The move towards paper-free academic environment has long been an objective in the development of tablets. As enthusiastic as I am about this goal—having owned at various point two tablet PCs, one UMPC, two Windows Mobile Devices, a Palm IIIxe, three Android devices and two iPads—even I have to admit that technology had been falling short of expectation. But with multiple touch-based tablets, under competing plaforms, being introduced this year, perhaps we are finally accomplishing the goal? If this is a question you have in mind, read on.
Because this review is meant to focus on the aspects that are of particular concern to students and academics, it does not cover some topics, such as battery life. Interested reader can refer to the many reviews in major gadgets sites (e.g. Engadget: Flyer, Iconia, iPad 2nd Gen, PlayBook, Xoom).
Here is my verdict—scholars from other disciplines often joke that economists are impatient, wanting to know all the findings of a paper in its first pages—if note-taking is crucial the HTC Flyer is the only serious option. If reading fine text is more important then the iPad is the best choice.
The Review Units
The tablets under review are the HTC Flyer, the Acer Iconia Tab A500, the Apple iPad 1st Generation and the BlackBerry PlayBook. All four tablets are being sold in Best Buy. These four tablets cover the two most popular size (~10″ and 7″) and the three available operating systems (iOS, Android and QNX).
A few competitors are not included in this review, notably the Motorola Xoom and the Samsung Galaxy Tab. I find the former sufficiently similar to the Iconia and the 7″ version of latter inferior to the Flyer, and as such I decided not to obtain them for review. A 1st generation iPad is used in this review instead of a 2nd generation one because I own one of the former, and because the latter benefits mostly from being lighter and have cameras. Tablet PCs are excluded from this review—even though I own a Fujitsu P1610—because I consider them belonging to a separate league, as I shall explain in the end of this review.
The iPad and the Iconia are (approximately) 10″ in diagonal, while the Flyer and the PlayBook are 7″. There have been plenty of debates on the merits of each of two sizes. On one hand, 10″ tablets clearly offer more screen estate over 7″ ones. On the other hand, 7″ tablets takes up considerable less space and are much easier to hold with one hand. The choice is ultimately a personal one, depending on your own need.
Left: the iPad 1st Gen. Right: the Flyer
1. PlayBook 2. Flyer, iPad 3. Iconia
Tablets have essentially standardized on how they look from the front: touchscreen with a bezel around it. Thus when it comes to looks, the back is the battleground. That being said, bear in mind that most tablet users will have a case on their device, so the difference in built material is not that important.
The PlayBook has a matte rubberised finish, giving a professional feel that ThinkPad users will be very familiar with. The Flyer and the iPad both have a aluminium shell, which is both stylish and eye-catching, the latter not necessarily a welcome attribute at work. The Iconia has a brushed metal finish but is actually made of plastic. While that design is decent looking, it makes the Iconia looks much more like a media-consumption device than a machine for work.
Accessories and Extensibility
1. Iconia 2. Flyer, iPad, PlayBook
Only the Iconia Tab uses a standardized Micro USB connector. The other three each has their own proprietary connector, an approach that I abhor because of the hassle it impose to users.
From left to right: Micro USB, PlayBook’s connector, Flyer’s connector and iPad’s connector.
While all of the tablets in this review have batteries big enough that will handily last you a full day, if you, like me, have a habit of working in multiple locations, chances are you would still want to have multiple chargers. The iPad only comes with one cable, doubling as a changing cable and a data cable, while all the others come with a separate data cable. Base on my personal experience, as long as you have wireless network at all your workplaces there is little need for transferring data with a cable. Thus, the data cable can be used as a charging cable, either by plugging it into a computer or by buying a separate USB charger.
Besides the charger, the PlayBook comes with a nice porch, while the Iconia Tab comes with a microfiber cloth. Now comes the bad news: not only does the Flyer not come with a Pen in the U.S., it does not come with the Porch included with those sold in the rest of the world either. This is somewhat disappointing.
Left: PlayBook’s box. Right: Iconia Tab’s box.
