No, nothing really beats skydivers landing on top of the building where Google I/O is taking place—all while recording the whole spectacle wearing Project Glass specs. But when you look beyond that stunt it’s easy to see who the bigger winner is of this heavily attended annual show: ASUS. The company managed to crank out a $199 Kindle Fire killer in four months. This is a product that should send shivers down the spines of Amazon, Samsung and anyone else who makes an Android slate.
While there’s a lot of debate as to whether 7-inch tablets have staying power, the success of the Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet prove that consumers have an appetite for devices that are primarily geared toward content consumption and gaming. Why have sales trailed off for the Fire in particular? Partly because of the third-generation iPad 3 and partly because consumers aren’t willing to live with the limitations of that device. There’s no front-facing camera, and you don’t get access to Google’s suite of applications.
The Nexus 7 made by ASUS offers full access to the Google Play store while taking a page out of Amazon’s playbook by putting content front and center. Magazines, TV shows, movies all get heavily promoted on this device. And with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, users can enjoy exciting new features like Google Now, which remembers what you searched to help you do everything from find the best route to take to work to keep up to date on your favorite sports teams.
But none of these benefits would matter without sexy and powerful hardware, which ASUS has pulled off for a very tantalizing price. The Nexus 7 packs a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor , 1280 x 800-pixel IPS screen, and front-facing camera inside a device that feels solid and weighs only 12 ounces. The Kindle Fire has a dual-core CPU, a lower-res 1024 x 600-pixel screen and lacks a camera.
The Nexus 7 does have some drawbacks, including the lack of a microSD card slot for expanding the meager 8GB of internal storage (a 16GB version sells for $249). In addition, while the screen is bright and scratch-resistant, it’s reflective surface will make it difficult to use outdoors. Yup, e-ink readers are still your best bet for the beach.
But for the $199 price ASUS looks like it has a hit on its hands. It’s really up to Google to market this device and get the right distribution channels in place to capitalize on the early buzz. (Selling this device through the Google Play store alone won’t work.) After all, the Kindle Fire 2 is just around the corner, and it won’t be long before other competitors step up their low-cost slate game. For now, though, ASUS has stolen the thunder from a lot of other companies heading into the crucial back-to-school shopping season.
How did ASUS do it? According to chairman Jonney Shih, it’s all about speed. In an interview with AllThingsD, Shih said that he dedicated an entire team of workers to make the Nexus 7 a reality, moving several members to Silicon Valley to create a 24-hour development cycle.
This is not an anomaly. ASUS also completely revamped its Ultrabook in a short period of time, adding a fantastic 1080p IPS display and ripping out the keyboard to improve the typing experience. As a result, the Zenbook Prime is our favorite product in that category. So right now ASUS has the most compelling low-cost tablet and the best Ultrabook. That’s a pretty impressive one-two punch for a company whose fortunes were tied to netbooks not long ago.
At times ASUS can be overly ambitious, such as with the Padfone. The product has yet to come to the U.S. but reviewers who have tried this combination phone and tablet say that it was a little clunky. But that’s the great thing about ASUS. It responds faster and innovates faster than anyone else, and now it’s about to reap the rewards.
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.