Friday, November 2, 2012

Android's most promising iPad alternative

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It's the first question anyone asks when they're interested in a tablet: "Is it as good as the current
 iPad? For the Google Nexus 10, the overall answer is "no." The iPad is still the best tablet experience one can have thanks to its still unmatched performance and robust app and media ecosystem.

The good: The Nexus 10 has a beautifully sharp screen, is light, durable, and has the fastest processor of any Android tablet. Photo Sphere is an incredibly cool concept. Google's content ecosystem is only getting better.
The bad: The included charger isn't fast enough to power the battery while playing a game and even while idle charges painfully slow. There's no storage expansion option and apps that take full advantage of the screen are currently few and far between. Navigating isn't quite as seamless as the Nexus 7.
The bottom line: The Nexus 10's superior design and swift performance make it one of the best Android tablets to date. We expect post-launch updates from Google to make it even better.
That said, if you have no interest in owning an Apple product anyway, but are still in the market for a premium tablet, the Nexus 10 should be at or near the top of your list. The choice isn't as cut and dry as it should be, unfortunately. Your other go-to Android option -- the Transformer Infinity -- still has a better back camera, a brighter screen, expandable storage, and comes with a power adapter that's actually proficient at charging the tablet.
The Nexus 10's stock charger uses its Micro-USB port to charge and -- as it turns out -- that's not the most efficient way to charge a high-end tablet. Overnight charging will be fine, but if you ever need to charge in a hurry, you'll probably want to pick up Google's magnetic pogo charger it'll soon be announcing. You know, since already forking over at least $400 wasn't enough.
So why is the Nexus 10 potentially the best Android tablet? Its screen is gorgeous and the sharpest around compared with any tablet, it is the most comfortable 10-inch tablet to hold in your hand with a durability that ensures you won't immediate blow a gasket if your kids drop it. Furthermore, it's the first tablet to run Android 4.2, which brings with it great new features -- Photo Sphere, which lets you capture a three-dimensional model of a real-world space, is one of the coolest I've ever experienced on a tablet.
For most, the iPad is still the tablet of choice, but for those looking for an alternative to Apple's much more constrained OS, Google provides what's arguably the best one yet. Like the Nexus 7 before it, the Nexus 10 marks a significant step toward a much more competitive tablet market and its design heralds a new paradigm from which all other tablets should consider cribbing ASAP.
The Google Nexus 10 is one of the best designed tablets yet. At 1.33 pounds, it's fairly light and has a slightly concave shape, with a subtlety beveled back design. Thanks to its light weight and smoothly rounded corners the tablet never digs into your palms when held with two hands. The back is a soft, grippy, almost rubbery plastic that not only feels great to hold, but doubles as protection for the tablet. The aforementioned rounded corners have that same rubbery plastic around them. The whole outer shell feels almost like an exoskeleton accessory, specifically designed to protect the delicate tablet organs inside.
Google Nexus 10Asus Transformer Tab Infinity TF700Apple iPad (fourth generation)
Weight in pounds1.331.321.44
Width in inches (landscape)10.410.47.3
Height in inches6.97.19.5
Depth in inches0.350.330.37
Side bezel width in inches (landscape)
This feels like a tablet you can get a little rough with and one that won't immediately induce apoplexy when your kid grabs it. Also, there are no scratchy edges and no fine corners. While preparing this review, I mistakenly dropped the tablet a couple of times onto a concrete floor and saw not one scratch or dent. Now, I'm not recommending you go whipping these things around, but I really appreciate how it flies in the face of the iPad's and Transformer Infinity's luxury tablet design. It's actually more appropriate for families willing to share the device, but we'll get to how Google plans to make that easier a bit later.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
Manufactured by Samsung, the all-black tablet bears a passing resemblance to the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, and like that tablet, its bezels are wide. The side bezels, thanks to the inclusion of dual, front-facing speaker grilles, are especially so. Though some may prefer thinner bezels, the wider ones here make the tablet easier to hold in two hands. Your hands do cover the speakers if held in landscape mode, but since the speaker grille is also really long -- spanning about 5.5 inches of the tablet's 6.9-inch height -- there's plenty of room for sound to get through. Also, if you're holding it while listening to something, you'll likely have headphones on.
