Next time you’re at a coffee shop or college campus, pay close attention to the gear everyone is using when they’re working together. More than likely every tablet they're tapping away on will be an iPad.
It’s unfortunate for those of us who like Android, because it has such potential that remains unfilled in serving as a first-rate operating system for tablets.
The ability to add widgets, tweak the home screen layout, add in a custom launcher, and put Google Now On Tap to work would are excellent on a larger screen. Yet these features have never been truly realized, as Android tablets haven’t fully inspired the developer community.
Much of the problem is the hardware and app situation with Android tablets has always been a mess. The two offerings from Google aren’t very compelling. There’s the Nexus 9, which is 18 months old, and the Pixel C, a really expensive 10-inch hybrid experiment that costs $499.
The rest of the options are various levels of compromise. Samsung tends to make the best hardware, but it comes with oppressive TouchWiz software and a high price point. There are alternatives from other hardware makers, but you’re likely to find low quality to match the low cost. Something like an Iconia Tab just doesn’t have the same appeal as an iPad.
Wanted: a Nexus 7X
So what should change? Just like how Google seemingly got the band back together for the Nexus 5X, it’s time to do the same with another former hit: the Nexus 7. A refreshed and zippy Android tablet without any of the bloat that comes with third-party devices could go a long way toward winning back developer confidence and consumer pride.
I still have my 2013 model, and it’s an excellent little tablet. The deep integration with Google services ensures I don’t lose a beat when moving between Chrome on the desktop and an Android phone or tablet.
But something this old (in device years) won’t last much longer, and there aren’t any stock Android tablets from Google that fit nicely as a replacement. The right thing to do would be to take a page out of the 2015 Nexus playbook: an affordable but well-built Nexus 7X and a higher-end Nexus 8P.
The cheaper model could be much like the newest affordable Nexus phone, with a plastic build and middle-range specs: 2GB of RAM, a 2048 x 1536 resolution, and a Snapdragon 808. A 5MP camera is decent enough, as I still don’t find tablet photography to be that necessary, outside of the occasional document scan. A polycarbonate build would probably work well, allowing for a range of colors like Google did with the 5X. Gorilla Glass 3 should also suffice, along with a modest set of front-facing speakers.
Then if Google wants to go high-end with another true iPad competitor, the company could build a Nexus 8P. With this model it could really go head-to-head with whatever Apple has in store for this year’s new iPad: 4GB of RAM, a Snapdragon 820 processor, a quad-HD display and an even better camera. Throw in Gorilla Glass 4, dual front-facing speakers, and a posh aluminum build that will make it feel like a premium, work of art. Screen size could even jump to 8.9 inches for a more direct comparison to the iPad, but then maybe a Nexus 9P name would fit better.
Since Google was able to put a fingerprint sensor and create its own Nexus Imprint solution with its newest phones, it could certainly do the same here. While I’m still not sold on the idea of putting it on the back of the phone, for consistency sake that would probably make the most sense to do this with the tablets.
The company could probably sell the 7X for less than $300, while offering the higher-end model at something closer to $500. My suspicion is a cheaper model like the 7X would be a great impulse buy and would move a number of units.
Low-cost, low-quality tablets still dominate
A pair of new Nexus tablets could help reverse a current trend: Most Android tablets are low-cost devices with poor software experiences. For example, an IDC forecast found that even though Samsung was just behind Apple in tablet market share, “the bulk of their shipments have focused on the low end.”
And with tablet shipments dropping 12.6 percent in the third quarter of 2015, that’s only going to increase the pressure for cheaper devices. The tablet market is so saturated, in fact, that HP recently decided to leave the low-cost market altogether. A race to the bottom isn’t good for anyone.
Google has what it takes to make a push in the other direction, as its philosophy about hardware has changed since the original Nexus 7 launch. The company now actively promotes its new flagship phones to regular consumers, running television ads in primetime. And according to recent rumors Google is going to take even more control over its Nexus smartphones. With that kind of push, a new set of Nexus devices could do well.
They have before. Analyst Benedict Evans estimated in 2013 the Nexus 7 sold about 5.3 million units. That’s not fantastic compared to the iPad, which Evans estimated did four times that in volume in the same time period. But it’s still pretty solid, considering much of that volume was done without any significant marketing from Google.
The Nexus 7 was just right
What made the Nexus 7 so great was a formula that has also worked for its Nexus phones: pure Android, quality build, and a competitive price. The first-generation Nexus 7 was a steal at the starting price of $199, and was the first tablet to really show that Android could work on a bigger screen.
While the iPad experience is more consistent given the superior tablet apps ecosystem, the customization and ability to set separate accounts for each family member are great features that could appeal to some. It all just needs to be packaged together with Nexus goodness, timed for release with a new version of Android that focuses on the tablet interface.
Give us the Nexus we want! Please?
Google will of course make its own decision about what products it launches. But even without conducting my own market research to fill 28 spreadsheets with survey data, I imagine a new, budget-friendly Nexus would sell well, given that it’s done so before. A higher-end Nexus 8P or 9P might not move as many units, but like the 6P it would be an excellent showcase for good Android hardware in a way the Nexus 9 never quite was.
Google desperately needs to kickstart the dismal tablet app situation on Android. It’s better than it was a few years ago when Nexus tablets first launched, but it’s still way behind the iPad. For example, prominent apps like Twitter, Facebook, and most of the good weather options are still just scaled-up phone apps. Creative, unique apps that are tablet first like Paper by FiftyThree tend to stay only on iOS. What better way to try and resolve this than with a new version of Android (Android N) that improves the tablet interface, gives new tools for developers, and offers consumers an affordable-yet-quality Nexus tablet?
So let’s make it happen. I’m sure HTC, LG, ASUS, Huawei, or maybe even Lenovo-owned Motorola would be down for it. I pledge to be first in line with my credit card, and I have a feeling I wouldn’t be the only one.