Monday , April 24 2017

Android Tablets — Have they gone the way of the dinosaur?

Pixel C

A couple of weeks ago you may have read Scott’s opinion piece on Android Tablets. I suppose you might consider this story to be a bit of a counterpiece to Scott’s, and what you see above — the Google Pixel C — is probably the last half-decent Android tablet we’ll ever see, and here’s why.

This is something I’ve been thinking about since I edited Scott’s story, and reading a few pieces around the web over the last week, I’ve solidified in my opinion; the time of the tablet has passed. In fact, I’m not sure there ever really was a time of the tablet, especially insofar as Android was concerned, but even if there was, it’s gone.

Tablets arrived, and we wondered what they were for

Tablets have been around since about 1993 with the advent of the Apple Newton. While there were people who liked it, I think it’s fair to say the device mostly wasn’t that great. It was undoubtedly before its time, and could equally be considered as much a PDA as a tablet in the more modern sense.  Since the Newton, various companies towards the late 90s and early 00s tried to convince us that tablets would be the future, that we could break away from the confines of our desktop PCs and compute on the go with tablets. A wonderful idea, idyllic perhaps, except it just never really took off.

Apple hit a vein of gold with the iPad, but if you put what you know about the iPad to one side, one must wonder why the iPad took off. Was it something that we needed? Did it offer something so unique and so incredible for productivity that we simply had to have it? Was it the replacement for the desktop and laptop that we’d been promised for so long?

Was the iPad the panacea?

Well, no, it wasn’t. The iPad was basically a big iPhone; it was a touch-screen with no keyboard, no mouse, no pointing device at all (beyond your finger), no ability to access really any peripherals, and the same locked down OS that iPhones enjoyed. Was the iPad truly an on-the-go productivity machine? You’d have to say that mostly, the answer was no. You could read your emails on it, browse the web, consume content, and probably even generate a little bit, but for serious content creation, human-kind hasn’t really come up with anything better than the keyboard.

And thus a range of keyboard accessories started to show up, mainly for iPads, but after a fashion it was a trend that caught on in Android land as well. Early Android tablets were — let’s not kid ourselves — hopeless.

Android 3.0 Honeycomb was awful, and the tablets that ran it were equally awful, and yet the whole experience was several orders of magnitude worse than the iPad.

Early Android tablets were worse

Whereas Apple (and the developers who supported its platform) had done a reasonable job of getting many apps iPad-compatible, Android suffered a much worse fate. In fact, most Android apps either didn’t work on tablets at all, or worked so badly that they left you wondering why you’d bothered. Better yet, this situation didn’t change for years.

So, what did we have? Tablets that promised to be the productivity replacements we were looking for, that weren’t, and that promised so much in terms of rich apps and wonderful experiences, that didn’t deliver. Samsung made tablet after tablet, and while they (later) developed a fair amount of talent in this endeavour, their early tablets were not great either. In fact, Android tablets really didn’t get to be anywhere near good until the Nexus 7 (2012), and they got a whole lot better the next year with the Nexus 7 (2013).

From there, they went downhill. We had high hopes from the two successful Nexus tablets, but every other Nexus tablet sucked. The Nexus 10? Awful. HTC’s Nexus 9? Generally not great. In fact, after 2013, there were really only very few tablets that were considered good, and even then, they really didn’t deliver on the promise of tablets.

A glimmer of hope, but too late

Samsung had some success with the Tab S range, Sony’s Xperia Z3 Tablet range was alright, and there were some other gems around, but the underlying issues remained:

  • Android was not designed first and foremost for tablets, and the motif generally just didn’t work as neatly as it should.
  • Tablet productivity remained elusive; keyboard accessories were third party options that often didn’t work or fit properly, and first party keyboards were stupidly expensive.
  • The app experienced remained mostly poor; even among Google’s own first-party apps, there were those that just didn’t work nicely on tablets.

When we got to the end of 2015, we saw a glimmer of promise, but perhaps we should’ve realised that the ship had already sailed. For the price of a half-decent tablet, you could buy a half-decent laptop or ultrabook that wasn’t much bigger, and was infinitely more useful. A desktop-quality OS, keyboard, trackpad/mouse, a tonne of storage, Microsoft Office apps, USB connectivity, external display options… the list goes on.