Google keeps things simple for physical features. On the left edge is a headphone jack and Micro-USB charging/data port. In the left corner of the top edge sit the power/sleep button and volume rocker. Alone, on the right edge is a Micro-HDMI port, with a magnetic pogo pin charger on the bottom edge.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
Along the top of the tablet's back is a textured strip that feels like a refinement of the Nexus 7's back texture material. Within that strip (which is also removable) is a rear-facing 5-megapixel camera next to an LED flash and microphone. On the front, in the middle of the top bezel is the tablet's front-facing 1.9-megapixel camera and ambient light sensor. On the back, right in middle is a large, embossed Nexus logo above a smaller Samsung one.
The Nexus 10 isn't a sexy tablet, but it's the one above all current 10-inch tablets I'd rather hold in my hands.
Hardware features
The Nexus 10 is the first tablet to house Samsung's 1.7GHz dual-core Exynos 5250 CPU. It uses a Mali T-604 as its graphics processor and has 2GB of RAM. The Exynos 5250 was built using the Cortex-A15 processor, which is one of the first tablet CPUs to truly rival Apple's A5 and A6 family. It also supports 802.11 b/g/n (2.4GHz and 5GHz) and MIMO Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, and NFC (near-field communication). There's also a gyroscope, barometer, accelerometer, and a digital compass.
Android 4.0, the second
If you've seen Android 4.1 on the Nexus 7, visually you'll have a good idea of what to expect from 4.2. It has the same controlled and focused feel that so far only the Nexus 7 has played host to on the tablet front. It's less intimidating to the uninitiated than the typical Android tablet interface and feels less constrained than its original implementation on the Nexus 7.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
The now-familiar tray on the bottom of the home screen is, by default, filled with Google services apps such as Play, Music, Books, YouTube, and Magazines. There's also a folder housing Chrome as well as Google Maps, Google Plus, Gmail, and other services. Directly in the middle of the tray is the apps button. Swiping up from the home button and across the apps button takes you to Google Now, Google's predictive personalized helper.
Google Now uses voice recognition to field queries and displays information such as the current weather, local bus schedules, and nearby restaurants you may be interested in. The thought is that Google Now will give you information when you need it. If it's 5 p.m. and you're about to leave work, it will conceivably update you with traffic information without you having to fetch it. The information would just appear in Google Now at the right time. I've spent a few days using Google Now, and so far it's yet to provide me with anything more useful than unsolicited nearby restaurants or displaying a new e-mail. I'll continue to use it over the next few weeks, giving it a chance to learn my patterns and will update the review with my findings.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
The new new
There are quite a few new features in 4.2; some interesting and useful, others just kind of cool. First, the gesture type feature is Google's native OS answer to Swype. I'm not a Swype user, but I was impressed by gesture type's ability to accurately interpret my finger sliding and determine, for the most part, what I wanted to type. It did, however, have trouble with the word "badass," which is kind of unacceptable to me.
Tablet settings can now be accessed much quicker. Simply swipe down from the top right corner to reveal a tray of shortcuts including brightness, Wi-Fi settings, general settings, battery life, airplane mode, and so on.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
Magnification attempts to take advantage of the screen's high resolution. By enabling it in settings and tapping the screen three times in quick succession, assets on the screen will magnify in the section where you tapped. This is different from zooming, which scales images and text and applies anti-aliasing to smooth things out. Magnify simply makes things bigger. Its' a nice feature for those with poor eyesight, but I was disappointed by the lack of anti-aliasing.
Daydreams is essentially an interactive screensaver that plays when the tablet is asleep and charging. You can choose to display a clock, colors, jelly beans, or my favorite implementation, Google Currents. Stories from your feed will slowly scroll across the screen, and tapping any of them opens the story in the Currents app.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
Gmail gets a new design and a new, awesome feature. Awesome to me, at least. When viewing your Inbox, you can now swipe messages away to archive them. As a person who gets a lot of spam in his inbox, this well-implemented addition is one of those details that seems small on paper, but makes a huge difference in your experience.
