For Android tablets, 8 (inches) is the new 7

commentary Today's selection of Android 8-inchers, while rather pricey, are showing more creative differentiation than we're used to seeing in the 7-inch category.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8
The Samsung Galaxy Note 8: This tablet comes with a stylus. Josh Miller/CNET

The tablet market had its breakthrough moment when Apple's iPad arrived sporting a nearly 10-inch screen. Later, much of the significant action among tablets centered on those in the 7-inch realm.

In general, the 7-inch size marks the border between so-called phablets and proper tablets. The group has included the first Android tablet, the original Galaxy Tab from Samsung, the first Nexus-branded tablet from Google (and Asus), and the first Amazon Kindle Fire, introduced at $199, which represented a new pricing benchmark.

But since the introduction of those models, tablet market prices have spiraled down, attracting a glut of 7-inch Android devices. Walmart, no less, has several exclusives. Many of these are available for less than $150 and some for even less than $100. With the range of budget products coming from companies including Hewlett-Packard, Monster Products, and Vivitar, it has been tough to differentiate based on anything but price.

But if tablet brands aren't finding seventh heaven, perhaps eight will allow for one-upmanship. Over the years, several companies tried dancing around the 8-inch mark, with Motorola introducing the 8.2-inch version of its Xoom tablet and Samsung unveiling a 7.7-inch Galaxy Tab as part of what once seemed a crusade to leave no third-of-an-inch increment without a tablet representative.

Variety does seem to have spiced things up, however. Today's selection of Android 8-inchers, while more expensive, are showing more creative differentiation than we're seeing in the 7-inch category. Among the entrants:

The starter pack: E Fun. One of the companies that's slugging it out at Walmart in the 7-inch category, E Fun has long offered tablets in larger sizes as well. The Premium 8HD edition of its Nextbook tablet was one of its first to support Google Play, a huge improvement from the SlideMe store that had previous limited its app selection. Your price of your ticket to this Play, though, leaves no doubt that some 8-inchers are ready to follow their smaller cousins into the bargain basement: $99 at Walmart.com.

The widebody: Acer. An early entrant into the budget 8-inch space, the Acer Iconia A1 came to market after Acer had been early to jump on the Android tablet bandwagon with the 10.1-inch A500. Unlike that device but like the Nextbook, the A1 has a display with a 4:3 aspect ratio, the same as the iPad Mini. While the wide bezels make the A1 somewhat hard to handle one-handed, many people prefer this for viewing photos, Web pages, and other documents. That said, the A1 is a significant step up from the Nextbook in terms of performance and support for Bluetooth.

The scribbler: Samsung. Samsung actually has two 8-inch Android tablets; the 8-inch version of the Galaxy Tab 3 is the middle child of the ho-hum Tab line that includes 7-inch and 10-inch models. The nearly identical 8-inch Galaxy Note , though, includes an S-Pen and its optimized apps and gestures for which the handset king is eager to build developer support, landing the 8-inch Note between the large Note 3 smartphone and the very large but high-resolution Note 10.1 or, in other words, nearly the perfect size for one-handed padlike applications.

Lenovo Yoga tablet
The Lenovo Yoga tablet takes a stand. James Martin/CNET

The standup: Lenovo. After dabbling in the 7-inch Android tablet space, Lenovo has bridged the worlds between the pancake-flat iPad Air and the kickstand-equipped Microsoft Surface with the Yoga Tablet . The device, also available in a 10-inch version, includes a cylindrical side that can be rotated to reveal a kickstand suitable for movie watching, and the company throws in Dolby Digital audio processing to augment that task. The Yoga Tablet's roll bar makes for great battery life and provides a bit of tilt for typing and a handle for reading. Lenovo has attempted to extend the Yoga brand by saying this extends the tablet to a number of modes (including a dubious "hold mode"), but putting all the battery on one side of the device does allow the rest of it to be quite svelte.

As the Nextbook Premium 8HD shows, these step-up tablets aren't necessarily high-end goods, but there's significant pressure to step up the game even at the lower end of the size spectrum. The 8-inch tablets must justify their premium over the cheaper 7-inchers. They also have to compete against the smallest tablet size for ("real", x86-based) Windows tablets that include Microsoft Office.

And of course, there's the king of the tablet hill, the iPad, which is available in an 8-inch Mini version. Apple's latest lineup leaves plenty of room to maneuver around between the original, now at $299, and the new Retina Display-equipped model mocking the iPad 2 at $399. When it comes to Android, though, a smaller screen doesn't have to equate to a smaller number of options.

 

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