Well, that’s not true. In fact, almost any app available in the Android Market (ahem, Google Play Store) can be downloaded and run on a tablet. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of a half-million applications you can install and run on your Android tablet. That’s awesome.
Problem is, they’re not very good.
If you don’t own an Android tablet, allow me to explain. The issue is really one of design: though app functionality is duplicated almost perfectly on the tablet versions of most Android phone apps, the layout isn’t any good. The user interface, when scaled automatically to fit the larger screen, is full of unused blanks and gaps, often resulting in what seems like acres of white space. That’s not the case for leading competitor iOS. Take a look at the official Facebook client, viewed on both an iPad and on an HP TouchPad running CyanogenMod 9 (Android ICS on steroids):
That’s locked into the same section of the page on each. Yes, we’re dealing with a huge disparity in resolution here; the iPads Retina display is absolutely destroying the TouchPad’s lackluster pixel density, which isn’t the developers’ fault. But that’s not what the problem is. Look at the massive span of unused gray area dominating the Android version. That’s a result of scaling up the phone app to fit the larger display. Sure, it’s functionally equivalent, but it’s ugly. And it doesn’t allow me to view the timeline at the same time I have the function tray deployed.
In short, it’s janky.
While we’re talking about social media, let’s check out the official Twitter app on each:
We’ve got the same issue with unused blank space, but here the problem is even more pronounced: the Android version of the Twitter app hasn’t been written to take advantage of the increased canvas size, so there’s no side-column/pop-over functionality. The buttons at the bottom are comically huge compared to their text labels, and the whole thing feels exactly like what it is: a blown-up phone app.
None of this is new. Android’s lackluster app experience has been wheeled out as an example of its critical handicap for months and months. During that time, most of the speculation I came across labeled it a developer relations problem, rather than any kind of technical hardship; Google just couldn’t inspire the development community to write great apps for Android tablets.
But it’s been almost two years since the first mass-market Android tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, was announced. It’s been a year and a half since the Motorola Xoom launched, with its Verizon-backed marketing campaign reaching most corners of the United States. In all that time, you’d think the mega-massive heavyweight Google would have been able to churn out some apps that at least rivaled the beauty and functionality of iOS offerings like iPhoto.
The thing is, it’s possible. Beautiful apps are out there for your Google-based tablets. In most cases, they’re not as polished as their iOS equivalents, and they’re certainly nowhere near plentiful enough to come close to competing on numbers … but they prove that it is possible to build great-looking, functional apps for Android tablets. You just need to look for them.
To do that, I took my comrade Joe Levi‘s suggestion and downloaded an app called Tablet Market. This is a simple aggregator, a consolidation point for links to tablet-optimized Android apps. Combining the titles it helped me discover with suggestions a few of you sent me on Twitter, I came up with a handful of glowing examples of what’s possible on Android.
$0.99 – Google Play Store
Tabstagram is one of those magical products that’s just what it sounds like: an Instagram client for Android tablets. While it doesn’t include camera support, apparently because of Instagram’s API restrictions, it does offer a beautiful, minimalistic means of browsing the network’s various feeds. That includes your own images, those of your friends, and currently-trending photos … and best of all, it’s optimized to take advantage of the whole display. It also costs $0.99, but if you ask me, that’s a low price to pay for the ability to browse your friends’ washed-out filtered photos of what fancy beers they’re drinking.
$0.99 – Google Play Store
Another image-centric app, GalleryWall3D eschews fancy social-network plugins for simplicity. In essence, the app is a souped-up version of Android’s own built-in Gallery application, showcasing the photos stored locally on your device. The added value comes from a more polished, slightly more flashy interface, the core of which is a 3D ribbon of your photos. The ribbon is swipe-able and strongly resembles the visual-bookmarks view of desktop Safari. It’s a simple app for a simple purpose, but it’s done well and it’s very pretty.
Free – Google Play Store
Curiously, considering its issues with motivating developers, we need look no further than Google itself for an attractive implementation of a useful app. Currents recently found itself back in the spotlight with the announcement of the Nexus 7, and the seven-month-old app certainly stands a chance of brightening up the new device’s content-consumption side. It’s a “social reader” application, essentially an aggregator for magazine and other periodical content, which allows you to share what you’re reading with your social networks. It’s nowhere near as innovative, useful, or attractive as Flipboard, but it works well, and its tight integration with Google will probably continue to bear useful fruit as time goes on.
Free – Google Play Store
I don’t care how many app lists I make in my life; innovative news readers will find their way into most of them. Developers who find new and exciting ways of delivering news content earn a lot of respect from me because they’re offering readers more avenues to knowledge. News360 does this by providing a default view that logically uses the expanded screen real estate of a tablet, but it also incorporates a “360 View.” This is essentially a stream of photos similar to the Gallery3D app mentioned above, except that the photos come from news headlines. One tap brings up the associated headline, along with a link to “Read More” if you’re so inclined. It’s a surprisingly effective method of browsing the events of the day, as long as most news agencies continue to attach accurate leader images to their posts.
So It’s Possible
… but it’s rare. The handful of apps just cited, in addition to those which scale relatively well, like Flipboard, prove that the Android tablet platform is capable; it’s got the power and the framework necessary to provide a great app experience. But the fact that I had to go so far out of my way to even find this smattering of selections also proves something we’ve known for years: despite its big numbers on phones, Android’s got a real app problem on tablets, and if we’re truly entering any form of “post-PC era,” that problem needs solving if Google’s tablets are ever going to be taken seriously.
I like these apps, but I also must’ve missed a bunch. Fill in the gaps by leaving your selection for favorite Android tablet app in the comments section below. When my Nexus 7 comes in, rest assured, we’ll be having this conversation again.