Journerdism

Will Sullivan's guide to mobile, tablet & emerging tech ideas

Google Nexus 7 as an international traveling companion postmortem

Well, I’m back and the dust has settled from my 6 weeks backpacking across Asia, and as promised here’s my post-trip evaluation of traveling solo with the Google Nexus 7 mini tablet (the original version). As you may recall, I said I selected the Nexus 7 over the iPad Mini for a handful of reasons, here’s how big a factor each proved to be in ‘real world’ usage:

Price
I’m not going to lie, I definitely felt smug and more comfortable knowing I spent half the price of what a iPad Mini with the same memory would have cost.

Offline Downloading of Languages for Google Translate
I actually didn’t use this as much as I had thought I would, but when I did , it helped a lot. At least making the effort or being able to show the translation in text to someone helped immensely in alands with completely unfamiliar text (non-latin). Sometimes it also helped get people interested in talking to me and helping me because they were fascinated by the technology.

Offline Downloading of Google Maps
This saved me many times on both the tablet and my phone and in retrospect could have been the most important and valuable resource. Especially when paired with GPS/Wifi triangulation (which worked in some cities), it saved me a few times from being completely lost and getting even more so. My reliance on this was also exacerbated by my need to travel as light as possible, so I didn’t bring a ton of paper guidebooks and maps. In fact, I hacked up the paper guidebooks I bought and taped them together so I was only carrying the country/cities that I’d be visiting in compact packages for each country.

Social, Sharing and Productivity
This was fantastic. Especially in areas where accessing wifi was slow or painfully unstable. Anything that added to efficiency and kept me enjoying the trip more and not fighting with technology was huge. …And Vine even launched on Android while I was out there, so that wasn’t that big of a deal. :D

General price of apps
This wasn’t a huge factor out on the road, but it was great before the trip to load up everything for almost no cost to help save on souvenirs and sushi.

Google Apps are generally better on Android than IOS
Totally true. Google’s apps became my crutch. I even stopped using Evernote and started posting drafts in Gmail and Google Docs for notes because they seemed to sync better offline.

Google Music is actually pretty excellent and getting better
This was very good and kept me sane in troubled times; Google Music + a $7 pair of Monoprice noise cancelling headphones saved me from crying babies, loud streets, long flights, tuk-tuk cat callers and prostitutes and allowed me to relax many, many times. The syncing and removal of items for offline could be improved, and the navigation was a little wonky but overall I was pretty happy with the experience.

Micro USB plug
Great benefit. I actually brought three USB cables and chargers and sent one home mid-way through the trip in a box of souvenirs since I didn’t really need it because all my devices were on the same standard. It may seem like a small thing, but when you’re carrying your entire life on your back, the fewer unnecessary things you can bring (and potentially lose), the better.

Google Now
I actually didn’t use this as much as I had thought I would, but when I did it was incredibly helpful and I kept saying to myself “Sheesh, I should use this more.” It was interesting to see how it customized to each city too. I needed to make it my home screen or something through to force the habit because there’s huge value here, especially with things like Google Glass evolving around it.

Google Voice to Text
This was excellent and a godsend. Typing *only* on tiny a glass screens for 6 weeks is not as glamorous as it sounds. As much as I love mobile and tablet technology, when I returned home I couldn’t wait to get a keyboard and mouse to be much more productive and get things done. In the final weeks, I had a bunch of detail oriented tasks (like filling out forms) I was procrastinating on doing for when I got home; it was just too arduous on mobile technology. Voice to Text gave me a break from tapping and allowed me to dictate (with pretty good accuracy) longer messages. I don’t know how much more the keyboard experience can improve on mobile devices but I do know that online form design using responsive principles has a long, long, long way to go for many sites.

More Keyboards Supported
I switched around Android keyboards a couple times but ended up sticking with Swype and Google’s Voice to Text keyboard. So while I didn’t need to use 213432 different keyboards, the ability to use Swype and not be locked into only the OS keyboard (as you are with Apple) was a big benefit for me. Especially since Swype does an excellent job of allowing you to add, as well as passively learn your regularly used phrases, names of people and places and suggests it accordingly.

