Jelly Bean for 7-inch tablets is a confused, bipolar hybrid

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: July 9, 2012

Two weeks ago, I touched on the topic of 7-inch tablets. I had tried three 7-inch tablets as personal devices and found them to be too "in between" or "supplementary" to replace the likes of the iPad or even larger Android slabs. Last week, that number grew to four, and to my surprise, the verdict has slightly changed.

Slightly. No, I did not have a radical change of heart; I do not prefer 7-inch slabs. I still find them too small to replace a larger tablet, hardly more useful than a smartphone and a bit awkward to use. But the Nexus 7 has been a much more promising experience than any of the other smaller slabs I've used ... That is, except for one thing: how confused the interface is.

Prior to Android 3.0 – or Honeycomb – Android had one main interface that was intended for use with smartphones. Along with Honeycomb, the tablet-specific version of Android, came a tablet-specific interface and apps. It took the pull-down notification shade we all have come to know and love to the bottom left corner, and notifications became pop-up, Growl-style. The app drawer button on tablet interface is located in the upper right corner of the home screen instead of bottom center. And it changed the standard four-by-four square grid to a more appropriate eight-by-seven grid to accompany the primarily landscape 16:9 aspect ratio of most Android tablets.

The way it is setup, though, Android did not have to be forked, and the phone and tablet versions of Android were merged in version 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich. Depending on screen size and the preferences of the device manufacturer, Android is coded to automatically set the proper interface based on screen size.

Most people accepted this change as something that Android was in much need of. The standard Android interface was hardly accommodating for larger displays, and Google could not have approached and solved the problem more perfectly. However, some people complained about a mental context switch and how using an Android phone is not exactly like using an Android tablet. For contrast, the iPad and iPhone have been used. Aside from the size of the home screen grid and paned views on the iPad (versus paginated views on the iPhone), everything looks exactly the same on every version of iOS.

As I explained, though, a mental context switch isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially between devices that will be used and held in vastly different manners. Kudos to Google for recognizing this.

Two weeks ago, however, Google arguably took a step in the wrong direction. They unveiled the Nexus 7 tablet and Android 4.1 Jelly Bean during the opening Google I/O 2012 developers conference keynote. The very first thing I noticed upon seeing the tablet was a phone-like interface. But it isn't exactly like the stock Android phone interface either, it's scaled appropriately with a six-by-six home screen grid and six customizable icons in the stationary bottom dock. The 7-inch home screen is locked in portrait and the notification shade is back to the top, like the phone interface, whereas the larger tablet interface is primarily intended for landscape use but can be used in either orientation.

When Computerworld's JR Raphael reached out to Google for clarification on the oddball interface, a Google spokesperson said different tablet sizes will display differently with Jelly Bean. The familiar 10-inch interface will remain unchanged and 7-inch slabs will have a separate interface. (It is unknown yet which interface tablets in between the two sizes will default to.) And if developers code their applications properly, there should be little to no hiccups with applications displaying properly on tablets, regardless of size.

Okay, so there's a third, hybrid Android interface. No big deal, right?

Well, not exactly. I've been using the Nexus 7 for just shy of a week now and the more applications I download, the more I realize just how bi-polar and confused the 7-inch tablet really is. It's as if it can't decide whether it's actually a tablet or a smartphone. Some applications display as tablet apps and others display the smartphone interface. For example, the Google+ and Gmail applications display in their tablet forms while the Google Reader application (which is tablet-optimized) is paginated instead of paned. Astro File Manager, a file browser app which is tablet-optimized (it opens in a paned view on the Transformer Prime), displays as the smartphone app instead of the tablet version. And Plume, my Android Twitter client of choice, displays as the tablet app with a paned view in landscape mode.

Talk about a context switch ...

I've been mostly happy with the Nexus 7 so far, it's an extremely solid device, especially for the price. (Keep an eye out for my full review later on.) But if there is one thing that is killing my hopes and faith in the 7-inch tablet sector, it's how confused, bi-polar they are. They're certainly big enough to be considered tablets (and too big to really be considered smartphones, not to mention the missing wireless radios), but they still seem confused about what they are. Sometimes they want to be full-on tablets. Sometimes they don't. I had the same problem with the Kindle Fire, and even the 5.3-inch Galaxy Note.

At the end of the day, it's at the discretion of the manufacturer and the developers of applications, but there needs to be some sort of consensus about how to handle smaller tablets. The constant switching back and forth between tablet interface and smartphone interface is not only confusing, it's aggravating, annoying and it ultimately kills the polish of the device.

Tell me, ladies and gents. Have you found the constant switching between tablet-optimized and smartphone applications to be a blow to 7-inch tablets' quality? Does it bother you at all? What is your stance on a third Android interface?

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