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Tag Archives: Apple

Should You Roar Into Mountain Lion?

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Apple’s latest operating system made its official debut recently, although that’s somewhat a matter of perspective; if you’re a developer you would have had access for some time; it’s in Apple’s best interest to have as many applications work seamlessly with a new operating system, so developers get an “early peek” at the new operating system well ahead of the rest of us.

As with previous releases of OS X, the latest iteration, which officially drops the version numbers in the advertising — but is still 10.8 if you look deep enough — isn’t an expensive upgrade; all you need is an Intel-based Mac (the same as you did with 10.7) and $20.99 to spend through the Mac App Store Mountain Lion can be yours. This highlights one thing that could be a problem for some users; it’s purely a download product, and you’ll need around 4.5GB of capacity to get it all down. That’ll take a while to get down on even the fastest connection, and depending on your ISP’s download allowance, could be a little on the painful side. On the plus side, you’re covered once for all your Macs on the same Apple account, so it’s a one-off charge, and if you save the installer, it’s possible to download once and install many times.

As with most new operating systems, choosing whether to upgrade is a question of balancing features and flaws. So far the flaws that have jumped up in my own testing have been marginal, and even without getting into the specifics of what’s new, the bugfixes over regular Lion have led to a machine that’s noticeably more responsive. Thats’ somewhat to be expected; as with any “new” install of an operating system there’s little digital clutter”¦ for now.

So Mountain Lion is quick and it’s cheap, but that’s not an automatic green tick of approval either, and that’s got more to do with the new features and whether you’ll use them. It’s clear with Mountain Lion that Apple’s merging the look and feel of its computer lines with the phenomenally successful iPhone and iPad operating system, known as iOS. If you love iOS, you’ll really like Mountain Lion, but if you’re not so keen, it can make for a slightly muddled experience.

Likewise, a lot of Mountain Lion’s consumer-facing benefits come from Apple’s iCloud storage solution; if you’re not happy or interested in storing files online there’s less here that’s absolutely compelling. One of the new features, Airplay (essentially video streaming out to the Apple TV set top box), only works with relatively new Macs. Likewise, the new Power Nap feature, which allows Macbook Pro and Air models to download mail and updates while in sleep mode, only works with SSD-based models from the last twelve months.

You’re not risking a lot of cash with Mountain Lion, and this is a trend that it looks like Microsoft is mirroring, at least with its “upgrade” pricing for Windows 8. If you’re talking a mission critical system you should definitely hold off on upgrading, but then that’s always sensible advice. If you’re keen on the new features — and you’re sure that your network connection and new(ish) Mac can handle them it’s a decent upgrade option at a good price.


Do We Want Our Computers Dumbed Down Into Tablets?

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Steve Jobs famously said we live in a post-PC era, but you’ll pry my desktop operating system out of my cold dead hands.

There’s a disturbing push to turn our desktop computers into overgrown tablets, whether we like it or not. We’ve recently seen the release of Mac OS 10.8 aka “Mountain Lion” and it continues Apple’s relentless push to blur the line between Macs and iPads. The move might appeal to fresh iGadget converts looking for cross-platform consistency, but old-school Mac users are less likely to be impressed.

Previously Mac OS 10.7 “Lion” saw the introduction of an iOS-style App Store for managing desktop applications. Many people saw this as the First Horseman of the iOS Apocalypse and feared that Apple would move to lock down Mac OS even further the same way it rules iOS with an iron fist. The release of Lion also saw the introduction of full-screen mode for some applications which slavishly copied iOS design concepts even though they often didn’t make sense in a multi-tasking desktop environment. There were lots of other little iPad-style changes which seemed to put style before functionality.

Apple has continued the iPad-ification of the Mac with Mountain Lion, although this time around it feels like less of a shock to the system than the leap from Snow Leopard to Lion. With Mountain Lion at least some of the new iPad-style additions are actually functional rather than simply cosmetic. The iOS notification system and dropdown menu (an idea which Apple “borrowed” from Android) has been brought across to the desktop. iCloud, iMessage and Reminders have also been integrated into Mountain Lion. They still need work, but these additions clearly have the potential to be useful rather than simply iCandy.

