Jarred’s Take on Tablets

I’ve been heading up laptop reviews for AnandTech since 2006; to say that we’ve come a long way in that time would be a gross understatement. With my lengthy background in testing laptops, Anand thought it would be interesting to get my take on tablets in general, and the best way to do that is naturally to get a tablet into my hands. Cue the Three Stooges soundtrack….

Okay, so it wasn’t that bad, but almost from the time I opened the Iconia A500 I have been searching for an answer to the question, “What do I need this for?” Anand has touched on this in his iPad/iPad 2 reviews, and if anything I’m even less inclined to need/want a tablet. A primary issue for me is that typing on a flat, glossy surface is unpleasant at best—yes, I can type faster on the A500 than on an iPod Touch, but that’s about the limit of my abilities. As Anand pointed out, tablets appear to function best as a media consumption device (e.g. limited typing required), and with plenty of computers already present in my house I just don’t need one more. Which is not to say that I didn’t like the tablet experience at some level; I just have a hard time figuring out where I would use it on a daily basis. Let me get into the things I like first, and then I can wrap up with the problems.

Assuming you have a tablet handy and you have WiFi or 4G connectivity, browsing the web works quite well. I’m probably lucky that my first real experience here is with Android 3.0, because the presence of tabs alleviates many of the problems on other platforms, and Tegra 2 is sufficiently fast that you can actually consume content rather than waiting for pages to load. I do have an iPod Touch, and by comparison the A500 is far better for surfing the Internet. As an example: loading AnandTech.com on the iPod can take 6-10 seconds per page; doing the same on the A500 loads most pages in 3-4 seconds. More importantly, browsing the web on a 1280x800 display is eminently better than qHD (960x540). Sitting on a couch watching TV, a tablet is a more desirable companion than a smartphone.

I also found the A500 quite useful in carrying around PDFs and other data that I wanted to read, without the need to fold out a full laptop. Even the smallest netbooks are still bulkier than a tablet, and they require a surface (e.g. your lap, a desk, etc.) in order to use properly. A tablet can easily be held in one hand while you interface with it using the other. If I were a doctor wandering around a hospital, a tablet would be far more convenient than a laptop or clipboard. I’m sure there are other professions that could make good use of a tablet, but what works for one may not work for all.

The display on the Acer A500 is a bit of a mixed bag for me. In terms of quality, it’s so much better than most of the laptops I’m used to seeing. White levels are brighter, black levels are lower, and for a TN panel the viewing angles are very good. I haven’t personally used an iPad or the ASUS Transformer, but I’m sure the IPS displays would win me over; the A500 is still quite good, however. My biggest complaints with the display are the large gap between the glass and the panel (Vivek already mentioned this), and then there’s the issue of smudges. Acer thankfully includes a microfiber cloth for cleaning the display, and you’ll need something like that because you inevitably get fingerprints all over the surface. Acer doesn’t include any form of carrying case or cover, and something like Apple’s Smart Cover would really be handy.

Now we get into the things that I really didn’t care for with the table experience. I discussed gaming performance earlier and came off unimpressed, but not because tablets can’t run games; we just need better titles. There are some fun casual games out there, but with Apple, NVIDIA, and others suggesting tablets have a future as gaming platforms, I’m just not seeing it.

What I really need for tablets to be useful is a killer app. I don’t carry around a clipboard ever, so they can’t fill that role. If I need to type an email or do any real work, a keyboard is generally a requirement. For everything that a tablet can do, a decent smartphone is similar and it can fit in your pocket. So on the one hand, I love having a larger 1280x800 display that I can actually use to browse the web, but on the other hand I just can't fit something like that into my current lifestyle. The most use I got out of the A500, outside of testing, was on Sundays when I took it to church. I was able to replace several bulky items (scriptures and lesson manual) with a single device that easily fits in a briefcase, and it was easier to use than a notebook. I could still do the same thing on a smartphone or iPod Touch, but reading books/manuals on the iPod isn’t very easy on the old eyes. I would assume that students could benefit from a tablet in a similar manner, provided they can get all of their books and other materials in digital format. Carrying a <2 lbs. tablet around campus in place of three heavy textbooks sounds like a great idea, but I’m not sure about note taking and I always had a soft spot for scribbling in the margins—plus I know a lot of engineering courses have open book exams, and I doubt they’d allow a tablet to qualify as a “book”.

