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Google needs to prove it's serious about Android tablets before we can take them seriously

Android 12L Tablet Phone
Android 12L Tablet Phone (Image credit: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

Recent reports indicate that Google is giving its tablet division some new love with its somewhat recent hire. The company brought in Rich Miner as its CTO of Android tablets, a role that he's held since March 2021, according to his LinkedIn page (opens in new tab). Given that Miner is one of the founders of Android, the largest smartphone OS, it sounds like Google is finally taking a fresh look at the Android tablet space.

While Android 12L might be more focused on improving the platform for the best foldable phones, bigger screen devices like tablets are also benefitting the upcoming update. It's shaping up to be a decent first step to making Android tablets truly great, but it'll take more than a fresh coat of paint to convince anyone.

Android 12L is a good first step

Our Alex Dobie took a look at the Android 12L beta, which is only running on a Lenovo Tab P12 Pro at the moment, and notes that the UI is a marked improvement over previous attempts at a proper tablet interface. Instead of just being a blown-up phone UI, Google is including software elements that actually make sense on a larger screen, such as better split-screen support, a new taskbar à la iPadOS and Windows 11 and an app compatibility mode for the apps that aren't built for larger screen phones to make them display better on bigger screens.

That last part is kind of important, though, because while it addresses one of the biggest problems of the Android tablet experience, it also highlights it. You've got Android apps on Android tablets, but you'll find that not all of them are meant to be used on big screens and are just blown-up versions of the phone app, Instagram being a perfect example. It's a pretty unattractive experience and one that can only be properly fixed if developers are willing to fix it.

Android 12L Tablet Taskbar

Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

Especially when compared to iPadOS, it seemed like Google cared more about its app experience on iPads more than it did its own Android tablets.

Jitesh Ubrani, research manager for IDC's worldwide device tracker, says that while OS-level changes are necessary for Android tablets, developers are among the form factor's biggest challenges.

"While the OS has always been competent on tablets, the app experience has not," Urbani says in an interview. "Google's primary objective should be to convince developers to create app experiences that take advantage of the larger form factor."

Urbani says that while Android 12L looks like it's making the necessary UI changes for tablets, "Google has yet to mention what they're doing to incentivize developers to create apps that provide a better large screen experience and unless they invest heavily here, it may not be enough to renew interest in Android tablets."

Google can't just rely on Samsung

Samsung Galaxy Tab S7

Source: Joe Maring / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Joe Maring / Android Central)

According to IDC's latest numbers, tablet shipments have declined in Q4 2021. While iPad shipments were among them, Apple still holds the highest tablet share at more than 38%. Meanwhile, Samsung and Lenovo are trailing in second and third place, with just 15.9% and 10% share, respectively. As Google's top tablet OEMs, their combined share still falls behind Apple's, despite making some of the best Android tablets on the market.

Source: SamMobile One UI lets you pin apps to a taskbar on tablets. (Image credit: Source: SamMobile)

That said, the hardware is there, and Samsung, in particular, has seemingly gone out of its way to address Google's shortcomings when it comes to the software with One UI. That includes enhancements bought to last year's Galaxy Tab S7 series with One UI 3.1 and above, like a persistent taskbar and continuity features between your phone and tablet.

Given that many elements of Android 12 on phones seem to be borrowed from Samsung's One UI, I asked Urbani if it made sense for Google to partner with Samsung on building the software experience, similar to what it did with Wear OS 3. After all, thanks to the Galaxy Watch 4, Wear OS has managed an impressive market share gain as it finally catches up to Apple's WatchOS. However, Urbani says this would not work as well for tablets.

Leaning on Samsung for WearOS made sense as Samsung had plenty of hardware expertise and the smartwatch market, especially for Google, was quite nascent. The tablet market is noticeably larger and by favouring one partner, Google would risk souring its relationship with many other tablet, smartphone, and PC partners. Additionally, Samsung doesn't have as much of a leg up when it comes to tablet hardware as most of the components in tablets are highly commoditized.

Still, with its impressive hardware, including what we expect from the company's upcoming Galaxy Tab S8 series, Samsung remains the premiere OEM for Android tablets, just as it is with Android phones and now Wear OS smartwatches. And therein lies another problem with Google's tablet dreams.

