Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Tablet Is A Bike

Google I/O is underway, and they've just announced their long-expected 7" Nexus tablet. Short summary: Is such a small tablet useful? Yes. Is it a replacement for a computer? No. Will I get one? Probably.

I bought an Andy Pad, a cheap 7" Android tablet, last September to see what this tablet thing was all about. The hardware is decent, if low-end by today's standards. It came with Android 2.3, which was pretty good for phones, but lousy for tablets. The tablet got updated to Android 4 this spring, and the difference is like night and day1. Suddenly it is decently fast and responsive, apps work fine, and it has gone from a toy to something I use on a daily basis.

Andy Pad
The Andypad. Cheap, but pretty useful.

At 7 inches, it's the size and weight of a largish paperback. I can easily use it one-handed on the train 2or while eating, reading in bed — it's light enough to hold without support — or keep on the desk in meetings, and it's small enough to slip into my coat pocket or in a side pocket of my bag.

The size makes it perfect for reading ebooks and keeping manuals and papers within easy reach. It is also very useful as a news reader. It downloads my news feeds at home in the morning, then I read them on the train. It's also very useful for web browsing, note-taking, games, Youtube videos, email, calendar and so on. I could do many of these things on my phone too, but the larger screen is much easier on my middle-aged eyes and clumsy fingers.

But is it a replacement for a laptop? let me give you an analogy:

A Tablet is a Motorcycle; a Computer Is a Car

IMG_2487 Corvette
This is a Motorcycle3. And this is a Car. Either will take you from place to place on public roads. But that does not make them interchangeable.

Motorcycles and cars are very different. They both have an engine, wheels and they both carry people on public roads, but that's where the similarities end.

A motorcycle is small, light, and inexpensive. It will take one or possibly two people where they want to go very quickly and effortlessly. Compact and agile, it excels in city traffic. Park it anywhere, glide right past traffic jams, and never get stuck behind some slow-moving truck. A bike is no good for transporting many people, or for bringing lots of cargo. Riding a bike in heavy rain is a miserable experience, and riding in winter is dangerous when it's doable at all.

You can use a bike to transport goods. That doesn't make it a good idea.

A car is excellent general-purpose transportation. It will take up to seven people, pets, luggage, garden cuttings, furniture, skis, diving gear and golf clubs and bring it all where you want. You're protected from rain, snow and high winds, and you travel safely when roads are icy or wet. In a pinch you can use the car as your office, meeting room or as a makeshift bed. But a car is big, clumsy and expensive; even a dedicated sports car will never approach the quickness and agility of a motorcycle on the road, and parking is always an inconvenient, expensive hassle.

Like a motorcycle, a small tablet is excellent on the go. If you're traveling and you want to keep a schedule, do email, look up info on your destination or check the news then a tablet is far easier to use than hauling out your laptop in a crowded airport or squint at your small phone screen. You can use it standing in line, in a cramped airplane coach or while in bed, and the screen is still large enough for casual gaming, web surfing and for pecking out the occasional email or memo. A laptop is simply too large and clumsy to use in the same way.

But if you go beyond the tablet comfort zone, the hardware and software limitations become a serious problem. It is frustrating to write more than a few paragraphs without a real keyboard. Illustrations, drafting and other precision work is difficult without a larger screen and a precise pointer. Even rudimentary data analysis is limited by the lack of memory and storage. Actual programming and most specialized tasks are difficult or impossible from the lack of even rudimentary tools. A tablet is great for consuming data, but generally not good for producing it.

Honda Goldwing with sidecar (picture from the Wikimedia Commons). You can get a roof for the sidecar, and add a trailer for luggage. The bike ends up as large, heavy and clumsy as a car — but more expensive, with fewer seats, worse weather protection and less cargo. It combines the worst of a bike and a car.

Now, you can add an external keyboard, stand, mouse, hard drive and so on. What you get for your trouble is a clumsy pile of hardware that takes more space, weight and money than a real laptop, and is still not able to do general computing nearly as well. You'll have the same problem going the other way: a sub-notebook or "PC tablet" remains too heavy, costly and too dependent on a keyboard and pointer to be a flexible replacement to a dedicated tablet. Either way you go, you end up with something that is neither a good tablet, nor a good laptop.

No, leave a tablet for tabletty things and a laptop for general computing. With two separate devices it frees you to get the best of both worlds. I used to get small, light — but costly and underpowered — laptops that I could bring anywhere. Now that I use a tablet I no longer need to do that. I can get a far better, more powerful laptop without worrying so much about extreme portability. And with a good laptop, I don't need a tablet with a large screen or a keyboard; I can use a small and light one that I can use on my commute and that fits in my coat.

So, if I have a tablet already, why do I want the Nexus? The Andypad just has too little memory; switching apps takes a few seconds of stutter every time. The Nexus has a better screen, a faster processor, and a newer OS version. Also, it's a Nexus — a Google reference design. That means it is unlocked, first to get OS updates (it comes with 4.1) and receives the "pure" version of Android, unburdened with carrier- and maker-specific "improvements", extra applications and other junk. I have a Galaxy Nexus phone, and it's by far the best phone I've ever used for exactly these reasons.

The 8Gb model will cost $200 or an even 1.6k yen; well within my "get it for fun" budget. A nice autumn gift to myself, I think, once it is released in Japan. Given Google's track record on international releases that may be a while of course.

#1 Just try standing up and reading something in a crowded train with a larger tablet. Try this: stand in a doorway at home. Hold onto the post with one hand, and hold your tablet or laptop in the other. Now, ask half a dozen friends and family members to crowd right around you, jostle you and push you around while you try to keep your balance and not drop your laptop as it, too, gets pushed around. Do this for fifteen minutes. A small, light tablet will start to look very tempting at that point.

#2 Seriously, don't even think of getting a tablet — or a phone — with anything older than Android 4. The improvements are just so significant. If they are promising an update to Android 4 then that is good — but wait until the device is actually updated. Some makers and carriers are notorious for promising a lot and then never delivering.

#3 More precisely, this is me of ten years ago and my former bike, a pearl-white BMW R80 G/S 1981. I still miss that bike, sometimes. Different times, different life. Apparently I was already well on my way towards dandruff immunity even then.

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