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What would it take for you to buy a new tablet?

We discuss the current state of the tablet market and why they're losing relevancy.

Published onMay 10, 2017

Most tablets are kind of hard to tell apart, aren’t they? Samsung’s current tablet lineup is filled with near-identical products, and when a new one pops up, it’s not always clear what has been improved or changed. Though there are a few exceptions (examples of which should be visible throughout this article), very little separates tablets from 2012 and tablets from present day in terms of functionality.

This sense of tablet stagnation may be at the heart of recent reports that tablet shipments for Q1, 2017 are down 8-10% year-on-year. While that isn’t a fascinating statistic in isolation, tablet sales have been in decline since a peak around 2014, and the market has now seen ten quarterly drops in a row compared to the same quarters a year previous.

Fewer and fewer people are buying or upgrading these gadgets — so what would it take for you to buy a new tablet? Before you leave your answers, let me highlight some things to consider.

The cycle of life

Firstly, recent tablet shipment numbers don’t necessarily mean that people have stopped using or being interested in tablets — only that they have stopped buying them. It’s possible tablet owners are satisfied with their current product (I’d even say, likely), with even three or four-year-old tablets still being considered “good enough.” Where tablet manufacturers seem to have failed is with upgrades.

One of the greatest achievements of smartphone manufacturers is the way in which they have leveraged planned obsolescence. The LG G4 is almost the same as the LG G6 — the core experience hasn’t changed much in the past two years. Yet there’s no doubt that some, perhaps many, LG G4 owners believe their phone must be ditched for a newer model, purely thanks to the G6’s presence.

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Of course, every business wants to foster this idea of “new is good, old is bad,” but few are as successful as smartphone companies, be it through the way new features are marketed, software security concerns highlighted, the way smartphone battery life dwindles, or how some devices just seem to fall apart, in the hand, on the day they reach their upgrade window (don’t tell me it hasn’t happened to you).

This bi-annual upgrade habit hasn’t been achieved to the same extent with tablets, where years-old devices are still perfectly capable products. Further, advances in operating systems tend to target smartphones first and foremost, leaving less incentive for the tablet owner to upgrade. Yes, there are some features which stand to benefit tablets more than phones, such as the recent split-screen mode, but generally speaking, phones are the priority.

Thus the upgrade from Android 5.0 to 6.0, or 6.0 to 7.0, doesn’t have the same appeal on tablets. It’s not a big enough deal, especially when tablets owners can enjoy the latest Android OS on a new smartphone anyway. Tablets simply aren’t used frequently enough to feel the daily pain of an older OS version, while it’s a very different story with the smartphone in your pocket.

Though tablets are upgraded in a similar fashion to phones with regard to better displays, more RAM, and more impressive cameras each year, the benefits here are also less apparent. Smartphones are our go-to communication tool; they stay with us the entire day. We can instantly apply the advances in the camera tech of a new phone with some photos for friends; we’ll feel immediately how much faster it is than its aging predecessor. That feeling of gratification isn’t as powerful with new tablets, partly because of what we use them for and partly because we don’t use them as often.

In other words, the latest OS and some beefed up specs don’t mean much on the device you only take out to occasionally watch a video or play a free game on a long road trip.

On necessity

Another reason tablet sales may be dropping is that the niche they fill is losing relevancy. Tablets aren’t as portable, and therefore as useful, as smartphones are, and they aren’t as powerful, or indeed versatile, as laptops. You wouldn’t replace your phone with a tablet, just as you wouldn’t replace your laptop or PC with one. (That is, if you need it for business purposes and specific software — more on this below).

That’s not to say they aren’t interesting products. They are ostensibly lighter, smaller and have longer battery life than some laptops. They also provide touch input that’s preferable for certain activities and run apps from the Play Store or iTunes. They evidently have benefits —  and are still selling by the millions — it’s just that they’re not essential benefits.

And with smartphone screens getting bigger and laptops getting smaller, they’re being somewhat crushed.

Wrap up

Based on the above, I see six scenarios in which someone decides to buy a new tablet:

  1. Current tablet breaks
  2. Tablet software distinguishes itself from other platforms (and is good)
  3. Great tablets become so inexpensive that they just buy one anyway
  4. Tablets become “better” alternative to laptops
  5. Tablets become “better” alternative to phones
  6. A radical hardware shift

Point four is where I see a clear opportunity — and I’d bet some people would already argue this has happened. Hybrid tablets can offer touch and keyboard interfaces natively in a more portable form factor than a laptop. And since some of them run Chrome OS or Windows, they’re different enough from an Android phone to feel necessary. Google is also introducing Android app support to Chrome OS sometime soon which will strengthen that platform further.

Of course, that would only replace laptops with tablets. As to what would make me upgrade to a new tablet, as a “current-gen” smartphone and laptop owner, I’m not sure.

Tablets can continue to become less costly, with better specs, for years to come — but will that reverse the current trend of consumers holding onto their previous devices? I don’t think so. In my eyes, it can only come from a radical hardware shift (like foldable tech) or a radical software shift. Because, as long as there are Android phones, just another Android or Chrome-based tablet won’t cut it.

That’s my view of the situation. Tell me what it would take for you to buy a new tablet in the comments below.

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