Security
This extra level of security was fantastic and one time when I thought I’d lost my tablet, the fact that it was turned off and encrypted was a little solace knowing everything was safe. (The low cost of the tablet also lessened the blow/concern that I’d lost the tablet, but I soon found it and it was all good).

Inconspicuous
I didn’t have any incidents or issues, or notice anyone scoping me out really for being on the tablet. Apple products are definitely seen as luxury items and might have drawn more attention, but I don’t think this was a huge factor. If you’re generally street smart and keep your head on a swivel you usually will ward off most of this kind of trouble.

Display
I read a lot of ebooks on this trip; I brought more than a dozen with me and bought about 20 more on Amazon’s Kindle store. The detail and easy readability from the high res screen was fantastic. Outside of that though, I didn’t really need the higher resolution screen, as bandwidth was generally choked on wifi, so I couldn’t watch HD movies or anything like that).

 

As I said before, it wasn’t all peaches and cream — some of big drawbacks/concerns I had were very apt, and may have outweighed several of the benefits I listed above:

No rear camera, not the greatest front facing camera

This still isn’t a dealbreaker for me, but it was more disappointing than I’d thought it’d be. If I had a magic wand, I would have added a better quality front camera and a rear camera to the Nexus 7 and maybe left my mobile phone at home. With more storage, memory and screen size than my phone, the tablet beat the phone in almost every aspect except for cameras. And when I’m cutting up guidebooks to try and save on space in my backpack, carrying and keeping track of two electronic and fragile devices is double the work.

Outlook Exchange server for accessing work email
Kind of a big deal. I was tipped by my colleague Mark Young to check out Touchdown, a third party Outlook Exchange app, that provided a workable solution for this, and while it did most of that I needed, there were some syncing issues that I couldn’t ever figure out and the reload/refresh time for new messages was significant, so I definitely think the IOS Mail client for managing Outlook Exchange Email is better. This is really an issue with my employer’s IT department failing to support Android devices though, as I believe Android’s Mail client has vastly improved since 2.2, especially for security and remote wiping concerns of IT departments.

A metal body is better than plastic, I think?
Not a big deal at all. The Nexus 7 really took all the abuse I gave it — from spilling beer directly on it, a handful of drops, jostling around in my backpack for days of climbing the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, The Great Wall, Harajuku District of Tokyo and all over, to riding in my corny convertible cargo pant pockets that every over-prepared backpacking nerd wears — and survived like a champ without a problem and very minimal scuffs. I am glad I bought a cheap Nexus 7 screen protector because that got some abuse but saved the glass (I didn’t have any case to protect it — probably not the best idea in retrospect). Having used the lightweight Nexus 7 for so long now makes the full-sized, metal iPad feel like a slate slab, and even the iPad Mini feels significantly stouter, even though it is thinner in form — especially for reading long passages in books/websites. I’m think the Nexus 7 is better in the ‘size feel’ (even though they’re both very similar on size and weight).
Also, this isn’t a drawback, but it should be noted, I hesitated making the decision on this until the last minute before the trip because of rumored new product releases from both companies coming in May/June, but neither dropped any new products. Google just released their updated Nexus 7, which looks awesome, and fixes the lack-of-rear/decent quality-camera issue. It just proves/reminds me that you can’t live your life waiting on everyone else, believing the amazingly inaccurate tech press and gotta pull the trigger on what you know.

So overall, I’m happy with my choice and looking forward to enjoying the rest of the life of my Nexus 7, the little tablet that could. It will enjoy retirement as my pocketable ebook reader/music/web surfer for the backyard adirondack chair sitting and bedside reading, as well as a companion on longer metro or bus rides. I hope this helps those of you debating the decision.

Happy travels!

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the article, Will! I found this by Googling “travel internationally with nexus 7″ (kinda obsure, right?) as I was trying to decide how badly I wanted the new Nexus, keeping in mind my goal of taking a trip through Europe soon, and you covered all the questions I had by a mile! Great work!

  2. Very informative, thanks. I was under the impression that Kindle was not compatible with Android products. Am I wrong? I hope so, as this is really the only thing holding me back from purchasing a Nexus 7!

    • Hey Anna, yep, Kindle is available as an app for Android devices so you can install and access your Amazon book library on just about any Android device. It’s very handy. :)