We need first-party hardware from Google

Google needs its own tablet. The last tablet hardware we got from the search giant was the Pixel Slate from 2015, and not only did we not get a sequel, but the tablet ran Chrome OS. Since then, it's been clear that the company's focus has been on improving the experience for the best Chromebooks and Chrome OS tablets while Android tablets have been left by the wayside.

Chrome OS tablets are also run Android apps, and longer support lives, but they don't really give Google the "iPad killer" we're all looking for. Instead, models like the Lenovo Chromebook Duet 5 are more akin to a Microsoft Surface than an iPad; just a tablet with a desktop OS that's not fully optimized for mobility.

Pixel Slate and Surface Go

Source: Android Central Pixel Slate (left), like the Surface Go (right), was a mini-laptop, not a true touch-first tablet experience. (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

On the other hand, Android is a mobile-first platform more suited for touch screen tablets, particularly since that's the primary input method for Android apps. Apple keeps things simple by clearly separating its macOS devices and iPads, but Google has somewhat blurred the lines between its Chrome OS and Android tablets that it's a little confusing.

If Google wants to prove that it's serious about Android tablets, we need first-party hardware. We've made this argument before with Wear OS in hopes that we eventually end up with a Pixel Watch soon. Hopefully, Google can also give us another Pixel Slate or something like it running Android. If developers see Google putting its own money behind a product, they might actually be enticed to give us the app experiences that we deserve on tablets.

It's been rumored that Google is working on a foldable smartphone dubbed the Pixel "Notepad", which we expect was a precursor to developing Android 12L. But even with that in mind, it's fairly clear that the software is more foldable-oriented, with tablets simply benefitting from the new UI.

Back at Google I/O 2018, Google was called out for giving us mixed signals about whether we should care about Chrome OS tablets or Android tablets, particularly since the former more focused on the web than its Android apps. Sadly enough, Google's team didn't have much of a retort, making it plainly clear that it had no idea what it was doing when it came to Android tablets, and leaving the category in a sort of limbo, awkwardly squeezed between smartphones and foldables on one side, and Chrome OS tablets and laptops on the other.

Killing two birds with one stone

Galaxy Z Fold 3 Android 12l

Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

With Android 12L, the focus is slowly shifting back to Android tablets, even if it seems like Google wants us to care more about foldables. And even if that's the case, the growing foldables market will eventually force developers to better optimize their apps for larger screens. Then, maybe, (hopefully,) we might finally get the Android tablet experience that will make them worth buying.

Like with Wear OS, Google is beginning to understand that it can't rest on its laurels, and it may eventually pay off down the road. Of course, we'll have to wait and see what we get when Android 12L rolls out to more phones and tablets, but Google is finally giving developers a reason to think bigger.

Derrek Lee
News Editor

Derrek is a long-time Nokia and LG fanboy who loves astronomy, videography, and sci-fi movies. When he's not working, he's most likely working out or smoldering at the camera.

