Google Nexus 7 with Google Now: Return of the PDA

There are plenty of reviews enumerating the Google Nexus 7‘s impressive specs, its obvious deficiencies and compromises, and flippant comparisons to the bigger and vastly more expensive iPad. Instead of rehashing these topics, this blog post concentrates on the experience of using the device.

I have carried a computing device of some manner or other about my person for close to two decades. In high school, it was the HP 95LX and 200LX DOS-based palmtops. In college, it was a succession of clamshell and “Palm-size PC” Windows CE devices, which eventually merged what was then called “PDA” functionality with that of a mobile phone. By this time, mobile computing and cell phones were becoming less of a niche, and this gave way to today’s widespread adoption of smartphones, tablets, and other specialty devices.

While a fair amount of software was available for these legacy devices, their utility was not really comparable to modern devices – without a wireless data connection, most would sync to a PC via a wired serial cable for calendar and contact updates – if that.  As such, one of their primary functions was to provide mobile access to so-called “personal data” as a replacement for Filofax-style paper-based planners.  Most modern smartphones provide contact and calendar management with wireless sync to cloud-based services, to the point where such functionality is taken for granted.  But the Nexus 7′s Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) OS includes Google Now, which flips the PDA paradigm on its head – instead of providing a repository of data which can be queried by the user at will – it takes the lead and feeds you information as it anticipates that you might need it.

Some of the functionality may seem unremarkable at first – Weather for example is something that is regularly provided via widgets on other devices, and appointment notifications may seem at first akin to standard reminders.  More than just regurgitating the details of your next appointment, however, Now lets you know when to leave in order to arrive on time, based on a calculated route, including traffic conditions.  This particular feature has had such a great effect on me, as compared to my prior, often over-optimistic travel estimates, that I’ve actually had people remark about my recent increased promptness!

One of my favorite “cards” is the prediction of travel time from your current location to home – it just feels like a fun bonus compared to other pieces of information with more obviously direct links to user actions – and in cases where it does discover traffic or a better route than I’d planned on taking, it’s like having a seemingly omniscient personal assistant in my employ.  And I feel it worth pointing out that at no time was I queried as to where “home” was – it just figured it out itself based on usage patterns!

While Now is probably the most remarkable software feature of the Nexus 7, I am also fairly enamored with the form factor.  I am a big fan of the Nook Color, and still prefer it over the iPad for consuming eBooks – the Nexus 7′s similar dimensions make it far more “cozy” than the iPad, as well as far more portable.  As a result, I’ve found the iPad becoming more of a “destination” device – like my laptop.  There are, without question, tasks to which the iPad is better suited, and for those I will seek it out – often having to set down the Nexus 7 which was already in my hand.  As with the PDAs of yore, the Nexus 7 provides a sufficient ratio of utility to portability to cause me to carry it with me most of the time; the same cannot be said of the iPad, which I pack only for scenarios where I anticipate its use.  The Nexus 7 then is a return to those glory days when the utility and joy I received from a device made it worth lugging around something slightly larger than many might find practical – a true modern-day PDA!

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