Android this week: Google Nexus tablet; Android 4.0 upgrades; $99 no-contract phones

Apple’s new iPad may have stolen the spotlight this week, but Google appears not to be resting. A Google Nexus tablet is reportedly “a done deal” and will be priced at $149 to $199. A 7-inch tablet at that price surely won’t steal many sales away from the iPad, but it could sway buyers away from Amazon’s(s amzn) Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble(s bks) Nook Tablet.
Google is essentially missing out on this segment of small slates as tablet makers have focused on larger devices ranging from 8.9- to 10.1-inches in an effort to compete with the iPad. Samsung, Asus and HTC have offered 7-inch tablets, but none are selling as well as the Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet, each of which offers a wider range of media choices and a curated app store.

Although both of these are built upon Android, you really wouldn’t know it. Each has a custom user interface skin to hide Android. And because they offer their own app and media stores — the Fire even has a custom browser that runs in conjunction with Amazon’s server farm — Google gains very little from these devices. Presumably that’s why the Asus MeMo tablet shown at CES is expected to become a 7-inch Google Nexus device.
Any new Nexus device is sure to run Android 4.0 or Ice Cream Sandwich when it launches, but what about the existing Android devices on the market? This week saw a flurry of news and activity on that front. HTC added a dozen devices to its list of planned Android 4.0 upgrades, however they’re all handsets. The HTC Flyer tablet is missing from the list and I suspect is unlikely to ever see the software.

Samsung began pushing out Android 4.0 to Galaxy S II handset owners in a handful of countries this week. Users expecting to experience the vastly improved interface of Ice Cream Sandwich may want to temper those expectations, however. An early look at the device after upgrading shows Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface taking center stage. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, some may be disappointed to visually see little difference in the phone after getting Android 4.0.
Although it doesn’t run Android 4.0, the new Virgin Mobile Venture allows first-time smartphone owners to get into the game cheaply: The pre-paid, no-contract phone is $99, with unlimited 3G and 300 voice minutes costing $35 a month. The Venture is unique in that it has a 2.8-inch touchscreen and full QWERTY keypad in a candy-bar style form factor. It’s a low price for admission to the smartphone era, but given its relatively meager specs, don’t expect to see Android 4.0 ever come to the device.