Monday 10 September 2012

Nexus 7 - A Tablet for the Outdoors?

When tablets first came to my notice with the much-hyped launch of the iPad I didn’t take much notice as they didn’t seem to offer anything that made them preferable to the netbook I already owned for general travel while they were too big and heavy for carrying in a pack. Smaller tablets appeared but the few I gave a cursory glance to didn’t seem to offer much. (By the way, I still find using ‘tablet’ this way feels wrong – in my head tablets are bloody great Biblical stones or tiny medicinal pellets – put tablet in a search engine though and the results are all for the computer version).

Then Google launched the Nexus 7, which garnered rave reviews and looked far superior to other small tablets. As it sounded like it had possibilities, in a fit of acquisitiveness I bought one. At first, playing with it at home it seemed just that - a toy. Fun to use but not offering anything that my other collection of electronic devices didn’t already provide. I couldn’t work out just where it fitted and certainly had no thoughts of taking it out in the hills.

Soon though I began to see its potential. The Nexus 7 has a GPS receiver and I noticed that it picked up signals quickly even indoors. Maybe with proper topographic maps it could be useful outdoors? I discovered that the excellent ViewRanger software with Ordnance Survey maps, which has all the capabilities of a standalone GPS and which I already used on my smartphone, was available for the Nexus 7. I loaded it and was immediately delighted by the clarity and the extra area shown by the larger screen compared with the phone – 15 x 9.4cms as opposed to 8 x 5cms.

It was time to take the Nexus 7 for a walk. Some form of protection was needed though. I already had an Aquapac Whanganui waterproof case for my Kindle e-reader and found that this fitted and that I could operate the Nexus 7 and see the screen clearly through it. Turning off the wi-fi, which I had learnt could quickly drain the battery, I put the Nexus 7 in the top of my pack, set ViewRanger to record my route and set off on a six hour walk. Would the battery last was the big question. It did. In fact there was 72% charge left. I was astonished. My smartphone battery just lasts 6-7 hours when recording a route. The Nexus 7 looked like it would last around three times as long. This needed checking so I took it for another walk, this time 61/4 hours long. Charge left: 67%. Now normally I don’t leave my GPS on all day. I just switch it on when I want to check my position, using a paper map the rest of the time. Used like this the Nexus 7 battery could last weeks.

Isn’t it heavy for a GPS though? Not as much as you’d think. It weighs 340 grams. The Satmap Active 10, the best standalone GPS I’ve used, weighs 231 grams but has a screen smaller than the one on my smartphone. The Nexus 7 is much more than a GPS of course and all its other functions can be used anywhere there’s wi-fi (on multi-day journeys the charging cable could be sent ahead or even carried – with travel plug it weighs 84 grams). Compared with the smartphone I’ve found typing on the Nexus 7 easy and web pages look so much better at the larger size. It can be a music player too and an e-reader. Download books and music and the wi-fi can be switched off for these too. The screen isn’t matt like the Kindle though and so is hard to see in bright sunlight.

Compared to my smartphone, netbook and PC the Nexus 7 is very fast. I’m impressed with the Android software, even if it does have the silly name of Jelly Bean, and the Nexus 7 is now my first choice for browsing the web and social networking. Would I take it on a long walk? Probably not. The Kindle is a better e-reader, my smartphone an adequate GPS and their combined weight is 313 grams. But I’ll certainly carry it on day hikes and weekend trips.


  1. My iPad battery seems to last forever, whereas my iPhone charge depletes rapidly when using ViewRanger. Maybe the iPad in a waterproof bag is the way to go ? Was looking at the Satmap in Cotswold Camping today, but at £450 for such a tiny device, I also would love to see how the larger ipad copes. Would my VR for iPhone transfer to an iPad do you think ?

    1. Glyn - you can run your ViewRanger OS maps on up to three mobile devices (and see them online). So you can run them on both your iPhone and iPad at the same time.

