Last year’s Nexus 7 is widely regarded as one of the best and most successful Android tablets to date. It was fast, it was cheap, and most important of all, it carried its own identity among an unexceptional class of sameness—Amazon’s Kindle Fire being the lone exception. Up until then, there were only a few mildly successful Android slates—something you’d acknowledge as nice but wouldn’t actually buy—but nothing as complete as Google’s small tab. This year’s iteration is like that, but better.

At a recent gathering at Google’s Mountain View manse, the search giant’s Sundar Pichai mused on the original’s success, and how it’s really defined the company’s place in the tablet market. That was just the start. With an iPad mini nine months into its cycle, the imminent threat of more Kindle Fires, and innumerable amounts of Samsung tabs, it only made sense for Google to follow the Nexus 7 up.

Nexus 7 Video Review

In short, Google’s newest device, made again by Asus, has improved in every conceivable way, from its sharper screen to its more refined design—and there’s a rear-facing camera now, too. This year’s model, it’s worth acknowledging, doesn’t surprise or dazzle in any unexpected way—anyone could have predicted Google would introduce faster guts and a sharper screen. But the new Nexus 7 still manages to impress; it’s noticeably better, both tangibly and on paper.

It’s not a disruptive re-imagining—not many devices are in 2013—but it reminds us why the Nexus 7 is a force to be reckoned with in the first place.

Design

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As a whole, the original model was by no means a slouch—terrific in many ways, though it’s begun to show its age—but the 2013 model feels infinitely more premium, better to hold, better to use, faster. With a frame that’s thinner and more narrow, and rear material that is wonderful to the touch, the new Nexus 7 in a way feels like a completely separate tablet line; the difference is a little jarring at first—in a good way.

For a slate of this size, Google’s new device is incredibly easy to hold one-handed; it’s perfect for things like Web browsing and reading books, though it does appear a little tall, which can make it a little awkward if your hand isn’t gripped at each side. But this was on purpose. The garishly large top and bottom bezels were apparently a conscious design decision made by Google so the device is more comfortable to hold in landscape (which it is), but it is a tad unsightly when held in portrait. Not a deal breaker.

With that said, the screen looks absolutely fantastic, with a new Full HD IPS display sporting a resolution of 1920 x 1200 (323 ppi). Text looks incredibly sharp, videos look crisp and simply browsing something like TechnoBuffalo looks wonderful. Compared to a competing device such as the big boy iPad (262 ppi) and iPad mini (163 ppi), the Nexus 7’s screen wins hands down. And you notice, too, especially when put beside an iPad mini, which has always been criticized for having a lower-res display since its launch.

There are also two separate speakers on the top and bottom (or left and right in landscape), with new technology provided by a company named Fraunhofer. (For more on that, you can see our interview with Fraunhofer’s Jan Nordmann.) Basically, this gives the Nexus 7 actual stereo sound, meaning movies, games and other media theoretically sound better, which we found to be the case. It’s not a device-selling feature, but it’s an added bonus and one of those things you’ll appreciate the more you use (or hear) it.

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As An Upgraded Experience

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If you’ve used the previous Nexus 7 for any significant amount of time, this is essentially the same thing. This version is just faster and easier to hold and look at. Google hasn’t made any sweeping changes with Android 4.3, and the truth is you’ll hardly notice anything is different at all. There are things like user profiles and Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, but overall the update is nearly identical in terms of everyday usage. That’s a good thing.

We’re obviously not sure how Android 4.3’s optimizations will have an effect long-term, but the update so far seems lightning fast, and that’s all we can ask for.

As a device that consumes media and runs apps, the Nexus 7 is a beast. Stuff like games open up quick, and YouTube videos run smoothly with no perceptible lag. Simply swiping and digging through the OS is just fine, fast; I didn’t notice any stuttering even after extended use, which is great for many different reasons, number one being promise for longevity.

