24 April 2011

What I learned about tablets

A friend of mine recently asked me where I worked. I said either at home or in the office and off-handedly commented that if I had a tablet, I could work in other places like libraries or coffee shops.

I've thought about getting a tablet now and then, but I never read about anything that seemed truly appealing. But I keep coming back to tablets because as great as pen and paper is (fast, cheap, light and portable), you can't index and organize paper anywhere as well as you can with digital media. Yes, you can put your paper in tabbed binders, but digital data can be tagged and is searchable. I thought about scanning paper documents, but these scanned documents are large in file size and no one has solved the problem of recognizing handwriting in images so the scanned document can't be resolved into text and searched. (In case you're wondering, OCR is for properly printed characters.)

This is what I would want in a tablet:
  • Lightweight (under 2 pounds)
  • Storage space of at least 20 GB for my electronic books, notes, files
  • Color screen with large viewing angle
  • Fast internet connectivity
  • Pen input for taking notes
I'd like to be able to just throw the tablet in my bag and carry it without being burdened by its weight. I'd like to be able to carry around my library of electronic files (pdf, djvu, etc) and have speedy access to the internet, so I don't have to bring a heavy, expensive laptop to the library or coffee shop. I'd like to write down thoughts and ideas in a digital notebook.

I didn't realize how hot the tablet market has become. A little curiosity resulted in me getting into some seriously deep Internet research. I ended up learning a lot about tablets, pen input, and Android. I thought I'd write it all up before I forget.

Pen input

The most significant dividing line for tablets right now is pen input.

Tablet PCs are designed to use pens as the main form of input. The older tablet PCs use resistive screens which really need a stylus and don't respond very well to touch. Some of the newer tablet PCs support multi-touch by using a capacitive screen. The best tablet PCs use an active digitizer which allows for a smooth and precise writing experience closer to writing with pen and paper.

The Android tablets and iPad use a capacitive touch screen which is great for finger gestures, but non-ideal for pen input. You can use a passive, capacitive stylus, but writing with one is like using the eraser on the back of a pencil. It's very crude. However, companies are starting to think about focusing on pen input. The HTC Flyer is the very first Android tablet that will come with an active digitizer made by N-Trig.

For precise input, the general consensus is that you must have an active digitizer which means the tablet needs to be designed for pen input. Artists won't use anything besides an active digitizer. The two main companies currently making active digitizers are Wacom and N-Trig. People say that Wacom is the best, but N-Trig is getting better.

For satisfactory pen input, you not only need good hardware but also good software. Most people who want a tablet are interested in using it for work purposes: business people, scientists, artists, architects, etc. It seems to me that pen tablets are a niche market. No wonder Apple had no interest in making a tablet with pen input.

People who are interested in taking handwritten notes and storing them in an organized, searchable fashion will want Microsoft OneNote software. This program allows the user to mix handwriting input with other files, typewritten text, etc in an endless page and organize the pages into notebooks. OneNote uses the excellent Windows handwriting recognition software and can recognize your handwriting in real-time. It can convert your handwriting to text, or you can leave your notes handwritten and search them later. Unfortunately, OneNote is only a Windows program, so you can only use it if you have a Windows-based tablet. The current Windows tablet PCs are heavy and have poor battery life because the Windows OS was designed for desktop machines and not little tablets. Evernote is a popular alternative to OneNote, but people say it's not quite as good.

Artists will want to use drawing and painting programs like ArtRage. (I'm no artist, so I don't know what is the best software.) Most of the great software can only be run on desktop operating systems like Windows and Mac OS X.

So the take home message is that if you want a tablet to do actual work, you have to get a tablet PC that runs Windows. The current favorite is the Asus Eee Slate EP121, which has a powerful Intel i5 dual core CPU, runs Windows 7, and weighs about 2.5 lb. The main drawback is its short battery life: 3-4 hours. If you don't mind having an old model, many rave about the HP TC1100 tablet. It uses a Wacom digitizer, runs Windows XP, weighs about 3.3 lb, and has a detachable keyboard. Without the keyboard, it becomes a slate.

The Asus Eee Note EA800 is an intriguing possibility. The slate uses active digitizer pen input, only weighs 520g, has a long battery life (~ 8 hours), and will be cheap: around $200. The reason it is able to achieve all these features is because it uses Linux and has a monochrome LCD screen which is not backlit. Unfortunately, the Linux OS means you can't use OneNote though the Eee Note allows you to upload your notes to Evernote via internet. However, people report that the Wifi connectivity is really bad. The fact that the LCD screen is not backlit means that it is very hard to see in dark environments, for example, when people are giving presentations with the lights off. So the Asus Eee Note is probably not going to work for most people. The good news is that Asus seems to be working hard to re-vitalize the pen tablet market and may come out with something exciting in the next generation. Reportedly they are working on a color version of the Eee Note.

Sorry, Mac users, it is doubtful that Apple will directly support pen input, and as I mentioned earlier, you really need an active digitizer for good pen input. This is a hardware problem. However, there are some nice iPad drawing apps out like Penultimate, and Wacom is releasing a capacitive stylus (with 6 mm resolution which is supposedly the limit of the iPad's sensitivity -- compare that to a real pen which is something like 1 mm). If pen tablets become popular enough, maybe Apple will become interested. Finally, I should mention that Microsoft OneNote is not available on the Mac, though Evernote supports OS X.

[Sidenote: If you look at forums about pen input on tablets, people call writing on tablets "inking."]

