Knowing that we’re going to have to think about Android tablet development at some point, it was a matter of time before we picked one up. The perfect storm of frugality swooped in this week as Staples had a $100 off coupon for tablets, excluding the Nook, TouchPad, and one or two others. This coupon, plus a few rebate cards I’d been saving meant I was able to snag a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 for about $227. Sweet deal.
So – the big question – how is it, really?
I think at this point I’ve established myself as a fan of electronics, not just those made by Apple, so I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say that while a cool piece of kit, the Tab 10.1 is not quite there for me. I didn’t buy this thing just to bash it – I bought it because I need to understand platforms before we can design for them – so understand right off the bat that I’m not complaining about a review unit and sending it back, or on the Cupertino payroll (or Kool-Aid, depending on how you like to think of those things).
The simple fact of the matter is that for many people – specifically consumers – there isn’t a case for tablet computing yet. There is, however, a case for small pieces of software that deliver compelling experiences. Unfortunately, Android is not delivering them, and iOS is.
Case in point: when I went to Staples, I asked the sales guy for the 10.1 and the first thing he said was “What are you buying it for?” When I replied, “development”, he said “Ok, because this thing isn’t going to replace a laptop for you”. No problem, I assured him, we’re app devs, and we know what we’re doing. Then, the manager came over to verify the coupon I had and asked the same question again. Again I replied “development” and he asked “Of what?” rather indignantly.
“Uh, Android apps?” I replied incredulously.
“Oh, ok, because we’re selling a lot of these things, and we get a LOT of them back. People buy them thinking they’re getting rid of a laptop, and they all come back returning them.”
That doesn’t seem to be happening with iPads, because I think people’s expectations are set accordingly when they buy them. These are not full computing devices; they’re not built to be – and yet when you watch the commercials, what do you hear? The “full” internet. Flash. Do it all. Why wouldn’t people be disappointed when they can’t actually replace a computer with a device that promised they could?
But anyway, on to the Tab itself.
Physically, the 10.1 is a great feeling device in the hand. Thinner and lighter than you expect it to be, with a gorgeous screen and all the requisite hardware checkboxes filled. I’m not sure how I feel about the 16:9 frame, though. No, scratch that, I’m pretty sure I don’t like it. I wasn’t sure that Apple was right about the iPad’s 4:3 ratio, but after having one as my only tablet for over a year and then spending a good deal of time with the 10.1, I’m pretty sure Steve was right. It feels too long horizontally, and way too tall vertically. Don’t get me wrong – I could get used to it, if I had to, but I’m kind of glad I don’t have to. Overall, it’s a very nicely built device, though. While still somewhat plastic-y, Samsung made it feel decent.
The Honeycomb OS is light years ahead of where Android started, and it really shows. It’s really quite nice, and my initial experience with the 10.1 was very different from the one I had when I handled my first G-1 at a party a few years ago. Both the UI design and the functionality have added a great deal of value to the device, and I’m really looking forward to seeing future Android devices as the system continues to mature. There’s an incredible amount of customization available on the platform, and that attracts both regular folks and tinkerers alike. I would have liked to see a little more in terms of basic stuff, like wallpapers (since some of what ships default with the 10.1 is like showing an overcaffeinated toddler the gradient tool in Photoshop), but hey, that’s what the internet is for. There are plenty of wallpaper apps in the Market. The attention to detail in small things like the bar at the bottom of the display that has a lot of useful controls baked into it shows that Google really is trying to make the entire interface less for engineers and more for real, actual users. And there’s cool stuff tucked away, like the recently viewed button, which upon tapping, brings a vertical ribbon of apps you’ve been to lately (along with a thumbnail of the activity) – a nice touch, and very useful. Credit where credit is due.
Where it falls apart for me (and likely for most people) is in the user experience surrounding software availability. I fully recognize that there isn’t a ton of software available to Android tablets right now, and that Honeycomb is still an OS that most people don’t have and aren’t developing for, based on market numbers. This is not a problem germane to the 10.1, or any other Android tablet in particular. However, for the amount of marketing and push that these tablets are getting, there should absolutely be not only a wide range of options, but a clearly delineated path with which to reach them. Android Market has neither. You can search for “tablet”, and you hit quite a few things, and you can search for “Honeycomb”, and reach some others, but you have things like themes and wallpapers for phones in the Honeycomb style that make their way into your search. Apple has two sides of the App Store – iPhone and iPad – and it’s completely obvious where the tablet apps are. I’m an experienced user, so I’m figuring things out, but I can’t imagine someone who isn’t comfortable with this stuff having much fun doing the same.
More importantly, by this point in the iPad’s life cycle, there was a huge number of apps available for the platform, and I just don’t feel that happening for Android tablets. Is it because there’s just too much disparity in the sizes and specs? Possibly, but I think it has a lot to do with what I mentioned earlier. If consumers are returning tablets, why develop for them at all? Stick to the phones. Hence, people simply aren’t finding the kind of software they expect to find when they try to download, and it’s causing disappointment. I’m not talking about the geeks, rooting and playing. I’m talking about regular people for whom “unlocked bootloader” might as well be a foreign language.
Honeycomb, as I said, is fantastic. Unfortunately, run an app that’s built for a phone on it, and suddenly it’s not so pretty anymore. It doesn’t scale proportionately the way the iPad does (even if the pixel doubling does look like crap), but instead stretches everything so there’s a ton of wasted space everywhere. And while I’m perfectly content to dig around in settings and adjust fonts and scaling to make it look halfway decent, why would any normal person even think to do that? It should just look good when you open it.
But very little does. Even apps built for tablets might be built for smaller tablets, and behave similarly, and the apps I tried that were built for this size were sorely lacking in design. I know we all kind of assume Android apps don’t look as great as iOS apps, but some of the stuff I saw that touted “built from the ground up for Honeycomb tablets” looks like they didn’t get past the foundation. If your flagship app looks like a development test with some gradients thrown on, you’re doing something wrong.
I guess I’m really most saddened by the fact that I still don’t see a contender in this market. I love Apple stuff, but I want so badly to be able to have something else that’s as good, if only for a change of pace from iOS. I’m a demanding geek, and that’s not going to change. As of right now, Apple’s still the only company giving in to those demands.