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Tag Archives: Tablet

Google's Tablet Future: Will Cheap Tablets Win?

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Rumours had swirled for some time that Google was working on its own in-house tablet to accompany its Android operating system, but it wasn’t entirely clear if Google was looking to take Apple on directly with a premium unit at a premium price point — that being seemingly what Microsoft’s doing with its Surface tablets — or if it would take the budget route, and instead try to gain a market position purely through lots of sales. That’s the approach that Amazon took with the Kindle Fire, a tablet that never got an official Australian launch.

In the end, Google announced its tablet at its recent I/O developers conference, and it’s a mix of both approaches. It’s certainly low cost; the 8GB version of the Google Nexus 7 tablet costs only $249, while the 16GB version costs $299. That’s in Australian dollars; in a surprise move, Google’s announced that the Nexus 7 would be available for pre-order immediately with a 2-3 week delivery window; that means the first units should hit Australian shores by mid-July.

Tablets at that price point have usually involved compromises in terms of processors, screen quality and software, but here it appears that Google’s taking something of a hit in its own wallet, as the Nexus 7 features a seven inch 1280×800 pixel display, underneath which you’ll find a quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor; that’s a pretty decent combination. Cheap tablets have typically lagged in terms of the operating systems they’ll run and the upgrades they get, but the Nexus 7 is also Google’s first official device running the next version of Android. In common with other Android releases, it bears a food-related codename; in this case, Android 4.1 is also known as “Jelly Bean”. Google’s been fairly persistent in sending updates through to its own-branded devices as they’ve become available.

What don’t you get for your money? Google’s own Nexus devices have typically not allowed for expanded storage via MicroSD, and the Nexus 7 is no different. It’s also a Wi-Fi only tablet, so while at its seven inch size it’d be easy to carry around with you, there may not be much access on it depending on your location. The Nexus 7 is a play for the Android ecosystem; while Google might make very little money on the hardware, it figures to make it back on apps, TV, movies and music, but here in Australia, there’s only a smattering of those services available here under the Google umbrella. Being Android, there are alternatives on offer there, but they’re still limited compared to Apple’s offerings.

Where the Nexus 7 makes things really interesting is for other Android tablet makers. Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about Kogan’s own inhouse Android 4.0 tablet. It’s a little cheaper than the Nexus 7 — but the Nexus 7 is a much better tablet in just about every respect, at least on paper. I’ve ordered one — because at this price, it still really is a bargain — and I’ll write up my observations once it’s in my hands. But even the high-end tablet makers — Samsung and the like — may find it tough going to get people to buy their Android tablets when there are cheaper alternatives such as the Nexus 7 around.


Netbooks Caught In The Tablet Trawl

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The constant clamour against Tablets has been that they’re fine little content consumption machines — good for entertainment, in other words — but they’re not much cop when it comes to productivity. That hasn’t stopped tablets as a category from selling very well indeed, and it looks like the tablet market has scored its first scalp, albeit one that’s quite predictable; netbook sales are slowing and vendors are reluctant to launch new models, or in the case of some vendors, they’re canning the lines entirely.

The most recent company to leave the netbook market behind is Dell. They’ve dropped the Inspiron Mini line, instead focusing on the thin and light ultrabook-and-above market for its consumer lines. It’s not a confirmed matter, but it’s suspected that Samsung will also pull out of the netbook market in the near future. It’ll be interesting to see whether the ultrabook market has more profit potential for Dell (or anyone, for that matter), but from a consumer end it’s a little sad to see netbooks being left behind, although in reality they’ve been being left behind for quite some time now.

Over time, the number of netbooks available on store shelves has shrunk, and these days they’re not as enticing as they once were. When first launched, netbooks weren’t the most powerful systems out there, but the problem, essentially speaking, is that that’s exactly where they’ve stayed. Most netbooks you’ll find run on only a handful of processors, most markedly a smattering of Intel’s Atom processors, and there hasn’t been a significant speed or performance boost in those for quite some time. What that means is that while tablets have come along in leaps and bounds, whether you sit on the Android or iOS side of the fence, netbooks have mostly stood still. The kind of performance you get out of a netbook today is a little bit better than the original batch of netbooks, but not by any great deal. As such, while they’ve stayed cheap, they’re comparable in price to a tablet, and even an entry level notebook will offer more power and flexibility at a price point that’s not notably higher than the entry level price of a tablet.

That doesn’t mean that a netbook’s always a bad buying option — but it’s certainly one that you’d want to buy quite cheaply right now; while premium netbooks have all but vanished to be replaced by ultrabooks, you’re still largely buying old technology, and the old maxim about technology holds as true as it ever did; if you buy the best thing within your budget at the time of writing (subject to your needs, naturally) it’ll be capable of running the latest software iterations for longer than if you just buy the cheapest unit available.


Apple unveils iPad 2. Should you care?

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That Apple had a revision of its iPad line of Tablet computers ready to go wasn’t a particular surprise, although the exact details of what they were going to release weren’t known until they announced it late last week. It’s not, despite anything that Apple might say, a revolution in tablet computing, and much more an evolution of the concept, adding a faster processor — a similar step to what you’d see in laptop computers, and even Apple itself did the same thing the week before with its Macbook Pro line — inbuilt cameras for Apple’s Facetime video calling solution and an overall thinner and lighter body.

Sight unseen, I’d have to say that if you’ve already got an iPad, this is a pretty easy iteration to skip. Sure, it’s faster, but the only other major new technology feature is the inbuilt camera, and the utility of these on tablets is questionable at best. It’s also worth noting that last year’s iPads — still very capable machines — are being sold out all across the land at what amounts to fire sale prices. For the capability you get, last year’s iPad at this year’s fire sale prices might just be the tablet bargain of the year.

