By Michael Fisher | June 21, 2012 4:24 PM
It’s that time of the
year quarter again. The sleeping-giant tablet market, having settled into relative peace following the release of the new iPad, was jostled recently by the gradual introduction of the unique ASUS Padfone into a few new markets. It settled back down pretty quickly, but was then slapped square in the face earlier this week by the reinvigorated Microsoft and its Surface tablet series. Now, before the dust has even begun to settle, Google is poised to shake up the space all over again with a rumored announcement of its Nexus tablet at I/O next week.
I’m excited that the tablet market is in the midst of a full-on shakeup again; some of the stuff we’re seeing from Apple and Microsoft in iOS 6 and Surface is really compelling. It’s even more impressive when you consider that these companies are bringing the heat from opposite ends of the spectrum: one a veteran and originator of the tablet consumer space, the other a newbie desperately trying to shed its stodgy desktop-focused image.
Then of course there’s Google, who showed up to the fight with a lot of momentum from Android and backed by a bunch of OEMs with the audacity to flood the market with tablet choices of every shape and size. But while this shotgun-blast approach worked brilliantly in the smartphone space, it hasn’t really paid off in tablets; the consumer market just doesn’t love Android “in that way.” Now, after months of speculation, it seems all but certain that we’ll be seeing a pure, “Nexus-edition” tablet from Google before the month is out.
I have mixed feelings about this. I’m excited to see what Google brings to the table; the folks from Mountain View seem to be aware that the Android-on-tablets idea is in need of a reboot -even more true since Microsoft’s Surface shakeup- and I have no doubt that whatever Google reveals to the public next week will be packed with compelling features.
The thing is this: it will have to be. There’s a lot riding on this move, and though I think Google realizes that, I’m not sure it’s ready to deliver all of the features that will make for a standout tablet experience. A few of us at Pocketnow have put our heads together, and decided on the top five must-have items for a successful Android tablet. Some of these will sound familiar, but the stakes are so high with this relaunch that they bear reinforcement.
Whether the Nexus tablet is destined to see daylight as a bargain-basement device or a blockbuster piece of deluxe-edition kit is still up for debate. For all anyone knows, there could be one of each poised for unveiling at I/O. While there’s no denying the importance of devices at entry-level price points, particularly in the age of the Amazon Kindle Fire, equally important is hardware that impresses. Showroom-quality, eyeball-popping casing designs housing advanced chipsets and robust storage capacity.
Microsoft accomplished some of this with Surface, showcasing devices that were sleek, thin, and boldly designed- I especially liked the exposed hex screws and PVD coating. And the hardware under the hood impressed as well. Google needs to duplicate this accomplishment.
Like most operating systems, Android thrives on devices with extra memory and high clock speeds. While I think the “quad-core revolution” is still more marketing fluff than actual substance at this point, there’s no question that Google will optimize forthcoming Android versions to take advantage of all four cores in the new chipsets hitting the market. It’s critical that new flagship Android tablets come equipped with the hardware to handle that kind of future development.
It’s not just the unseen electronic components, either. High-pixel-density displays like the new iPad (264ppi) and Acer Iconia A700 (222ppi) are pushing the envelope, ushering users into a world of invisible pixels. To have a chance at staying relevant, the new Google tablet will need to match or exceed these results.
A Refined, Unique UI
Almost everyone agrees that Android’s first stab at a tablet-optimized experience, Honeycomb, was a disaster. Mercifully, Ice Cream Sandwich came along in short order to clean up that mess, and it unified the phone and tablet UI concepts in the process. The Android tablet experience is now quite usable; on some devices, with certain launcher and widget combinations, it’s downright outstanding.
But despite the protestations of the non-believers, a tablet isn’t a phone. It’s not even a “giant phone.” It’s matured into an entirely separate category, and the UI should reflect that. Sure, we’ve got a little bit of that now, with resizable widgets and scaled-up interface elements, but it still often feels half-baked. Our editor-in-chief Brandon Miniman paints quite an alluring picture when he describes what he wants from a tablet UI, calling it a “dashboard of life, with one-glance access to information.” It sounds a lot like what Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 promise to bring to market, but splashing notifications across a series of Chrome-less tiles isn’t the only way to do things. I love me some Metro, but that’s not Google’s bag. I dig that. I want to see what they can do within the Holo design aesthetic to provide me with as much information at a glance as possible, while avoiding a cluttered mess.
Companies these days are all about giving you options for throwing your tablet’s or phone’s content up on your TV. This is one of those options I always dismiss as boring or stupid- until I find myself in my living room with guests over, and I want to show them the pictures or video I took from my trip to New York City. Two minutes into awkwardly passing my iPad around, I cave in and fire up my Apple TV. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief as the sharing becomes a bona fide group activity, the images much more viewable on the large canvas of the living-room TV.
Google’s experiments with set-top boxes haven’t gone all that well so far, and despite a multitude of TVs with embedded YouTube search and other Google-sponsored features, Mountain View has yet to grab a significant presence in the televisions of a majority of customers. That makes it challenging to develop a new means of wireless sharing, but it’s necessary- if for no other reason than to keep pace with Apple. Sure, there’s DLNA and its cumbersome setup process, or proprietary third-party OEM solutions like Samsung’s AllShare Play, neither of which are terribly convenient. Even Apple isn’t foolproof in this regard, with large-format content like 1080p video sometimes taking minutes to appear on a TV. There’s got to be a better way.
We’ve talked about this. Over and over. The dearth of quality applications on the Android tablets of the world is a travesty, and it needs to be solved. To my eye, this is an issue more critical than fragmentation, UI, resolution … even battery life. A platform without compelling applications is dead in the water, and Android’s “scale-up-phone-apps-to-fill-the-space” approach isn’t cutting it.
Even after nearly two years of failing to properly court developers or manage their applications in this regard, I have faith that Google will find a solution to this problem. If, however, a new tablet surfaces at this year’s I/O, and Google does not announce a new initiative for spurring app development … that faith will be shaken.
I nearly popped a blood vessel waiting for 4.0.4 to arrive on my Verizon Wireless Galaxy Nexus this month. My italics are intentional there; Google hardware that’s branded “Nexus” should receive timely software updates. If there are foreseeable circumstances, such as carrier radio software differences, that would prevent an update from reaching Device A at the same time as Device B, the disadvantaged device should not be sold under the “Nexus” brand name.
Those carrier-based stumbling blocks have historically been the province of phones, but with more and more tablets shipping with embedded 3G and 4G radios, the problem looms large on their horizon, as well. Add to that the continuing update delays caused by OEM skins like TouchWiz, Sense, and the like, and the scope of the challenge becomes clear.
Unfortunately, with OEMs constantly struggling to differentiate themselves on the software front, it seems unlikely this problem will disappear anytime soon. Indeed, some manufacturers are delving even deeper into Android customization, and winning some of us over in the process. In the end, it might take an unprecedented improvement in stock ICS (or Jellybean, or future Android versions) to rid us of skins forever. That’s actually not a future I relish; I think skins can provide a lot of value. But the bump they put in the middle of the road to software updates is unacceptable.
That’s What We Think
… now tell us what you think. Normally I’d squeeze this bit into a little italicized blurb above the Sources section, but this could be a fun comment thread, so it’s out here for all to see. What do you want to see in Google’s new device? Is there a feature crucial to you that we didn’t touch on? Something we called out that you find unnecessary? Some earth-shattering idea that will change the tablet landscape forever? We’ve got about a week to go before our dreams (or nightmares) are realized; let’s dive in and speculate!
Dead-horse image by “~PotatoeHuman” via DeviantArt