  2. With the Nexus 7 I attached it to a USB port on the PC and copied the VR folder. I don't know if this will work with the iPad. The VR help is very useful!

    1. Hi chris I have just got a nexus 7 for my birthday have installed view ranger on it, how can I view & track routes/maps on it without a data connection, can you advise?

    2. Hi Sean if you've downloaded ViewRanger and the maps then all you need is a GPS signal to view and track routes and maps. No data connection required. Indeed, if you turn the wifi off the battery lasts longer.

  3. Nice review Chris. I'm finding that I take iphone and kindle. I don't use electronic mapping but I do like to track my walks and can upload gpx files into Anquet later. There are times where I'll take the Foretrex as well, especially during wet weather when I keep my iPhone dry.

  4. I use my iPad in a waterproof case when out and about. The large screen is great to use and battery drain is not to bad even with the GPS running. It's weight is about twice the Nexus but the presence of a 3G sim card does mean I can use it for many things in addition to navigating. I now use the iPad to plan routes and trips, with Viewranger on board and attached to an external monitor it's fantastic.

  5. I have a nexus, usually I am never first in the rush for new technology, but I was one of the first to get one of these.
    Unfortunately for me though, my first one had to be returned with QC screen issues.
    I think its a great tablet, a very manageable size, speedy proccesing, and very good value for money!.
    Like you thou, for multi day, I will stick with my kindle, and Sony Ericsson neo with vr. It works very well as a backup, and
    Both can be recharged with my new Trent storage battery.
    This will recharge my phone battery from flat about 3 times.
    Enough for a full week outdoors for my phone

  6. I have been using the iphone for long walks in Switzerland, using the Viewranger software. But to preserve battery life I turn off the phone section, so its not wasting power trying to find a phone signal in the middle of nowhere. Battery life has been OK that way, normally it drops to about 60% at the end of a days walking.

    Talking to Viewranger, they have a new release coming which won't drain batteries as much anyway.

    But Viewranger is superb, has a good feature called buddy beacon too which lets others keep an eye on where you are. Our Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team use it to coordinate searches.

    Mel Gould

  7. We reckon around 15-16% of our users run ViewRanger on a tablet.

    But since the Nexus 7 came out, we have seen many many more users actually taking their tablets out on the hillside. The bigger screen, but still portable size (and lets be honest £160 price point for the Nexus7) makes it worthwhile adding into to your backpack.

    It will be interesting to see if Apple talk about a mini-iPad this week, and if/when that appears whether we see more Apple tablets on the hillside too.

    As Mel says, we are running some tests with new battery saving code on the Apple platform at the moment - looks good for inclusion in the next Apple release. And we're working on some UI changes on the Android version - including more awareness of the larger tablet displays.

    Craig (co-founder, ViewRanger)

    PS. Thanks for the comments on ViewRanger. Do let us have your feedback. Our team in Cambridge are always working to improve and extend the ViewRanger app and web app.

  8. I bought a Nexus 7 on launch day and I love it. The built in GPS was the tipping point, the cheapest iPad with GPS is the 3G model which is about £500 and is too big to take outdoors. My plan was to take it when travelling to Scotland, where I sometimes do several multi-day walks split up with a day back at the car.

    Although the weight & battery life certainly lends itself to the possibility of carrying it on the walk. I wished I had taken it with me on a recent Slovenia trip.

    I have rooted mine and I can now connect my camera to the Nexus 7 and upload those pics rather than using phone pictures. The biggest minus point of the Nexus 7 is the storage but with a USB drive or SD card reader (my choice) masses of maps, photos or anything else can be carried with you and loaded when necessary.

    It's certainly nicer looking at maps on a tablet screen compared to the phone. One last point I use an Android phone which also uses Jelly Bean, touch them together and you can transfer files to your phone for upload or create a hotspot and you can use your phones connection to upload or browse the internet.