Basically you had two competing product lines – a slate that had a display on one side, and precious little else, and a clamshell ultrabook about the same size that did significantly more, and either cost about the same, or only a little bit more.

Could the Pixel C save the Android tablet?

Basically, no.

The Pixel C was marketed as almost a hybrid of the two; a tablet, with an optional keyboard accessory that made it into kind of a laptop, an on-the-go productivity tool, if you will, even though the keyboard cost extra. I used the Pixel C extensively. I wanted it to be great, and while it was technically good, it just wasn’t as useful as it could have been.

I found myself eschewing it for two main reasons: 

  1. Despite having a keyboard, Android just didn’t make for a good productivity platform – genuine multi-window multitasking that we take for granted on a laptop or desktop is impossible.
  2. A touchscreen is great, but it seriously interrupts your typing flow if you have to use it where a mouse or trackpad would be better.

What would’ve made the Pixel C great was if it had launched with ChromeOS, as was originally planned.  It would’ve been that crossover with a laptop that it needed to be to be really successful, and it would’ve crossed into the territory which 2016 became known for; the 2-in-1. Unfortunately, it didn’t do any of those things, and so the Pixel C went the way of most other tablets — it went nowhere.

The arrival of the 2-in-1 (the foldable laptop/ultrabook-come-tablet thing) really put the final nail in the coffin of the tablet, after the tablet had put the rest of the nails in itself. What the tablet had remained good at was consuming media in an easily-holdable form factor, but it wasn’t much good at anything else. Re-born as a 2-in-1, the tablet suddenly both ceased to exist and became useful.

The 2-in-1 has taken over

Why buy a tablet that could do a few useful things (and I do mean few) when you could spend a little extra, grab a decent 2-in-1, and replace your useless tablet, outdated laptop and even your desktop setup? Things like Microsoft’s Surface do this (admittedly, at a cost), Lenovo have a range of 2-in-1’s, ASUS do now as well, and there are many others (though perhaps these three brands make the better ones).

While all this goes on, the tablet market disintegrated. As Scott noted, 2016 saw the release of precisely zero tablets worthy of mention, with one plausible exception in an updated MediaPad from Huawei. The segment is all but dead; go into a JB HiFi, and look how many 2-in-1 type devices there are, and how few tablets are there … better yet, hang around a little while and you’ll see 2-in-1’s selling, and tablets sitting there gathering dust.

Could this be turned around by the advent of the rumoured Andromeda, the Android/Chrome hybrid? If you follow my argument in this piece, the answer has to be no, not by itself. A slate-like tablet that is only a tablet is fundamentally not all that useful, at least with current technology.

An Andromeda-powered 2-in-1 type device though? I would buy one in a heartbeat. Not only would it replace my aging laptop for all but the heaviest of lifting, but it would provide the few benefits that a tablet does too; something good to watch movies on when flying or on the train, to draw on with a stylus, and to use in a tablet-like mode for browsing news or media on the couch. For everything else, the 2-in-1 can flip into its laptop guise and become genuinely useful.

I believe, based only on rumours that I’ve read, that Andromeda could – if paired with intelligent hardware designed for productive use on the go – could start to take a sizable chunk of the 2-in-1 market. ChromeOS is already quite capable, but lacks many of the native applications you’d expect a desktop-style OS to have. The marriage with Android would fix much of this, as we’ve started to see in Chrome devices which include Android apps now.

The tablet as we know it might not have much of a future, but Android as a platform for mobile productivity might still come to pass.


Chris Rowland   Editor and Publisher

  • Jim Nicholls

    My Nexus 9 is dying. When it finally does, it is going leave a significant hole. My tablet fits a specific niche: the couch and the bed. For that my 6P is too small, and my laptop is too impractical.

    • montalbert_scott

      same. but maybe running android is the issue. Should they all run Chome or the unicorn of OSes, Andromeda?

    • Darren Ferguson

      My Nexus 9 went spastic and a factory reset sorted it out. Worth a try. I use mine almost daily.

  • Ben

    I’m with Jim… There is still a place for tablets. Let’s stop trying to turn them into productivity monsters or computers and call them what they are… Media consumption,social media,web browser game playing time fillers!

