You’ve probably read that the Google Nexus 7 is the first credible challenger to Apple’s iPad and that it is markedly superior to other 7-inch Android tablets currently in the market. That’s not what I’ve found. Instead, the Nexus 7 is a solid, capable media tablet and a nice, Google-oriented alternative to the Amazon Kindle Fire if you’re looking for such a thing.

To me, reviewer reaction to the Nexus 7 was reminiscent of reviewer reaction to Windows Phone 7.5: Rather than admit that they were wrong about the products’ respective predecessors (Windows Phone 7, of course, and the Kindle Fire and other 7-inch Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus), they just pretend that, finally, magically, this time someone got it right. But that’s not the case at all. There’s nothing wrong with the Nexus 7, nothing at all, assuming you’re OK with this sort of device. But it’s also not demonstrably better than the Kindle Fire or Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus that I’ve used quite a bit over the past year.

Sorry.

It’s newer, of course, and runs a newer Android software version. It has a sharp and slightly higher resolution screen than its predecessors. It gets slightly better battery life. Positives, to be sure. None of them earth shattering.

home-screen
Nexus 7 home screen, with a mix of Google and Amazon services

On the downside, it’s not much lighter than the other devices. And while its user interface is frankly an awful lot like that of the Galaxy Tab, its usage model—heavy ties to the device maker’s online content services—is an awful lot like that of the Kindle Fire. It is, in other words, a purely evolutionary advance over predecessor devices and exactly what one should expect from a device that’s about a year newer.

It’s really no more complicated than that. Why is everyone acting like this is an Android renaissance?

The big deal with the Nexus 7, of course, isn’t the hardware. It’s the ecosystem support. Google designed the Nexus 7 purely as the hardware endpoint for its Play services, just as Amazon designed the Kindle Fire around its Kindle, Amazon MP3, Amazon Prime Video, and other services. And just as Apple designed the iPad around iTunes. With all of these devices, the expectation is that the hundreds of dollars you spend on the hardware (many, many hundreds of dollars in the iPad’s case, not including the inevitable hundreds of dollars for the apparently necessary on cases, stands, docks, and keyboards) is only the beginning: These devices are really just a vehicle for continually separating you from your hard-earning cash on an ongoing basis. (Or, as Apple, Amazon, and Google would rather I describe it, “on entertainment.”)

So when comparing these devices, there are really only two choices to consider.

play_store
Google Play Store

The first is the size of the device. When Apple released its first iPad, one of my initial concerns was that the device was a bit too big for a consumption device and that a smaller, 7-inch screen would be more ideal. Others disagree, of course, and looking at the pre-Windows RT world of 10 inch tablets today, there is basically the iPad and then nothing else.

But if you prefer to use a smaller, lighter device and have purely entertainment-based goals (reading, movie and TV watching, music, and the like), then a 7-inch tablet is ideal. And at this point your choice comes basically down to the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7, because these are the only two currently on the market that are both excellent and offer lowball, $200 pricing.

The second and perhaps more important consideration is that ecosystem. Google, again, it pushing its Google Play ecosystem. And Amazon is pushing what we’ll call the Kindle ecosystem for simplicity’s sake.

I wrote about the Google ecosystem evolution recently in Compete Report: Google Play. Long story short, they’re catching up from a content type standpoint—Google Play offers an excellent apps selection plus music, TV shows, movies, books, and magazines. But it lags behind in some key areas, I think. First, there are no newspapers to speak of in Google Play, just magazines. The content selection—in TV shows, movies, and magazines, in particular—is woefully small compared to Amazon (or Apple for that matter). And while Google does offer books, come on. Kindle is it for eBooks. (Of course, you could always install the Kindle app on the Nexus 7, or the Amazon AppStore for that matter. I certainly have.)

all-apps
All Apps screen

As a newer device with a faster processor, the Nexus 7 performs faster than the leisurely Kindle Fire. (In the Fire’s defense, it’s really just an eBook reader that also does other things. I don’t find the Fire’s performance to be an issue, ever.) Its screen is a bit better looking, though to be fair, I don’t really notice much of a difference when actually reading eBooks, watching movies, or whatever. But it’s not exactly night and day. I’m surprised so many reviewers seemed to be blown away by the Nexus 7 comparatively. It’s almost like they used the Kindle Fire for one week, never looked back, and forgot how it actually worked.

The nicest thing about the Nexus 7, perhaps, is that you can mix and match some Amazon services in there in addition to the Google stuff. You can’t add Amazon’s video services, but songs (Amazon MP3), eBooks (Kindle, but not including periodicals), and apps are all available if you want them. But that still leaves you stuck with Google’s lackluster video selection. But there’s always Netflix (when you’re online).

Overall, the Nexus 7 is a credible 7-inch media tablet that is on par with the Amazon Kindle Fire and other Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus. It offers some minor advantages related to screen resolution and battery life (hey, it’s newer) and some more important advantages related to performance, all of which will soon be wiped out by 2012-era tablets from Amazon, Samsung and others. Since Apple doesn’t (yet?) offer a 7-inch tablet, it’s pointless to compare this device to an iPad; you either want a 10-inch device or you don’t. You’re either all too willing to spend a lot of money on a tablet or you’re not.

(I am curious to see whether an assumed Nexus 10 actually competes effectively with the iPad. We’ll see.)

magazines
Google Play Magazines: Nice, but slow, and a lot like Kindle periodicals

Thinking about buying the Nexus 7? Here’s my advice: Buy into an ecosystem—Play, iTunes, or Kindle—not a particular device, since the devices are getting cheaper and cheaper and will be updated continuously. Or buy into two—Play/Kindle, for example, or iTunes/Kindle—and reap the benefits of the best of each. I prefer that latter approach, and believe that Amazon’s Kindle eBooks, in particularly, are a far better choice than the similar services from Google or Apple.

If you decide to go the Android route (or iOS), and the 7-inch route (over 10-inch devices), the Nexus 7 is a great choice, letting you mix and match ecosystems for apps (Google Play/Amazon Appstore), TV shows and movies (Google Play/Netflix/others), music (Google Play/Amazon MP3), and books (Google Play/Amazon Kindle). In that sense, it’s a best of both worlds device, and one that costs just $200, or $250 for a 16 GB version. That’s tough deal to ignore.

Again, assuming you need or want this kind of device.