Friday, March 16, 2012
From the March/April 2012 issue
Commandments for selecting
the tablet that's right for you
By Andrew Kantor
Tablets seem ready made for REALTORS®. They’re portable, long-lasting, and give quick and easy access to whatever information you want. They’re also — let’s face it — really cool.
Tablet computers of one sort or another have been around for a while, but until recently they were large, clunky, and useful only in a niche-market way. Until, that is, Apple came in. As it did with the iPod and iPhone, the company entered an existing market with a product that was leagues ahead of anything in the class.
Apple defined the market, and a year or two later other companies (with shallower vision but deep pockets) joined in, adding features and offering their own takes. That’s what’s happening with tablets. Apple definitely dominated the market initially, but now — a couple of years later — the tablet market is opening up with a host of other products. And, as always, competition is good for consumers.
If you’re in the market for a tablet, you have three basic choices to make: Size, operating system, and brand/model. All tablets are thin, light, and last for a long time on a charge. They all have full-featured touchscreens, still and video cameras, and wireless Internet access built in. They all have a ton of accessories, from carrying cases to keyboards to TV connections.
And they all let you do the same things: Browse the Internet, play games, watch movies, view pictures, take notes (via typing or hand writing), and so on, almost ad infinitum. Anything you want to do, you can find an app for it (and probably a free one).
The differences are about personal taste. Where do you plan to use it and what for? Which do you find easier to use? Which do you like the look of? You might find that one plays back video better than another, or one that has a brighter screen, or that one just looks nicer. The bottom line is up to you.
The tablet market is roughly split into two general size camps: seven-to-eight inches and 10-to-12 inches. Many manufacturers have models in both sizes.
The seven-inch tablets have screens about three or four times the size of a typical smartphone. That makes reading documents much easier and gives pictures and video more of the screen real estate they deserve, while the whole thing is small enough to fit in a purse or large pocket. Not as portable as a phone, but a lot more comfortable to use.
The 10- or 11-inch tablets, on the other hand, can act as a notebook replacement. They’ve got a (comparatively) huge surface for note taking, have a truly usable on-screen keyboard, and are terrific for reading documents and books or watching movies. The downside, of course — beyond price — is that you can’t just slip them into your bag. (One comparison I’ve heard is that if you’re a book reader go for a seven-inch tablet, but if you prefer magazines go for the 10-inch.)
Once you have in your head whether you prefer ultra-portable or beautifully large, the next thing to consider is what kind of tablet you want.
There are – or will be – three major operating systems for tablet computers: Andriod, iOS (aka iPad), and Windows 8.Android and iOS are already here (although a major new version of Android is coming in late 2012), and Windows 8-based tabs will debut next year.Apple’s iPad (running iOS) is right now the 800-pound gorilla of the tablet market, which isn’t surprising as it defined the genre when it released the iPad. Once the rest of the world realized what a success it was, it jumped on the bandwagon. The result is good for everyone — a hot market, an incredibly useful technology, and a lot of competition. Prices are dropping, new designs and features are coming out, and there are undoubtedly a lot of cool things on the horizon. It’s a flat future.
Andrew Kantor is editor and information manager of the Virginia Association of REALTORS®. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Operating System Comparison
Google’s Android operating system dominates the smartphone market, and it’s only now beginning to make inroads in the tablet arena. There are a lot of Android-based tablets on the street in the works, from companies like Acer, Asus, Dell, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, Toshiba, ViewSonic… you get the idea.
Android’s biggest selling point is in its flexibility. It’s available on dozens of devices, from budget machines to high-end tablets for movie aficionados to everything in between. Manufacturers can also add their own bells and whistles. So while you can run any Android app on any Android tablet, one from ViewSonic might look different than one from Motorola – it might have features or software that aren’t part of the base Android package. (Both the Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble Nook e-readers are Android based, for example).
As with the iPad, there are thousands of apps available from the official Android Market, but you aren’t limited to that one store. Amazon, for example, also runs an Android app store, and anyone can create apps and make them available on their own sites.
Android is also an open system, so developers can create apps that change the complete look and feel of the device, or just parts of it. A new "launcher,” for example, can add all sorts of functions and styles to the home screen. You can choose from different keyboards, fonts, and icons, and replace the default widgets with others offering more or different functions.
In short, you can do just about anything you want.
But all that flexibility comes at a cost.
Google doesn’t test the apps available on the Market, and anyone can create one and get it listed. Although malicious ones are usually removed quickly, bad stuff sneaks through – programs that don’t work well or are even malicious. (Yes, anti-virus scanners are available.) Luckily, this information usually comes out in the reviews, so users would be well advised to read those first.
And in rare cases, a manufacturer’s customization might cause problems. One model of phone might have a problem with a particular app you’ll occasionally see a comment in the Market "Crashes on HTC Desire,” for example.
Finally, while the "stock” Android system is certainly good looking and slick, occasionally it can seem a bit rough around the edges, especially if you over-customize it. On the other hand, early reviews of the forthcoming version 4 of Android, nicknamed "Ice Cream Sandwich,” say it’s as beautiful as the iPad. (Upgrades to new versions are free and automatic.)
Like anything to come out of Apple, IOS and the iPad are beautiful and polished to near perfection. The company doesn’t do things second rate. The interface is clean and intuitive; everything works smoothly like a well virtually oiled machine. The words "clunky” or "rough” will never be used to describe it; think "elegant.”
There are thousands of apps available, and you purchase them via Apple iTunes App Store. Everything there has been tested and approved for sale by Apple, and it has to meet the company’s standards for quality and acceptability. You know that whatever you buy or download is going to work the first time (and is probably not going to be offensive).
The downsides to iOS come from its limitations – what you might call its lack of flexibility. Your choice of hardware is limited, obviously – iPad and iPad 2 (and soon the iPad 3). If you want a smaller tablet, you’re out of luck; iPads are in the 10-inch category.
Ditto your software; the only place you can get apps is via Apple and iTunes. And while the upside to this tight control means guaranteed quality, it also limits options. Developers have to pay to have their apps included in iTunes, meaning some small and potentially useful products will never appear. And of course there is the issue of some products being banned because Apple simply didn’t approve of the content.
Finally, unless you’re willing to "jailbreak” your iPad (give yourself access to the innards of the system, while voiding your warranty), your customization options are limited – you can’t, for example, install a different keyboard or change the overall look and feel of the device. (On the other hand, it’s Apple, so maybe you won’t even want to).
As usual, Microsoft is late to the game – its first tablet-centric operating system, Windows 8, is only now approaching release. (Actually, different versions of Windows 8 are designed for phones, tablets, and desktops.)
But just as it’s always late, Microsoft also tends to (eventually) dominate markets, and reviewers who have used early versions of Windows 8 are apparently very, very impressed, often to their own surprise. In other words, don’t count the company out.
Windows 8 hopes to offer the best of both iPads and Androids – as beautify and refines as iOS, and as flexible as Android. Microsoft’s new "Metro” interface is completely new, and uses customizable "tiles” on the start screen – tiles that let you launch program, or that display changing information.
Tablets running Windows 8 are coming from the usual suspects: Dell, HP, Motorola, Samsung, Toshiba, and anyone else who makes PCs, and there are large and small tablets coming out. Apps will be available via a market a la iTunes or the Android Market, but just as with Android, anyone can create and release programs – for better or worse.