    Use my pixel C everyday for this exact purpose. Nothing better then playing a old school emulator on the couch!

  • Fred

    Got to disagree with most of what’s written here.2-in-1s don’t really exist – they are either glorified, overpriced, laptops (the surface) or tablets with addon keyboards. Most of the issue with Android tablets has come via the massive incompetence and stupidity of the Android OS developers; who systematically screwed the pooch.

    As for productivity, if that’s your determinate for everything they you can scrap the smartphones too. And while we are at it, why haven’t productivity apps moved on? Is it the dead hand of microsoft and the desktops/laptops?

    I will agree with one bit though

    > For the price of a half-decent tablet, you could buy a half-decent
    laptop or ultrabook that wasn’t much bigger, and was infinitely more

    The prices have been silly and massively over the top. That’s the bifurcation point with the Nexus tablet line, they overpriced their offerings. <$300 makes sense, $600 doesn't.

  • TheDeviant

    My Tablet (Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact) is my ‘go to’ device while at home and my phone is charging.
    It is a media player that streams from my NAS to chromecast. It is my web browser while watching tv. It serves many purposes that my phone does (apart from making calls).

    I never saw the merit in a small tablet until using the Z3 compact.
    Playing games on it, however, is very sloppy.

    I’m looking to upgrade but i’m not in a rush!

    I’m very keen to see what Google has in store with Andromeda/ChromeOS and tablets.

  • Adam J

    I think tablets have definitely settled into the entertainment niche, where they are pretty much solely used to entertain kids, control Netflix or play games. That’s why my Pixel C mainly lives on the coffee table or at the bedside. I bought it without a keyboard because I couldn’t see myself being productive, and chose it specifically because of the updates from Google and a handy discount from a coupon code.

    I do agree on the 2-in-1’s though. If I wasn’t supplied with a work laptop and was shopping for a personal productivity device, 2-in-1’s would be high on my list for their versatility. Ever tried opening your laptop on a plane tray-table recently? That’s a situation where the versatility comes into play.

    • John Bousattout

      I agree… but the question to you would be Android or Windows 2 in 1?

      I’d lean towards windows.

      • Adam J

        Yep, I’d lean towards Windows over Android on a 2-in-1 as well.

  • Motorhead

    Agreed I was talking to some friends & you struggle to find much that can’t be done better on either a phone or laptop & as most people already have both their tablets end up gathering a lot of dust.
    Half the time the battery is flat on mine when I actually go to use it so end up using one of the others anyway.

  • Andrew Reilly

    I agree with the premise to the extent that I am a little alarmed to think what I would do if my Pixel-C ever died: there don’t seem to be many alternatives (for my use) coming. I disagree with most of the rest of the points though.

    Productivity is what you make of it. I do a prodigious amount of reading on-line, and I find my tablets (before my Pixel-C I was a delighted Nexus-9 user) to be significantly superior to either phone or laptop when lounging at home or when on the train. Tablet portrait mode is the only way to fly when reading PDFs. Of course, sitting at a desk I can settle down with a keyboard, a track-pad and a 27-inch display and be happy.

    For typing bulk text, too, I find the Pixel-C’s keyboard to be terrific: exactly correct spacing and layout. Not great for programming, as it’s missing some keys, but good for English text. Most of my text is input into email or web pages (corporate wiki or blog CMS systems, for instance) and it’s no worse at that than a laptop. Indeed, the screen on the Pixel-C and the processor are significantly better than those of my previous, much larger laptops.

    Take along a WD MyPassport for its SD card reader and 1T disk when travelling and you’ve got a half-decent photo management system too.

    The Nexus-9 was cheaper and more “chuckable”, but even the Pixel-C is significantly less expensive than any Apple laptop or comparable Windows 2-in-one. (And the -C’s detachable keyboard mechanism is vastly more lap-friendly than the silly, dangly Suface keyboard+kickstand.)

    Ultimately though, the “pay more and use a two-in-one” argument falls flat on the opening premise: you’d have to use Windows, and I’d choose Tablet Android over that any day, even in its current clearly-not-finished state.