While Apple tends to be a trendsetter in the mobile space, it’s actually Microsoft which is leading the charge to merge desktop and tablet interfaces. The upcoming Windows 8 sports the tile-based Metro UI interface which has been seconded from Windows Phone 7. By the end of the year you’ll see Metro on Windows 8-based desktops, notebooks, tablets and smartphones. As with Apple’s efforts, Metro seems more practical on a touchscreen handheld gadget than on a desktop computer.

What’s interesting with Metro and Windows 8 is that Microsoft has taken the extra step baking touchscreen compatibility into desktop versions of Windows. If your desktop or notebook computer is blessed with a multi-touch display, you can tap, flick, pinch and scroll on the screen just like a tablet. Such functionality was available for Windows 7 but we only saw a handful of compatible devices and some like the Acer Iconia dual-touchscreen notebook were too cumbersome to be taken seriously.

Metro could help drive the take up of touchscreen desktops and it seems inevitable that Apple will eventually go down this path as iPads and Macs merge into the one touchscreen platform. Yet it remains to be seen if that’s what people actually want from their computers. Some of us actually prefer to put aside our touchscreen gadgets when it comes time to actually get some work done. Microsoft and Apple might have touchy-feely plans for the future, but some of us would prefer they keep their hands off our computers.


Apple's New iPad Review

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The most surprising thing about Apple’s new iPad when Tim Cook unveiled it in early March wasn’t anything to do with the technical specifications; it was the fact that Apple had dumped the idea of a suffix; the followup to the iPad 2 wouldn’t be the iPad 3, or even as some pundits had tipped, the iPad HD. Instead, it’s just the iPad, although in deference to its current status, it’s the “new” iPad, as distinct from the one released two years ago. Look long enough at the technical documentation, and you’ll sometimes find it referred to as the iPad (3rd Generation).

Whatever you call it, the demand for it was certainly on par with previous years; at launch, the queue at Sydney’s main George St Apple store stretched around the block. Which was odd, given that there were any number of other retailers selling exactly the same thing, but many came for the social experience, presumably.

All that aside, the new iPad isn’t a radical reinvention of the tablet concept; rather like Apple’s moves with its iPhone brand, it’s more of a gradual evolution. The key feature that you’ll spot right away is the high definition 2048 by 1536 pixel display screen. Apple uses the hideous marketing term “resolutionary”, as well as referring to it as a retina display, but advertising aside, the key thing that the new screen brings with it is very crisp text and visuals — on applications that support it. Put lower resolution video on the new iPad, and the higher resolution screen will make it look a little worse, in the same way that a VHS tape played back on a modern LCD flat panel looks grainy; the screen’s simply better at showing all the detail, good or bad.

As with previous generations, you can buy an iPad with only onboard WiFi connectivity, or one that can handle mobile data, but here you’ve got to be careful. Apple labels the mobile data capable iPad as the Wi-Fi+4G model, but here in Australia, the frequencies used by Telstra (and shortly by Optus) aren’t compatible with the 4G chip inside the new iPad. It’ll still connect to 3G wireless — and it’s dual channel HSPA+ compatible, so there’s some overhead there for decent speeds. But what it isn’t, and won’t be under current Australian 4G implementations for some time, is actually 4G compatible. For US and Canadian travellers, you should be able to connect there to 4G networks with an Australian iPad, for what that’s worth.

The new iPad’s internals have been beefed up as well, with a dual-core A5X ARM processor and quad-core graphics, although again Apple’s marketing rather fudges things here. The important part here is that it is noticeably faster when using processor intensive applications compared to the older iPad models. The speed difference is there, but as yet, there’s no applications that explicitly require the new iPad.

So what’s the final verdict? Apple’s still largely leading the market when it comes to tablet implementations, and it’s clearly got a lead in terms of applications for tablets. The new iPad is better than the old one, but those with an existing iPad — especially last year’s iPad 2 — shouldn’t rush out to upgrade. Those after their first tablet would be well advised to put it on the top of their shopping list.


Will Tablet Owners Jump On The Upgrade Merry-go-round?

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Are we ready to abandon two year-old iPads?

