Google announces I/O 2016, and it’s high time to fix Android tablet apps

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai has just announced the company’s latest I/O conference — apparently Google

is locating it “where it all started 10 years ago,” at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View,

CA on May 18-20. I’m sure there will be much goodness with the next-generation Android N, Google Cardboard,

self-driving cars, Chrome OS, and all other things Google, even as Android 6.0 Marshmallow is still

making its way to more and more existing devices.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s now 2016. Android has been out for eight years, a serious player for six years,

and on tablets for five. Android tablets took a few years to really get going; for a while,

there were lots of them, and all of them are mediocre. That’s changed. If you’re looking to buy a new tablet,

there are several excellent contenders with beautiful high-res screens, fast processors,

and solid gaming potential — I’m thinking of the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 8.0, the Asus ZenPad S 8.0,

and the Google Nexus 9, and that’s just off the top of my head.


You can get Android tablets with keyboards or without. You can get them with 6-inch displays and

24-inch displays, and those displays can be eye-popping AMOLED or balanced IPS.

Many of them offer more capable multitasking and/or note-taking features than the iPad

(which Apple is busy rectifying with the new iPad Pro and Pencil). You can get Android tablets with a

variety of customized interface layers, although that’s usually considered more of a con than a pro.

Nonetheless, there are excellent Android tablets to buy, and it’s been a long time since the iPad was

the only game in town.

And yet. And yet. The tablet app situation on Android is still a mess.

Back when I was working for our sister site PCMag, my colleague and friend Sascha Segan wrote a detailed

comparison test of tablet apps on iOS and Android. To give you an idea of the results, the title was

“The iPad wins because Android tablet apps suck: An illustrated guide.” It’s now almost four years later,

and in his recent Pixel C review, he states the case once more:


“The main problem is, many Android apps aren’t designed for large screen in landscape orientation.

Load up Facebook, Twitter, or even Google Docs on a tablet like this, and instead of a smart interface

tailored for a big screen, you essentially see the phone interface that’s stretched wide with lots of

white space on the sides or in the middle. The situation has gotten a bit better with time —

Microsoft Word, Evernote, and Autodesk Sketchbook, for instance, all are truly tablet-friendly now.

But many big-name apps still lag behind.

“Because of the way the UIs are designed, this is a smaller problem on 7-inch tablets primarily used

in portrait mode, and a larger problem on 10-inch tablets that snap into a landscape dock.

That’s part of why the Nexus 7 did so well…Apple twists its developers’ arms to make sure tablet apps

have tablet UIs. Google says it’ll bring multi-window capabilities officially with Android N,

which is seven months away.”


Ever since that Nexus 7 hit in 2012 — arguably the first excellent Android tablet, and a real bargain at

$200 at the time — it’s been clear Google needed to revamp its tablet app situation.

But Google leaves it up to developers, who often don’t bother to make a tablet-specific version.

And while phones are getting larger — you could argue a 6-inch Nexus 6 (pictured above) is practically a

7-inch Android tablet, so who cares — there are still different use cases involved.

You read books, watch movies, and play larger-screen games on tablets. You hold them differently.

As a result, an app designed on a phone may not be all that great on a tablet.

From four years ago (when Sascha wrote that story) to now, you would think nothing has changed.

There’s finally a tablet section for apps in Google Play, but it’s super-weak.

Pixel-density doubling is not the answer, was never the answer, and will never be the answer for larger tablets.

For large screens, you need UIs that are tailored to the device. Between that and the continuing sorry

state of Android fragmentation, the app situation for Android tablets remains a disaster.

We’ll be watching to see what Google announces at I/O; we always expect great things from Mountain View

and aren’t often disappointed. But we fear this situation isn’t going to improve.

Let’s hope the company proves us wrong.