For me, tablets in their current form end up feeling more like a fun gadget or a toy than a useful accessory. I can use it to accomplish plenty of tasks, but I can do those same tasks on other devices. As someone who has more than my share of gadgets, yes, I’d like to keep the A500 (or a similar tablet) around for occasional use, and my 8-year-old daughter definitely thinks it’s cool. If you don’t already have a laptop, a desktop PC, and a smartphone, though, I can’t see where a tablet rates as a higher priority purchase than those items.

Battery Life Parting Thoughts
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  • VivekGowri - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    Fair point, I'll stop saying that. Reply
  • TrackSmart - Monday, June 27, 2011 - link

    I was walking by Staples today and saw lots of banners advertising tablets Motorola Xoom, Blackberry Playbook, and Acer Iconia 500 among them). I couldn't help but stop in for a hands-on test. At first glance, the Iconia looked nice, but in the hand the Xoom sitting right next to it felt like a much more premium device. The Iconia was priced at $450. The Xoom at $600. So I guess that's what 1/3 higher price buys you. The Iconia was less sleek and had flex to it that nearby Xoom didn't show any signs of.

    My main impression is that these 10" tablets are much larger than I'd like them to be. The 7" playbook felt like a better size. If they could have kept the 7" screen size on the Playbook, but shrunk the huge bezel by 75%, it would have been portable enough for day-to-day usage as an internet portal and as an ereader. And if they then dropped the price down to about $300 (netbook prices), I might even be tempted to buy one.

    For now, they hold limited appeal (for me personally) due to large size and high prices relative to what you get in terms of performance and functionality. Maybe the next generation will get there.
    Reply
  • TrackSmart - Monday, June 27, 2011 - link

    Looking at my post, I can see why the Nook Color is doing so well. It's priced right and still feels like a fairly premium device despite that low price. Reply
  • MrMilli - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    quote: "The GeForce ULP used in Tegra 2 packs the same number of shaders (eight) as the old GeForce 8100, but they’re running at 300MHz (compared to 1200MHz on the 8100); that means it has about 25% of the horsepower of the old 8100 IGP, ..."

    Let's not forget that the Geforce ULP is a Geforce 6000 generation GPU. That means 4 pixel and 4 vertex shaders. I would say that it doesn't even have 15% of the horsepower of the old 8100 IGP.
    Reply
  • radium69 - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    QUOTE:
    "What I really need for tablets to be useful is a killer app. I don’t carry around a clipboard ever, so they can’t fill that role. If I need to type an email or do any real work, a keyboard is generally a requirement. For everything that a tablet can do, a decent smartphone is similar and it can fit in your pocket. So on the one hand, I love having a larger 1280x800 display that I can actually use to browse the web, but on the other hand I just can fit something like that into my current lifestyle. The most use I got out of the A500, outside of testing, was on Sundays when I took it to church. I was able to replace several bulky items (scriptures and lesson manual) with a single device that easily fits in a briefcase, and it was easier to use than a notebook. I could still do the same thing on a smartphone or iPod Touch, but reading books/manuals on the iPod isn’t very easy on the old eyes. I would assume that students could benefit from a tablet in a similar manner, provided they can get all of their books and other materials in digital format. Carrying a <2 lbs. tablet around campus in place of three heavy textbooks sounds like a great idea, but I’m not sure about note taking and I always had a soft spot for scribbling in the margins—plus I know a lot of engineering courses have open book exams, and I doubt they’d allow a tablet to qualify as a “book”."

    This is what I think it's saying:
    A tablet doesn't excel in anything except portability. It might be usefull for students but not more.

    I think, you have covered it all. A tablet is just a "Tablet" might be fun for gimmicky sales and might bring laptop prices down. But they never can compare to a netbook or a decent notebook. And with the grow of smartphones all around I think we are looking at better battery life in our phones. So basically, all ground is covered with a net/notebook or phone.