Apple strangely decided not to call its new tablet the iPad 3. However you describe it, this “new iPad” is hitting the shelves, making the iPad 2 look old and the original iPad look ancient. Of course that’s the same old original iPad that was the most desired object in the world only 24 months ago.

We live in a throw-away society and most of us happily abandon a perfectly good phone every two years because our telco gives us a new one for free. It’s not really for free, as the cost is built into the monthly bill, but it feels free because we’ll keep paying for the same plan regardless.

That old phone might get handed down to family or friends, but sooner rather than later it will end up in landfill (although you really should investigate recycling options). People don’t value things if they don’t feel they paid for them, so they have no qualms about casting old phones aside.

That’s not the case with tablets, regardless of your devotion to Apple, Android, Windows or even the ill-fated BlackBerry PlayBook. If you own a tablet, chances are you bought it outright and plonked down your cash (or at least added it to your growing credit card debt). Even if you’ve got a Wi-Fi/3G model which uses a SIM card to access the mobile broadband network, you probably bought your tablet outright and slipped in a pre-paid SIM.

Your telco isn’t going to turn around after a year or two and hand you a shiny new tablet for free. If you want the latest and greatest wundertablet, you’ll need to pull out your wallet again. Unless you’re a devoted fanboy with deep pockets, that hip pocket pain should make you wonder if your old tablet is still up to the job.

Gadget makers have been relying on rapid technological advances to quickly make last year’s model soon feel obsolete. Yet as products mature the technological leap between models will lessen, as we’ve seen with incremental upgrades such as the iPhone 4S. Truth be told, last year’s iPhone and iPad are still up to the job.

The way to maintain sales could be to encourage the hand-me-down mentality by personalising gadgets to the point where we can’t share them. Tablets are already so tightly integrated into “your” world that it’s awkward to hand them over, even to family members (or especially to family members, depending on your privacy concerns). Once you Vulcan mind meld with your tech, you want it constantly by your side.

The lack of desktop-esque fast user switching on tablets is frustrating, but that’s all part of the plan. If you’re sick of wrestling back your gadgets from family and friends, it’s much easier to justify surrendering your perfectly good tablet and buying yourself a new one. Next thing you know, you’re trapped in the upgrade cycle.


The Problem with Ethical Gadgets

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There’s been a lot of discussion recently over whether Apple — currently sitting as the world’s most valuable company by stock valuation — should be doing more to ensure the basic human rights of the workers in the Chinese factories — largely controlled by a company called Foxconn, which is an external contractor to Apple — are upheld and, where possible, improved. So the logic goes, Apple makes a huge profit each year, and some of that money, so the argument goes, could go into better wages for the Foxconn employees who make Apple’s iPhone, iPads and iPods.

It’s certainly a noble argument — and a useful stick for those who don’t like Apple to beat them with — but it’s not the entire picture, which is, as such,  a more complex and nuanced situation than at first glance. First, there’s the commonly overlooked fact that while Apple is a major customer of Foxconn, it’s far from being its only customer; in the IT space, everyone from IBM to Dell to Sony to Microsoft use Foxconn’s factories for production purposes. However, it’s Apple that gets shoved into the “leadership” role in this case, even though it’s not set in stone at all that if Apple pulled out of Foxconn’s factories, the others would follow suit. It could well just lead to Apple’s products going up in price, while competitors continued to use Foxconn’s cheap labour.

For its part, Apple is adamant that it conducts regular inspections of factories, and while it’s open to saying that it has in some cases uncovered irregular working practices — and even ceased using some suppliers as a result — there’s also the allegation that Chinese factories have faked factory setups when inspections are taking place. That’s a hard one to judge either way, as is the issue of whether a Chinese factory worker is better off than a Chinese farm worker; the lines who queue up to get a job at Foxconn certainly suggest it could be an improvement. As with anything in China, given the strong level of government control, it’s hard to come to a definitive conclusion in any case.

None of this means that conditions for workers shouldn’t be improved, but there’s ultimately one way that this could be achieved, and that’s by consumers themselves making it a key purchasing criteria; if it becomes too expensive in terms of lost sales for a company to use labour with allegedly unethical roots, they won’t do so. That’s not just Apple, however; in order to change the way that technology is produced, especially given that the production of some key components involves incredibly harsh chemical processes, it would need to be something that was insisted upon by consumers (and businesses) at every level.


