In the end, 2012 was the year we really meant it when we said it was the year of the tablet. Sure, such things have been declared before, but this was the first year when you couldn't just substitute “iPad” for "tablet" and call it a day. Ever since the Apple iPad's introduction in early 2010, the rise of the tablet has been a given. However, it wasn't until 2012 that the competition began to catch up, and genuine alternatives to Apple's juggernaut came to market.
Apple: Leading in apps and hardware
Make no mistake: With 23 million iPads sold this quarter alone (according to analysts at Citi), and with the introduction of the 7-inch iPad Mini, Apple's iPad line continues to dominate the market. On top of that, Apple's iOS has enjoyed a clear and resounding lead when it comes to apps, and it remains the platform to beat in this arena, with 300,000-plus apps optimized for the iPad's large 9.7-inch display.
When you look at the numbers, Android continues to lag behind. Google still doesn't quantify how many Android apps are optimized for tablets, and the company has been pushing Android developers to create one app to service both phones and tablets, which makes coming up with a solid number of tablet apps more difficult. Meanwhile, competitors are lagging further still. Microsoft's Windows 8 has had, at last guess, some 6000 apps released for its modern, touch-optimized interface. Amazon's Kindle Fire series relies on its own Appstore, and that means you're limited to about 10,000 apps, not all of which are optimized for the larger tablet displays. Barnes & Noble's Nook HD is limited to that company's count of over 1000 apps.
Still, the app situation is getting better on other platforms. And it's not just about the sheer numbers of apps—it's also about the quality of the apps, and whether you can find the types you need for a tablet. For many consumers, the relatively limited app selection on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Windows 8 tablets might represent a worthwhile trade-off for what those tablets offer. But for people who cherish the latest and most talked-about apps, or who want apps that are tied to nifty gadgets, iOS generally remains the platform of choice.
What was big in tablets
We've been evaluating tablets throughout the year, and we can say unequivocally that this was the most active and interesting year in tablets since the iPad first hit stores. Although we saw some lackluster releases with questionable specs, and we continue to encounter a plethora of unknown wannabes vying for the attention of bargain seekers, we mostly saw the overall choices in the market grow significantly stronger.
Apple set the stage for the year, as expected, with its release of the first high-pixel-density tablet, the third-generation iPad. With its 2048-by-1556-pixel resolution, which translates into 264 pixels per inch, the $499 iPad reset expectations for what a tablet screen could deliver, visually. Later in the spring, Asus's $499 Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 and Acer's $450 Iconia Tab A700 upped the ante for 10.1-inch Android tablets at 1920 by 1200 pixels, but they maxed out at 224 ppi.
It wasn't until the fall that we saw some real movement in tablet displays. First Google launched its 7-inch Nexus 7, with a 1280-by-800-pixel resolution (216 ppi), in July. Later in the fall, Amazon announced that it was upping its 7-inch tablet offering in the form of the Kindle Fire HD, with a 1280-by-800-pixel (216-ppi) screen. Then Barnes & Noble wowed with its Nook HD, a 7-inch tablet with a 1440-by-900-pixel (243-ppi) display. Capping off a whirlwind autumn season, the Google Nexus 10 featured a 2560-by-1600-pixel display with a market-topping pixel density of 300 ppi.
Beyond advances in display resolution, however, the market had few noteworthy innovations in tablets in 2012. We saw some models increase the storage capacity, with 16GB tablets replacing 8GB ones on the low end, and 32GB pushing out 16GB among mainstream models.
Apple continued to hold firm at 16GB for its baseline $499 iPad model, even as Android and Windows 8 competitors stepped up to 32GB at that price.
Processor advancements were a mixed bag in 2012. Nvidia went the entire year without updating its Tegra 3 platform; the next-generation system-on-chip is due from Nvidia early in 2013. Apple twice offered updates to its system-on-chip processor found in the 9.7-inch iPad. Samsung launched the Exynos 5 processor, but only in the Google Nexus 10, which it manufactures.
Rise of the 7-inch tablet
Last year had several 7-inch tablet releases, but few were noteworthy or recommendable. That all changed this year.
First, in the spring, Toshiba brought out the Excite 7.7, a well-designed and attractive tablet with a 7.7-inch, 1280-by-800-pixel display. Unfortunately, that model was overpriced for what it offered.
The Asus-manufactured Google Nexus 7 hit in the summer, achieving what Asus promised last January at CES—a sub-$250 tablet—and fulfilling the until-then impossible dream of offering a no-compromises tablet at a low cost. It was the result of Nvidia's much-ballyhooed Kai reference platform; the goal was to help manufacturers produce lower-cost tablets that don't sacrifice performance or user experience.
In the fall, however, the long-anticipated battle of the 7-inch-class tablets (loosely defined to encompass all screen sizes between 7 and 8 inches) really took shape, as the debuts of the Kindle Fire HD, the Nook HD, and the long-rumored iPad mini together gave us a thriving competitive space.
Pricing dips slightly
We saw prices on tablets fall somewhat in 2012; for example, Acer offered its Iconia Tab A700 with 32GB of memory for $450 at a time when competitors were charging $499 or more for something similar. Mostly, though, you simply got better components (more memory, a better processor or display) for the same price as last year.
Jelly Bean arrives
This was the year we saw both Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich tablets and Android 4.1/4.2 Jelly Bean tablets. With these updates came refinements, and by 4.1 users also got a far superior Google Play shopping environment. Android Jelly Bean came out first on Google's own Nexus tablets, and is slowly appearing as an update to other models.
Apple, meanwhile, unleashed iOS 6 on the iPad in 2012, adding Siri but axing the built-in Google Maps and YouTube apps.
The Microsoft factor
Microsoft introduced its Windows RT Surface tablet this fall to mixed reviews. After using other Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets, such as the Asus VivoTab RT, I can say that at least part of the issue with Microsoft tablets lies with the uneven user experience of the software vis-à-vis Android and iOS. Microsoft is still slowly ramping up its Windows app store, too; for now, the selection remains slim pickings. Nonetheless, Windows tablets have potential, and will grow next year.
This story, "Look back at 2012: The year in tablets" was originally published by TechHive.