The Nexus 7 was Google's only great tablet, and it has never tried to replace it
Well, here we are again--Google is trying to make an Android tablet happen.
The company has released a brand-new Pixel Tablet to show off some of the tablet-centric optimizations that it has added to recent versions of Android while also maybe-possibly coaxing app developers in the direction of actually using those tablet-centric features in the first place. If it feels like you've been here before, it's because we've been here a bunch of times since the iPad came out in 2010.
Maybe the new Pixel Tablet is the one that's going to put Google's first-party tablet efforts on the map. I don't know! I can only look at high-profile failures like the Pixel C and Pixel Slate and guess. But the Pixel Tablet's launch did get me thinking of the one Google tablet I actually retain some affection for and the last great tablet that the company helped to make: the second-generation Nexus 7 from 2013.
Back when Android tablets seemed like they might happen
A decade ago, Google's tablet efforts were at their high point. The Motorola Xoom came out in 2011, and the first Nexus 7 and the Nexus 10 followed in 2012, and they were released alongside new Android versions that were designed with larger screens in mind. Though all three tablets were flawed in their own ways, the rapid iteration signaled a focus and commitment that petered out with latter-day, lackadaisical efforts like the Nexus 9 and Pixel C. Most of Google's apps, at least, were being designed with tablets in mind, and the turn-of-the-decade Nexus phones and tablets were cheap enough and good enough to pique the interest of would-be tablet app developers who didn't want to miss out on (what seemed like it could be, at the time) an exciting growth market.
Apple's iPad lineup also had holes in it back then. The first iPad mini wasn't launched until very late in 2012, and it was essentially an 18-month-old iPad 2 in a smaller package (it was also relatively expensive at $329 compared to the original Nexus 7's $200). There were lots of limitations on the kinds of apps that could run in iOS and what those apps could do. Windows 8 and RT were flailing as tablet operating systems and tended to run mostly on more expensive hardware. Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets were inexpensive but used limited app stores and low-rent hardware (all three things are still true of Amazon's tablets). It felt like there was lots of room for something inexpensive-but-capable to succeed.
That's what the 2013 Nexus 7 was launched into. Like the first Nexus 7, the 2013 model was a collaboration between Google and Asus, and it came with dramatically improved performance, a brighter and sharper and more colorful screen, and a streamlined design. Full access to the Google Play Store made it remarkably versatile and capable, and the screen was large enough to be a meaningful upgrade over contemporary 4- to 5-inch phone screens but not so large that phone-first Android apps looked completely ridiculous. And you got all of that for only $30 more than the first-generation Nexus 7.
The Nexus 7 wasn't the fastest Android hardware, but it did use relatively recent flagship silicon from Qualcomm. The screen was great. The design and construction were both perfectly fine for the price. It was an ideal e-reader, it was great for mobile games, and it was a very good and lightweight video-streaming screen. And as a Nexus device, it received prompt Android updates for a few years (plus many more years of unofficial support for people who cared to figure out LineageOS or some other third-party software image).
The Nexus 7 was as close as Google (or, arguably, anyone) ever got to the platonic ideal of a small tablet. It was inexpensive but not cheap; it wasn't underpowered; you didn't have to put up with a mediocre low-resolution screen. It's a balance Google rarely manages to get exactly right.
Google never seemed interested in re-creating this combination of virtues in its subsequent Android tablets. The Nexus 9 was much larger and more expensive and had all kinds of weird problems; the Pixel C was also big and expensive, and it felt off because it might not have been designed as an Android tablet in the first place. The Pixel Slate was a ChromeOS tablet trying to be a Microsoft Surface clone. And at the risk of pre-judging hardware I haven't seen or used, the bland $500 Pixel Tablet has much more in common with Google's tablet failures than its tablet successes.
A Nexus 7 replacement arguably isn't necessary today. Most phone screens are now well over six inches, making small tablets feel less necessary than ever (though with more modern screens and bezels you could easily take the exact design of the Nexus 7 and stretch the screen to somewhere in the low-to-mid 8-inch range). Samsung makes several A-series budget tablets that, while not incredible, at least have decent software update policies and usable performance if you're looking for a basic content-consumption tablet that isn't trying to LARP as some kind of laptop.
But I'm not just frustrated by the lack of a clear Nexus 7 successor. I'm frustrated by Google's stop-and-start approach to tablets (and a lot of its other software and services, honestly). I miss that brief era in Google's history when they'd sell you inexpensive, promptly updated Android hardware that didn't make you feel like you were settling for something. I miss the days when it felt like Google was trying to offer something unique rather than Google-branded versions of things I could just as easily get from Samsung or Apple.
That second-gen Nexus 7 was the right product at the right price at the right time. Apologies to the Pixel Tablet, but none of Google's tablet efforts since then have come anywhere close.