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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  • theyard - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    Agree...but even Acer can't seem to figure that out. Saw this post on their mktg genius http://diglr.tumblr.com/ Reply
  • kmmatney - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    Agreed - Tablets are, for the most part, a luxury item. You buy them to quick browse the web, check email etc, while sitting on the couch or in bed. Exactly the things I'm doings with my phone, but with a much bigger screen. I was holding off buying one until iPad2 came out, but it looks like iPad3 is close enough to wait for - this is a luxury item for me - I can wait. Reply
  • bplewis24 - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    Exactly.

    A common misconception regarding Android is that you need to constantly kill tasks running in the background.

    I think it was actually pointed out here in a review that the underlying linux kernel manages memory and tasks on it's own and does not require the OS to do it itself. But consumers and reviewers alike often think that they have to kill background tasks as if they are running in full and eating up all of their RAM.
    Reply
  • ViLB - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    Great comment and you beat me to the punch. Its annoying to no end to read people complain that there isn't a dedicated task killer on android when they don't understand how Android works. Reading that in a Anandtech review is a bit of a letdown. Reply
  • ViLB - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    I test drove the A500 and didn't like it because of the build quality for many of the reasons stated here. I disagree with the usefulness of tablets thoughts or the lack thereof in the review. I'm a graphic artist and I've found my Xoom to be invaluable for creating quick sketches and some finished renders using Autodesks Sketchbook Mobile. Being able tto output psd files, jpegs, create layers etc is a godsend. I've been able to create small animations with my Xoom as well using Movie studio. Add this to the movie/music/reading/gaming functions, USB and Bluetooth m/KB support, apps like Documents to Go, ezPDFreader, Adobe PDF creator etc and there are tasks I perform on my tablet before I touch my laptop. Of course tablets arent a replacement for laptops and notebooks and won't be for a few years at least but depending on the user and their needs, tablets can be very important to workflow.

    To suggest, as a commentor has, that tablets are only good for document reading is ignorant at best.
    Reply
  • coolhardware - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    Dear Anand et al., could you guys start doing some additional video playback tests on the Android tablets and phones? Similar to the lists here about high-res MKV capabilities of various devices:
    http://www.jdhodges.com/2011/06/can-android-do-108...

    I think a lot of readers enjoy "alternative" video/container formats like MKV etc and it is nice to know which devices are capable of playing what... I would love to see your thorough review techniques applied to a topic like that! Thx.
    Reply
  • Shadowmaster625 - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    It looks warmer to me. A lot warmer. Reply
  • VivekGowri - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    Hmm, it yellows out at angle, but you may be right. Let me rerun the numbers and get back to you, but the difference isn't nearly as big as that picture would suggest - that was more to show the difference in viewing angle and how early discolouration starts in the Acer vs the IPS displays. Reply
  • crispbp04 - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    i am anxious to see what your thoughts are on the windows based iconia tab.

    While you're at it, get your hands on an MSI Windpad 110W and compare the two generations of brazos!
    Reply
  • VivekGowri - Friday, June 24, 2011 - link

    I've been running Android basically since the EVO came out last year, I know how it works. Just because I don't technically need to manage memory doesn't mean I don't want to manage the apps I have running in the background. It's a control thing, I think. There's a reason why ATK and other app killers are so popular on the Android Market...

    I know it's not a task manager, it's just that it really easily could be. It literally has everything it needs to be a task manager, except for the kill task button.
    Reply

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