I'm now starting to feel outright sorry for vendors of general-purpose Android tablets. Is there another group of manufacturers that have shown worse timing over the last year?
Their first round of tablets cost as much or more as the iPad, functioned more like giant-screen Android phones and arrived only months before the iPad 2 crushed them in the market. Another round running the tablet-optimized Honeycomb version of Android suffered from that release's bugginess, then saw Apple's new iOS 5 copy some of Android's better features. Some of the newest Android tablets have tried competing on price, right in time for Amazon's new Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's upcoming Nook Tablet, each running an offshoot of Google's operating system geared towards e-books, to beat them on that score.
And in the bargain, one of their major selling points — the ability to play Flash multimedia — got stamped with an expiration date last week when Adobe said it would stop developing the mobile Flash player.
What else can a vendor do? Consider what Vizio has tried with its Vizio Tablet.
This Wi-Fi device, 1.28 lbs. with an 8-in. touchscreen, doesn't bring the most impressive components. Its slow processor had common operations like opening programs looking sluggish compared to new Android phones. Its battery allowed some six hours of Web radio playback with the screen on but only retained 62 percent of a charge after 24 hours idling. Its scant 2.4 gigabytes of available storage can be expanded with a microSD Card, but you may need tweezers to extract one from its recessed slot.
Having already shipped this hardware, Vizio can't do much about its limits now. But it can tweak the Tablet's price, which has dropped from $329 to a list price of $269.99 and has fallen under $200 at some retailers. Sadly, that's still barely cheaper than the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet.
What about software? There, Vizio's gotten a little more creative by trying to package this thing as a counterpart to its TVs. Since its introduction in June, Netflix and Hulu Plus have arrived for the device; the latter has yet to be supported on other Android tablets and comes with a free three-month trial. A micro-HDMI port can connect either app to an HDTV. Vizio also bundled the Tablet with an allegedly universal remote-control app. That's less attractive: It partially controlled two HDTVs but (after a tedious testing process) didn't recognize a Sony soundbar/receiver.
What that left was a decent but unremarkable, Web-first, apps-second tablet — less than my first impression suggested. I've appreciated having the review unit loaned by Vizio (so have enough buyers, considering it's sold out at Vizio's site), but I won't mind shipping it back.
Where does this leave Android vendors? Apple's unwillingness to make a sub-$499 tablet with a screen smaller than the iPad's 9.7 inches still leaves a healthy chunk of the market open. The new Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android, fusing phone and tablet support, looks promising too, although Vizio hasn't committed to supporting it on the Tablet. But if these manufacturers can't beat a $200 price (remember, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble's new tablets each run a subset of Android apps), they're going to have to provide a much more polished meld of hardware and software than what I've seen in devices like the Vizio Tablet.
I suppose there's always next year.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery