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Tag Archives: iPad

Are Cheap Tablets Worth Your Money?

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Metalbox MP10

There’s no doubt that Tablet-based computers are a hot commodity at the moment, but the one thing that they’re not is exceptionally cheap. If you wanted, for example, an Apple iPad with all the trimmings and maximum storage, it’d set you back a healthy $899 outright. You do get a lot of tablet for your money, but are the cheaper alternatives worthwhile?

Using Apple’s own iOS operating system, no, but there’s always Android. High specification Android tablets are quite common, with some high quality choices from firms like Samsung and Asus, but they’re at similar price points again.

Local Australian retailer Kogan recently announced that it would start shipping out a tablet with a 10 inch display screen for as little as $179. Tablets are tablets, right, so compared to the iPad, there’s a $720 saving right there, no?

In pure fiscal terms, yes, but there are some significant differences that are worth pointing out. For a start, that $179 tablet only has 8GB of storage, compared to the 64GB on the top-end iPad. Kogan’s model relies on selling online rather than in-store — there’s no way to “test” a product prior to buying it, although it’s always subject to the same Australian retail laws, so if it failed to be “fit for purpose” you should be entitled to a refund. Beyond the storage — and it’s also worth noting you could cut the iPad price down to $539 by dropping it to 16GB and Wi-Fi only — the iPad has a much higher resolution screen; the iPad’s screen resolution is 2048×1536 pixels, whereas Kogan’s tablet manages a considerably blockier 1024×768. The iPad likewise has a considerably better camera (with a very strong camera app ecosystem behind it) and Apple’s particular dedication towards build quality — and you pay for that.

Kogan, meanwhile”¦ is Kogan, for better or worse. It’s a company that aggressively attacks the budget sector with its own branded products, but it can be something of a mixed bag in terms of quality. I’ve tested a great many Kogan products over the past few years. Some have been excellent products in their price range; at one time they did an excellent DAB+ radio and an exceptionally competitive Blu-Ray player at a time when such things were very high end. At the same time, there have also been some terribly ordinary products; some Kogan TVs have been terribly lacklustre, and Kogan’s foray into the Netbook world was a fairly ugly thing with terrible wireless performance.

Not long after announcing it was available for pre-order, Kogan announced it had “sold out” of its production run; I do suspect that’s because at $179 (or $199 for the 16GB version) it did offer a very cheap Tablet alternative. As I write this, Aldi’s readying up a special that’ll see it sell a slightly higher specification tablet for $249. In both cases, you’re not risking enormous sums of money, at least relative to the price of a high-end tablet. As long as you recognise what you’re getting — and might not be getting — it’s perhaps a fair deal.


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.


How Much eHealth Should You Manage Yourself?

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Philips recently launched an interesting application for the Apple iPad. Called VitalSigns, it’s a 99c app that uses the iPad’s camera to  record your heart and breathing rate. Unlike when you might do so at a general practitioner’s office or in a hospital, there’s no cuff to wear or sensor of any type to deal with; instead the camera measures the colour differences in your face, as well as the movements of your chest to approximate the rate at which you’re breathing. Give it a minute or two, and it’ll return a reasonable approximation of both.  Curiously, you can then update Twitter or Facebook with your vital statistics, although (while I engage with Social Networking on an incredibly regular basis), I’m befuddled why you’d want to.

I gave the app a quick spin, and it’s quite surprising what it can actually track; within a very short space of time the graph to measure breathing was going up and down in an eerie representation of the way I was breathing at the time. Very cool technology without a shadow of a doubt.

But I won’t be deleting my GP’s phone number from my phone any time soon, just because I’ve got a measuring tool of my own. For a start, the app is plastered with all kinds of legal disclaimers, as it’s not a dedicated and gently calibrated piece of medical technology; it’s a mass market tablet computer running some software. Equally, I’m not fully qualified to interpret the results it gives, except in the most broad ways. As a test, I took a measurement while sitting, then did a five minute jog on the spot and measured again. Not surprisingly, my heart rate was remarkably high for the second reading, but it didn’t mean I needed to rush to call for an ambulance.

The same is true of a lot of online medical information. There’s definitely something to be said for being well read, and if you’re so inclined, many of the world’s greatest medical texts and minds are but a simple Google search away. That doesn’t immediately turn you into a qualified doctor, just the same as reading the instructions for a low water usage shower doesn’t turn you into a plumber, or reading this article turn you into a journalist. Knowledge can be power, but knowing exactly how to apply that knowledge in the correct context is what gives that knowledge power. As such, the Vital Signs app is a nice party trick to pull out, and could conceivably be of use to those who need to take regular readings with a capacity for a margin of error, but I wouldn’t rely on it to save my life.


Can Blackberry Take Down The iPad Juggernaut?

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Apple’s selling a lot of iPads right now. For the quarter ended in June 2011, more than seven million of them. To put that in perspective, Apple’s iOS business (which includes iPad and iPhones) was reported online to be, by unit sales, larger than the PC businesses of HP and Dell, combined. That’s a staggering figure for a combined tablet and phone offering that, four years ago, simply didn’t exist — and in the case of the iPad, that figure is only 18 months.

