After leaking in August, stopped by for a quick stint at the FCC website in September, and an official announcement from NVIDIA later that month, we finally got the Tegra Note 7 in our hands for a full review. We already knew that the Nexus 7 2013 is a formidable competitor at the $200+ price point, but we’ve recently seen several OEMs innovate and carve their own space in a tablet market that may be more diversified than once thought. Lenovo recently added the Lenovo Tablet which emphasizes extreme battery/price ratio. Now NVIDIA is coming with its own Android tablet twist by giving users a very good stylus experience, and top gaming performance at $199. This is a user experience that no other tablet can match at this price.
|Nexus 7 II||G Pad 8.3||Tegra Note 7|
|Display||1920×1200 IPS||1920×1200 IPS||1280×800 IPS|
|Rear camera (MP)||5||5 (BSI sensor)||5|
|Front camera (MP)||1.2||1.3||0.3|
|MicroSD||No||Yes (64GB max)||Yes (32GB max)|
|OS||Android 4.3||Android 4.2.2|
|Processor||S4 Pro 1.5GHz||Snapdragon 600, 1.7GHz||Tegra 4, 1.8GHz|
|GPU||Adreno 320, 400MHz||Adreno 320||GeForce 72 cores|
Before we dive into more details, let me tell you how I use my tablets. Typically, I do exactly what I would do with a smartphone: mainly emails, web and social networking – but of course, the tablet format is much more comfortable. It is also fair to say that I don’t carry my tablets around, and I tend to use them either at home or when flying from one place to another. A 7” tablet will bring a radically different experience, even if you compare that with monster phones like the Galaxy Mega 6.3 or other 6” devices that have appeared recently (stay tuned for the G Flex). Now you know where I come from…
The Tegra Note 7 unit that we have is from eVGA, but just to shed some context, eVGA and other NVIDIA partners are mainly distributors, which means that NVIDIA is actually making the device and handing it to their partners who will add their logos in the back (in industry jargon, this is a “white label” product). In the future, there may be a chance that partners would ask for customization etc, but today this is not yet the case.
The Tegra Note 7 design is quite straightforward although not really minimalist: the front is mostly glass and also features two loudspeakers (+bass output), which is the best possible spot to place them on the device because no energy is wasted in having the sound bounce back from a hard surface that may – or may not – be behind the tablet. If you pay attention, you will also see a webcam just above the screen in portrait mode.
The back of the tablet is textured with the classic NVIDIA dot pattern, which is similar (but not identical) to what you can find in NVIDIA’s corporate identity. The partner logo (eVGA) is visible in the back, so is the NVIDIA Tegra logo, along with some mandatory compliance-related logos (FCC, FC…). The main camera is placed in the upper left corner of the device when looking at the back in portrait mode. The top is quite busy and features the Power Control, a 3.5mm audio connector, a display connector and the micro-USB connector for sync/charge.
Display (good, somewhat reflective)
With a 1280×800 resolution, the NVIDIA Tegra Note 7 is not aiming at screen resolution supremacy, and I suspect that the main motivation behind it (other than the price) is that this will allow higher frame rates in games. High-resolution displays can be great for reading text and looking at photos, but it is clear that handling several million pixels can be taxing for games, while not bringing a proportionally better visual experience. So far, 720p (or close enough) seems to be the best trade-off between pixel density and high framerates.
Resolution aside, the display is pretty decent, but it is not better than the main competitor: the Nexus 7. The good thing about it is that it climbs to 465LUX at maximum brightness, and that can help on a sunny day. The downside is that the black levels aren’t top-notch and the screen surface is fairly reflective – you can actually see it with the naked eye: the Tegra Note 7 display isn’t simple as “black” as the N7′s, even when it is completely off.
The shininess of the Tegra Note 7 display is more visible in a bright environment, but in dim lighting, the display is nearly as good as the Nexus 7’s. If you tend to use your tablet at home in the evening, the difference is virtually nil. This display works well enough indoors, and in most situations. In terms of tablet image quality, the G Pad 8.3 is a great one to look at, but I would point out that it costs 2X the price… You can’t have it all.
Stylus (very good)
"THE STYLUS IS REALLY GOOD!" The stylus is one of the most important highlight of the Tegra Note 7: it’s really good! Typically, it has been difficult to have a natural stylus experience on tablets. For example, people expect the stylus to respond like a normal pen/paper would: if you press harder, the line should either get darker or thicker.