  9. I used the Galaxy Tab 7 for just over a year, including over 1000 miles of walking. having the larger screen made a huge difference over my previous mapping smartphones, and size /weight wasn't really an issue. It fit in any and all of my Craghopper pockets, and was barely noticable when in the large knee pocket.

    Like the Nexus 7 and almost bought one. However, the advantages of other 7" tablets over the Nexus 7 would be a) expandable memory, b) 3g. Both of which i would need to have. 3g for uploading pics and sending Buddy Beacons. I have a MiFi, but prefer my devices to be able to 'stand alone' and not be dependant on other devices.

    I have since sold the Tab7, and now have a Galaxy Note. Also worth a look if a 7" screen is just too big. At 5" still a large enough screen to get a good map overview, and the 2500mah battery lasts a long, long time.

    The article above reminds me that i need to try running the Note with 3g off and compare the battery loss against 3g being on.


  10. Linux systems have always used 'silly names' it's part of the tradition.

  11. Great review on the product. I love gadgets that come in compact sizes but pack a wallop of performance. So I think the Nexus 7 is worth checking out. Thanks for posting your review.

  12. Very interesting reply from Steven above about hooking up an to the nexus. Have you done this Chris? Easy?

    Re viewranger I have it on phone. Do you need to buy it again for nexus? And ditto for maps?

    It is bad for the moths reading these things lol! I have not decided if to get one. Well on fence but it sounds good.


  13. PS do you just use 1.50k maps or the 1.25k maps?


  14. Tony, my phone doesn't run Jelly Bean so I can't hook it up to the Nexus. I can see the advantage for phone photos.

    You'll have to ask ViewRanger about the maps.

    I use the 50k maps. Off course you can enlarge them on the screen.

  15. Interesting.point on jelly bean. No idea what my phone on, gingerbread maybe. But surely is WiFi hotspot the nexus would pick it up... No? I thought idea.of hot spot was any WiFi compatible equipment could pick it up, even a laptop...
    Maybe it won't work for me after all then :-(

    I'll ask VR. I saw Colin enlarge his map. Cheers for info.

  16. Have a look at the sustrans cycle network app and be amazed at the map included with that. Viewranger is great also I use that on my HTC One X am looking forward to the new version with battery saver added.
    Hope all going ok with you Chris and to catch up soon before Innovex?

  17. Typing on it now! And it works perfectly tethered to my phone too, no WiFi, no worry, extra bonus. Cheers for info...

  18. I was going to buy a Kindle Fire but cancelled my order and have just acquired one of the new Nexus 7 models which has WiFi and 3G capability. Now to get to grips with the mapping ! (I use Memory Map at home, but must explore all options).

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  21. Great post. I haven't really taken my 2012 Nexus 7 tablet out bush on any boot-borne expeditions. I use a Samsung Galaxy S4 mobile phone, which fulfils the backup comms/GPS role and excels because of its large screen and changeable battery.

    My Nexus 7 has a very powerful GPS chip indeed. I'm in Australia and have the Nexus 7 (and the S4 phone) loaded with a free app called Androzic which allows me to use some of the earlier OziExplorer maps. I currently run 1:25k topo maps in both devices which are identical to the hardcopy maps. Very powerful stuff, but I prefer hands-on old school navigation.

    I had a lot of trouble finding a decent case for the Nexus 7 which would protect it from splashes/drizzle and from drops. I eventually picked up a Gumdrop case and although it adds fully 100g to the weight of the device, it looks, feels and is heavily protected. Still wouldn't trust it in a rain shower though.

    As for using the Nexus 7 in conjunction with a phone... during several four wheeling trips I've wifi tethered it to both my old iPhone 5 and my current Galaxy S4 in order to use Skype and access Google Earth imagery. It works fine as long as you can get a decent 3G or 4G signal. I don't know about transferring photos from the phone to the tablet though... if a mobile signal was available, I'd probably wifi tether the device to my phone and use dropbox if I was going to try some Android Photoshop crunching in the middle of nowhere. If there was no signal I'd wait until I returned home.