Sunday, August 19, 2012

I love my Nexus 7, but Google and Asus certainly did some strange things

For a while I've been looking for a 7" tablet, something light for my commute. My strict requirements were very good screen resolution, and Android. Barnes and Noble's Nook can run Android off a microSDHC card, and Amazon's Kindle Fire comes with a weird customization of Android but can be rooted to run Jelly Bean. However, both have a resolution of 1024x600, which is a bit small for anything beyond casual Web browsing. Dell's Streak has a mere 800x480 display.

There are a plethora of inexpensive, off-brand 7" and 8" tablets, some just 800x480, many 1024x600, and I saw one 1024x768 model. The big drawback is the very fact that they're off-brand: underpowered CPUs and GPUs lead to sluggish screens, displays may not have consistent colors, capacitive touch may have poor responsiveness, fit and finish may be so poor that it's like a child's flimsy toy, and QA and support may be questionable. Service and support count for a lot, which you might not get with a cheap brand, especially with Internet vendors that tend to pass the buck to the manufacturer. As I mentioned before, my wife's Thrive came from the factory with a slight speck under the glass. I dreaded that we'd be referred to Toshiba, who might take weeks to clean under the glass and ship back. But the good guys at Woot immediately sent us a replacement, with a pre-paid label to send the original unit back.

When I started reading reviews of the Nexus 7 in the first days after its release, I knew it was what I'd been waiting for. This should say something: I had never before been the type to buy brand-new technology. I'd always wait a while to see what bugs and quirks a new product has, and for the price to drop. For $199 and $249, the 8-gig and 16-gig Nexus 7s come with quad-core CPUs, a gorgeous 1200x800 display, and Jelly Bean. It had everything I wanted, except external memory expansion.

For a few dollars more, a microSDHC slot would have made the Nexus 7 about as perfect as one could want in a 7" tablet. Google didn't see fit, probably a combination of rushing the product out and keeping it at the retail prices, and maybe that no memory slots would push people to the 16-gig model. Considering how cheap flash memory is, the 16-gig model must have a far bigger profit margin. Still, there's the micro USB port, and Android supports USB OTG (plugging storage devices into USB ports and having them recognized as separate devices, which is how flash drives and external hard drives work).

But Google inexplicably released the Nexus 7 with a slightly hamstrung version of Jelly Bean. Auto screen rotation is disabled, as is USB OTG. Thankfully it's no problem to root the Nexus 7 and install SU, which I did about four hours after I took it out of the box. Then it's a matter of the right adapter, micro USB male to USB female, which eForCity delivered in a week. Pair it with a standard flash drive, or better yet, one of Sandisk's tiny models. Isn't it amazing how cheap flash memory is, and continues to get cheaper?

I recently bought some adapters, micro USB male to USB female, and I should have read the lone review. It won't work for USB OTG, but elsewhere some have speculated that pins 4 and 5 need to be connected. Micro USB has a 5-pin layout, whereas regular USB has 4. Since nobody seems to make a short micro-to-full adapter that works with USB OTG, it's time to get out the soldering iron!

Update: I never got around to modifying the adapters. These from DealExtreme just arrived and work perfectly. They've unsurprisingly sold out in the 2 ½ weeks since I placed my order.