Android Tablets: Hardware is Great, OS is Getting Better, but Apps are Still MIA

When it comes to tablets, the iPad is still synonymous with the whole tablet category for most users. This doesn’t come as a surprise, though, given that it took Google’s partners quite a while to launch competitive hardware and Google’s first efforts to launch a tablet version of Android were not up to par with Apple’s iOS. For the most part, though, the forthcoming Android 3.1 and 4.0 releases will take care of most of these software issues, however, and with the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, Android tablet hardware is now also getting to the point where it’s competitive with Apple’s iPad line.What is missing, however, is the wide variety of apps that makes Apple’s ecosystem so vibrant.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

galaxy_tab_sidewaysThis is not a hardware review, but as others have pointed out before, the Tab 10.1 (which Google gave to all of the attendees at its developer conference last week – including this writer) is both lighter and thinner than the iPad, has a great screen (though it’s 16:9 widescreen takes some getting used to) and generally feels very solid. Other Android tablets from a variety of manufacturers will launch this year and chances are that quite a few of them will rival Samsung’s latest tablet in terms of build quality and speed.

Android’s Weak Spot on the Tablet: Apps

There is one area, though, where Android simply can’t compete with Apple yet: apps. One the phone, this is actually a minor problem at this point, but when it comes to tablets, Google doesn’t even offer the ability to just show tablet-ready apps in its marketplace. The apps that are available, whether they are news apps from CNN and USA Today, weather apps from the Weather Channel and WeatherBug, or e-book apps from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, can easily compete with their brethren on the iPad.

But there are no magazine apps worth writing about, Twitter’s and Facebook’s regular Android apps run fine on the tablet, but are just large versions of the phone app (which is true for virtually all non-Honeycomb specific apps). Indeed, just finding tablet-ready apps is a major pain as the Android Marketplace will happily show you a list of featured tablet apps but doesn’t make it easy to filter regular search results by screen size.


Another Weak Spot: Built-In Browser

It’s worth noting that there are plenty of alternative browsers that work well on the tablet, including those from Mozilla and Opera, but the built-in browser is just not up to par when compared to Safari on the iPad. It’s actually quite fast, but often has issues rendering complex pages and while support for Flash is a nice thing to have, Flash video playback is sometimes choppy or cuts out altogether. For a company that makes Chrome – arguably the best browser on the market today – this browser on the tablet is a bit of an embarrassment. Thankfully, Android is open enough to allow you to run whatever browser you want, though, but this problem shows that there are still quite a few areas in Honeycomb that need polish.

Would You Buy a Tablet that Only Has 100 Apps?

android_marketThat said, though, I’ve used the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 exclusively for a few days now and it’s definitely growing on me. Android’s support for desktop widgets, easy sync with other Google services and smart notifications (one of the areas where Android always beat Apple) already show that the Android OS can best Apple in some areas.

With regards to the hardware, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is the first really iPad challenger. If you decide to buy a Motorola Xoom today or the Tab 10.1 when it’s released next month, you are, however, placing a bet on the fact that enough developers and publishers will also bet on Android as a tablet platform.

Given how far Android has come in the short time it’s been on the market, I wouldn’t bet against it – especially now that those 5,000 developers who attended Google I/O have a tablet in hand.

Disclaimer: Google provided free Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablets to all Google I/O attendees, including members of the press.