Review: Google Nexus 7 – the tablet to rule them all

Technology-wise, yesterday was a great day. First, my Samsung Galaxy SII finally got the Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade Sprint had teased for weeks. But, and possibly more importantly, my Nexus 7 arrived.

The Hardware

The Nexus 7, the latest Android tablet from Google and Asus, is a 7″ tablet with a quad-core processor, the newest Jelly Bean version of Android, and a slick design. The form factor is wonderfully solid and polished. Amazingly, there are only three buttons and one port on the device. I love the micro USB port for charging and connecting since it’s the new standard (so I have a dozen such cables). The power button and two volume control buttons are the only interruptions in the sleek exterior.
The tablet has a nice heft; it almost seems a bit heavy for its size. The textured and rubberized back and rounded edges make it easy to hold in one hand for long periods, something I’m likely to do as I plan to use this in place of my current e-readers (Nook Color and Kindle 3). However, while the left/right bezel is a great width for holding the device (without pressing the screen), the top/bottom bezels are bigger than I’d prefer. A recent teardown seems to indicate that the extra space is used to house the camera and speaker components, but I wonder if they plan to shave off some millimeters in height for the 2nd gen.

The 7″ screen is simply gorgeous, with rich colors and textures coming through on both photos and videos. The video playback improvements touted by “Project Butter” are evident in the first ten minutes of the free Transformers preloaded on the device. I’m a bit concerned that I can’t find any confirmation (or denial) that Asus used Gorilla Glass on this. I hope the answer is yes, since the only available cover (from Google) wasn’t to my liking, so my tablet is currently unprotected.
I’m still torn whether a 7″ or 10″ screen is better for productivity. The 7″ is perfect for consumption of many types of media: ebooks, videos, and web sites. I still contend that the 10″ screens are better for content creation (blogging/writing, video/photo editing) and viewing large color documents (like graphic novels). But if any device could change my mind, it’s this one.

Jelly Bean

But I practically ignored the physical aspects of the tablet once I turned it on. The speed and fluidity that I’m able to navigate the Nexus 7 is nothing less than stunning. Seriously, this thing is wicked fast.

I’m a previous owner of Google’s former “reference” tablet model, the Motorola Xoom Wi-fi (which was so heavy I hardly ever used it) and the current owner of a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (still running Honeycomb), a Nook Color (rooted and running CM7 Gingerbread). With ICS now on my phone, I’ve experienced nearly every version of Android (my previous phone came with Donut, upgraded to Eclair, then I rooted it with Froyo).

With Jelly Bean, Android has finally reached the pinnacle of user experience. Between the hardware and the OS improvements, the Nexus 7 offers an unmatched user experience.

One of my favorite features of the Nexus 7 is the fact that it’s a Nexus device, which means no waiting for a manufacturer to release OS updates. In less than a day, a system update was already pushed to my device. Having a direct connection to Google for updates is going to spoil me for all devices (mostly Samsung) I own.

Early Observations and Tips

After linking my Google account and syncing, I delved into some of the preloaded apps. Launching Gmail, I was dismayed to find that I couldn’t rotate the tablet to landscape mode. I then realized I couldn’t rotate the home screen, either. Thankfully, a quick Google search turned up the solution:

“If you notice that the device isn’t rotating, feel free to pull the notification bar down and hit the rectangular icon with the two arrows around it. Actually, if it’s not rotating, it’s probably showing up as a lock with two arrows around it. In order to get your device to rotate, it needs to have the box with arrows”

Once turned on, any app that I previously used in landscape mode worked perfectly. I think it’s a mistake that Google decided to disable that by default.

Interestingly, all Google apps (Gmail, Chrome, etc.) are “pre foldered” and the folder is located in the Favorites tray, a quick-launch bar of icons at the bottom of the screen. Placing additional app icons on the home screen is the same as in previous versions of Android, but I found that my longstanding habit of long-pressing the home screen to add a widget no longer works. Since there was no menu option or “more” button, another Google search provided the answer: turns out there’s a “widget” screen on the app drawer. I’ll get used to this – and I already prefer it – but as I now have a phone on Ice Cream Sandwich and a tablet on Honeycomb, going between UI differences will be a challenge.