26 Comments
  • There would also need to be consumer buy-in. If you can't get that then no amount of OS changes or developer incentives will be enough.
  • Exactly. Samsung are the most popular phone brand in a global perspective and they can't even win hearts and minds with their tablets.
  • i've bought two android tables in the past, one directly from google and one from samsung. both were bricked by system updates! both were impossible to re-initialize, either by design (google) or by the requirement of shipping it back to the manufacturer (samsung). i will never by another android table again. too many MBA's spoil the tablet (to paraphrase the old cooks/broth adage).
  • Custom ROM was the only way my Nexus 9 remained usable.
  • We went through a phase where we though we needed tablets daily and bough 2-3 different Samsung versions and as stated above, they pretty much quit updating each of them within a year and add to that we rarely used them like we thought we would. We were using our phones and laptops more. So we haven't owned a tablet in years.
  • Typical tech reviewer... They all sing the same song without having a clue... Can someone tell me what's wrong with any Samsung tablet for the everage consumer use?
  • They're running Android instead of Windows. I think Samsung should use their premium hardware chi (jeonglyeog?) to make a Surface killer instead of trying to make things happen with a platform neglected by Google the way only Google can.
  • Samsung already did and none of them sold well. They've not done it for a while now. Android and Windows are nothing alike as tablets. One is a blown up phone and one is a laptop forced on to a tablet. And yet both also work fine. Love my Surface Pro X.
  • That was a long time ago, though. Microsoft has built a pretty big Windows tablet business since then.
    The point is exactly that Windows and Android isn't alike. Microsoft actively develops their tablet user experience. Google does not. They sit on the internet, undermine their so called partners for no good reason. Doesn't matter if it's phones, watches or tablets. Same useless business partner everywhere. I'm pretty sure Microsoft has done more for Samsung on Android than Google. Not a joke, even though it should be.
  • Nothing, not at all. But a lot of apps are designed for phones. Which you know as an Android tablet user. So actually you already knew the answer. Facebook Messenger and Instagram STILL won't work in landscape. How hard would it be for Meta to fix these two very popular apps? A tonne of other examples. But agreed it still works fine. Having used a ChromeOS tablet I wouldn't go back to Android on a tablet, much to basic by comparison. Reality is they're big phones for the most part and I can do most tablet things on a large phone.
  • Did it self-destruct or something when it stopped updating then?
  • I still use a M5 tablet everyday. And I use it for hours at a time. I think the pandemic really made it more useful. When I was in an office, I would use my phone to stream music. Now I'm using the tablet and I can stream just about anything while I work. It's a much better experience with a larger screen. The few apps I have that don't have great tablet modes are all by Google and their biggest issue is not allowing for landscape mode unless it's playing full screen video. YouTube is particularly horrendous with this. The video is fine full screen but then playlists are all portrait. The same goes for YouTube Music. My teens have transitioned away from tablets since we got them Chromebooks. Again the larger screen and functionality is much better for them while at home. On the go they prefer their phones for the form factor. My biggest issue with tablets since the first Nexus 7 is just that they never feel built for the task. They're all too slow, don't have enough ram or base storage to take them on the go. If and when I upgrade it will likely be a smaller Chromebook like the duet, if only because the more affordable tablets lack the specs and it will get some support by the manufacturer longer.
  • I'm still using a 2nd Gen Nexus 7 tablet, albeit it is running LineageOS 18.1. It was very easy to convert it to the newer OS and it runs very well.
  • Hopefully Android 12L will improve the already great experience I am having with my Samsung Tab S7 LTE running Android 12...
  • I have been using Android tablets since the Nexus 5 and have never had much problems with any of then. I use each tablet until they die of old age after about 4 years of use each before replacement. I am currently using a 9" Asus.
  • What about carriers locking out Call and Text on Android devices? If you have a carrier Android phone, Call and Text won't work on any Android tablet. But Android tablets work with Iphones from every carrier. This is where much of the problem is. Apple has a hold on the carriers, but Samsung, Google, or Lenovo are held captive.
  • This is a US centric issue. I'm not even sure what you mean to be honest. What's Call and Text on a tablet of all things? Why would you even be buying a tablet from the carrier? Do you mean Mobile Hotspot? I've never had an issue using it personally, except when roaming.
  • How long before Google shuts the division down?
  • 2019. Google shut down their Android tablet division 3 YEARS ago but Android Central and their like won't give up on it.
  • Why buy an Android tablet which has a limited support life, when a Chrome tablet is supported much longer and will run Android apps?
  • Give it a rest guys. Do we really need a monthly opinion piece on why Android tablets suck? Google made it clear back in 2019 they're done with making Android tablets. Why are Android Central staff so blind to this reality?
  • The Pixel Slate is from 2018. You're getting it mixed up with the Pixel C. The last Google Android tablet from 2015.
  • ChromeOS is also designed for mobility and is mobile first. It's built around a Web browser 🤦‍♂️ You mean it's not tablet first. Which isn't the same thing.
  • Did you watch the same Google II 2018 video as I did? Just watched it and it's pretty clear. He spends the whole time talking about ChromeOS tablets. Not Android tablets. Because Android tablets are like Google Hangouts. Not dead but Google has no interest in them. This new work is for Foldables.
  • Google needs to prove it can build any hardware correctly before moving on to tablets. Pixels have major issues every year.
  • I don't know why Google are bothering really. If you're a normal consumer in the market for a tablet, why would you look any further than an iPad? Personal opinion: Google should concentrate on making the tablet experience on Chromebooks better, rather than making a tablet OS. Peace out to all you tablet form-factor lovers though ☮️✌️