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Tablet Time: When Less is Best

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
November 4, 2013 Deadline
December 2013 Issue

Tablet Time: When Less is Best

My next computer will be a tablet.

Yes, I called it a computer because today’s tablets can replace a notebook system for many routine tasks. Though I sometimes need the power and features of a notebook or desktop computer, a tablet is perfect for surfing the Web, answering email, reading books and viewing presentations.

When I upgraded from a 12-inch notebook to a 15-inch laptop, the portable computer replaced my desktop system. In return for the extra screen real estate and significant computing power, my carrying case gained weight. Walking across a university campus, the 5.6 pounds of a MacBook Pro plus the weight of its power supply and two video adapters starts to feel like 20 pounds.

Most days, I don’t need the power of a laptop in my classroom. I use the laptop to show slides and pages of articles while lecturing. Students do ask to review work and grades, so Web access is essential because the campus uses an online learning management system. A one-pound tablet in a nice binder case makes the ideal computing solution.

After you determine that a tablet meets your needs, deciding which tablet to buy involves a few more choices. The biggest issues for me are screen size and weight. But, size and weight are only part of the tablet choice. Operating system, screen resolution, memory, and other choices have to be made.

Tablets come in two form factors: mini tablets with screens measuring roughly seven-inches diagonally and full-sized tablets with ten-inch screens. The mini tablets weigh less than three-quarters of a pound, while the full-sized tablets range from one pound for the iPad Air to two pounds for the Microsoft Surface Pro.

Smaller tech is not always a better experience for the user. Deciding between screen sizes is easy for me: full-sized screens are easier for me to read and use. However, many people I know prefer the convenience of the mini form factor. Students love that mini tablets fit into backpacks, and businesspeople can slip mini tablets into briefcases. For some, the mini size is right.

I like a lot of screen real estate. The more pixels, the better. In the past, larger screens had higher resolutions. That’s not always the case, now. Today’s screens are sharp, especially those denser than 250 pixels per inch (ppi). Apple calls their high-density screen “Retina” and Amazon uses the label “HDX.” Curiously, smaller screens have the sharpest resolutions.

The iPad mini features a 326 ppi screen. I’ve yet to try the new iPad mini, so I can’t judge the image quality. Google’s Nexus 7 tablet is stunning, with a 323 ppi density. The Nexus’ colors are sharp and bright. Still, small screens remind me of trying to browse the Web on my phone. It can be done, but it isn’t the best experience.

Among full-sized tablets I have tested, the Nexus 10 has the best screen, besting the resolution of the new iPad Air. The Nexus features a 300 ppi screen, with a 2560-by-1600 pixel resolution. It looks sharper than most HD televisions, especially outside the bright lights of an electronics store. I’ve only seen the iPad Air in an Apple store. With a 264 ppi density, the screen compares favorably to the Nexus 10, but noticeably less information is displayed across the 2048-pixel screen in landscape (wide) orientation.

Operating systems and software often dictate computing choices. My university department uses Apple computers, and I’m a long-time Apple enthusiast. If I purchase an iPad, my Apple Calendar apps would synchronize across my desktop, laptop, phone and the tablet. That convenience matters to me. I can do the same with my email, which means I’d be able to use the tablet in place of my laptop seamlessly.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I prefer Apple’s Keynote over Microsoft PowerPoint. Keynote for iOS would allow me to create and edit slides on either my desktop or laptop, and then display the results using an iPad. In an ideal world, every app, or at least the resulting documents, would work on flawlessly on any computing device. Since the ideal is a dream, I find myself a part of the Apple ecosystem. I could use a non-Apple tablet, but it wouldn’t be as easy as staying within the Apple family.

Although I like the Nexus and iPad tablet lines, many people need to work in a Microsoft-dominated environment. I’m an Apple owner and enthusiast, but I also rely professionally on Microsoft Office. Other office suites claim to open and save Office files, but experiences have taught me that nothing else is Microsoft Office. For now, there is no Office for iPads or Android tablets. If you want the real Office, you need a Windows-based tablet like the Microsoft Surface 2 line.

After you decide on the size and operating system, you still have to decide how much memory a tablet needs. Spend what you can afford to get the most memory possible. You won’t regret having too much storage for applications and data. A tablet should have at least 32 gigabytes of storage, and ideally twice that amount.

I don’t care about cameras, memory card slots, or other features, but they are important to other buyers. Remember, I’m not trying to replace my laptop all the time; I want a device to use in my classroom. Yet, I do need the WiFi networking and would like to use the tablet when I travel. That means I am going to consider a wireless data plan from my cell phone carrier.
Adding cell network access to a tablet increases the cost by $100 to $200. Whether I buy an iPad Air or similarly configured tablet with 4G or LTE wireless capabilities, the price matches what you might pay for a good laptop computer with a real keyboard. Plus, there will be monthly data plan charges.

Is a $900 tablet worth the money? For me, swapping a massive computer case for a one-pound tablet might justify the expense.

For more information see “The Ultimate Tablet Comparison Chart” prepared by Casey Johnston for Ars Technica:


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