Last year’s Nexus 7 release highlighted a fundamental shift in Google’s tablet strategy. Before the Nexus 7, the tablet OS for Android was Android 3.0, aka Honeycomb. Although Honeycomb worked well from a user interface perspective it was a disaster performance wise. Google clearly had trouble maintaining two completely different builds of Android. With the Nexus 7, Android for tablets and smartphones was unified into one singular build. No longer was there a separate Android for tablets and smartphones. Google adopted the same strategy Apple had with the iPad and iPhone.
The result of this approach is that the user interface of Android on smartphones and tablets is now almost identical. The new Nexus 7 comes with Android 4.3 out of the box, which is a minor update over Android 4.2. The biggest change from an interface point of view is the inclusion of profile support. When enabled you can identify this feature on the lock screen where the avatar for each profile can be seen at the bottom. Though this feature doesn’t quite have the utility on a smartphone, it is certainly of use on a tablet, especially since multiple members of the family more often than not use tablets. You can setup one administrator account and then set other accounts each with their own set of apps. This is the best implementation of a profile support on a mobile platform I’ve seen so far. It’s seamless and unlike Kids Corner on Windows Phone the shared apps do not get shared app data. You can now even add widgets onto the lock screen, which previously required third party apps to achieve.
Entering the home screen you’ll be greeted with a large analog clock widget. At the bottom is the dock, which is customizable. The default launcher gives you access to five home screens, which you cannot add or remove. This behavior, along with the app drawer is identical to Android 4.2; nothing has been changed here. You can add widgets right from the app drawer; there is a separate tab on top for this. Widgets themselves are resizable, although it depends on whether the developer supports this or not. The only minor alteration is on the notification bar on top, where sliding down from the right reveals the quick settings menu, while sliding down from the left reveals the notification menu.
Like the older version, the new Nexus 7 too comes with on screen navigation buttons. Long pressing the home button launches Google Now. Being a Nexus device, Google has made sure to bundle all its apps. This includes Google Drive, Plus, Gmail, Currents, Play Music, Play Games, YouTube, Chrome and Earth. All of these apps, along with the contacts app have been updated for the tablet interface, which we will cover in detail in a little bit.
Overall from the software point of view Google has done a decent job with Nexus 7. The UI is mostly devoid of any lag and everything from the color palette to the Roboto font looks very sleek on the beautiful screen. Remember I mentioned the ASUS and Nexus logos at the back of the device perpendicular to each other? That serves a purpose. The tablet is intended for both portrait and landscape usage. To further drive home this point the entire interface works in landscape mode, along with all built in apps, which is why I wished for a hardware orientation lock button.
Android on tablets however is still far from perfect. The built in keyboard is atrocious. I know it’s easy as pie to download a third party keyboard from the Play Store but there really shouldn’t be a need to do something like this in the first place. There is no split keyboard for landscape orientation which made typing quite difficult.
Secondly at times I felt the user interface is too reminiscent of a smartphone. There are places where Google could have tablet-fied it a little more. The settings menu for example could do with a split menu system, very identical to what we see in the contacts app. This is already implemented in iOS and it eliminates a lot of getting into menus and going back. The clock and battery/WiFi indicators on the top right are far too small to be comfortably seen. If you’ve used a Honeycomb tablet you’ll remember how the notification bar on that OS was like. I would like Google to bring it to Android 4.3.
Despite the little negativity, Android on a tablet is a refreshing change from 24 months ago. It’s smooth for the most part and the UI is adapted to the large screen rather well. This is only the second Android for tablets implementation we’re seeing from Google after the unification last year. Things can only get better from here on then.