In other words, that’s a whole lot of tablets, and where there’s that kind of market momentum, there are going to be plenty of firms lining up to grab some of that market for themselves. To date there have been a number of Android tablets, but few that could entirely match the iPad experience, whether that was down to the plain nature of the Android OS supplied or a variety of hardware quirks.

Blackberry maker Research In Motion (RIM) has its “PlayBook” tablet in the marketplace now, and for the past couple of weeks I’ve had the chance to give it a longer than usual test. As a disclaimer, this is because RIM supplied me with a long term review unit.

The PlayBook is a 7″ tablet, putting it in company with Samsung’s original Galaxy Tab, the very cheap tablets that Telstra and Optus offered late last year, Viewsonic’s ViewPad 7 and Huawei’s upcoming MediaPad. 7″ tablets may have been dismissed by Apple’s Steve Jobs as not worthwhile, but that’s just his opinion; there’s undoubtedly some appeal in a smaller, more portable tablet option.

The best thing about the PlayBook? The hardware. This is easily the best 7″ tablet on the market right now, from the build quality to the use of the entire screen, even the bezel sides, to perform tablet functions. The core operating system that runs it all is slick and fast and very easy to learn, even if you’ve not used a tablet before.

The currently available $579 PlayBook is WiFi only, and works best in concert with an existing Blackberry smartphone. That’s quite a deliberate decision on RIM’s part, as the mail and calendar clients on the PlayBook rely on having a nearby Blackberry to draw data from via Bluetooth connectivity. The idea is that if you lose your PlayBook, your most sensitive data doesn’t go with it, while at the same time tying you closely into the Blackberry ecosystem. With a Blackberry this does work well enough, although Bluetooth isn’t the fastest transmission protocol, and without it you’re limited to web-based email clients only.

Applications are the lifeblood of any tablet, and here the Playbook has some catching up to do. The number of available applications and their variety is somewhat dwarfed by the iOS and Android marketplaces, although there’s a curious feature of the PlayBook that could equalise that difference rather quickly. Aside from natively developed applications, RIM’s promising in a future update that the PlayBook will be able to run Android applications from the Android marketplace. They’ll have to be slightly re-optimised for the PlayBook, but making it easier to develop for in any way makes for a better future.

As it stands, the PlayBook is a great bit of physical hardware, and one of the best challengers to Apple’s near dominance of the tablet market on hardware terms alone. It’s not without its flaws, though, and unless you’re already a Blackberry user it’s limited in its overall utility thanks to the reliance on a Blackberry for vital email and calendar functions.


What does 2011 hold for the Tablet?

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2010 was, if anything, the year of the Tablet. Apple kicked matters off convincingly unveiling the iPad in January, although it would be a couple of months before anyone could buy an official model locally. Since then, we’ve seen the launch of the Samsung Galaxy Tab and a couple of very low-cost Tablet alternatives from Telstra and Optus, along with a lot of noise about potential models from other manufacturers, but precious little to actually put your hands on.

2011 will see some of these models come to market. I recently attended the launch of Viewsonic’s range of tablets, called (not that inventively), Viewpads. Viewsonic will launch with two models; the Viewpad 7 and Viewpad 10. The 7 inch Viewpad 7 isn’t that dissimilar to the Galaxy Tab; it’s a 7″ Android based tablet running on Android 2.2, and at an RRP of $699, it’s also a fair chunk cheaper. That’s at least partly because it’s a lower specification tablet, with a slower processor, lower resolution screen and less internal storage. My brief initial hands-on suggests it’s a decent enough machine, although the units I tested with were early production samples, and it did show. I suspect there’s a solid enough market for lower-priced Tablets, although it’s still more than the comparable Telstra T-Touch Tab or Optus MyTab, both of which sell for less than three hundred dollars.

The Viewpad 10 is a slightly different critter. At $799, it’s not that much more expensive, and it pops the screen size up to an iPad-competitive ten inches. It’s also dual-boot capable between Android and Windows 7 Home Premium, which at least sounds interesting. To accommodate both operating systems, though, Viewsonic’s limited itself to Android 1.6, which limits the applications that’ll run on the Android side. On the Windows side, while Windows 7 is touch capable, that’s a different thing to being touch optimised. Windows software will run, but not always as you’d expect it to, and often in a way that’s less than ideal, as you struggle with onscreen keyboards and software that just assumes you’ve got a real mouse and keyboard. From my brief hands-on with the ViewPad 10, it also didn’t appear as though you could easily swap data from one boot partition to the other, although again this was an early unit and that might change.

