For as far as Android has come over the years, with as much hardware as we’ve seen released, and as many developers churning out new and exciting apps as there are, there’s a huge segment of the smartphone and tablet user base that just wholly rejects Android due to it not being Apple. While it’s easy to try and explain that away as fanboyism run wild, there’s still a truth to the complaints of that group: Apple does a fantastic job at creating a polished, seamless user experience that’s just hard to replicate.
Now that Jelly Bean and the Nexus 7 are here, Android tablets are receiving a ton of attention from tablet users who might not have considered anything but iPads before. We may not be there just yet, but what would an Android tablet have to do to really deserve the title “iPad killer”?
Let’s take a step back and look at how we got to where are now. Early Android tablets were just a mess. Back before Honeycomb, major manufacturers didn’t quite know how to approach Android tablets, and instead we saw a number of cheaply-made models come from companies no one’s ever heard of. They’d arrive running pre-2.x Android builds, and offer little more than the experience of using an oversized phone that couldn’t even place calls.
Things started getting a little better as we saw models like the first Samsung Galaxy Tab arrive, but it wasn’t until the Xoom and Honeycomb that we got a purpose-made tablet UI. Sure, Honeycomb was quirky, and endured endless accusations that it was further fragmenting Android, but once Ice Cream Sandwich came around to finally reunite the smartphone and tablet branches, things started looking a lot better.
With Jelly Bean, Google’s already taken some important steps to help it catch up to iOS in terms of refinement. Project Butter is an absolute godsend; I can’t tell you how many times I picked up some supposedly-high-end Android hardware and my heart just dropped when I saw how low and inconsistent the UI framerate was. Knowing the kind of chips being used inside these devices, and what they should be capable of, was just infuriating. Butter marks a huge milestone in firstly recognizing that this is a serious issue that is making Android look bad, and secondly actually taking the steps to do something about it.
The appeal of the iPad isn’t all smooth-scrolling; there’s some damn impressive hardware at the heart of each new generation of Apple tablets. While Android tablet makers may think a 720p screen is perfectly fine (and often times be right), tablet consumers don’t want “acceptable” – when you’re dropping six bills on a new toy, you want to be properly blown away. Similarly, while an Android tablet manufacturer might just throw a Tegra 3 in his new design because it’s a good speed for the price, Apple has its chips custom-fabricated so it can be on top of delivering the best-possible performance to its users. Samsung seems to get this, but the other players could stand to follow suit. Ultimately, it’s not necessarily about price or performance, but delivering the appearance of a soup-to-nuts premium package.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about account management and app stores on Android tablets. For all the flack Google gets about the Play Store, I think a good amount is undeserved. Making it easy to find apps is a difficult proposition, and there really is a lot of noise in the Play Store. You can blame that on lower submission standards than Apple’s, but I look at it as an inevitable consequence of an open platform. Maybe I’m just lashing-out against the heavy-handed approach Apple takes to app approval, but I don’t think app discovery is the big issue people make it out to be, nor am I sure that’s a role that companies in charge of these platforms should be playing in the first place; I don’t ask my TV manufacturer to help me decide what shows to watch.
Now that my little rant is over, Google’s been making the Play Store a lot better lately, and I’m a big fan of the increased functionality of web-based app management tools, especially for users with many devices. One thing Google could do to make its app and account management a little more feature-rich would be to get around to finishing the multi-user support we’ve already seen signs of. Beating Apple to the punch there could go a long way towards creating a tablet that really feels superior to the iPad.
When I think about all these issues, it feels like Android’s just SO close to finally nailing the perfect tablet. There’s still a lot that needs to be done right all at once, so I’m not necessarily expecting to see such the fabled iPad killer arrive within the next couple months or so, but I see much of the groundwork in place, and it’s just a matter of time until even some of those die-hard iPad fans may be tempted to see just how green the grass is over on this side of the fence.
Image: Digital Trends