Had I taken a moment to step back from my excitement, I might have even found Google’s helpful (and free) Nexus 7 User Guide in the Play store. Already, I’ve found the answers to my previous questions as well as a wealth of knowledge about the device and OS which would have required serendipitous discovery.

Essential Apps and Features

While Jelly Bean’s stock keyboard is usable (and fast on the Nexus 7!), I still prefer the alternate Swype keyboard, so I downloaded that from the site. Thankfully, it works flawlessly with the new OS.

The built-in Google voice search is, quite simply, amazing. It’s like being on Star Trek. Merely saying “Google” triggers the search to wait for your voice input.

I’ve only briefly explored new Jelly Bean features like Face Unlock and Google Now (which offers real-time information based on your geolocation), but I plan to dig into it more in the coming days.

For now, I heartily recommend this tablet to anyone looking for a small form-factor Android tablet at an amazing price point.

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Blue Like Jazz: the movie is as great as the book

I had the privilege of seeing Blue Like Jazz (the movie) recently and thought it was a fantastic newcomer to the world of faith-related films. I say privilege because this movie almost never saw the light of day. Due to funding issues early in production, BLJ was almost relegated to the annals of movies-that-never-were. Instead, a couple of devoted fans turned that failure around by launching a project for it on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. In just ten days, the project raised the $125K it initially wanted, then continued to climb. By the project’s deadline, roughly 4,500 contributors had contributed almost $346K. I was one of those contributors and my donation gave me the honorable status of “Associate Producer.” At the time, this made it the most funded Kickstarter project ever (see BLJ featured in this Kickstarter blog post). You can read Don’s synopsis of this journey on his blog.

My bias runs deeper than just being a Kickstarter donor, however. I’ve enjoyed Donald Miller’s books for years. His disarming writing style and nonjudgmental approach to tough questions of faith strongly resonate with me. Blue Like Jazz was my introduction to Miller’s books. I don’t know when or why I decided to pick it up, but the book has since become one of the few I feel compelled to give to others who, like me, approach faith with a critical mind. The movie, like the book, tell a chapter in Miller’s life; his wrestle with God during his transition from high school to college.

It tracks the mystery of what a personal relationship with God looks like in a disarmingly genuine way and leaves out the preachiness, condescension, and over intellectual-ness most books in the “Christian” genre fall into. I’d even go so far as to say BLJ keeps such enlightened company as classics like Screwtape Letters in presenting the story of God’s love as just that: a story, not a lecture or scientific proof.

Some of my favorite moments, themes, and quotes in the movie:

  • When Don is hanging out with his freethinking dad, he gets the sage advice to “Write your own story,” don’t let others write your story (plan your life) for you.
  • Attending Reed College – and surrounded by primarily non-Christians for the first time – Don finds that many liberal-minded individuals proclaim themselves “open minded”…unless it’s about Christ or anything to do with traditional religion.
  • A familiar paradox is evident in the Reed student body: they emphasize wanting to be free, yet one of Don’s first friends there advises him to “get in the closet, Baptist boy, and stay there.”
  • The idea that you can get “lost a sea of individuality” – that is, everyone is trying so hard to be something different, that a sense of community, of belongingness, of a common “tribe” gets lost.
  • I loved Don’s cameo as pretentious author giving a reading in a book store!
  • While it was dramatized, I got the distinct impression that Reed College is full of geniuses…doing mostly stupid things.
  • At a pivotal point, Penny says “It turns out I like Jesus…a lot.”
  • The scenes where Don is hanging out with mostly emotionally messy individuals struck me as the very crowd Jesus is described as hanging with.
  • A thread I found interesting in the story is that while Christians can’t escape (and shouldn’t deny) the brokenness of the church, likewise those who embrace a hedonistic lifestyle should acknowledge the emptiness and meaninglessness in it.
  • “I hated them because I thought they made me look like a fool.”
  • “God isn’t like me.” (Don says this during an apology for how he has behaved and how he represented (or denied) Christ.)

