Last year I wrote “How to choose your first dSLR – a complete buyer’s guide“, which was so successful that I have to constantly keep it up-to-date and respond to new questions. Just in time for the 2011 holiday season, I’ll be helping you choose a tablet for you or as a gift for someone else.
Update: Jan.7 2011 with Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus
The review process
Most reviewers for magazines have the devices for a limited time only. They don’t have time to play and appreciate them, discover their strong and weak points or see how their familiy members interact with the the devices. They have deadlines, they may not even enjoy reviewing every piece of junk. In contrast, I personally own all the tablets in this review. How come? In addition to being a graphic artist and photographer, I’m also a software engineer – I write software for tablets. I have quite a few tablets around me, mainly for testing purposes. I know them. I take them home and let my wife and kids play with them.
I will not bore you with technical specs and performance charts; instead I’ll concentrate on real-world experiences.
Apple iPad 2
iPad 2 is, without a doubt, “the” Tablet. In fact, I could have made my job easier by declaring iPad the winner and be done with it. However, I’m not in the business of selling Apple merchandise, but in giving you short, honest reviews.
If I were to sum up Apple’s strategy, it would be – catering to the simple user’s needs, attention to detail and great marketing.
It’s a very robust device. The aluminium back stands out. On the sides it has a sleep/wake button, volume control and a lock/silent switch. It has one Home button on the front and a proprietary connector. Battery life is very good, although recharging is lengthy. The GPS is very good but the front/back cameras are not. Through the proprietary connector, the iPad 2 can access USB devices and can output HDMI, VGA or composite.
In your hand
At 1.3 pounds (600 g), iPad is rather heavy compared to other similar devices. It’s thin (0.34″ / 8.8 mm), but you definitely can’t hold it with one hand. It’s the kind of device that needs resting on a support.
Here comes Apple’s magic and appeal. The iPad 2 is (for the most part) extremely intuitive. Previously (with the first iPad), the only way you could close an application was by pressing the Home button, but now you can navigate through apps by dragging or pinching the screen. I gave it to my mother-in-law and she, with no previous experience with touch devices, was instantly able to use it and play with the mapping app.
iPad is the ultimate consumerist device
The iPad is the ultimate consumer device and a publisher’s dream. You can buy movies, music, books, newspapers, magazines, apps and games for it. In fact, the process is made so simple that it encourages impulse buying (with no refund option) – you click “Buy” and it’s done! Apps and games in the store also make frequent use of “In-App Purchases” to buy virtual goods or unlock features.
The store is very family-friendly, you won’t find really objectionable materials there. With the new iOS 5 you can also place restrictions of all kinds on the tablet, so if you give it to your child you can be sure they don’t start buying stuff or delete apps. You can even disable YouTube.
All apps in the store are tested and they have strict guidelines so you can be reasonably sure they perform as expected.
This is an area that disappointed me. You can’t transfer a file via Bluetooth from your smartphone. You cannot transfer files from your computer unless you go through iTunes and even that is a pain (iTunes is so bad it feels like it wasn’t made by Apple). So if you’re with a friend, you can’t transfer a photo from their laptop simply via USB. You can’t even just copy a photo from your computer, you have to sync the photo library. Also, because each app lives in isolation, many operations are simply impossible (like transfer an Excel doc via Wi-Fi and open it with the Numbers app). Some nice features such as AirPlay or iCloud work only with other Apple devices.
The video formats it supports are rather restrictive; you’re fine as long as you only purchase videos through iTunes, but loading your own will require conversions in many cases. There are some third-party video players but their performance is pretty bad.
Even though you can connect a USB drive to the iPad (via the optional Camera Connection Kit), you can’t just copy a file and open it with an app without jumping though many hoops. Overall, it’s a frustrating experience when you try to use it for something productive.
For designers and photographers
There are some nice little tools for artists, mainly sketching apps, but nothing mind-blowing. Adobe Ideas is nice. Some apps are better suited for iPhones – DOF calculators, sun calculators and other small tools. Personally I used the iPad when shooting on location. I would transfer the RAWs on it using the camera connection kit and show them to the client on the screen (it shows just the JPEG preview of RAW files, doesn’t actually decode it, so you can’t zoom too much to check focus and so on). There’s no real tethering app.