At the same time as Apple’s unveiling the iPad 2, its competitors are lining up competing tablets at a fair pace. Blackberry has its Playbook due out before the middle of the year, Motorola has the Android-inspired Xoom tablet, Viewsonic has the Viewpad 10s already out on store shelves and Samsung’s taking a bet both ways. There’s an upcoming iteration of its Galaxy Tab Android-based tablet due out in a 10″ form factor, similar to the iPad, as well as the 7 Series “Sliding” tablet, which runs full Windows 7. It’s a “Sliding” tablet because behind the screen lies a full keyboard and trackpad, so you can fairly quickly convert it from a straight up touch-based machine to a small notebook. Touch on Windows 7 has been one of those features that’s been baked in from the start, but not all that well set. Most Windows 7 applications simply aren’t built with touch in mind, so while it works, it’s never — to date — worked well. Having had a brief review session with the 7 Series, it might just be the tablet to break this particular curse, with more than a passing effort put into providing it with useful touch-based applications.

If touch-based computing makes sense for you — whether you’re looking at it from a pure consumer web-and-video style “consumption” model, or even as a portable productivity tool — it’s going to be an interesting year. As it stands, Apple’s decision to not radically tinker with the iPad 2 leaves the field quite open to competitors, and it could be worth waiting to see what comes to market, and at what price point before committing yourself.


Is Touch Going To Be Enough?

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For a very long time, there have been pushes to move computing beyond the confines of the keyboard. The mouse as a computing device actually dates from 1963, but it was the mid 1980s before mice in computing became particularly widespread. In recent years, even the mouse has been updated, improved and worked upon, whether it was the switch from mechanical, ball-based mice to laser-guided devices, or the move from cabled to wireless mice, or even the more oddball mice concepts out there, such as Air Mice that double as 3D pointers.

Mice themselves might become a technological oddity as (if you’ll pardon the rather obvious pun) touch really does take hold. Tablet PCs are the obvious place where touch is most prominent, but it’s not the only “digital” platform; a number of vendors offer PCs and notebooks with inbuilt touch capability, thanks to the fact that Windows 7 natively supports touch based input. To date, I’ve not been thrilled by touch on Windows 7, largely because while it works, there aren’t that many applications that make as much sense within the way that Windows 7 applications are written to use touch rather than a mouse and keyboard. That doesn’t mean a new application can’t use touch sensibly, but at this stage it’s a nice thing for Windows 7 rather than a key feature.

Operating systems that use touch as the basis for everything and are written that way, such as Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS fare better in this regard, because software developers think of them in those kinds of terms.

Touch still relies on physical contact, and one of the other reasons why I’ve yet to be really wowed by a touch-capable notebook is the physical effort involved in reaching over to the screen. Not that this is an onerous task per se, but simply because on a regular notebook, you’re still reaching right past a perfectly usable keyboard and trackpad to press an onscreen button that could be clicked on instead. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Even that effort might rather rapidly become something rather quaint, however, and via a rather unusual agency: Console gaming. Specifically, Microsoft’s Kinect, an add-on camera for the Xbox 360 console. The Kinect is intended (at this stage) for games, as it allows a gamer to wriggle, jump, box, or do whatever the game commands, and see those movements mapped onto an in-game character. That’s the theory, but it took very little time at all for intrepid hacking types to grab hold of the USB-connected Kinect camera and use its body-mapping technology for all sorts of other purposes on a PC. Interestingly, Microsoft hasn’t jumped on the lawyer-heavy bandwagon to stop this kind of thing, and some press interviews suggest that a Windows version of Kinect might not be that far away. Suddenly, all those cool sci-fi images of people working on virtual floating computer displays that don’t exist at all are very close indeed.


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.


Netbook or Tablet?

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If you want a small portable computer with a bit more screen space than a smartphone, you’re rather spoilt for choice right now. The choice as it stands currently is between the newer crop of tablet style devices epitomised by Apple’s iPad, but soon to be joined by efforts from Samsung, who recently unveiled the Galaxy Tab running Google’s Android operating system, as well as options from Asus and Toshiba.

On the other hand, you could opt for a cheap netbook. The netbook market is now a couple of years old and there’s plenty of choice on store shelves right now. So which should you opt for?

Tablets:

Upside:
They’re generally much simpler to use, because they run quite specific touch-capable operating systems, rather than Windows or Linux bolted onto smaller screens. The add-on applications markets for both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platforms is expanding rapidly, and most software just works rather than having to work around problems of smaller screens or lower power processors, which is a concern for netbook users.

Downside:
As they’re all screen, you’ll have to pay more for a Bluetooth or similar keyboard. Apple notably controls the Apps available for its platform, and what they can do, with an iron fist, while the upgrade nature of Android-based devices is often a little shaky.

Netbooks:

Upside:
Inbuilt keyboards give flexibility, as does the use of standard notebook/PC operating systems. Pressure from the tablet and even notebook markets has also driven prices right down, and it’s rare to see a netbook on a retail store shelf for more than $500.

Downside:
They’re not very powerful machines, and under the weight of Windows or Linux and applications, some netbooks can be very sluggish systems. The keyboards present in most netbooks are pretty cheap and very small, which won’t suit some hands.

Invariably, some users and uses will suit one over the other, and we’ll clearly see some more interesting plays in both the netbook and tablet spaces in the next twelve months. It’s well worth trying a few “store models” out before making your decision, as it’s much better to get a system that suits you rather than one you have to force to work the way you want it to.


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