Now comes the biggest selling point of the Iconia: extension ports. While all the other tablets in this review only provides you with a proprietary port, the Iconia actually has a full-size USB port and a HDMI port. The former means you can connect external mouse, keyboard and hard drives to the Iconia. How useful this feature is varies by individual, but there is no doubt Iconia is best among its class when it comes to connectivity.
Iconia’s extension ports. Top-right: HDMI connector. Bottom-left: USB connectors.
Large format documents: 1. iPad 2. Flyer, PlayBook 3. Iconia
Novels: 1. Flyer, PlayBook 2. iPad 3. Iconia
10″ tablets definitely have an edge when it comes to displaying documents. That said, the 7″ tablets performed surprisingly well. I had no problem reading an article from the Quarterly Journal of Economics on the Flyer or the PlayBook. Furthermore, the smaller size of the 7″ tablets make them quite a bit easier to hold with one hand, which is a considerable advantage for those on the go.
The Iconia, while having a 10″ screen, is ranked third in both formats because its default PDF reader was not able to correctly display the document above.
The iPad, the Flyer and the PlayBook are essentially a match in terms of screen quality, which means you can expect rich, deepy colors from all of them. The Iconia Tab, on the other hand, is a notch behind the others in this regard. Note that the Iconia’s screen is by no means of poor quality, but just that the competition is better.
From top-left to bottom-right: PlayBook, Flyer, iPad, Iconia.
Text Input and Selection
1. Flyer 2. iPad 3. Iconia 4. PlayBook
Because of limited screen estate, on screen keyboards of all the tablets in this review shows by default only the keys for alphabets and a few essential punctuations. By doing so, the 10″ tablets have keys that are almost as big as a full-sized keyboard. Fluid typing on these tablets are achievable provided that you have a case or a stand holding the tablet. The 7″ tablets, on the other hand, are very versatile if you are comfortable with thumb typing.
The Flyer ultimately stands out because of its excellent implementation of symbol entry, which allows the user to enter numbers and symbols by press and holding varies keys. Note that Samsung tablets, not included in this review, came along with an input method called Swype, which is arguable an even better input method.
Text selection is a feature that has come a long way. The iPad and the Flyer has what many considered the best method of text selection on tablets: when you press and hold on text, a magnifying glass appear to allow for fine control of the cursor points. Iconia, with default Android 3.0, only have cursor points, as is the PlayBook.
From left to right: iPad, Flyer, Iconia
In the end, while these tablets work well for typing notes and email conversations, trying to type an essay on them would bound to be frustrating. Users who need to do a lot of typing are better of with convertibles like the Fujitsu P series, or hybrids like the Eee Pad Transformer.
1. Flyer 2. iPad 3. Iconia 4. PlayBook
Unless you only deal with the basic alphanumeric characters, chances are you would find typing notes insufficient. The ability to record handwritten notes has always been one of the reason I use tablets. In this regard there is no competition—thanks to its active digitizer, the Flyer is the best by a large margin. As the videos below demonstrate, the capacitive touch screen of the other three tablets is not accurate enough to allow for good handwritten notes.
From top to bottom: Flyer, iPad, PlayBook.
The Flyer’s advantage extends beyond simply being more accurate. The included Notes application integrates with Evernote, a service which automatically synchronizes your notes online and do character recognition, making your handwritten notes searchable.
1. Iconia, iPad 2. Flyer 3. PlayBook
The Iconia and iPad both have a two-panel threaded email client, which takes advantage of the screen estate of a tablet. The Flyer, currently only on Android 2.3, does not have access to the newest Android Gmail client. As such, its users at the moment have to choose between using the Gmail client, which is threaded but single-panel, or the HTC email client, which is two-panel but not threaded. The PlayBook does not come with an email client.
Instead of using an email client app, a user can instead opt for using a webmail interface. By default, Gmail displays a two-panel interface on iPad’s browser. Follow the instructions here—except at the last step, choose ‘iPad’ instead of ‘iPhone’—to enable the same interface for the Flyer.
