Thursday, August 25, 2011

No Tablet For Me
… yet


I don't have a tablet. They all look really, really cool when you see them, and they're great fun to play with: you can spend hours finger drawing, playing games, flipping through a book, surfing the web…

Then reality sets in: I don't need one. I've got a compact, light laptop with a keyboard. I've got an Android smartphone that lets me check email, surf the web and fits in my pocket. There are few situations where a tablet could realistically replace either.

A tablet doesn't fit in your pocket. You need a bag — and if you have a bag then you can bring a laptop. The laptop is vastly faster, with way more memory and storage. A larger screen, a real keyboard and a full operating system that lets me do long-form writing, software development and data analysis among many other things. A tablet isn't a replacement for a laptop and won't be for many years, if ever.

Unlike a tablet my smartphone will go in my pocket and still does most things a tablet could: surf the web and do email, read books, play games and so on. And it's also my phone; it comes along whether I bring anything else or not. A tablet isn't a replacement for my phone either.

I'm not alone it seems. I see plenty of notebooks, and everyone and their dog carries a phone. But for all the hype, I see precious few tablets out in the wild. A tablet is still a rarity during my commute. I have only seen half a dozen people in total trying to use them for serious work - showing presentation slides, taking notes, drawing illustrations during a discussion, that sort of thing. I don't think I've seen anyone do it twice. It really is mostly a toy, not a serious tool.

But for a toy they tend to be heavy and expensive. Many tablets are the size and weight of a large hard-cover book — too heavy to hold in your hands for very long, and large enough to be jostled and bumped in a crowded train. The purchase price is high and the monthly contract — usually required — on current tablets is almost as much as I pay for my phone subscription. Fine for a tool, but it's too much money for a toy.

But — what if it was so cheap you could buy one on a whim? What if it didn't need a monthly subscription? What if it was so small and light that you could actually use it as a decent text reader?It'd still be a toy of course, but an affordable one, and one with an actual use.

As it happens, there's a very interesting tablet just about to be announced. the Andy Pad Pro is a British-made1 7-inch — about 9x15 cm — Android tablet with good specifications and a seriously low price. It's fairly fast with a higher-end ARM cpu and 3d graphics hardware, a decent amount of memory and storage and a 1024x600 pixel capacitive touch screen. There's a standard(!) USB port and a HDMI port for full HD video output, and both front- and back-facing cameras. Good specifications, far better than budget tablets. It should let me run any application, read PDFs and books, and play any kind of game.

Apart from the specs, there's a few things that set this one apart: First, it's open. The system is unlocked, so you can replace the supplied Android 2.3 with another version or another OS if you want. And they hope to update it to "Ice Cream Sandwich" — the next version of Android — once it's publicly available. The company has been really responsive when I've emailed them, and I hope and expect they will continue to be responsive and open in the future too. I'd love to see some documentation on the hardware and drivers on the website for instance.

Second, the price is good. At £179, about 21000 yen, it's cheap enough that I can get one just for fun. At that price, and being open, I can find good use for it no matter what. If I end up not using it as a tablet, I could try running another kind of Linux on it; use as screen and controller for some project (could make a great replacement server for my homebuilt temperature logger - and its little brother is almost so cheap you could get one just for that); or simply use as a development target when I get the urge to develop for Android again.

Oh, and third: it looks nothing like the glass-and-aluminium tablets that's all the rage right now. It doesn't copy anyone else, but has a simple and straightforward design that's quite appealing to me; I can carry this around without a feeling that I should wear a turtleneck sweater, hornrimmed glasses and an arrogant sneer. And I'd be far less worried about dropping this than dropping one of those easily scratched tablets with exposed glass corners.

On the down side there is no mobile connectivity, only Wifi. The battery life will probably be a bit limited, and the screen is unlikely to be as bright and contrasty as more expensive units. The developers have surely cut corners elsewhere too. That's fine; I don't expect to get 50k yen worth of hardware for less than half the price.

I'm ordering one next week, and I'll be back with my impressions once I've used it for a while. Hopefully I'll receive it before we leave for Sweden later next month; a week-long trip should be a good test.

#1 Let's hold off on the "But does it leak oil?" jokes. It's the birth country of the ZX81 among many other iconic microcomputers after all. The ARM processor family — at the heart of almost all smartphones, tablets and netbooks among many other items — is developed in Britain too. The British computer industry never died; it just became embedded.


Christoffer Willenfort said...

you might also have a look at the asus "padphone" It is basicly a android smartphone with a pad Dock. That way you get more options

Janne Morén said...

This is Japan. In practice you can't use a non-carrier sold phone on Japanese networks*. Unless NTT decides to carry that device it is for all practical purposes useless.

And if they did decide to carry it I'm on a two-year locked contract with my current phone. I'm not getting anything phone-related again anytime soon.