Most of the tablet market does not address this, and those who do, like Samsung, turned to pressure-sensitive sensors which can detect “how hard” the stylus is pressed against the screen and react accordingly. This has been a good way to make things work, and since the Galaxy Note 3, both the pen experience and the ink responsiveness have been good. The only downside of that approach is the price: those sensors are expensive, and so are the pens required to use them.
And that’s why NVIDIA has created their DirectStylus technology. With it, NVIDIA can use the regular capacitive display hardware (the same that powers the finger touch) and rely on computing power to figure out what the user is doing. To simulate pressure variations, NVIDIA uses a soft (gummy) pen tip which changes shape as you press harder. The NVIDIA driver can then “see” how hard you are pressing and react to it. The same analysis allows the driver to discard palm contact with the screen, which causes most capacitive pens to not work because it confuses the touch driver. Try this with most tablets using a “dumb” pen and you’ll be disappointed.
I don’t think that NVIDIA aims at displacing pressure pens, but with this, they can introduce the same type of functionality at a much lower price point. I have to say that this is quite successful. DirectStylus setup brings you 85% of the way to “pen happiness” but costs much less, so I’d say that this is a win. The virtual ink is also very fast. In the note application, it is even faster than my Surface Pro (!). On the drawing application, it’s about as fast as the Note 3 on a perceptive level. If you can afford it, the type of hardware used in Samsung’s pen devices will be better in absolute terms. However, NVIDIA has a serious value proposition here.
Camera (good, smart)
As you may recall, NVIDIA has shown a great deal of cool photo and video demos ever since it launched Tegra 4 nearly one year ago. If you’re not familiar with it, there are a few things really worth knowing about:
Always-On HDR (AOHDR)
Unfortunately, this feature is presently not in the firmware, but it is coming sometime next month during an over-the-air (OTA) firmware update. I was able to play with AOHDR on a Tegra Note 7 prototype, and I have seen AOHDR on a higher-end camera modules at CES 2013 and MWC 2013 as well, so I have some experience with it.
This is something that’s really cool, although AOHDR isn’t really a self-explanatory name, so let’s start with a quick overview of HDR photography: in some situations, the scene has radically different brightness intensity (as measured in LUX) and it’s challenging for a camera. For instance, if you are looking at the black screen of your phone, it emits about 1LUX, while the sun emits 10000 to 15000 LUX and my PC screen emits 268 LUX.
The issue is that our screens have a limited range to represent colors. For instance most consumer-level image files will encode images with only 256 levels of brightness for each of the primary colors (R,G,B). If you have a luminosity range of 0 to 15000, there is simply not enough precision to encode the original data.
Traditionally, HDR is a technique that consists of capturing several photos with different exposure settings (see photo above, courtesy of Joshua Johnson). By doing that, each photo can capture a different range of luminosity, and the combined data can be analyzed and recombined to build the final photo which is visually pleasing. The main issue when doing this is that: 1/ it takes longer to get the final photo since you need to wait for multiple shots and processing. 2/ if a subject is moving during the multiple shots, you may end up with blurring of ghosting.
NVIDIA uses a different type of HDR. Instead of taking several photos with different exposures, they use a single shot directly from the sensor data (like of a RAW image) that may be using 1024 (10bit), 4096 (12bit) or 16384 (14bit) levels of brightness per primary colors (NVIDIA doesn’t mention the actual precision on this device).
This allows them to have higher dynamic range, without the typical downsides that the multi-shot approach has. Keep in mind that using multiple photos could end up gathering even more precision, but when compared to existing mobile cameras, there is nearly no downside in having this feature (except if you really insist on having super-contrasted images). It’s about as fast as a single shot, does not have ghosting and brings some HDR goodness to every pictures.
Constant AF Tracking
With this feature, the camera is able to track a subject continuously, even if the subject goes out of the camera’s field of view and comes back. The typical example that most people are excited about is when it’s time to take photos of kids, sports or pets. This is a feature that will eventually come to other tablets and smartphones as well, but until now, I had only seen this level of tracking on prototype devices.
For all the cool algorithms and computational photography, this may not be the best device to demonstrate this with. Although very powerful, Tegra 4’s Chimera Computational Photography Architecture (to learn more, read this whitepaper - PDF) can’t really negate the fact that this is an entry-level device, with an average lens and sensor.