While BLJ may have been denounced by conservative Christians, I found the film set the bar a bit higher for “Christian” films. For one, actual actors with actual acting talent were employed. While I don’t mean to slam other films specifically, it’s obvious when amateurs deliver lines and when seasoned actors do so. The only aspect I found lacking was that I would have preferred a bit more character development, especially in the supporting cast. All in all, though, I’m extremely glad to have supported this effort, I’m proud of all of those who made it happen, and I hope to see more films like this in the future.

The new “Scale of the Universe” interactive animation – the best way to get perspective on life

If you need to gain some perspective on life, check out the Scale of the Universe 2, an updated interactive animation first published in 2010. The new version includes information on many of the featured elements. Starting at a common reference point – the size of an average human being – the slider lets you zoom waaaay out to see, for example, the largest galaxies photographed by Hubble and waaaay in to see, for instance, the smallest particles known (or hypothesized) by theoretical physicists.

Lest you think that this amazing animation is a big-budget product from some science-loving organization, think again. According to ABC News:

“Scale of the Universe 2″ was created by Cary Huang, a 14-year-old ninth grader from Moraga, Calif., with technical help from his twin brother Michael…”My seventh grade science teacher showed us a size comparison video on cells, and I thought it was fascinating. I decided to make my own interactive version that included a much larger range of sizes,” said Cary in an email forwarded by his mother. “It was not a school project — just for fun. However, my science teacher loved it so much she showed [it] to the class! My brother, Michael, helped me put it on the internet.”…Cary said he worked on the project, on and off, for a year and a half, getting information from Wikipedia and astronomy books.

Nice job, guys!

Click the image to start exploring the universe!

Flipped architecture turns high-rise apartments into a jungle [TED talk]

In this visually stimulating TED talk, architect Thomas Heatherwick shows off some of the best designs inspired by biology in his portfolio. While some may go gaga over the famous Seed Cathedral, in a surprising conclusion to the presentation, Heatherwick reveals plans for high-rise apartments in Malaysia that are designed…upside-down. This unique configuration provides the economic benefit of creating more of the valuable top-floor real estate while also creating ample space for a natural rainforest ecosystem.

The before and after pictures below show how a seemingly simple adjustment in a traditional design – the “flip” – produced a dramatically new result (click each image for the full-sized version).

Traditional Design

Revised Design

Rendered Design

While he doesn’t explain structural aspects in his talk, the design does not seem especially suited to earthquake-prone regions (which seem to be increasing around the globe).

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Best school assembly ever: A lifelike dinosaur puppet

Boingboing recently posted a video showing a life-like dinosaur puppet, controlled by a masterful puppeteer, that brought delight and surprise to a group of Australian school children. I can only imagine my daughters hiding in fear as this thing lunged and roared at them! What’s so amazing is that the incredible realism of the puppet and its movements almost completely mask the puppetmaster’s legs sticking out of the costume.

If the kids weren’t already enthralled with the subject of paleontology, I’m sure they are now!

Use Feedfliks for advanced Netflix account management

If you’re not a Netflix subscriber, you either don’t watch movies or you enjoy endlessly browsing the local movie rental place for DVDs (that ultimately aren’t available) and racing the clock to return it before late fees start to accrue. For the rest of us, the mail-order and streaming movie service has risen to become a staple of media consumption.

Yet, despite an impressive DVD collection, an improving streaming catalog available from TiVo DVRs, many Blu-ray players, and iOS devices, the options for managing your media queue are underwhelming.

Enter Feedfliks, a companion site that fills in nearly all of the gaps of account management. Offering a full-featured free account option as well as a paid premium account option, Feedfliks gives you a data-rick peek into your account as well as email alerts.

Your dashboard lets you see if you’re getting the most out of your account. This can help you decide to go with a cheaper account (2 versus 3 discs out at a time, for example) or encourage you to return your DVDs more quickly.

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