It’s the most-asked question by consumers about any new tech gadget: “Should I get this now or is something better coming along soon?”
For buyers of Amazon’s Kindle Fire, we now have the answer: You should have waited.
Google (GOOG)’s new Nexus 7 is aimed directly at the Kindle Fire, the seven-inch color tablet that was the runaway hit of the last holiday season. The Nexus 7 obliterates every reason for buying the current Kindle, and sets a high bar for whatever Amazon comes up with to replace it.
The Nexus 7 is Google’s first foray into selling a tablet under its own brand. It’s currently available for pre-order from Google Play, the company’s online store, with customer deliveries expected to begin next week. It costs $199 for a model with eight gigabytes of storage, same as the Kindle, or $249 for 16 gigabytes.
The device is manufactured by Taiwan-based Asustek (2357), and Google chose its partner wisely. Asus makes some of the prettiest tablets and personal computers this side of Apple, and the Nexus 7 is as attractive and smooth as the Kindle Fire is chunky and clunky.
At 7.8 inches tall and 4.7 inches wide, the Nexus 7 is compact enough to slide into a jacket pocket. A rubbery, textured back makes it easy to grip. Like the Kindle Fire, it works only over a Wi-Fi connection; while the screens are the same size, the Nexus 7’s has a resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels, compared to the Kindle Fire’s 1024 x 600.
More and Better
The Google tablet also has a more powerful, quad-core processor from Nvidia (NVDA), twice the internal memory and better battery. At four-tenths of an inch thick and 12 ounces, it’s also thinner and 18 percent lighter.
Go down the list of standard tablet features, and the Nexus 7 wins every one. Camera? None for the Kindle; the Nexus has a front-facing camera and microphone for video calls.
Bluetooth? The Kindle doesn’t have it; the Nexus 7 does.
GPS? Yes on the Nexus, along with a newly-enhanced Google app that lets you save maps for use even when you’re offline. The Kindle has nothing like it.
The Kindle has the Nexus beat in one significant area: the depth and breadth of the online stores that are designed to keep them stuffed with content. The Kindle is deeply integrated with Amazon (AMZN)’s shops for e-books, music, movies and videos, which are all far richer than the sparsely stocked Google Play store.
On the other hand, Amazon makes an excellent free app that allows you to buy and read Kindle e-books on the Nexus 7. And there’s always Netflix (NFLX) for movies and Spotify for music, among many others, as long as you’re willing to manage the various accounts and log-ins yourself. (With the Kindle Fire, a single Amazon password is all you need.)
The Nexus 7 marks the debut of yet another iteration of the Android operating system: version 4.1, which Google calls “Jelly Bean.” (Who knows why Google’s sweets-themed naming system seems so much sillier than Apple (AAPL)’s big cats for its Mac releases?)
Google’s constant Android updates can be maddening for consumers, who often find that even recently purchased devices won’t run the latest software.
Still, this new version is the most polished yet. It’s fast and smooth, without any of the herky-jerkiness in reorienting the device from landscape to portrait, or in transitions from one screen to another, that afflicted earlier releases.
There is also a passel of new features, notably Google Now. This is a neat app that, with a single finger-swipe, supplies useful information about where you are and what you’re doing at any given moment.
Right now, for example, it’s telling me how long it would take to drive home given current traffic conditions, what the weather’s like, nearby mass-transit departure times and the closest restaurants. At an airport, it might show flight information; in a city, nearby places of interest.
Of course, Android wouldn’t be Android without a head- scratcher or two. For instance, you can’t view your home screen or display all your apps in landscape mode. Google says it will address that one by the time Jelly Bean shows up on larger, iPad-size tablets.
And that’s the real endgame here. There’s no doubt Apple is Google’s No. 1 enemy in its struggle to establish Android on tablets, but no Android device has yet gained any traction going head-to-head against the mighty iPad. So Google, which needs a hit device to convince developers to help it dent Apple’s enormous lead in tablet-specific apps, went smaller and cheaper.
Apple, meanwhile, isn’t standing still; if reports are to be believed, it is working on its own smaller, cheaper iPad.
As for the Kindle Fire, in its current form you’d have to consider it collateral damage.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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