In terms of photo quality, I have been pleasantly surprised as well. In bright lighting (1400 LUX), the Tegra Note 7 is comparable with the Nexus 7. In low-light (20LUX), Tegra Note 7 takes the lead and captures images that have better color-balances and less noise. Note that neither can compete with high-end smartphones or something, but it’s great to see that $200-range tablets can now snap very decent photos.
It’s no surprise that the gaming capabilities of this tablet are excellent. The latest games like Riptide GP 2 or Real Racing 3 run fast and smooth. As I’ve said before, selecting the 1280×800 display is a great choice for gaming because that helps keep the framerates high since there are “only” 1M pixels on the screen to manage, instead of 2M on a 1080p display. Games and movies are much less sensitive to resolution than photos and text, so gamers win here.
The ability to connect the Tegra Note 7 to a game controller and to a TV screen make it even better as a gaming device. Just like other high-end devices, it brings the best that Android gaming has to offer, but does it at an unbelievable price. Again, if NVIDIA wants to see Tegra everywhere they *have to* build a $100 Android TV box… Just saying.
"THE STRENGTH OF TEGRA IS NVIDIA'S RELATIONSHIP WITH DEVELOPERS" Performance is not everything: when it comes down to gaming, the real strength of NVIDIA is its close relationship with game developers. It’s something that they have done for a long time, and believe me, I know a thing or two about it – it works. This translates into a number of exclusive games or game features that aren’t found on other platform, regardless of who’s the fastest. Benchmark scores come and go, but that relationship is what would make Tegra a special platform. In fact, Gaming is essential to NVIDIA’s plans for Tegra. To check Tegra-optimized games it’s best to download the TegraZone app or go to the official website.
System Performance (excellent)
In terms of system performance, the Tegra Note 7 scores very high and impresses, whether it is in CPU speed or graphics speed. This is the first time that a $199 tablet scores so high in benchmark, outpacing devices that are more than twice the price at times. Of course, performance doesn’t simply scale with pricing, and other elements like screen size, materials etc… are to be taken into consideration, but you have to admit that it’s a lot of “bang for the buck”. Check the numbers:
In terms of graphics performance, it does really well too, and remember that the tests are done “offscreen” in 1080p to have an apples-to-apples comparison with other devices. In reality, the Tegra Note 7 only needs to render in 720p and that increases the framerate drastically.
Battery Life (excellent)
When it comes to affordable tablets, I’m always a bit wary of the battery life since this is something that is easy to cut on. Fortunately that’s definitely not the case here.
In our video playback tests, the Tegra Note 7 was able to play a 60mn 1080p video from the local storage (bitrate…) and use only 9% of the battery’s life. This would mean that it could exceed the 10 hours of HD video playback mentioned in the official specifications. When streaming movies over WiFi from Google Play, we’re getting almost 7.5 hours of battery life. This is something that easily rivals or surpass much more expensive tablets.
Conclusion (Impressive value for the price)
The tech world is full of surprise. A few months ago, most pundits would have said that the Nexus 7 has basically killed all competition in the 7” tablet space, thanks to its tiny (or non-existent) profit margin at $229. Since then, we have seen Lenovo carve a niche in the ultra-long battery life Android tablets, and now we’re seeing NVIDIA creating an ultra-affordable, high-performance, gaming-capable Android tablet which is even more affordable. This kind of ‘performance for the price’ is crazy (good).
"THE PERFORMANCE/PRICE RATIO IS INSANELY GOOD" In addition of providing a great gaming experience, the Tegra Note 7 also earns its name by bringing a very good pen experience to the sub-$200 market segment. Prior to this, the only game in town was Samsung, and that was not one that everyone could afford. Now, there’s really a pen option for everyone. If the design and build quality of this device was on par with the Nexus 7, it would have been a “killer product”, but I feel like the N7 still has an edge there.
The Tegra Note 7 design makes smart choices: to reach $199, the screen is not as fancy as the best out there, and the tablet is a little heavier than it looks. But if you care about Android gaming, or if you just want a very fast multimedia tablet, it’s a great option which comes with a “stock Android” experience, which means that updates should come fast.
Update: it looks like newegg has a pre-order page.