Recently we reviewed Amazon’s Fire 7, a $US50 Android tablet that isn’t outright
good in any one aspect, but does enough right to be good value for its bargain-basement price.
If you just want to pay the lowest amount possible to do the kind of casual entertainment things you’d do with a regular iPad, Amazon’s Fire 7 is your top choice.
The bigger question, though, is whether the Fire 7 — or its stronger $US80 sibling, the Fire HD 8 — are the only Android tablets worth considering.
Yes, there are superior Android slates like the Nvidia Shield or Samsung Galaxy Tab S3. They’re faster and better-built, with sharper screens and a cleaner version of Android. If you’re beholden Google’s mobile OS and you just want something nice, go ahead and spend the extra cash.
But you’d be in the minority. Sales of standalone tablets have dipped dramatically in recent years. Apple’s iPad shipments have notably declined, but most Android tablet makers have been hit just as hard. According to research firm IDC, the only big risers of late have been Huawei, which also sells higher-end Windows slates, and Amazon, which in two years surged from nothing to become the fourth-largest tablet maker today.
The result here is a tablet market that’s stretched to its ends. Amazon’s gains are almost exclusively due to ultra-cheap slates like the Fire 7, which the company can afford to sell because they’re Trojan horses designed to coerce people to buy Prime and use Amazon’s exhaustive list of services.
On the other end, though, is a rise in premium “2-in-1s” like Microsoft’s Surface Pro and Apple’s iPad Pro, which are explicitly focused on laptop-like power and productivity. Microsoft has even gone so far as to outright advertise its latest Surface Pro as a “versatile laptop.”
Everything else has been caught in the middle. That includes standard iPads, but also the vast majority of Android tablets. With bigger phones and touch-friendly laptops both in vogue — and with older tablets, iPads in particular, holding up well over time — there’s just less room, and need, for something to come in between.
These tectonic forces are the main reason for the mainstream tablet’s ongoing demise. But the problem with Android tablets is they aren’t adapting. As the Galaxy Tab S3 has shown, Android is still woefully undercooked as a laptop-style OS. And as every Android tablet has shown, Google’s mobile OS is sloppy on larger screens as a whole. Recent updates have helped, but too often Android on the tablet still looks like a blown-up version of Android on the phone (where, to be clear, it is excellent).
In contrast, iOS rarely has such problems, because developers build apps with the iPad in mind. Windows 10 is a nightmare as an ordinary tablet, but pair it with a keyboard, and you have the same platform you’d use on the desktop.
That Android tablets tend to be quickly forgotten when it comes to software updates doesn’t help its case. As a result, the iPad is still your safest bet if you’re in the dwindling market that still wants a standard slate.
Crucially, the iOS 11 update Apple announced at WWDC, which brings a number of Mac-like productivity features to the iPad, should only exacerbate this trend going forward. The iPad is becoming more flexible, while Android tablets are largely standing still.
So the only advantage the Android tablet has left is price. According to NPD figures cited by USA Today in March, the iPad has an 85% market share in the US among tablets that cost more than $US200. The launch of Apple’s lower-cost iPad earlier this year seems likely to keep that in place.
Go below that figure, though, and your best option is going right back where we started: saving cash and getting the good-enough Fire 7 and Fire HD 8. It’s no surprise that Android tablet launches are quiet these days, while manufacturers like Dell have left the market completely.
Chrome OS looks like a better fit for tablets
The thing is, Google seems to be well aware of this market shift. It’s spent the last several months porting Android apps onto its other platform, Chrome OS, which to date has powered Google’s line of low-cost Chromebook laptops.
It’s here where Google is moving away from the dead-end facing pure Android tablets. A number of convertible Chromebooks are hitting the market, and various elements of Chrome OS have become more touch-friendly.
Bringing in the Google Play Store, with its millions of apps explicitly designed with touchscreens in mind, would seem to be the piece that turns Chrome OS into the “2-in-1” platform Windows 10 is and iOS is starting to become.
In turn, it’d seem to give Google a way to make the kind of tablets people are actually buying.
Chrome OS could also give Google the platform that fits the “tablet PC” form factor best. Instead of trying to evolve one type of OS into something it’s not, as Apple and Microsoft are doing, a Chrome OS with functional Android support would have everything all at once: a desktop-class web browser, with deep app support when you need it.
The problem is that, even after months of trying, that Android support isn’t totally functional. You can flip something like the Samsung Chromebook Pro around and make it akin to a tablet, but there’s still a host of bugs and technical quirks, and Android apps continue to be ill-suited for larger screens.
If Google can ever wrangle all of this together, there’d be compelling reasons to choose a premium Android tablet over the iPad (or Surface) in the future. Until then, cheaper devices like the Fire 7 will continue to be the only avenue in which Android on the tablet is a smart investment.
Google declined a request for comment.
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