  • Sammy

    Happy with tab s2. No regrets

  • Annoying Old Fart

    Chris nails it: “a half-decent laptop”. I had an Android tablet for years, a HP Touchpad retrofitted with Android, and I tried and tried, but there wasn’t anything it was better at than my production laptop, my test laptop, even my tenth-decent play laptop. I eventually gave it to my daughter, who uses it to… consume content. Basically a big non-call phone.

    People buy ipads because they’re Apple customers and they must have the latest and greatest. People don’t buy Android tablets because, well, they’re not a lot of use, especially if you already have an Android phone.

  • John

    you guys should really stop copying androidpolice for blog post ideas 😛

    • Nah, they should stop copying us. This story started two weeks ago, it just took time to write.

  • twister286

    I personally agree. After getting a Surface 3 LTE, I barely ever touch my now-ageing Samsung Tab S 10.5…so much so that I didn’t even know the Tab S2 had been released. The damn thing only got MM yesterday(!)

    Android has never really delivered a proper tablet experience. On the Surface 3, I can use the trackpad, switching to touch-screen only for one-note really…Plus the fact that I can run the full version of MS Office. Excel just doesn’t play well with touch-screens (no spreadsheets do)

  • TheCatMan

    @ozcjr:disqus Well written mate. Totally agree. Let me recant my thoughts.

    Firstly, my experience. I bought the N7’12 when it came out as I wanted a device that would allow me to check emails, tale notes at meetings by simply writing on the screen, use OneNote or even check-in on facebook whilst in bed prior to nodding off. Found the experience too painful. OneNote fro Android didn’t exist at that point in time, I couldn’t write on the screen except with a very thick stylus and it made it useless for notetaking at meetings. Now the N7’12 acts as a permanent tunein radio device for my mother-in-law and the free Samsung Galaxy A7 Tablet that I received this year has been relegated to being just an eBook reader.

    For me the problems were two fold.

    For one, there was no differentiating factor from the iPad. What Android world needed was to come up with a device that was different to iPad. Instead all we got was something similar but running a different OS. What I was hoping was things like 4G or better gaming experience. Something that could be used for work as well as for personal usage. But for some unknown reason, all manufacturers decided to build them to a price rather than functionality. For example, even though memory is reasonably cheap, we still get tablets that run 500MB of memory with 8GB of storage. Why?

    Secondly, there is no after market. I cannot walk into a shop specialising in mobile device accessories and buy a case, protector or keyboard that is designed for a particular Android device, say for example, my Samsung Galaxy A7 Tablet. And all that just takes away from the experience. I still haven’t found a glass screen protector in Australia for the A7.

    So to get around all this, I went and purchased a Microsoft Surface Pro 3. Yes it does not have 4G but it does everything that I thought the Android tablets would but didn’t. Things like being able to take notes by writing on the screen and so forth. Most importantly., being a Windows 10 Pro OS, I didn’t have to spend time figuring out how to make things like scanning or printing work.

    But thank you for the article.

  • Manoj

    I have a Pixel C. I use it on my commute and at home all the time. The only thing missing is an SD card slot.
    My next purchase will be a Tab S3.
    I get myself a phone, a tablet and a smartwatch every two years. So, for me they’re still alive and kicking.

  • Phill Edwards

    My first tablet was a Nexus 7 2012 which was one of the worst pieces of tech I’ve ever bought. For the last few years I’ve had a Sony Z3 Tablet Compact which is still going strong and I love it.

  • Ben Liu

    My Daily is a Galaxy Tab S2 LTE (with the official Samsung keyboard case) and it rocks. Arguably it does 90% of the functions I need for work and use it whenever, wherever with Internet always on. The other 10% is most likely an app or two that only runs on Windows (eg. Visio), but I have VPNs and stuff that can connect me to a Cloud PC to do that.

    I honestly prefer Android as a tablet OS over anything Crapple or Windoze to be honest. It is the best of both worlds that has a simple enough of an interface that was made for mobile devices and the unrestricted capabilities (such as reading folders and USB drives etc).

  • mrjayviper

    thought of getting the S2 (to replace my Air2) but state of tablets on Android is disappointing. iOS is still the king

  • WAusJackBauer

    The only thing I dislike about Android tablets is that there are too many tablets with 8″ and 7″ screens.

    Anything above 9.7″ is too big for me personally. so for me ideal is 8.7″ – 9.7″

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