Tablets without pen input (iPad and Android)

If you are willing to live without pen input, you have a lot more options like the iPad and Android tablets (with the exception of the HTC Flyer mentioned earlier). Due to the success of the iPad, there are a flurry of Android tablets coming out this year. These tablets are all very good when it comes to touch screen manipulation, speed, and internet connectivity with good battery life because they use operating systems that are derived from smartphone OS's.

Three different tablet sizes are being pushed right now: 7", 8.9", and 10". The iPad uses the 10" form factor which is best for multimedia like video and photos. People who prefer a large viewing area will like this form factor, though it starts to get a little heavy. The lightest 10" tablets are around 1.3 lb. The 7" form factor is great for reading ebooks. A lot of people like the lightness and the fact that you can hold 7" tablets in one hand for an appreciable time. The Nook Color has a 7" screen. Most tablets are currently either 7" or 10". A few companies are testing the market for midsize tablets with an 8.9" form factor. This might be a great compromise between viewing area and portability.

For the iPad and Android tablets, the hardware is already very good. The tablets are light and have plenty of processing power. The screens look beautiful and many of them incorporate large angle viewing technology.

The potential of Android tablets is currently restricted by the software. Google designed a tablet-specific operating system called Android 3.0 (Honeycomb). But it's so new and Apple is so dominant in the marketplace that there are few developers for it. Honeycomb is still kind of buggy and there are few apps. Hopefully, in a year, the situation will change.

You could get the iPad, but I'm not a fan of Apple's censorship and closed-source model. It's true that Apple technology is very good, but when you buy an Apple product, you are buying into Apple's culture and dogma. I don't think of daily computing as a religious experience; I think of the computer as a tool that allows for swapping hardware and tinkering with softare. Also, Apple currently doesn't support Flash on the iOS, the operating system used on the iPhone and iPad, so you won't be able to watch most Internet videos (including Hulu and YouTube) on the iPad.

I think if you're willing to wait, the Android tablets will have better hardware and more innovative features, not to mention a microSD or SD card slot for extra capacity and convenience (the iPad doesn't have any external storage options). There are already Android tablets designed to have a removable battery (Toshiba tablet), a detachable keyboard (ASUS Eee Pad Transformer), slideout keyboard (Asus Eee Pad Slider), or pen input (HTC Flyer). The competition among Android tablets will result in dramatic price drops, too.

The coolest thing about Android tablets is their modding potential. There is a huge developer community hacking and tinkering with the Android OS. It is well-known that you can "jailbreak" the iPhone/iTouch and "root" Android smartphones. A couple Android tablets have been well-hacked. The 7" Nook Color and the 10" Viewsonic G Tablet run Android 2.x off the shelf. Both devices are easily rooted and flashed with custom ROMs (essentially operating systems). ["Rooting" means to gain administrative access to a device so you can run anything on it. "Flashing" means changing the read-only-memory (ROM) on the device. This is dangerous because all the low level operations and booting is controlled by this memory. If you mess up, you might "brick" the device, i.e. render it un-operable without any way to restore it to working condition.]

The Nook Color ad G Tablet were targeted by the developer community because they are relatively cheap for Android tablets. With the right software, the Nook Color can be upgraded from Android 2.1 (Eclair) to Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and overclocked from 800 MHz to 1.1 GHz. The Bluetooth capability of the tablet can also be unlocked.

Essentially, you can buy the Nook Color for $250 and upgrade it to be comparable to the Samsung Galaxy Tab. When you consider that the Galaxy Tab used to cost $400 with a two year data plan or $600 off-contract, this is an incredible deal, so good that if you search Google News for "rooted nook color", you will find at least a dozen articles about ordinary people with no tech-know-how rooting their Nook Colors. Well, it used to be an incredible deal. Now, there is a $350 Wifi-only version of the Galaxy Tab, so the savings isn't quite as much. You could also mod a G Tablet. I don't find that option as attractive because the G Tablet isn't supported as well among developers and because the G Tablet's screen is reportedly quite poor.

With the announcement that the 10" Acer Eee Pad Transformer will cost $400 and the Acer Iconia Tab A500 will cost $450, maybe a rooted Nook Color isn't quite as attractive as it used to be since it has a 7" screen size and only 8 GB storage (compared to 16 or 32 GB). But it's still a good deal and you have the advantage of using a mature OS like Gingerbread (Android 2.3) rather than the "beta" Honeycomb (Android 3.0). All the new Android tablets use Honeycomb and all the old ones use Android 2.1 or 2.2.

The future of tablets (?)

It will take a while for the Android tablet market to grow and mature. But I think it's a safe bet that in the near future, Honeycomb will be refined, people will develop more apps for it, and the price of Android tablets will drop substantially. In the meantime, you can get yourself a Nook Color or G Tablet, root it, and get access to the best and latest Android updates the hacker community has to offer (in contrast, retail Android devices are very slow to get updates). When your tablet becomes outdated, you'll be able to buy a new, cutting-edge device that is very satisfactory right out of the box.

Don't forget about tablet PCs and pen-based tablets. With the growing popularity of the iPad and the huge push by Android to focus on tablets, I think tablet PCs and pen-based tablets will also benefit. A much broader and mainstream audience will be exposed to tablets, the technology will improve, and people will demand more. Manufacturers will be more willing to take a chance on innovating tablets with inking capabilities.

The next few years should be exciting if you like tablets.

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