As Large Tablets Get Android 3.1, Smaller Slates Wait

In what’s becoming a tale of two tablet sizes, Netbook News notes Samsung’s new Galaxy Tab 10.1 will ship with Android 3.1 while Acer is reportedly delaying its 7-inch A100 tablet due to screen challenges found with Android 3.0. Samsung is a key Google (s goog) partner, having been the showcase Android device provider at this month’s Google I/O developer event, where all attendees received a Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet. The potential delay of Acer’s 7-inch tablet reinforces the idea that some Google partners have earlier access to the Android code than others, but could also mean that smaller slates aren’t suited for Google’s tablet platform.

Motorola(s mmi) was likely the first device maker to gain such access. As Google unveiled Android 3.1 during its developer conference, Motorola announced that its Xoom tablets for Verizon’s (s vz) network would soon receive it via software update. That update has been rolling out since then, with many Xoom owners able to take advantage of the improvements. The Samsung tablets handed out during the same event didn’t have Android 3.1, but the company said it would be “coming soon.” However, the product page for the new 10.1-inch tablet now reflects the device will ship with version 3.1 when it launches in “a few days” according to Samsung Mobile’s Facebook page. Until then, here’s a first look at the device:

Samsung’s situation is a sharp contrast from that of Acer’s. I recently reviewed the Acer Iconia Tab A500, another 10.1-inch Android 3.0 tablet and found it to be a decent device for those on a budget due to the $449 price tag. But like other Android 3.0 devices, it suffers from some issues directly related to Google’s operating system. Android 3.1 should help, and an Acer representative told me via email that the A500 would gain Android 3.1 by the end of May. However, various reports indicate the upgrade is pushed back into June. Earlier this morning, Acer confirmed with me that’s the case.

That may have repercussions for the A100, a 7-inch Android 3.0 tablet that was expected to launch as early as April. DigiTimes today sources industry contacts as saying the A100 is now scheduled to launch in August or September. The cause for the reported delay? DigiTimes says Acer is struggling with app compatibility on the smaller screen and will resolve the issues with Android 3.1. My Acer contact wouldn’t confirm this development, saying earlier today that the company doesn’t comment on unannounced products.

If DigiTimes correct, it suggests Acer may not yet have, or only recently gained, access to Android 3.1 from Google. That’s a possibility, but it also causes me to wonder if Android 3.0, or 3.1 for that matter, simply isn’t suited to a lower-resolution display. Google designed a completely new user interface specifically for large-screened devices, although there are some features that can help bring the operating system to smaller screens. The Fragments API, for example, arrived in Android 3.0 and allows apps to be independent of screen size or resolution.

Since Android 3.1 doesn’t bring new user interface features that would benefit smartphones or smaller tablets, access to the code maybe be irrelevant. Google has already announced the next major version of Android, known as Ice Cream Sandwich, will unify the mobile platform across large screened tablets and smartphones with smaller displays. Seven-inch slates fit squarely in the middle of those two extremes, so my educated guess is that those smaller tablets will see an optimized user experience with that version of Android, currently targeted for the fourth quarter of this year. Personally, I find the prospect of waiting a little sad, because I prefer the added mobility of a 7-inch tablet over a larger device.