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Google began shipping its Nexus 7 tablet less than a year ago, but a new model reportedly will debut within weeks, most likely at the Google I/O developer conference in May. That's according to the usual -- and increasingly accurate -- cacophony of online rumors that presage most major tech product launches. So what can we expect from the second-generation Nexus 7? Will it be a minor evolutionary upgrade, or will Google unveil something amazing?
The Nexus 7 appears to be a success for Google, which doesn't release sales figures for the device. Reports from other sources suggest the 7-inch tablet is a moderate hit. Asustek Computer, which manufacturers the Nexus 7 for Google, announced in October 2012 that sales of the 7-inch slate were approaching 1 million per month. And in February, tech industry analyst Benedict Evans estimated that global sales of the Nexus 7 probably totaled somewhere around 4.8 million. That's pretty good, but nowhere near projected sales for Apple's iPad Mini.
It might be less than a year old, but the Nexus 7 is ripe for an upgrade. It's facing growing competition in the 7- to 8-inch tablet market, including such best-sellers as the iPad Mini and Amazon Kindle Fire, as well as highly anticipated new arrivals such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, an 8-inch Android slate with a stylus and two cameras.
Why all the small-slate action? Consumers, it seems, prefer tiny tablets. "Key aspects are more attractive prices and the ability to hold the device in one hand rather than two," wrote NPD DisplaySearch analyst David Hsieh in a February blog post. In fact, the iPad Mini has quickly grown more popular than the larger, 9.7-inch iPad. Apple should sell about 55 million iPad Minis in 2013 -- that's roughly 20 million more than the full-size iPad, according to NPD DisplaySearch estimates.
Fierce competition from Amazon, Apple and Samsung -- not to mention newer competitors such as Acer and HP -- will force Google to maintain the Nexus 7's aggressive pricing. But can it make significant upgrades while keeping the device's $199 entry point? A teardown analysis by IHS iSuppli in July 2012 estimated the cost of building the 16-GB Nexus 7 model at $166.75, including manufacturing and materials costs. (The original 8-MB model, which Google has since discontinued, cost $159.25 to make, according to iSuppli.)
Manufacturing costs might have dropped over the past year, but rumored Nexus 7 improvements, including a higher-resolution screen, a better front-facing camera or perhaps a new rear-facing camera, and 4G LTE connectivity could make it difficult for Google to hit that $199 target. Would a pricier Nexus 7 sell? Of course, Apple has had great success with the iPad Mini, which starts at $319. Google's customers are more price sensitive, but it's conceivable that a slightly pricier Nexus 7 might find a receptive market, particularly if the second-generation model is clearly superior to small slates from Amazon, Apple and Samsung.
Dig into our slideshow to get the latest on the expected Nexus 7 upgrade.
The first-generation Nexus 7 has a screen with a resolution of 1280 pixels by 800 pixels at 216 pixels per inch (ppi), which is comparable to other small slates. Amazon's Kindle Fire HD 7" is also 1280 by 800 pixels; Apple's iPad Mini is 1024 by 768 pixels at 163 ppi. The next logical step is for Google to bring full HD glory to the Nexus 7. That's exactly what it plans to do, according to a January report from Digitimes, a Taiwan-based publication which is not always correct on pre-launch gadget details.
We checked with NPD DisplaySearch analyst Paul Semenza, who gave us his take via email: "We are expecting the new Nexus 7 to have a 7-inch, 1920x1200 display (323 pixels per inch); we expect panel production for this to start soon, but no product announcement has been made."
A related screen rumor has the next-gen Nexus 7 sporting a larger, 7.7-inch display, also with a resolution of 1920 pixels by 1200 pixels. A larger Nexus 7 would match up nicely against the Apple iPad Mini's 7.9-inch screen and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8's 8-inch screen.
But would Google continue to sell the original Nexus 7 after launching the larger 7.7-inch model? Probably. Apple and Kindle continue to sell their older slates -- the iPad 2 and original Kindle Fire, respectively -- so it's conceivable that Google might try the same trick.
Nexus Devices Getting Android 4.2.2, Google Now WidgetRear-Facing Camera
The first-generation Nexus 7 comes in two configurations: Wi-Fi-only ($199 or $249), and Wi-Fi with 3G HSPA+ ($299). The rumored second-gen model is expected to offer 4G LTE connectivity, an option available today with the iPad Mini for an extra $130, but not with the Kindle Fire HD.
Consumers usually opt for Wi-Fi-only tablets, to avoid another monthly cellular data bill. But the addition of 4G LTE would look good on the Nexus 7 spec sheet. And don't be surprised if Google also brings 4G to its Nexus 4 smartphone (currently 3G only) and Nexus 10 tablet (Wi-Fi only) in 2013.
The Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor powers the original Nexus 7, which has received generally positive reviews for its smooth performance -- although some reviewers have griped about the 1.3-GHz Tegra 3 chip's execution when running graphics-intensive games. The Tegra 3 might get the heave-ho, with the new Nexus 7 switching to a quad-core solution from Qualcomm. The alleged reason: Nvidia's inability to deliver an LTE-enabled chipset in time for the Nexus 7 refresh, according to Digitimes' supply-chain sources. Because Qualcomm processors already power a number of Android tablets, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 and Tab 2 (10.1) LTE, and the Sony Xperia Tablet Z, this rumor sounds credible.
Like many 7-inch tablets, the Nexus 7 lacks a rear-facing camera. Its 1.2-megapixel front-facing shooter is fine for video chats and self-portraits, but a new generation of augmented reality apps demand a better window to the world. Ten-inch tablets are often too big and bulky to make decent cameras, but smaller slates are well-suited to the purpose because they're easier to hold in one hand. The Nexus 7 could use a backside camera, ideally one that matches or surpasses the iPad Mini's 5-megapixel model. Will it get one? Probably not this time around, although some reports predict it will.
Will the Nexus 7 be the first Android device to get a slice of Key Lime Pie? Scuttlebutt says both the Nexus 7 and Android 5.0 will debut at the Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco in May. The high-profile event would offer the ideal stage for a dual launch of Google's best-selling tablet and the latest upgrade of its market-crushing mobile OS.
Rumors of Key Lime Pie's features have circulated for months, and some reports predict that gesture-based commands might play a significant role in Android 5.0's user interface. If true, the front-facing camera will assume a much larger role in the core functionality of the Nexus 7 and other Android devices.