Talking about voice control

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I’ve spent the last week talking to my phone. Not that revolutionary you might think; it is after all a phone, and voice has been part of the feature set right from the get-go. But in this case I’ve been testing out Siri, one of Apple’s key selling points for the iPhone 4S. Siri allows you to ‘talk’ to the phone in order to make calls, appointments, send messages and search for information.

In one sense this is nothing new; older smartphones, including those from other platforms have had voice control features for many years now. Where Siri makes it interesting is in its ability to handle natural language. Where most of the other systems rely on very simple phrases, Siri can handle longer contextual strings and a variety of voice inputs. So you could say, for example, “What’s the weather like in Melbourne”, and it’ll find a five day forecast; ask it then “what’s the time there?” and it’ll remember the context and give you AEDST time for Melbourne. It’s all rather reminiscent of Star Trek, frankly, speaking to a small computer in your pocket, although it does rely on having a net connection of some sort as some of the voice processing is done at Apple’s servers rather than in the device itself. It learns as it goes, according to Apple, so rather like products such as Nuance’s Dragon Naturally Speaking, the more you use it the better it’ll get. It’s also got a specific setting for English (Australian), and it’s highly advised that you use it; the difference in its understanding of a strine accent and a yankee one is remarkable. There’s obvious scope here for use by those with physical ability limitations where typing is difficult or impossible, but even just as a cool gimmick.

Siri does have its limitations, especially locally. Ask it for any kind of directions, and it’ll sadly inform you it can only give directions when it’s in the US. That’s not reticence on its part; the directions part of Siri’s logic relies on a couple of US-specific services that Apple’s signed up to. There are words and phrases it’ll stumble on repeatedly, and because it learns its owner’s voice, it’s markedly less effective for other users if they borrow your phone. To be fair to Apple, it does mark Siri as a “beta” (that is, still in development) product, so there’s plenty of room for improvement.

There’s arguably a bigger strike against Siri to consider, however, and it’s true for any voice controlled product. Within the context of your own home or office, talking to a computer may feel a little odd at first, but generally you’ll have access to a keyboard anyway, which adds a layer of instant precision. Out and about, and you’re going to have to talk over the general chatter and noise of the world, which means relatively loud. All of a sudden, you’re getting Siri to calculate the interest on your home loan, or noting the times of your medical appointments in public. Most of us would rather keep that stuff private. There’s no easy way around that — it’s decidedly a public perception problem rather than a technology one.


Steve Jobs’ Legacy

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If you asked most ordinary folk to name anybody prominent in technology, the chances are high that they’d name one of two people; either  Apple’s Steve Jobs or Microsoft’s Bill Gates — although Gates retired from the position of Microsoft CEO some years ago.

Steve Jobs passed away recently, just a day after Apple announced the latest in its highly successful line of smartphones, the iPhone 4S. But what will his legacy be? I’ve had a number of people ask me that in the days since he passed away, curious as to whether he was (as some have put it), the modern day equivalent of say, Edison, or just a very good salesperson.

The fundamental thing to realise is that while Jobs’ name appears on many of Apple’s patents, his real skill wasn’t in invention. He didn’t invent the iPhone, iPod, or even the graphical user interface upon which all consumer computing — whether you use a Mac or PC — is built upon. But Jobs was clearly a man with plenty of vision, some of it uncompromising, as to future trends. He was good at picking what folk would like to do with technology, in other words, rather than specifically fussing about the numbers, frequencies or figures underneath. As an example, the original GUI work was done by Xerox Parc, but it was Jobs who put a lot of Apple’s money behind the first consumer graphical user interface (GUI) idea in the mid-80s. Apple’s first GUI-based computer, the Apple Lisa, was a crushing failure.

Never heard of it? I’m not surprised; the Lisa sold poorly in an era that was dominated by dry command line style computing of interest only to the technically inclined. The Lisa however led to the original Macintosh, and from there the GUI really took off; Microsoft then made it considerably cheaper and more mainstream, and stole a march from Apple in the process. Apple continued to champion easy user computing, and while that’s not for everybody — many folks prefer the near infinite configurability of Android to the iPhone’s tightly locked down iOS, for example — it’s an idea that’s certainly gained Apple market share and a fair amount of income in recent years.

