The big news right now in tablets is the Google Nexus 7. Even notoriously pro-Apple tech writers are mostly gushing about the Nexus 7, some calling it the best tablet on the market. The two things that they’re most impressed with are the build quality and the new features of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.

For a device that retails for $199 ($249 with 16GB), the Nexus 7 is very well built (see the specs) and offers almost all of the features that most users will want. Here are some of the exceptions:

  • Instead of a metal frame surrounding the Corning scratch-resistant glass, the Nexus sports plastic — honestly, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 feels more like iPad premium quality (and price).
  • The “leather-like rubber back” didn’t impress me.
  • There’s no SD card slot.
  • Google was hoping that users would leverage the cloud, but people want their data local, which was evident by the excessive demand for the 16GB version. This caused a supply shortage of the more expensive model.

Android’s newest OS, Jelly Bean, is nice, but it isn’t really a quantum leap. The fundamental improvements are the introduction of Google Now, better notifications, and the Project Butter enhancements to the OS and app smoothness. However, if you’ve been using Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich on a Tegra quad-core Android tablet daily, you’ll hardly notice the difference. Let’s take a closer look at these improvements:

  • Honestly, Google Now feels a little pasted on to the OS, when it should be front and center in the Android experience. The ability to configure Google Now as your “default home” would also have made sense. Instead, the easiest way to access Google Now is by long-pressing the home soft key and swiping up.
  • Notification improvements are subtle. They’re not going to change your world, but they improve the experience in a transparent way.
  • As for Project Butter — yes, it makes a difference. There’s less stuttering, jittering, and missed input. I can tell the difference when I go back to my ASUS Eee Pad Transformer TF300, and the TF300 is no slouch. If we’re solely concerned about matching the smooth UI experience of iOS, Android is now neck and neck. This was never a deal-breaker to me, but progress is good.

Android tablets are now legitimate contenders. I said it would happen and that ASUS had the best chance of realizing it. ASUS makes great tablets, but they needed the brand recognition of Google in order to reach a broad consumer market.

Before the release, I was concerned about QA challenges, and there definitely were issues with early shipments. The most significant complaint dealt with a screen separation at the front of the device. Other common issues included bad speaker quality, dead pixels, backlight bleeding on the LCD, and bad USB ports. My device suffered from a distorted speaker and separating glass, but Google Play was very responsive when addressing this.

Google Play also botched the roll out of the pre-sales orders to online buyers. In many cases, people who bought directly from retailers received their tablets first. Both ASUS and Google have to improve to compete effectively.

At the office?

I don’t think the Nexus 7 is going to be the device that blows the doors open for enterprise tablet adoption, because the device and platform are strongly oriented toward consumers. However, the IT department will probably see an uptick in employees wanting to use the Nexus 7 as a BYOD solution.

Google Now really delivers the “digital personal assistant” that every PDA since the Newton promised. Where Siri seems broken, Google Now is an adaptive service that really seems to get it right. Unfortunately, this comes at a price. For peak performance, the user must opt-in to a range of data collection, including your travel by GPS. By correlating travel patterns with date and time, Google Now figures out where you live, work, and play, and it pops up reminder “cards” that contain information like traffic and route. It’s a neat trick, but the security-paranoid aren’t going to like it. This feature also uses Google Web History, which is a browser history stored on Google’s cloud. Turning these features off disables Google Now.

Bottom line

The Nexus 7 is fairly well built and full featured tablet that hits the proverbial sweet spot on pricing. As a real pure Android tablet, it leaves the Kindle Fire in the dust. While the build quality isn’t as polished as more expensive brands, firms wanting to bulk supply employees with inexpensive tablets will find it very attractive. The Nexus 7 probably is the best tablet available at the moment, but with Jelly Bean upgrades already announced for affordable 10″ tablets with better hardware, a 10″ Jelly Bean tablet may be worth the wait — especially for corporate use.