Nexus 7: Under the hood of the latest (and greatest?) Android tablet

Google unveiled the Nexus 7 – a 7-inch, $199 tablet – at its I/O conference on Wednesday. Its size and price are similar to those of Amazon's popular tablet -- but the Nexus 7 has a few features that set it apart from the Kindle Fire.

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    An attendee at the Google I/O conference uses Google Maps on a Nexus 7 tablet. The $199 tablet, built by ASUS, is similar in size and price to the Amazon Kindle Fire.
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Let’s face it: when it comes to tablets, there’s the high-end iPad and the mass-market Kindle Fire -- and then there’s everything else. But Google thinks it has something special: at its I/O developers conference, the company showed off its home-grown Nexus 7 tablet, a 7-inch, $199 tablet aimed pretty squarely at the Fire’s niche as a content consumption device.

The Nexus 7 will be one of the first devices running Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean,” which Google also showed off at the conference. New features include voice-activated typing, notifications that are actually informative (you can call or text someone right from a notification, for example), and the nifty new Google Now service, which aims to help you out by planning your commute, suggesting restaurants, sending you meeting reminders, and the like.

What sets the Nexus 7 apart from the Kindle Fire? It's not just specs (more on that in a second); it’s the tablet's integration with Google's suite of services as well as the Google Play store. Google Play has grown significantly over the past few months -- you can now rent or buy video (movies and TV episodes or full seasons), music, and magazine issues or subscriptions, with prices that match other online media places like Amazon or iTunes. And in addition to serving up content, the Nexus 7 also works seamlessly with Gmail, Gchat, and all the rest of Google's services -- the Kindle Fire doesn't have that kind of integration. (In fairness, though, Amazon's store has a broader array of music and movies, although Google is working hard to expand Play's offerings.)

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The Nexus 7's specs are pretty impressive for a $199 tablet, too. Built by hardware manufacturer ASUS, it’s got a reasonable 1280x800 HD screen, a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera, and 8GB or 16GB of onboard storage, all powered by a quad-core Tegra 3 processor. The real hardware surprise, though, is what’s pushing those pixels: Google opted to include a hearty 12-core graphics processor, with the goal of making the Nexus 7 a capable gaming device. At the demo on Wednesday afternoon, Google showed the tablet playing a graphically-intense action game called Horn, as well as a shooter called Dead Trigger -- attendees reported no hiccups.

Google also showed off a version of Google Maps that’s been specifically updated for the Nexus 7. The new Maps includes 360-degree photos of indoor venues, so you can scope out a bar or restaurant before you head out. Maps is integrated with the tablet’s compass and gyroscope, so you can rotate the device to get a full view of the inside of a building -- a slick feature. Google has also made a few other tablet-centric adjustments to Android 4.1 with the Nexus 7 in mind, including an HD YouTube app and smoother navigation through the OS.

What are your impressions of the Nexus 7? Just another also-ran, or do you think this Android tablet has potential? Share your thoughts (or just tell us how great your iPad is) in the comments below.

For more tech news, follow us on Twitter @venturenaut.

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