Because none of the tablets comes with office applications by default, this review does not go over them. Quickoffice and Documents to Go are two suites that are available on all platforms, with the iPad having the additional optiona of Apple’s own iWorks.
At the moment of writing, an 16GB Wi-Fi version of: the Flyer fetches for $500 + $80 for the pen, the Iconia for $450, the iPad 1st Gen for $350, the iPad 2nd Gen for $500, and the PlayBook for $500. Given that the Flyer is noticeably more expensive, it only makes sense to go for it if you really, really need to write notes.
Is there a place for Tablet PCs?
To conclude this review, I would like to come back to the topic of Tablet PC. Steve Job famously noted that Apple has sold more iPads in nine months than all Tablet PCs combined. The problem with Tablet PCs is that none of them have more than two of the three essential characteristics of a successful tablet—portability, battery life and versatility. This makes Tablet PCs ill-equipped to compete with the newer crop of tablets.
That being said, sometimes having two essential characteristics is enough. If you need a active digitizer to work with Photoshop or offline character recognition, Tablet PCs are still your best bet. Hardly anyone would conclude from more people use Window’s Calculator than Matlab that Matlab is a failure. Each tool simply has its own role.
Recommended: Star Trek
10 times better than The Next Generation series of movies. Finally we see again a Trek movie that doesn’t look like a two-hour TV episode.
No bad, better than Da Vinci Code in my opinion. The story is predictable without reading the novel, but I would say it still makes the cut as an entertaining thriller.
I have to admit that I have a taste for portable devices: first it’s PDA, now it’s UMPC. Despite lukewarm reviews everywhere, Q1 comes quite close as my dream machine. In particular, it addressed many inadequates of PDA. Here are the pros:
1. Size: Q1 has the size of an average package book; with a weight of less than 800g its very portable.
2. Screen: At 7″ physically it is much bigger than anything one could find on a PDA.
3. Touch-Sensitivity: I really like touch-screen–mouse-pad and pointer drive me mad. Touch-screen also allows me to work one-handed, something I really need when I am standing. I actually find entering through Dialkeys, a virtual keyboard bundled with all UMPC, somewhat enjoyable…
4. Windows XP: Since Q1 runs XP Tablet, anything that works on a desktop theoretically works in it to. This is an unbeatable advantage over PDA’s, which need specialized softwares. Just yesterday I demonstrated the concurrent running of World of Warcraft and a program I wrote to a research colleague.
5. CF-slot: This is how Q1 wins my heart over Asus R2H, another UMPC. I need CF-slot to load photos from my DSLR and R2H only has a SD-slot.
6. Spec: Nothing spectacular here–actually Q1 is arguably underpowered–but as a PC it’s still way better than any PDA. I could barely open jpeg’s from my EOS-300D on my X50v, not to mention RAW.
7. Connectors: 2 USB ports and VGA out, things that are not on my PDA, is really all I need.
6. Price: I was originally look for ultra-portable laptops but those are expensive. At ~$1000 Q1 costs at most 2/3 of many popular ultra-portables.
There are quite some cons too:
1. Underpowered: Equipped only with a Celeron M 900Mhz processor, 512MB RAM and 40GB hard disk, it’s not a fast computer in any sense. Q1’s 7″ touch screen is almost triple that of my x51v in size, yet at a native resolution of 800×480 it hardly offers any advantage in resolution.
2. No microphone jack: The built-in microphone works great, but it would still be great to have the option to plug in an external one.
3. No videocam and GPS: Not something I would use often, but Asus’ R2H has both.
4. Mediocre Battery life: This is by far the biggest drawback–battery cannot hold much longer than two hours.
5. Price: I did mention it cost a thousand bucks…well.
In the end I am happy: Q1 is the solution to my need; neither PDA nor laptop could address my need as well as the Q1 does. And while many condemned Q1 to its demise, I do see there are others holding the same opinion as I do. Sometimes you just have to leave aside the zillions of reviews and make your own choice.