So, Google did this thing the other day where they announced a tablet computer called the Nexus 7. Then, we did this thing where we got a hold of one and reviewed it. And since these things happened we’ve been talking a lot about that tablet: what it means, when it might ship, and whether it’s going to have any brothers or sisters. It’s been a pretty big deal.
This being the mobile world, the news didn’t stop there: Apple scored a crucial, if temporary, victory over Google in the most recent round of patent wars between the goliaths, resulting in a ban on American sales of the latter’s Galaxy Nexus. Google and Samsung quickly devised a software
upgrade downgrade to enable them to resume sales of the most recent Nexus smartphone (which as of late last week, looks like it’s worked), but this small hiccup in sales has given us room for contemplation.
So, dear reader, let us ruminate: how is it that we now live in a world where a tablet computer is priced more cheaply than its smartphone cousin?
Really, this is a puzzle. For all the flack tablets caught initially about being nothing but oversized smartphones, they’ve since proved their worth, carving out an entirely new category of personal computing devices. Some people are even starting to throw dollars at tablets that would otherwise have gone to notebooks or netbooks. All of these have historically been set at higher price points than most smartphones, even with subsidies taken into account. So what kind of weirdo world have we woken up to?
Our own Stephen Schenck briefly, but ably, addressed this question in his piece on where our Nexus 7 phone is at. I could paraphrase his argument, but he puts it succinctly enough that I’ll just quote him here:
Look at all the hardware you get with Google’s Nexus 7 for only $200: an HD display, a gigabyte of RAM, 8GB of flash, and a quad-core Tegra 3. Think about what you’re getting for your money, and then ask yourself why comparable smartphones cost so very much more.
It’s a good question, and Stephen goes on to touch on the answers briefly: miniaturization of components is more expensive, display costs go higher for displays with better pixel-density ratings, and so on. We might even see some “Nexus 7-type phones” in the near future if NVIDIA’s “Kai” platform delivers on its promises.
But let’s check out some of the differences between Google’s seven-month-old Nexus flagship phone and its brand-new flagship tablet. Trying to pin down the source of the savings won’t be easy, but it’ll be fun.
Another news piece by Stephen Schenck from last week reported on the possibility that the Nexus 7’s display has some ghosting issues, as seen from the Android Police screenshot above. While a flurry of comments pointed out that this is likely a fluke problem with a limited batch of units, and our own review showed the screen’s performance to be acceptable (if on the dim side), it made me wonder what the display’s story was. On the spec side, it’s no slouch: the IPS panel’s 214ppi density slots right in between the 264ppi on the new iPad and the 169ppi on the Kindle Fire. To call it a midrange display would be slightly unfair, but it’s also not blowing the doors off, with Brandon calling the contrast and color saturation “below average.” Of course, the Galaxy Nexus display isn’t exactly a top performer, either, so we might call this metric a wash.
One Fewer Camera (And The One It Has Ain’t Good)
Where the Galaxy Nexus rocks dual cameras, the Nexus 7 only packs one: a front-facing shooter that seems intended for video calls only. Eliminating the Galaxy Nexus’ 5MP camera and accompanying flash saved some dough here; even though that device’s imaging performance isn’t superb, that’s still a much more expensive hardware component than the 1.2MP front-facing camera incorporated into the Nexus 7.
This is a huge one; the Nexus 7 incorporates support for Bluetooth and WiFi, with the latter including the now-standard b/g/n support. But the tablet lacks any cellular connectivity, so it’s able to completely omit any fancy HSPA, EvDO, or LTE radios. This reduces the Nexus 7’s utility somewhat -whether it’s by a lot or a little depends on your use case- but it also allows for tremendous savings on the manufacturing side.
One important thing to note here, though: the omission of cellular radio components is a curious exception, considering the rest of the device’s sensor load. The Nexus 7 still incorporates NFC, GPS, a gyroscope, and a magnetometer, so it’s not skimping on inputs the way many non-cellular devices do.
No, I don’t mean device size – well, not entirely, anyway; the Nexus 7 is an average-sized tablet, and at 10mm it won’t be winning any awards for thinness. No, I’m talking about manufacturer stature. Clout.
ASUS is no slouch, certainly: the company’s Transformer tablet line has received a lot of attention, most of it positive. Its Padfone offering, while not without its faults, is incredibly innovative. It’s obvious that the company has its heart set on creating unique products.
But ASUS has very little presence in the American mobile landscape. The company must be salivating at the prospect of breaking into the US marketplace in a meaningful way. That gives Google an edge in negotiations; even though the search giant chose ASUS to pioneer its charge into Nexus-branded tablets, it didn’t need to. It had other suppliers it could have worked with. By contrast, ASUS could hope to find very few partners with as much scale and star-power as Google. It’s likely the folks at Mountain View exerted some pressure to keep the Nexus 7’s price low. Low enough to compete with the former king of low-budget tablets, the Kindle Fire.
If you ask me, this is what it all comes down to. Despite the similarities in software, hardware, and origin, these are two very differently targeted devices. The Galaxy Nexus, despite its recent price drop, is still positioned as a high-end, flagship-class smartphone. That carries with it the expectation of a high price point, in part because of the hardware disparities noted above, but also partially because people are used to paying good money for a high-end Google smartphone.
Thanks to devices like the Kindle Fire and the Nook,that reality has changed: people no longer expect to pay top-dollar for a tablet- especially if that tablet is marketed as a content-consumption device with extras, instead of a full-service slate. The Nexus 7, with its current feature load, wouldn’t have been able to command a price that was set much higher. To my eye, it’s that reason, more than any other, for the Nexus 7’s lower price tag compared to its smartphone sibling.
But it’s still weird.