Miracast, Multi Screen, Lock Screen: Coming soon
The Nexus 10 supports Miracast, which allows you to display Nexus 10 content wirelessly on compatible HDTVs or through the use of a Miracast adapter -- basically, an Android version of Apple's AirPlay Mirroring. However, according to Google, HDTVs with this technology won't hit the market until 2013, and the adapter I ordered didn't get to me before press time. As soon as I've had some time to test it, I'll update the review.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
The two other new features that won't be ready until November 13 are Multi Screen and Lock Screen. Multi Screen lets you set up multiple profiles on one tablet, with each profile having access only to its own content and apps. With Lock Screen, you can customize your lock screen, adding widgets for e-mail, calendars, etc. Look for more coverage on these features once they're released.
Photo Sphere
Android's camera app has been updated with more editing options; however, I really wish the new interface held your hand a bit more, as it took some time to find my way around. That said, once you've spent some time learning its idiosyncrasies, I think you'll find it's much more elegant and intuitive than the previous incarnation.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
However, the most exciting new camera feature (and possibly the most exciting new feature in Android 4.2) is by far Photo Sphere. Photo Sphere allows you to take 360-degree panoramas, capturing floors, the ceiling, nearly everything -- unfortunately I couldn't capture the space directly over or under me.
It takes about five minutes or so to get the lay of the land, but I suspect that time will decrease once you get the hang of it. This is an incredibly cool feature that does a great job communicating what it feels like to be in a space you've never been in before. I can imagine this being a great tool for Realtors who want to paint an accurate picture of what it might look and feel like to live in a specific house.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
That screen
The Nexus 10's Super PLS (plane-to-line switching) screen is by far the best screen on any Android tablet and is beautiful to look at. But how does it compare with the iPad's 2,048x1,536-pixel Retina Display? Honestly, strictly speaking from a perspective of clarity, it's difficult to see a difference. Both tablets rendered sharp text, and it was difficult to distinguish which was clearer, despite the Nexus 10 screen's higher 2,560x1,600-pixel resolution. If I had to choose a clarity winner, though, I'd go with the Nexus 10, as there were a few times where its text was slightly clearer.
Tested specGoogle Nexus 10Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700Apple iPad (third generation)
Maximum brightness IPS mode (Super IPS)368 cd/m2422 cd/m2 (644 cd/m2)455 cd/m2
Maximum black level, IPS mode (Super IPS).44 cd/m20.34 cd/m2 (0.53 cd/m2)0.49 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio, IPS mode (Super IPS)836:11241:1 (1,215:1)939:1
Games optimized for the display, however, are obviously sharper on the Nexus 10. N.O.V.A. 3 received a Nexus 10 update this week and looks stunning, with much sharper assets than its iPad counterpart.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
As of this review, though, very few apps in the Play store take specific advantage of the Nexus 10's high-res screen, but many do scale well enough to exude a clarity and sharpness right up there with the best iPad apps.
Where the iPad beats the Nexus 10 is in black level, contrast, and color accuracy. The Nexus 10's blacks just aren't as deep nor its whites as bright as they should be, and its colors aren't as full. Expect a much deeper dive on this soon.
The Nexus 10 is the fastest Android tablet I've ever used. It's not as consistently zippy as the third-generation (and I assume the fourth-generation) iPad, but when when navigating menus, opening and switching apps, it's faster than any other Android tablet and the fact that it keeps that speed up with rendering so many pixels is a testament to the Exynos 5250's power.
Still, some Android wonkiness I thought had been done away with the Nexus 7 show up again here. Apps tend to hang more often than I'd like and I've also experienced a few random restarts. Hopefully, Google irons these issues out before release.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
Screen responsiveness has been fine-tuned to razor-sharp accuracy. Pages scroll by as your finger swipes them and taps are rarely misread. Also, with the tablet lying flat, typing is more accurate than on any tablet screen I've experienced, including the iPad. The iPad's keyboard is plenty accurate, to be sure, but the wider aspect ratio of the Nexus 10 means more space for my hands.
I've not had a chance to run the Nexus 10's battery through its full paces, but as an anecdotal test just to give an idea of its battery performance, I turned both it and the third-generation iPad to full brightness and had them play Riptide GP for about 20 minutes. The iPad went from 20 to 11 percent and the Nexus 7 went from 98 to 88 percent. Look for an update after CNET Labs has a chance to run its full video battery drain test.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
The tablet uses the included Micro-USB cable and wall adapter for charging. While it charges fine (albeit very slowly), if the screen is asleep, the battery actually discharges if plugged in while playing certain games, like Riptide GP. If the tablet is playing an HD movie at full brightness while plugged in, the battery will neither charge nor discharge.
