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The State of Android Tablet Hardware Both Big and Small

By Ryan Whitwam

Google has finally fueled an Android tablet revolution, and it's just getting started.

In the Spring of 2012, the iPad was all but unstoppable. Android tablets were essentially a quasi-category of tablet-like devices. When someone said “tablet” they meant iPad. Then the Nexus 7 was announced. It was the first truly great Android tablet, but that’s only the start. The past year has been seen many advances for Android on tablets, and 2013 may be the first year Android can start turning around the tablet market like it did the phone market.

Photo credit: Flickr user romainguy via Creative Commons.

Let’s investigate the state of Android tablets -- from the biggest oversized slates, to the almost pocketable.

Small Is Super

The first 7-inch Android tablets were not terribly successful. The original Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 had a bizarre, barely functional UI and sluggish performance due to it running a version of Android 2.2 Froyo. The issue at the time was Android’s lacking tablet support, and that continued to be the issue all the way through to mid-2012 when the Nexus 7 came out.

With the N7, Google made it clear that the old interface was going away. The Nexus 7 came with a sort of expanded phone UI that worked much better on a small tablet. Mountain View may have taken some cues from Apple, which famously simply blew up its iOS phone UI for the iPad.

The interface issues were considerably ameliorated, but the price was always a bigger concern. But Google doesn’t need to make a killing on Android tablets, which is why it was able to charge $200 for the N7. It was groundbreaking, and continues to fuel the uptake of Android tablets. The Nexus had some hardware foibles at launch, but the price was right.

Other OEMs have started scaling down their tablet offerings and trying to bring the cost more in-line with the Nexus 7, but maybe the market has overshot.

The Nexus 7 was killer when it came out, but the hardware has not aged well at all. This device has gone from the best Android tablet available to one I would not recommend buying. Its Tegra 3 chip proved to be much less impressive in the long term than everyone thought, and as a consequence, it is constantly slowing down the more it’s used. If the Nexus 7 had been a slightly more expensive device, perhaps it would have had the hardware to keep up today.

It’s the Nexus 7’s legacy that’s the important thing, though. 7-inch tablets work for Android -- we know that now. And it’s a form factor that affords users a lot of opportunities. It’s great for reading, easy to carry, and often less expensive.

As we wait for a new 7-inch Google tablet, Samsung has taken over the lead (if you can call it that) in small-ish tablets. The Galaxy Note 8.0 has been winning fans left and right with its reasonable price point, solid design, and S Pen support. Samsung is doing things with tablets no one else is. Sometimes that’s good, and sometimes not. In the small tablet space, it is a decidedly good thing.

I have no doubt, however, that whenever we do see the Nexus 7 successor, it’s going to be a vast improvement over the current one. A higher resolution screen is a given, but a switch from Tegra to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon is also rumored. I can only hope it ages better than the first version has.

Big is Beautiful

While the first Nexus tablet made a good argument for Android on small slates, the larger 10-inch devices were still questionable. Compelling Android devices in that size range were (and still are) rare. The memory of the Motorola Xoom still lingers. In the fall of 2012, however, Google gave its all and came up with the Nexus 10.

Made by Samsung, the Nexus 10 was notable for several reasons. First, it took that phone-esque UI from the Nexus 7 and stretched it out for a 10-inch screen. It also had an insanely high-resolution screen. No more of that 1280x800 nonsense -- the N10 packed 2560x1600. The price also put it in a very competitive place with other large tablets at just $399.

Like the Nexus 7, the reverberations of the larger nexus tablet have been shaping the market since it was announced. The first trend it kicked off was the drive toward ultra-high resolution screens. The Asus Transformer Pad Infinity was arguably first in this space, but it was a niche device with a few unrelated issues. The Nexus 10, however, had wide appeal.

It’s really no longer acceptable to put out a 10-inch Android tablet with even a 1080p screen. 1920x1200 is becoming common, but displays matching the N10 are popping up too.

The Google software experience is always going to win out, but that hasn't stopped OEMs from working to find an angle in the post N10 world. Samsung is betting on its S Pen as a differentiating factor in the larger tablet space as well as the smaller one. The thing is, the S Pen IS compelling. It’s a great feature you can't get on stock Android. The rest of the software experience might not be a match for pure Android, but Samsung is still moving forward.

Surprisingly, Sony is also pushing into the 10-inch tablet market. The company's first venture, the Tablet S, didn't go over well. The second might be turning things around. The Xperia Tablet Z aims to be a very comfortable tablet first and foremost. That's a more important aspect than many people expect. The Nexus 10 is a hefty device at a little over 600 grams. The Tablet Z is a bit under 500 grams. It's also 6.9mm thick, making it actually convenient to carry around and use one-handed. To top it off, it’s water-resistant.

The ASUS Transformer AiO is yet another unexpected move. This device is gigantic at 18.4-inches. It’s less a tablet than it is a PC, but it runs Android along with Windows. There’s a button to seamlessly switch between them, and the experience is surprisingly good. It’s not the kind of device you’re going to carry around, but it’s a different approach to making a large Android tablet.

Blurring The LInes and Android's Tablet Future

Sony’s 10-inch Android tablet is a winning device, but the recently announced Xperia Z Ultra is a head-scratcher. It’s a phone -- sort of. The Z Ultra has a 6.8-inch screen, so it’s basically a Nexus 7, but it has an earpiece and you’re supposed to take calls on it. HTC is also rumored to be working on a 6-inch phone-tablet for a fall release.

Android has reached the point that it scales well on a variety of devices, so OEMs are trying new things that blur the lines between phone and tablet. This might not be a thing that works, but most of us were wrong about the Galaxy Note's success. Who knows?

Google’s OS improvements are finally making Android tablets a viable device category. The software works on larger touch screens, and allows device makers to concentrate on making better devices and coming up with new differentiating features.

A new Nexus 7 is likely going to happen sooner rather than later, but Google's prototype devices can't be the only horses in this race. As Android improvements push tablets forward, the inexpensive Nexus devices will continue to push prices lower. That is great for buyers, but might harm the Android tablet ecosystem in the long run.

Innovation from Samsung, Asus, Sony and others will continue as a reaction to what Google does next. Maybe they’ll make things we’re not interested in, but maybe one of them will hit on the next big thing. However, I still expect the next generation of Nexus tablets to be the best for the money. That could change sooner than you think, though.