An iPad can cost anywhere from $520 for 16 Gb Wi-Fi only to $850 for the 64 Gb white model with WiFi+3G. See at the end of the article for price comparisons.
As I wrote above, iPad is the ultimate consumerist entertainment device and a status symbol. It’s perfect for someone who doesn’t know or care about computers. If you set restrictions properly, you can safely give it to your kid. It’s not so great for doing productive work on it.
Playbook is very small, just 7.6″ x 5.1″ (194 mm x 130 mm), a bit thicker (0.4″ / 10 mm) and lighter (0.9 lb / 425 g) than the iPad. The back has a fine rubberized texture that really feels nice. Side buttons are sleep/wake, volume and play/pause. In addition to the proprietary connector is has a micro-HDMI socket. The built-in GPS is the weakest of all tablets I’ve tested. It has the highest-resolution back camera in this review.
The processor is very fast and the graphic performance is also very good, overall at least on par with the iPad 2.
The battery doesn’t last as much (about 7 hours compared to 9 for iPad) but it recharges much faster.
In your hand
Because of its small size, you can easily hold it on one hand and use the other to tap on the screen. Unlike the iPad, you can fit it in a pocket.
The Playbook is almost as easy to use as the iPad, and in some regards even better. There’s no Home button, everything you do is with gestures. Its Tablet OS operating system has true multitasking and it’s a joy to switch back and forth through apps, for example to copy something from an app and paste it somewhere else. It recognizes more video formats, unfortunately it’s a bit small for watching movies (though they look very good and you can output to a HDTV).
Thanks to its smart gestures (the area outside the screen is touch-sensitive as well), the Playbook can work nicely without the system bar present in Android Honeycomb devices, allowing you to use the full screen effectively. This is a really nice advantage when compared to other 7″ tablets.
The software it comes with is a mixed bag. On one hand, it comes with a full Office suite. On the other hand it doesn’t have an email client (they are promising email for version 2.0 of WebOS)
Playbook is a nice companion for Blackberry phone owners
There are some nice apps and games in the AppWorld store but nowhere near as many as for the iPad. The store itself doesn’t feel as much polished. As a publisher I was frustrated by the lack of control I have over the apps, such as giving discount coupons. There are a number of big games available though. Sadly, no Angry Birds.
Blackberry promises that the Playbook will be able to run Android apps in 2012 with the release of Tablet OS 2.0.
The Playbook can pair with a Blackberry phone via Bluetooth, giving access to email, contacts, calendar and files on the phone. Playbook can connect via USB and it’s much more open than the iPad in this regard; you feel as you are more in control of the device. It can also connect with any phones via Bluetooth and you can add not just a Bluetooth keyboard, but even a Bluetooth mouse! I had some problems with the Blackberry Desktop software though.
For designers and photographers
Nothing really worth mentioning.
RIM has massively discounted the Playbook, it’s currently $250 to $400. See at the end of the article for price comparisons.
Personally I use it more for writing documents, view PDF files and sync my Torch phone rather than to play. For Blackberry phone owners, the Playbook is a nice companion, not so much for anyone else.
Kindle Fire is about the same size as the Playbook. In fact, at a glance they look almost identical. The size and weight differences are so small it’s not worth mentioning.
Amazon’s Fire does not include cameras, GPS or Bluetooth and has just one micro-USB socket with no way to output HDMI. The CPU/GPU, although on paper is the same as with Playbook here feels underpowered; it also has less RAM and just 8 Gb of storage space. Battery life is similar to Playbook (7 hours).
In your hand
Same notes as with Playbook: very comfortable to hold and carry around.
The problem with Kindle Fire is that its real-world usage is severely restricted.
Kindle Fire runs an older version of Android. Its sole purpose seems to be to encourage you to buy stuff from Amazon – books, magazine, music, apps…
The operation has a carousel-like interface at the core, but I’m not a big fan of it. Downloading again the stuff you purchased previously from “the cloud” is nice, but the fact that there are no hardware controls for sound level is irritating. Overall it feels dumbed-down and definitely not as polished as the iPad or Playbook.