* Technically, NTT is supposed to allow it. But if you're lucky enough to even find an NTT store that will sell you a SIM card the monthly cost is hideous - international-roaming kind of bad. In practice you can forget it.

Christoffer Willenfort said...

Too bad about thet lockin. byt other than that what is your thoughts on the concept ?

Shou said...

I think Tablets are boring and they look bad. I dunno who needs somethings like that..I think they're not handy and useless.

Janne Morén said...

The lock-in - and the size and weight, let's not forget. Before I completely soured on Apple I entertained the idea of an iPad. Went to the Apple store and stood there for ten minutes, tablet in hand, and read a long article holding the iPad in one hand. At the end of those ten minutes my arm was sore up to the shoulder. No way could I use that on my daily commute.

But - yes, I do like the concept. It does make quite a lot of sense, unlike most other kinds of combination devices. I'd like to see something scaled down, like SE:s Xperia Mini or even a little smaller still, combined with a 7" tablet. The full gear is still quite light and compact, and just the phone would be as small as a compact feature-phone and fit in any kind of pocket.

Another almost possible alternative would be a 7" tablet with phone circuitry and a bluetooth headset. You'd keep the tablet around you out of sight and use the headset for your phone. That fails when you can't bring something the size of a tablet.

Janne Morén said...

Shou, I read a lot of research papers all the time. Bringing them on paper is really not an alternative — my collection for my current project is over 250 papers, or over 3000 pages and doesn't count books and other material. A tablet would be a compact alternative to my laptop for browsing all that material.

Besides, it's a cool new gadget. I'm a geek. Geeks and gadgets just go well together.

Claire said...

I can't imagine using one for work, but as an all-purpose entertainment device for restless children on long-haul flights, the iPad is peerless.

Janne Morén said...

Claire, "entertainment cevice for restless children" — that is exactly a toy isn't it? And while I like toys, I can't motivate paying a fairly hefty monthly cost for that.

And since a technology toy for me also implies being able to tinker with it, an iPad would be out of the question no matter what the size and cost. I couldn't motivate paying the cost for developing for it (getting a Mac, the software tools and the yearly membership) just for fun, and I'd resent not having direct control over the hardware if I want it.

Developing for Android is free, and this tablet is unlocked, so I can play with it to my hearts content.

George said...

I agree about tablets being something of a toy. You go to a electronics megastore and in the apple section there's always someone "testing" the ipads.
Although they are good for on the fly browsing and other mobile applications.

A nice small alternative is the ipod touch. A friend has got it and it seems useful. It's like a tablet but smaller. The bad is that the small screens cause a bit of eyestrain.

I've never been an apple user. I knew about the "incompatibility" between apple and PC. But you really need a mac for the iPad? That's atrocious, a quite monopolistic thinking.

Janne Morén said...

George, the iPod is a smartphone without the phone part, so it's not an alternative if you have a smartphone already.

Oh, and just to make it clearer: You need a Mac specifically to write applications for the iPhone, iPod and iPad. The development system runs only on a Mac. You don't need a Mac just to use any of them of course.

canthushme said...

I thought tabs were useless until I read my first book in I feel dirty everytime I pick a paper cover book :P...specially that when I read I have to mind the weight, to stick my finger in the mid of the book so the page don´t slip and worst of all..always have to be near a source of light and rtwsiting and turning to try and have good light...tabs say goodbye to all of that. I could have gotten a Kinddle, but the tab does what the kindle do and more

Janne Morén said...

You're talking about the Galaxy Tab, right? That one is the right size and weight. It's not the right prize, though, not even a year after release.

Nisse said...

I have an iPad and I have used it for both long trips and work/practical situations.
At first I didn't like the idea of the iPad, but the more I looked around and tryed them, the more convinced I was. I read a lot online and at times it gets very antisocial and hard on my body, to always sit infront of a computer and a smartphone is a bit strainging for long texts.
After I started reading on the iPad, I could sit in the kitchen, or the sofa and be social at the same time as I could read, that was a big differance.
Also when we have had discussions around the kitchen table or my mum wanted to read an email or see pictures someone sent me, I just walk over with the iPad and it's a lot more natural then just forwarding something.
I've used the ipad to read instructions from odd angles while trying to fix things that I'd have a hard time to do with a computer or paper. I've also held workshops and talks with them with no issues and fast set up. I've watched films while waiting for flights or reviewed texts on the bus. It works excelent for this, but not for longer texts.

Over all I really like the format of a big screen on something that is easy to take with you.

I agree that the cost of them should come down so that they are easier to buy on a wim, but over all, until more tablet makers stop making really bad products (I've tried a couple and they where all awful except the iPad) there will only be one or two good tablets out there and the price will be high.

I have an iPad, but what I'm really looking forward to is when the other tablet makers stop trying to copy the iPad and come up with evan better things for the format.

I'm like Janne, I love tech toys, so the more the better. :)