    It all adds up to the equation...
    Productivity on a tablet is close to 0% anyway.
    I hope they be gone soon and focus more on phone progress and laptop progress.
    Reply
  • FrederickL - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link



    Yes, to a considerable extent they still are. However the author has mentioned the upcoming developments in hardware and I believe that the signs are that those developments are accelerating. In a year to eighteen months we are likely to be seeing a whole new generation of *much* more powerful tablets (both 7 and 10 inch form-factor) with much longer battery-life. If the rumours are to be believed we may even begin to see Win8 devices as early as Q4 2012. Combine that with a charging/extra ports docking station and a full song with choruses fully functional os that functions the same as on any work-station or laptop (*if* MS actually succeed in implementing what they say they are aiming for) then, and IMHO only then, we will have devices that will have a similar effect on the laptop market that the laptop has had on the stationary pc market. I imagine a 7 inch form-factor with a docking station in my tv-bench. When I put it in the dock it boots the conventional GUI to the TV and I can interact with it by means of mouse/keyboard from the comfort of my armchair. When I take it from the dock it switches automatically to the touch UI and I slip it into the inside pocket of my jacket knowing that I have something to read on the bus. At work it goes into a second dock etc. If I am travelling I take a small media keyboard with my tab if I know that I have a lot of writing/data entry to do. Such a device would replace my living room pc, my laptop and my Kindle. Now *that* would be a productive device!
    Reply
  • oliwek - Monday, July 04, 2011 - link

    "And with the grow of smartphones all around I think we are looking at better battery life in our phones"
    really? come on, android phones with heavy use do not last a full day without charging. ASUS Transformer tablet with dock on the contrary stays ON for 16 hours (9 hours for the tablet alone).
    Reply
  • darkhawk1980 - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    I came to most of the same conclusions myself, before I bought my Asus Transformer.

    The Iconia, while it has a few nice features (ie screen is one of the better LCD's, built in USB and microSD), it's not enough to make it a worthwhile buy while a tablet like the Transformer exists. At $350, it's a great buy. At $400, it's maybe worth it if you like the included USB. At $450, it's over priced and not worth it at all.

    Lastly, concerning the 'usefulness' of tablets, it really depends. I don't want to lug around even a 2 lb netbook to work and back (I carpool about 35 to 40 minutes 1 way to work), and my company doesn't allow personal computers in the building (tablets are not defined as computers where I work, as stupid as it sounds). That being said, a tablet works very well for me. I also get ALOT more use of it at home now while watching TV, and even taking photos and videos of my son with it. It is bulky and clunky for photos/videos, but I make do and I enjoy it very much. While productivity isn't the main reason for my purchase, I can see where this would have it's uses. I think the biggest problem is the lack of a good annotating application (similar to Iannotate for iOS) on Android. If one did exist, it would really benefit Android as a whole in the schooling market.
    Reply
  • haplo602 - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    I think Jarred nailed it :-) The tablet is a portable document reader, nothing more. Basicaly I can find a single use for it. When I travel and don't want to carry a laptop. These are usualy short and light trips. Use for web, email, ebook, movies and simple games.

    Paired with a stupid mobile (like my SE C510) for tethered connectivity.
    Reply
  • Belard - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    Same as before... man, you guys are sometimes too 'techie".

    Not a creation device, but a playback device. Yes, my iPad is weak compared to my dual-core ThinkPad or my QuadCore Desktop with a 24" screen. But try relaxing in bed or the sofa with a notebook or desktop computer. Be cozy with those devices... not going to happen.

    How about boot up time? These tablets are instant on... vs. 1-2 minutes for a typical notebook or desktop. (I put my notebook in sleep mode half the time, restart time is still about 6~10 seconds).

    Try reading an ebook from your notebook to you kid(s)... especially while the cuddle next to you.

    Theres a reason we have desktops and notebooks... and a tablet is no different. Its designed to function for its form-factor. High-end gaming, I'm not really seeing it... gotta have REAL buttons and twisting-tilting your screen for a steering wheel sucks. Steer buttons on the side of the screen would be better. There is a REASON a $120~180 Nintendo DS or PSP make good game platforms, but not good e-readers or browsers.

    Why do we have more than 2-3 times of glasses and cups? Why have a saucer when a plate will do? Anyone with a knife-block with 6~20 types of cutting tools?

    - - - -
    Productivity on a tablet can vary, depending on your needs. I've only bought my first notebook 3 years ago because I had a need for a portable computer, but for the most part - its first year was very light usage.

    In about a 14 months, Apple has sold 25 million ipads (10 million iPad2 in 2 months)... they are not going anywhere.

    Funny thou, in the movie 2001, the astronauts in Discovery are using a tablet that is as thin as the iPad2 (if not thinner) and about the same size. Not bad for a movie from 1968... then in the movie 2010, they used an AppleII as a notebook... that is HUGE. :)
    Reply

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