I also turned the brightness to its lowest and highest settings on two different occasions and each time let it sit idle to 20 minutes while charging, with sleep turned off. At maximum brightness, the battery was charged by only a single percentage point. At minimum brightness, three percent was charged. This is fine if you're habitually charging overnight, but it could prove troublesome if you're at the airport and would like to charge your tablet's battery while entertaining yourself.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
Google says to expect a pogo charger soon that will charge much faster, but there's no word yet on price or availability for that. By not including a wall charger, Amazon put buyers in a similar position with the Kindle Fire HD. In that case, the charger was only $20, and since the Fire HD is compatible with any Micro-USB charger, you had some choice. Not so much here. I mean, you can still simply opt to deal with the stock charger, but if you're going to buy the Nexus 10 and plan on doing some performance heavy tasks, I'd recommend waiting at least until Google releases details on the pogo charger.
The 5-megapixel back camera's quality was better than most tablets, but it can't match the Transformer Infinity's stellar 8-megapixel back camera at capturing color and clarity. The 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera is completely serviceable for Skype calls, but not much else.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
Web loading speeds were whip-fast, sometimes rendering pages seemingly instantaneously. Sometimes. Most times, however, it was about as fast as the third-generation iPad loading pages like in about five seconds on average. A 272MB app downloaded about a minute faster than on the Transformer Infinity, but was within 20 seconds of the iPad's speed.
The speakers belted out pretty loud sound, but its quality is nothing to write home about. It's definitely good, but I'm probably spoiled by the Kindle Fire HD's awesome Dolby speakers.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
See, the thing about gaming performance...
The Nexus 10 is the first Android tablet to house the Samsung Exynos 5250, a Cortex A-15 CPU with a Mali T-604 GPU. Performance in the games I tried was improved over the previous Android performance champion, the Asus Transformer Infinity. However, the same games on the third-generation iPad (I don't have fourth-gen iPad yet, but I soon will) ran faster and in many cases included higher quality and more complex textures and geometry.
That's no fault of the Nexus 10's, however. Most tablet games are optimized for the iPad first, so their code speaks directly to its components, taking into account its resolution and the A5X processor. As the Nexus 10 sports brand-new hardware and hasn't even been released yet, games have obviously not been optimized for it; however, that's already begun to change. When I first played Riptide GP early this week on the Nexus 10, the frame rate was wildly inconsistent, but thanks to an update released by its developer, Vector Unit, on Wednesday, the game now seems to run much more consistently, staying near the magic 60-frame-per-second figure much more often. I'm hoping for more updates to add the screen blur and water-splashing effects available on other versions of the game. Thankfully, both EA and Gameloft have also pledged Nexus 10 optimization updates to their games by November 13, and I've already seen N.O.V.A. 3 getting some much-needed smoothing out.
(Credit: Screenshot: Eric Franklin)
For what it's worth, GLBenchmark 2.5.1 does show consistently higher Nexus 10 theoretical performance compared with the third-generation iPad and in some cases, the Nexus 10 also bests the A6-powered iPhone 5. So the potential is there for some truly impressive Nexus 10 games. We'll be sure to revisit this closer to the November 13 release date and throw some fourth-gen iPad impressions in there as well.
The Nexus isn't an iPad-killer. At least not in its current state. There are still a few performance issues that Google needs to iron out, and until we get more information on the pogo charger's pricing and availability, the slow charging issue will remain a particular sticking point. I'm also, eagerly awaiting how the apps situation pans out leading up to release. There are a few apps that look great on the tablet, but I want to see more than a handful.
You'll still want to make the iPad your first choice thanks to its years of refined performance, apps selection, and content ecosystem. If you're going for Android, right now it'll depend on what you're looking for. The Transformer Infinity has a brighter screen, better camera, and a built-in storage expansion option. However, the Nexus 10 has superior design and performance, and the features available in Android 4.2 may be worth price of admission alone. However, thanks to the prerelease issues mentioned above, I can't give it an unqualified recommendation in its current state.

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