery was still at 85% and could easily have rolled through four more movies without strain.

It is an imperfect device, and I still encounter software quirks, however it has earned my faith such that I know that they are momentary and I can continue with confidence.

The overall impression fifteen months in is very positive. So positive, in fact, that it wasn’t long before we added an AppleTV to the household (a device that is simply an enormous value). And then a Mac Mini. And then an iPod Touch. I will be watching the 5th generation iPad release with anticipation, and have been seriously considering the new Mac Air laptops.

The halo effect is very real.

The Nexus 7s have been a less positive experience, device compromise necessary due to the discount price.

One unit arrived with the screen rising issue that was a widespread manufacturing defect. Given that it was cosmetic I didn’t go through the hassle of dealing with Google to obtain a fix for this, and indeed the issue is the same as it ever was with the device. Performing end-user QA is never acceptable, especially for widespread issues where the resolution will often see you sent someone else’s refurbished return that saw a hodgepodge fix, the selection bias making it increasingly probable that you’re simply going to get a device that is defective in other ways (e.g. dead pixels).

The Tegra 3-powered Nexus 7s are very competent for the games that are available. If you’re playing Angry Birds or World of Goo or Minecraft Pocket Edition, it is every bit as good and enjoyable as it is on the iPad 3. With the Nexus 7s costing half the price, two can play Minecraft PE on the intranet with each other on the N7 for the price of a full sized iPad to play in sad, solitary loneliness.

The Nexus 7 is never my first choice to browse the web. The Chrome for Android browser is simply quirky and unreliable, and despite having a measurably faster CPU integer unit in the N7 versus the iPad, it always feels like a much slower device. YouTube, Gmail and Google Maps are all excellent on the N7, though the latter two I only ever use on my smartphone.

One of the Nexus 7 devices came to an abrupt conclusion a few months back when the screen was fractured.

The other has seen a dramatic decline in functionality in the ten months since purchase.

The flash storage is presumably coughing up phlegm, plaguing the device with endless stop-the-world pauses when background IO is occurring. Androbench is now reporting sequential writes in the range of 0.91MB – 2.1MB / second, which comes in at 1/10th to 1/4 the rates Anandtech reported in their review. Many updates fail to complete to due to corruption, and this is an increasingly common observation among Nexus 7 owners.

The flash situation is a bit of a surprise as the storage has seen very little intentional use on the device (my wife and I do all email and correspondence on our respective smartphones, the tablets generally being recreation devices). The single movie ever downloaded onto the device was the launch freebie Transformers. It hasn’t been a Kindle companion or a music station, and isn’t used to take or store or even browse photos. Of course the operating system may be churning to storage endless, though I don’t have the inclination to seek out the metrics to validate that hypothesis.

The battery life has gone from decent to terrible. While I am usually pleasantly surprised when I check the iPad to find it in a much better state than expected, the Nexus 7 is often sitting in the red after marginal use.

It has not aged well. It shows signs of suffering the exhaustion of both the battery and the flash storage.

It is a cheap tablet, showing its cheapness, and the compromises that had to be made to hit that price point, and it is another outing where I think Google made some short term decisions that will, long term, damage both Google’s reputation and the Nexus brand.

I am a huge supporter of Android because it essentially lifts all boats: A few days back some interesting graphed geolocated tweets made the rounds, many using it to make demographic observations between the rich and the poor. There are demographic differences (though a sample of those who a) tweet, and b) decide to advertise their geographic specific location in their tweets, itself is a very heavily biasing factor), but rather than telling you where the rich live — turn off the iPhone-favoring z-layering and Android is close to as prevalent in the “rich” areas as well — Android does indeed tell you where the poor live. They’re the ones who often have a pay as you go plan and the cheapest device available, and isn’t it fantastic that they get to participate in the new world as well?

How can that possibly be a negative. Android can be found on a range that includes the best Galaxy S4 and HTC One to the cheapest Fusion2 GoPhone. This is the greatest accomplishments of Android, and it is fantastic that it is inclusive.

But if you’re in the market for a tablet, understand that the discount Nexus 7 is a discount device, and is in many ways disposable. As a second tablet or for project purposes (e.g. custom thermostat, in-car install, etc), sure, but if you’re getting just one tablet, perhaps wait and see. And if again the price seems to be too good to be true, it is.