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Some thoughts on tablet computing

The tablet computer I’m really waiting for
Image credit: en.memory-alpha.org

I’ve been fascinated by tablet computers since they first started coming out, by which I mean back in the days when Palm Pilots were the closest we had. When Dell came out with their Axim Pocket-PC line, I ended up with three versions (the oldest of which is still kicking around as a sort of functional paperweight). To say that there’s been a lot of progress since then, from Palm to the Android/Apple/RT explosion, is an understatement.

This is all fairly off-topic and has only a tangential connection to photography, so feel free to skip on to something else. But for today I’m going to indulge my inner geek; this is a sort of list of things relating to tablet computing that I’ve been thinking about lately.

For starters, the tablet I own is a Barnes & Noble Nook Color. At the time, it was the most affordable Android tablet available, in terms of bang for the buck, because it wasn’t really an Android. It ran a dumbed-down version of the OS that B&N controlled, making it mostly an e-reader with web access. Which is what it was intended to be.

But the trick was that it could easily be rooted into a full Android device, thanks to some brilliant programmers on the net who figured it out, and the fact that the Nook has a micro-SD card slot that it can boot from. An hour of computer work and I had a $200 Android tablet at a time when that was otherwise impossible (unless you bought some POS Chinese knock-off).

The rooted Nook had issues, however, the main being that it could no longer accept the B&N updates, which meant that some of the newer ebooks with enhanced features didn’t work. So about a year later I heard about a group called N2A who sells micro-SD cards that come loaded with the Android OS. The Nook boots from the card and runs the whole OS from there, without ever altering the native file structure. (It was actually Paul who got one of these first and told me about it.)

Image credit: N2A Cards

So I reset my Nook to the B&N default, updated its firmware, and popped the N2A card in. Worked great – same system I had when it was rooted, without the glitches that came with the root. I used it like this for several months without issue and was fine – until I saw my brother’s Nexus 7 tablet. The N2A card was stick at Android 2.1; Nick’s Nexus was at 4.0, which is like a whole new system. Much more intuitive and fluid. The upgrade bug bit again.

But in a stroke of luck, N2A offered an update deal over Thanksgiving that brought their cards up to Android 4. I updated, it took about 30 minutes of computing time, and my Nook is like a whole new tablet. Even running from the SD card, Android 4 is just awesome. All aspects of the tablet’s performance are improved. It runs faster, is more responsive, more intuitive, and best of all even the battery lasts longer (it’s clear that power management has been upgraded). Remember that scene in The Avengers, on board the flying carrier when Tony Stark is working with his computer, moving items around, wiping them away with a swipe of his hand? Android 4 is as close to that being a reality as I’ve ever seen. So cool!

So what’s the flip-side of this coin? In my view, it’s the practicality factor. As much as I like tablets, as much as I really want to be able to carry one with me everywhere and do everything on it, I can’t. It doesn’t work that way – at least not yet, or in the foreseeable future. Because right now, tablets are in a weird in-between state, where they’re more than toys but not yet fully-fledged computers.

At the simple end are the iPad and Android systems, where even at their top models you’re dealing with systems that just cannot compete, from a hardware perspective, with a “real” computer. Smaller, slower processors, limited RAM, and the ability to run apps but not traditional software – this is what you’re buying into.

What can I really use my tablet for? I can surf Facebook and Twitter, check my email, view the web, read books and documents, play games… All good. But I can’t type a paper. Even tapping out an email takes 2-3 times as long as it does with a physical keyboard. I can’t run Photoshop, can’t download photos and review them, can’t manipulate them and share them across the web – at least not to any practical, efficient extent.

The tablet may let me “stay connected,” but it doesn’t let me get a lot of work done.

At the other end of line are the true tablet computers – tablets by the likes of Acer and Asus that run Windows 7 or 8 and pack real hardware and run traditional software. The downside? Limited battery performance and high price tags. Especially the new Windows 8 Surface tablets, which run something like $899 and don’t even come with the keyboard (that’ll set you back another $100).

Image credit: Microsoft

- Aside – they also run Windows 8, which is a disqualifying element right there. I’ve played with 8 and find it atrocious. I certainly won’t be buy anything – personal or corporate – that runs it. I think it’s a debacle on the level of the ME and Vista iterations.

Anyway, back on track – for the price of a Windows tablet, I could buy a high-end laptop that out-performs it. Or I could buy several low-to-mid-level laptops. And frankly, there isn’t enough convenience factor in a tablet to justify the greater cost. It’s only smaller until you have to bring along a Bluetooth keyboard and power cord to fully utilize it, at which point you’re better off with the laptop anyway.

So what is the point of all this?

I want an awesome tablet. Something that’s a mix of Tony Stark’s computers and the LCARS system from Star Trek. Something that I can edit photos on, do my emails, surf the web – I want it all. With some sort of add-on keyboard that’s both small and easy to connect (wireless?). It’s a bit of a wish list, but I think sooner or later, we’ll get there.

Until then, I’ll keep playing around with my Nook. It’s good for when I travel and still need a connection (I don’t have a smartphone yet). But it isn’t a working machine.

Brent Pennington

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