The same’s true in music; the iPod wasn’t the first music player — but it was the first music player that was both easy to use and really easy to look at. Jobs’ vision could often border on myopia; it’s said that he was a terrible boss to work for when things went wrong, and one that was still a lot of work to please in good times.

So what will history judge Steve Jobs on? In many ways it’s a bit too early to tell, but it’s easy to say that his particular vision of personal computing shaped the way we use technology right now. If you’re in the consumer IT market and you can’t make it easy, you probably can’t sell it, and that’s in direct response to the way Steve Jobs pushed Apple through his two tenures as CEO. Not everybody uses an Apple — and for consumer choice and variety, if nothing else, that’s a good thing — but his impact on everyone’s computing is profound.


Steve Jobs Retires From Apple, But Very Little Will Change

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One of the biggest tech news stories of recent months broke early in the morning (Australian time) when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs formally announced that he was stepping down from his role as Apple’s CEO.

Jobs’ time as Apple CEO was marked by a profound change in the company; when he regained control of the company having been ousted in the mid 1980s, it was in dire straits, with most observers thinking it would be a mere matter of months before Apple was no more. With a focus on industrial design and cutting back on the number and scope of Apple’s projects at the time, Jobs was able to turn the company into what it is today. In ten short years Apple’s brought industrial design in computing to the fore, be it with integrated iMacs, the ever-popular iPods (which only celebrate a decade of existence this year) or the profound shakeup of the mobile industry that was caused by the iPhone. There’s no doubting that Apple is one of the genuine power players in the IT market, and Jobs can rightly claim a lot of that credit.

But having said that, while Jobs stepping down was news, it was neither unexpected (his illnesses are a private matter, but as a company CEO his medical leaves of absence weren’t, and his successor in the CEO role, Tim Cook, had been acting in that role for much of this year anyway) and neither will it make a huge difference to Apple’s fortunes going on. That’s partly because the CEO role is the only one Jobs is stepping down from; he’s still chairman of the Apple board, a director and an employee. He might not be signing all the pay cheques any more, but undoubtedly his influence will continue to be felt. Equally, Apple’s not a company that moves particularly quickly; it’s likely that the next couple of years worth of projects, including new iPhones and iPads are already more or less set in stone.


Apple Lion OS X Roars, But It Can Also Bite

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It’s been a couple of weeks since Apple released the latest version of its particular computer operating system, OS X 10.7, more informally known as “Lion”. Apple uses the names of the big cats for its operating systems, which is why previous releases have been named things like Tiger, Panther or Snow Leopard. Which means that presumably, a few years down the track, Apple may release OS X Ocelot.

At $31.99, Lion’s very cheap for an operating system, but that’s more a function of it being part of Apple’s overall computer strategy. It makes money from hardware rather than software, and while that may be changing with the wild success of the iTunes App store for devices like iPads and iPhones, it’s a slow change, and for now the software’s just an inducement to buy the hardware, the same way that car retailers will offer “free” air conditioning”¦ as long as you buy a thirty thousand dollar car. That kind of price might make it seem like an automatic upgrade option compared to the hundreds of dollars a full version of Windows goes for, but there are still some catches. I’ve had some serious time with Lion now, and while there’s definitely some good stuff in this big cat, there’s also some areas where it’s all too easy to get bitten.

Apple’s main focus in Lion has been to slowly merge the kinds of experiences its customers on iOS devices have with its Mac userbase, and as such, touch gestures are now system-wide. This includes the curious decision to reverse the direction of the scroll wheel to match how your fingers move on an iPhone or iPad; Apple rather optimistically calls this “natural” scrolling, and it was amongst the first things I switched off, which thankfully isn’t too hard.

