05 August 2011

Keep taking the tablets (1)

This is really a response to all those who have asked me, in greater or lesser degrees of puzzlement, why I have decided to use an Android tablet and what I plan to do with it. Or, rather (returning to this paragraph after finishing the post), it’s the first part of such a response.

I had watched the growth of tablet computing for a decade now, and stood back from it. I knew the value of such devices, employed them enthusiastically in certain educational and professional contexts, but could see no real place for one in my own personal ICT environment.

I had also seen, liked, and appreciated the potential of multitouch capacitative screen devices. These were, again, valuable in some educational and work niches but either too small or too large to be very useful to me as part of my own, personal kit. I do, as I’ve mentioned, use an iPod Touch ... but only because (a) it serves as a platform for the best pocket calculator I’ve yet found and (b) it is small enough to carry without noticing it.

Then came hybrid devices like the iPad. A cross between pocket and laptop computers, both of which are useful to me. Light and small enough to be carried as well as the netbook which is the cornerstone of my peripatetic life, but at the same time large enough to work on with both hands (rather than just the finger and thumb which a phone can accommodate). and to exploit the real potential of the technology, but small and light enough (unlike those superb one, two or four square metre laboratory and studio displays) to use on the road.

Not the iPad itself, however. Not for me, that is ... I know that it serves many people excellently well, and that’s great. For me, however, both of its manifestations so far are sitting around the place, truly beautiful things, but (thanks to the closed Apple business model) too annoyingly restrictive for my liking.

There are, of course, several alternatives to the Apple iPad. True tablet PCs, running Windows or Linux, are coming down in size and weight to challenge the iPad; I’ve tried out and seriously considered them. Those which use Windows have the very real advantage of running the same software as my other computing hardware ... and, in particular, allowing direct viewing and editing of files from my beloved WordPerfect (lack of which was drove me to abandon Linux as a netbook OS last year). But, there are other issues which caused me to turn away from that option. Battery life was one; the fact that I really can’t see myself making much use of my key Windows applications without a proper, physical keyboard is another. (That same point, by the way, has been made by several people with whom I've discussed this: “I prefer a physical keyboard” or “I have to do a lot of typing”.)

Android devices weren't a real alternative to the iPad until well into this year. There were Android tablets, but Android itself was strictly a phone sized OS and didn't scale up well to a larger screen, let alone the sorts of things for which it might be used. Then, towards the end of February, Android 3 (Honeycomb) arrived, and things started to look different. The OS was now ready to be considered usable for real work on large screens.

Even so, there were to start with almost no applications which yet made use of the improvements. There were only a couple of machines running it, too. I got hold of those devices which were available, and tried them out. After a while, I started asking around amongst friends who might have informed opinions, though most of them expressed interest in hearing, instead, what I might decide or discover.

Those early machines, though impressive in themselves, were not quite what I wanted. I've never been what the marketing people call an "early adopter"; I see no point in committing my life to what is available in the first days of a new idea when something better will almost certainly come along in time. And, after a few months, better did come along in several forms.

To cut a long story short, there were eventually two Android tablets between which I had to choose. Neither was perfect in every way, but both offered enough of what I needed to be worth settling on. They were a 180mm device (I won't identify it, since I ultimately decided against it for personal requirements and not on any fault of its own) and the Asus TF101 (aka Transformer).

From the start, I had taken it for granted that if I bought a tablet I would also end up using it with a BlueTooth keyboard (if that seems odd, I'll ask you to wait for a later section). But a keyboard of a useful size is bigger than a 180mm tablet, and a keyboard physically separate from its tablet is awkward to use compared to a laptop or netbook. The TF101 has a "dockable" keyboard: that is, one with physical attachment and support to present the tablet as if it were the screen on a conventional netbook, the two also folding flat together into a thin clamshell sandwich for storage or transit. This keyboard also houses a proper touchpad and buttons, two USB ports, and a full size SDHC card slot (in addition to a microSD slot on the tablet itself).

Furthermore, that TF101 keyboard contains an additional battery which extends usage considerably. It's intelligently wired, too. Plug the complete tablet and keyboard assembly into a power supply and the tablet charges first – so if only the tablet is required, it has all of the available charge. Use the complete assembly, and the power is drawn from the keyboard battery until it is drained, so the tablet retains its full charge for separate use. Use the tablet separately, and when its is reconnected t the keyboard it will draw power until again fully charged.

There are, of course, down sides to the TF101. The biggest is probably that it doesn't (at least in the version available to me) have its own 3G card for accessing cellular networks, as many of its competitors do. In an ideal world, I would have liked to have that option. However, I carry a portable WiFi hotspot router so when no open fixed network is available the TF101 can connect through that to a cellphone, 3G dongle, or satphone.

In the end, though, it wuz the TF101 wot won it.

To keep this down to a reasonable length, and to get it posted this side of doomsday, I'm going to break here. I'm aware that I've not answered most of the questions posed in the first paragraph, but they will follow under three headings (not necessarily three separate posts; we'll see how it goes):

  1. Freestanding use as a tablet
  2. Use alongside a netbook, as a supplement to it.
  3. Occasional use as a netbook replacement.

(As I write and post each, I'll provide two way hyperlinks between them and this.)

  • Picture credit: that image on my Asus TF101 desktop, in the illustration above, is Lisa Milroy's haunting painting Searching Geisha. See the original, if you can.

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