Research In Motion, makers of the Blackberry line of smartphones, also have an upcoming tablet product that should be made available here in the first half of 2011. The Playbook’s a WiFi-only tablet, which in itself is an interesting gamble. The idea is that RIM will sell it primarily to existing Blackberry owners, and most Blackberry owners enjoy unlimited Web access via their Blackberry smartphones. Tether a Blackberry to a Playbook, and what need do you have of inbuilt 3G? Other than the lack of 3G, the Playbook certainly sounds like it’s decked out with impressive hardware, including a dual-core processor, two HD cameras and inbuilt Adobe Flash support. Whether the larger, non-Blackberry using market will get all that excited about the PlayBook remains to be seen, especially as the device pricing remains a mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, there’s Apple. The company is famous for not saying anything about upcoming products, but the rumour mills are churning right now with speculation that an iPad 2 (for want of a better name) announcement is likely in early January. It’s taken most of 2010 for competitor tablets to catch up to Apple’s first iPad release. Whether Apple will reinvent the category again, or merely tweak around the edges with a new release will be very interesting to see indeed.


ABC’s iView app spells the death of the couch potato

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If you’re of a certain age, you’ll recall the mascot of the “Life Be In It” campaign: Norm. Norm was fat, lazy, and essentially interested only in sitting in front of the TV eating pies and drinking beer. Norm was a character of the seventies, although the Life Be In It organisation that promoted him has stepped away from the Norm character in recent years for fear of emulation. For our own health, we should get up from the couch and get mobile.

A recently released application from the ABC might make the couch potato stereotype an obsolete historical oddity, offering TV in a mobile format. Sure, it’s not exactly a trip to the gym, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and TV addiction is a tough thing to beat.

For years, one of the promises of mobile television has been that it’ll be not only mobile but watchable and engaging, but for years all we’ve had is tiny little grainy screens and high data charges, making mobile TV rather off-putting. Most of the solutions have relied either on heavily compressed data or specific mobile broadcasting solutions that have so far failed to really take off.

ABC’s led the field in IP-based TV solutions with its Web-based iView catchup TV service, and last week launched an iPad version of the iView service. iPhone and Android versions are likely additions, although no timeline is promised. The application itself delivers smooth video playback across the iPad’s screen, and even on a moderate broadband connection I hit no real playback problems. The range of programs is naturally limited to the stuff that the ABC broadcasts, but there’s a wide library to pick from.

Unlike many of the stabs at mobile television of years gone past, the iView service simply uses the same internet protocols as your other internet applications (which is why it’s IPTV), so as long as your net connection stays up, so does your stream of Bananas In Pyjamas, or whatever suits your tastes. IPTV is slowly making its way worldwide as a way to deliver television services, especially as the quality of our internet connections improves. The UK equivalent of the ABC, the BBC, has announced plans to bring its iPlayer (which uses a similar technology platform to iView) to international viewers sometime next year on a subscription basis.

There are some catches for what we’ve got right now. The iView iPad application won’t run over 3G as yet, so you’re still stuck using it only in places where you have WiFi. Like many coffee shops, McDonald’s and your own home or office. Where, the thought strikes me, you’re normally sitting down and not getting all that fit.

Perhaps the couch potato isn’t quite dead yet.


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.


Making The Most Of Your Printer

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At a recent launch I attended in Hong Kong (disclaimer: HP paid for my plane fare and accommodation), HP launched a new range of printers with an interesting addition, namely e-mail addresses for each printer. The idea is pretty simple. If you’ve got a device capable of emailing, you can send files to the printer. This skips the need for drivers, or even a PC at all, as it’s technically capable of taking email from connected devices such as smart phones or tablets like Apple’s iPad.

It’s a neat idea in a field that doesn’t see too many genuinely interesting ideas. Putting it simply, printing is sadly boring stuff, and something that most of us don’t care about a jot up until the printer jams or runs out of ink or toner. A printer’s job is a mundane one, and one that it doesn’t get a jot of credit for. For most consumers, the choice in buying a printer often seems to come down to whatever model is the cheapest on the shop floor. Often that’s astonishingly cheap. I’ve seen plenty of last year’s model printers on shop floors for less than fifty bucks, which on first glance seems like a steal.

Often, however, it’s anything but. There’s nothing wrong with the older technology per se, but what can trap printer buyers is both the cost of the ink and the quality of the output. It shouldn’t be a huge surprise to discover that cheaper printers often have worse print quality, especially for things like photo or colour printing.  One of the more interesting figures to come out of the launch I attended was that HP estimates that the era of printers being used for Word Processing predominantly is coming to an end. I’m certain that this doesn’t mean that the humble small office laser should expect a gold watch any time soon, but at a consumer level, things are shifting towards photo and web printing. Once you move from printing characters to how much of a character Uncle Trevor is, the quality of the output becomes a lot more important.

The ink/toner question is the other big “trap” in printer pricing. Buy a cheap printer, and it’s almost certain that the replacement cost for a full set of inks will be greater than the cost of the printer itself. Most (but not all) vendors have moved beyond including half-filled “starter” ink packs with printers, but it’s not environmentally friendly to junk a working printer just to get cheaper inks with a new one. Where you can save money here is in buying the bulk ink cartridges most vendors offer. Look for inks labelled as “XL” or “High Yield” or similar. You’ll pay a bit more for the inks upfront, but when they go through twice as many pages, the cost per page drops, not to mention the number of times you have to go to the shops to get new inks.


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