Older Android tablets have a tendency to drop off after longer periods of use, and we’re happy to report we haven’t noticed any performance hiccups with that 1.5GHz quad-core S4 Pro (so far). The 2GB of RAM (twice last year’s) sure doesn’t hurt, either. What this all means is that everything together is very optimized for a tip-top Android tablet experience, one that simply can’t be matched by any competing tablet running Google’s OS.

And consider that many of today’s top apps look and work terrifically on the Nexus 7, and, well, it’s easy to like Google’s tab. Apple still has the better app ecosystem, but Google Play is nothing to scoff at. And, in fact, our needs—a mix of games and popular apps like Instagram, IMDB, etc.—were met no problem. Of course, there’s Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, and many more, meaning the disparity in app selection is negligible at best; the worst you’ll run into is an app hits iOS first and comes to Android later.

One Last Thing

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What’s up with the Nexus 7’s Wi-Fi? Last year’s model had less than stellar Wi-Fi performance, and for some reason this iteration fares no better. Like, at all. During our testing, it dropped four different connections for no reason whatsoever—just, poof, gone. That’s especially frustrating when you’re trying to watch a YouTube video or download an app. I’ve tried—too many times to count now—to download a book, and it just won’t work. Maybe that’s something more related to Google Play than the tablet itself, but it sucks either way.

We have an excellent connection here in the office, and I have FiOS at home, so there’s no reason any device in 2013 should struggle to keep hold of Wi-Fi. But this does. When your only purpose is to consume media, that becomes a pretty glaring and frustrating issue, and takes some of the veneer off the overall experience. The worst part is that it’s inconsistent, so it’s difficult to find out how and why Wi-Fi is dropping in the first place. It’s unclear what the issue is, but Google and Asus obviously didn’t do enough quality assurance testing to find out.

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Wrap Up

Rating

8.0
The 2013 Nexus 7 is a great follow up that further solidifies the device's place in the tablet market.

Google Nexus 7 (2013)

There’s no question the 2013 model of the Nexus 7 is better than the last, and one of the top tablets on the market. There are obvious changes you expected this iteration—screen, guts, camera—but Google managed to make the entire thing feel that much more high-end; it’s really thin, sleek and looks terrific in all black. Google’s original model had some odd pocked design that felt ok, but this one is just better, plain and simple.

The only thing Google sacrificed in the name of design was battery, which has shrunk down from 4,345 mAh to 3950 mAh. Overall, we didn’t experience an enormous difference in battery life, but it does drain a little faster—you can blame that on the screen. You’ll still get plenty of usage out of it, however, even if you are chugging through email, Web browsing and games throughout the day; just keep in mind that it may not last as long on cross-country road trips.

If you own last year’s model, it’s difficult to say whether or not you should upgrade. On the one hand, you still have a great tablet that will handle many tasks without a problem. On the other, upgrading purely for the sharper screen and upgraded processor might be worth it because of the potential for longevity—it’ll be something you can own for a few years without feeling like you’re missing out. At just $229 (16GB Wi-Fi), it’s slowly edging away from impulse buy territory, but it’s still the best tablet value out there.

There have been a handful of tablets this year, but Google’s latest is easily its best. But the jury is still out on whether Apple will answer with a follow up to its iPad mini, and Amazon is rumored to announce a revamped Kindle Fire HD lineup. That being said, you might want to wait for a month or two if you’re really unsure. Different strokes for different folks—all three are very different—but they’re worth considering.

This isn’t an upgrade that will make you fall to your knees and shout to the heavens. But it’s solid for what it is: a small 7-inch tablet meant to consume media. It’s wonderful to hold, the screen looks amazing, and it has a great high-end feel, much better than the previous version. At $229 (16GB Wi-Fi), $269 ((32GB Wi-Fi) and $350 (16GB LTE), you’re getting great value for what the device is capable of doing. And there’s now a camera, so there’s that.

There’s a lot to like, and only a few niggling issues, but not enough to break the overall experience. If that’s the kind of tablet you want, then the Nexus 7 with stock Android 4.3 is the tablet you should get.

Disclaimer: We purchased the Nexus 7 with company funds and used it for four days before beginning our review.