How Google’s Nexus 7 exposes the big myth about Android tablets

August 22, 2013

Before I walk straight into hate from Twitter trolls and Android fanboys, perhaps I should emphasize that I have no particular allegiance to one operating system or another.

I own a Windows PC and a Windows Phone, which are both pretty good. I had a fantastic Android phone, have an appalling Android tablet and an iPad which I really rate highly.

But I have an issue with “budget” Android tablets, and that is they really aren't as affordable as they might appear. Let me explain.

Android tablets age faster than iPads

There is a tendency among tech reviewers, and I include myself in this, to see the specs and the price of an Android tablet and highlight it as a good deal. That is especially true of $99 tablets like Asus’ MemoPad HD or models from Acer, Hisense, Idolian and others.

But this perception of “value” really needs to be looked over. Take the first-generation Nexus 7, for example, which was superseded by the new model at the end of last month.

The original Nexus 7 was generally well-rated. It had a relatively powerful processor, a decent screen, a premium build and it ran the latest iteration of Android (which is no surprise seeing as how Google essentially uses the Nexus family to show OEM partners how Android devices should be made).

The price wasn’t bad too, starting at $199 and going up to $229, both of which are within shouting distance of Amazon’s Kindle Fire.

But then that value doesn’t look so great when it comes to longevity. Many original Nexus 7 owners complained that the Nexus 7 slowed down as it filled with storage or even when it updated to Android 4.2. Others reported a slow-down after syncing on Google Currents, the news aggregating app.

Dustin Early of Android Community recently detailed how his Nexus 7 went from his best tablet to his worst in 12 months, while TabTimes contributing editor Derek Walter saw “significant slowdown after 8 months”.

Why was this? Put simply, it was the way the tablet's low-level software wrote information onto the Flash storage, and this often caused the tablet to fill up — and slow down — pretty quickly. Thankfully, the support for TRIM in Android 4.3 has now apparently solved that problem on original Nexus 7s (providing they've updated to Android 4.3).

So a $200 tablet lasted around 8 months. That’s $25 a month, which also works out the same for my $100 Android tablet, which I stopped using after about four months.

On the basis that my $399 16GB iPad 2 has lasted for almost two years without fault (approximately $18 per month), I’d say that Android tablets may not be so valuable after all.

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Android owners may not be using their tablets

But a failed promise of affordability is not Android’s only problem. The frantic updating of operating systems, a lack of quality tablet apps – something Google has at least acknowledged – and distribution are also causes for concern.

I am particularly interested in the cycle of Android operating systems. Android moves quicker than iOS (Google updated to Android 4.1 in June 2012 and 4.2 to November, with 4.3 available only 8 months later, while iOS 7 is likely to launch one year after iOS 6), but it still feels odd that Sony feels the need to reassure owners of the Xperia Tablet Z – which only launched in 2013 – that Android 4.3 will be coming to the device.

Then there are the endless updates. The new Nexus 7 received two minor updates even before launch.

So with Android tablets quickly running older software, running slower and perhaps not as affordable as first thought, should we be surprised at Google’s claim of 70 million tablet activations?

Well, quickly frankly no, because — however attractive the price — it’s debatable how many of these users are actually using their device.

Enders Analysis consultant Benedict Evans recently penned an intriguing analysis on this by querying why, despite Android head Sundar Pichai claiming that one in two tablets are Android, the iPad continues to dominate for mobile browsing and mobile commerce.

He concluded that people may simply not be using their Android tablets.

“There are three possible interpretations of this: These tablets are being bought in emerging markets (but not China, since Chinese devices generally aren't activated and so won't be in these numbers) and not using western sites. They're being bought in developed markets and being used much less, or not at all.

“They're being bought and not used for the internet – they're cheap kids' tablets, baby monitors, points of sale devices…”

To summarize, don't be misled by those eye-catching prices and tales of growing Android market share. The issue with Android tablets is quality and not quantity (something Google has publicly acknowledged) and that's unlikely to change unless Google itself can prove that the Nexus 7 is a device for the long-term.

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