It’s been a good week for tablets. The updated iPad Mini was the undisputed highlight of a lacklustre Apple event on Tuesday, and less than 24 hours later the Xiaomi Pad 5 pulled off the exact same trick.
In Apple's case, the iPad Mini’s appeal was heightened because, let's face it, the iPhone 13 and Apple Watch 7 are really just iterations on their predecessors and the new tablet was a significant update.
But the same can’t be said for Xiaomi’s tablet, which launched alongside the impressive Xiaomi 11T and 11T Pro – the latter being the company’s first Western release to boast blisteringly fast 120W wired charging.
No, the Xiaomi Pad 5 stood out in its own right: a £369/€349 Android tablet that packs in an 11in, 120Hz, 2.5K display; a flagship chipset in the Snapdragon 860; and fast 33W charging for its generous 8720mAh battery.
To put that into perspective, it’s a tablet that’s only a little more expensive than Apple’s newly updated 10.2in iPad in the UK (and is in fact cheaper than it in Europe!) but offers a bigger, smoother-running display, double the storage, and faster charging. Oh, and did I mention that it’s thinner, too?
It’s even more impressive in person than on paper, with a straight-edged metal body that brings to mind Apple’s premium iPad Pros rather than its similarly priced entry-level models. It's lightweight and comfortable to hold despite the big display, and the support for a stylus positions it to cover productivity users as well as those looking for a portable Netflix screen.
Of course, Apple being outclassed on hardware by Android alternatives is nothing new, but then again, there’s also no sign yet that the iPadOS dev team has anything to fear from any of its Android rivals on the software side.
What's notable is that the challenge is coming from a tablet. After a brief boom in the iPad’s early days, ‘tablet’ has become a bit of a dirty word for most Android manufacturers, and just about everyone except Samsung stopped making the things. Even the Galaxy giant has continued in part out of duress, one suspects, as it doggedly insists that it has an ecosystem to rival Apple’s.
Once pitched primarily as laptop replacements, Android tablets never got much love – or did much to earn it, for the most part. Much of the blame for this has to lie squarely at Google’s feet, as little effort was ever made to adapt the Android OS for larger tablet displays, with the result that they mostly just felt like big phones.
Coupled with manufacturers’ reluctance to build premium, productivity-focused Android slates (and app developers optimising their apps for large screens) what you got was a load of cheap hardware with bad software, marketed as laptop replacements but in reality barely capable of note-taking.
It took Apple years to upgrade its iPad line with the Pro models and build out its accessory ecosystem, but at least the core iPad has always remained an excellent value proposition, with rock-solid hardware paired with software and apps that were actually – believe it or not - developed with big displays in mind. Even the most ardent Android enthusiast – and I generally include myself in that camp – has long had to recommend iPads over most other options.
Outflanked by Apple on one side and Microsoft’s push for convertible Windows laptop/tablet hybrids, it wasn’t long before the Android tablet marketplace coalesced into two main groups: cheap-as-chips budget tablets dominated by the Amazon Fire line, and premium devices like the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Huawei MatePad line, built to bolster the companies’ broader product portfolios.
And so it was for years.
Until 2021. Not only has the Xiaomi Pad 5 launched globally – after previous models were kept for the Chinese market – but it’s only the start. Realme has announced its own budget offering for India – the Realme Pad – and leaks suggest that parent company Oppo has its own tablet in the works.
Nokia and Vivo are also tipped to announce their own debut tablets, while Huawei-offshoot Honor could also be working on its first tablet since becoming an independent company. Huawei bet big on its own MatePad line this year, using them as the launchpad for its HarmonyOS software, and Samsung is expected to double down on its Galaxy Tab line by unveiling a foldable model some time next year, along with the expected Tab S8 update.
All of a sudden, Android tablets are in.
So what changed? Perhaps not what you think.
Yes, the pandemic no doubt played a part, with more of us retreating into our homes 24/7 or adopting hybrid work models where the tablet slots in neatly: web browsing from bed at home, streaming downloaded Netflix content on the commute, and a lightweight work device for those increasingly rare office days.
But the tablet’s return has been in the works before Covid reared its ugly head, and its most likely that the pandemic’s influence has primarily been to help justify extending some of these launches – like the Xiaomi Pad 5 – worldwide, rather than limiting them to the Chinese market.
The growth in streaming services has likely played a larger part. Netflix was only a burgeoning upstart when the iPad first took off, but as Hollywood pivots entirely to streaming there’s an increasing argument for video-friendly built for streaming – seen most clearly in Xiaomi’s decision to go big on the Pad 5’s display specs while remaining relatively conservative elsewhere.
But I don’t think that’s the real reason that Android tablets are about to pop up everywhere again. For that, we’ve got to go back to the form factor’s biggest benefactor in its darkest days: Samsung. And why did Samsung keep making tablets for years? Like I said before: ecosystem.
It’s no longer enough to be a phone company – you have to be a tech company, to cater for every element of your customers’ lives. Apple will outfit you with everything from a laptop to a bank card. Samsung will go further and cover your TV and dishwasher needs. Give Xiaomi half a chance and it’ll sell you every electronic device in your home, from your toothbrush to an air fryer – a device that's bundled in with the 11T Pro in the UK, just in case you forgot Xiaomi made air fryers.
Ask anyone why Apple has retained its market dominance for so long, and ‘ecosystem’ is likely to be high on the list. Once you buy one bit of Apple kit, you might as well just buy Apple everything - because they just work together. Unsurprisingly, now everyone else wants a piece of the action, which is the main reason it’s now almost impossible to buy a phone without someone trying to give you a free pair of true wireless headphones to go with it!
Whether anyone buys them or not, tablets are a key part of the modern tech ecosystem – not least because Apple makes them, and so everyone has to.
Sales figures won’t dictate whether or not big tech brands keep making Android tablets, but simply how many they’ll make. If tablets sell, expect the market to be flooded with a range of models at different price points, with frequent updates to include the latest specs. If they don’t, expect each to release one tablet every once in a while, mostly for show.
I may sound cynical here – and no doubt I am – but there is a clear upside for the tablet buyers that are out there. The arid Android tablet marketplace is about to flourish. That means more choice for consumers, competition that should drive improved quality, renewed pressure on Google to build better tablet support into Android, and even a little incentive to Apple to keep its iPad line competitive.
Android tablets are back.
Well...at least until foldables kill them off again. But I’d give ‘em a few years at least.