Not surprisingly, my test Lion system has been quicker than it was before, but I’m still unsure if that’s a function of it being a freshly optimised system; I could well have the same speed boost in a freshly installed copy of Windows. Some applications are definitely perkier; Mail in particular may look drab but runs well and now has search capabilities that make it a pleasure to use. I’m also getting a lot of utility out of the app resume feature, which allows you to shut down the Mac and have every window, application and file spring up as it was the next time you power the system on. Likewise, system-wide autosave is a feature that’s been a long time coming to Macs, and so far, seems to work well.

Then there are the things that don’t work so well. Any Mac users of long standing with older applications may find they work unpredictably, or in the case of any code written for PowerPC Macs, that they don’t work at all. This includes some quite high profile applications, including Microsoft Office 2004; if you’re running that particular version of Office (or any older version), you’ll need to weigh up the cost of upgrading the suite as well as Lion.

I’ve also hit a smattering of application and hardware incompatibilities, some of which will hopefully be ironed out sooner rather than later. One of my multifunction printers works for printing, but hangs trying to scan documents, for example. The solution to this, by the way, for any prospective Lion upgraders would be to check with the vendor prior to upgrading for OS X 10.7 compatible drivers. Thankfully for my purposes I can access the scanner from another system.

So does that mark Lion up as a beast that roars, or a whimpering kitty? I’d say that as a new operating system on balance it does fairly well; I’ve certainly seen the same kinds of issues on new versions of Windows when they’ve emerged, with a mix of fixes and applications left by the wayside. It’s certainly worth doing your homework with regards to applications and hardware to ensure it’s compatible before switching over, but at the asking price if those apps aren’t an issue for you, Lion’s something of a bargain.


Which Tablet Is Right For Me?

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Apple’s iPad made a big splash when it was released earlier in the year, but up until now there hasn’t been a lot of competition in the tablet form factor. With new release products from Samsung and Telstra, though, there is finally a modicum of choice in the Tablet space.

It’s worth knowing what a Tablet can and can’t do before you plunk down your hard earned cash. They’re not exactly notebook replacements, generally being less powerful than the kind of notebook you can get for the same money. At the same time, the touch-specific interfaces they sport can be great for quick work and especially media consumption on the go or comfortably around the home. That being said, let’s take a look at the field of contenders.

Apple iPad

Price: $629-$1049 (depending on memory and 3G capability)

Why you’d want one:

Apple’s Tablet still leads the market in terms of available touch-specific applications, and if you’re already an iPhone owner, your applications can be shifted across at no charge — although some will look rather pixellated if they’ve not been iPad optimised. The 10″ screen is clear and works much better for content creation than the smaller Samsung and Telstra tablets.

Why you wouldn’t:

Apple controls all things “i” branded with an iron fist, and this means certain application categories get knocked back. There’s no direct file system access without specific hacking, and the Windows iTunes client isn’t always the most stable. Unlike the Telstra or Samsung tablets, there’s no inbuilt camera or phone functionality.

Samsung Galaxy Tab

Price: $999 or on contract

Why you’d want one:

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab is smaller than the iPad with a 7″ display screen. It runs Android 2.2, giving it a wealth of applications, has internal cameras and phone capability. The Australian released model will come with Navigon’s GPS software built in, as well as e-reader capabilities and a dedicated application for the Australian newspaper.

Why you wouldn’t:

The outright price is comparatively very high, considering you could buy the 10″ iPad in almost every configuration for the cost of the Galaxy Tab. There should shortly be contract options for the Tab from most carriers, taking some of the sting out of pricing.

Telstra T-Touch Tab

Price: $299

Why you’d want one:

Telstra’s entry level tablet is priced to go, and the price is the key appeal. It’s an Android 2.1 tablet with plenty of Telstra specific applications, inbuilt camera and an excellent inbuilt mobile Foxtel client, although that will cost you extra to access. If you just want a consumption device, it’s adequate.

Why you wouldn’t:

The T-Touch Tab uses a resistive screen that’s much harder to use than the capacitive screens found on the Galaxy Tab or iPad. Any application that requires a lot of touch will bring with it a lot of frustration, marking this out as best used for passive consumption activities, and certainly one we’d suggest you try before you buy. Some users simply cannot get on with resistive screens without the use of a stylus.  Battery life is less than a quarter of the competing pads, and it’s comparatively a little heavy.


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