Is Half A Tablet Better Than None?

by , Nov 18, 2010, 2:02 PM
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I am trying to get my hands around the new Android-powered Sprint Galaxy Tab -- literally. It is a slippery thing. You would think that a smaller tablet with a 7-inch screen actually would be easier to handle than its 11-inch rival from Apple. But one-handed use actually stretches my admittedly dainty hands. Thumb typing in portrait mode is nominally better here than on the iPad, but landscape mode is too small for full-hand typing and too large for thumb typing.

I am really not as fixated as I sound here. In fact, there is an in-between-ness to this form factor and to the early state of the Android ecosystem that keeps me repositioning this tablet to figure out how and where it fits in to a media lifestyle. More so than with the iPad, it has me dancing between thinking it is a discrete mobile experience and feeling as if it is a big honkin' Android phone.

On paper at least, Android as a platform certainly looks to be ascendant. Not only are more devices with the OS being sold across multiple vendors, but app development and ad buying are moving in their direction. Millennial Media reports this morning that October was the first month in which an equal share of ads served in its system went to Android and iOS (37% each). On the tablet side, market researcher IMS is predicting that 15 OEMs will be pumping out Android tablets in 2011 to capture more than 15% of the market.

Well, as it stands,  those millions of potential Android tablet users are going to be met with an experience that feels pretty much like a smartphone with a glandular condition. Even the WSJ app, among the few specifically formatted for Android tablets, looks a lot like a mildly modified phone app. Somebody ought to get Google's Android team to goose development of tablet-specific apps in the way Apple prepped its marquee developers to have something ready out of the gate for the iPad.

 I know that the Google geeks just love the hell out of the principle of open platforms where no one actually drives. Well, guess what? When it comes to creating media experiences that publishers and advertisers can get their heads around - somebody better be at the damned wheel. Some apps like Pandora and IMDB  reformat to the tablet dimensions well enough, but many are in a reduced window and more than a few just crash. And by the way, you don't want to know what a lot of the banner ads look like even when the apps scale well. Ugh!

The Web browsing is quite good. Flash is here, but it won't help you see movies and TV at Netflix or Hulu. Neither works. Of course this haphazard Android tablet app experience does give the carrier an opportunity to reassert itself a bit more convincingly. Sprint has a prominent section where it can push its football and NASCAR apps. Well, you can try. In both cases I got stuck in a "checking for updates" loop that never installed the apps.

As a handy, if not immersive, media player, the Galaxy does work fairly well, even if the choices are limited. The built-in Media Hub has film and TV for rent, and many of the early glitches with streaming media playback on Android appear to have been solved. YouTube scales well and is very snappy. Games actually stand out as the best experience in this mid-sized format. In landscape mode the thumbs are nicely positioned for play in driving games and (most important) Angry Birds.

But the ultimate question for the half-sized form factor many of the iPad competitors are choosing is this: Does a device at this scale have the kind of engagement Apple was able to achieve with the larger iPad and its tablet-ready app library? The basic usability of a 7-inch screen makes it something less than a lap device that invites lean-back experiences. In the few days I have been trying to weave the Galaxy into my evening browsing activities, my tendency is to hold it up at eye level, pretty much the way I do with a smartphone. This seems to change my eagerness to spend long periods with it drilling into my regular media haunts. Print media, which has been relishing in the page-sized layouts the iPad offers, will have to rethink formatting and find some in-between solution that likely will be less immersive.

It is that in-betweenness of the Galaxy that has me stumped about where I would fit it in. Just as the iPad presses against the laptop's functionality without really replacing it (at least for me), the Galaxy format is close enough to the smartphone that you wonder if it could just replace your mobile phone altogether. But still, the media consumption experience here is notably less compelling to me at this point than it is on an iPad. That may change as more apps appear that are designed for an in-between format. But for now, ghe first serious contender in the tablet space feels not only half-sized but half-baked.     

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