The tablet doesn’t have access to the Android Marketplace (though you’ll find most apps here) and the store itself is not available outside US, so if you ask a friend to bring you a Kindle from the States to Europe or Asia, there might be problems in accessing the content.
Like Apple’s AppStore, the store is designed for impulse buying. In fact, it’s been reported that Amazon.com loses money ($2 – $10) on each unit they sell, so basically the tablet’s sole reason to exist is to facilitate buying of digital goods.
No Bluetooth, no HDMI.
For designers and photographers
Apart from the usual sketch apps, it’s too small for any work.
At $200, Kindle Fire looks like an attractive choice. Amazon’s marketing team even managed to make a comparison chart to present it as a revolutionary device and to show that it’s better than an iPad. My problem with Kindle Fire is that its real-world usage is severely restricted. On the other hand, you can’t expect to get a $600 tablet for $200 and there’s huge demand for simple and cheap tablets. Many people don’t need a tablet for anything more than browsing the web, check the social networks and maybe read an ebook and Kindle Fire fulfills their needs at an unbeatable price.
Samsung Galaxy Tab family – 7 plus, 8.9 and 10.1
I’ll be reviewing the Tab 8.9 and touch upon its siblings, the new affordable 7″ tablet and the bigger brother 10.1
To be honest, when I unwrapped the Galaxy Tab 8.9, I was expecting a relatively cheap-looking piece of plastic. Instead, the Tab feels surprisingly well-built. Yes, it’s plastic, but it feels nice. It’s a hairline thinner than the iPad (8.6 mm) and ligher, just (0.99 lb / 447 g). The 7 plus has the same dimensions as Playbook and Kindle Fire.
Without a doubt, Samsung copied shamelessly from Apple. The USB cable / charger looks the same, the proprietary connector looks the same (yet not compatible with Apple); even the USB connection kit and the HDMI output accessories (which cost extra) look much like Apple’s. I’m not saying this to criticize or anything, I’m just stating something obvious when you have both systems.
The 1280×800 screen resolution means higher density compared to the iPad (170 dpi vs. 132 dpi), so you get the same smooth, finely-detailed look of Playbook and Kinde Fire but on a bigger screen. One thing I noted is that the colors appear too saturated, especially the reds. I’m sure this is not a problem for most users but as a designer it bothers me a little.
The Galaxy Tab 7 Plus has a 1024×600 resolution, but because of the system bar at the bottom you have just 552 effective pixels. Not a big deal, as Kindle Fire is the same, but with a smaller device every pixel counts.
In your hand
Somehow I prefer the 8.9 size (230 x 160 mm) over the 7″ or 10″ alternatives. It’s easier to hold it than an iPad and at the same time it’s easier to operate than a 7″.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 is the only tablet I actually use for design
Just like Motorola Xoom and many other tablets, Samsung Galaxy Tab uses Google’s Android 3 Honeycomb OS.
Honeycomb is not nearly as polished in terms of UI compared to iOS or RIM’s Blackberry Tablet OS. In a way it’s more like a traditional OS like Windows. It’s more powerful and customizable but not as intuitive and at times tedious.
To their credit, Samsung have added some nice touches (marketed as TouchWiz) – some useful widgets that live in the system bar, a nicer UI, a good email program, a “Social Hub” and so on.
By default it comes with Google’s Android Marketplace as well as Samsung’s own store, but you can install for example the Amazon’s web store. Unlike iPad and Playbook, you can install apps from outside stores (you just need to enable the option in Settings). The apps in the Market are not curated or tested, so buyer beware.
Overall there are many nice apps available for Honeycomb.
On the downside, at the time of writing, many games were not compatible with it, but I assume they are being ported.
There’s no built-in parent control system, but there are a number of third-party “Lock” apps to password-protect apps.
After you install the necessary drivers, you can browse the contents of the tablet file system at will via USB. Connecting via Bluetooth is not a problem. You are in complete control.
All tablets come as Wifi+3G or Wifi only.
For designers and photographers
From simple DOF calculators to Autodesk’s Sketchbook Pro, from image viewers to RAW processors. There are tethering / remote control apps for Canon and Nikon. Adobe has a whole suite of creative apps, including Photoshop Touch, which is amazing. There are video players that can play more “exotic” formats such as MKV.
Depending on the model (16 Gb / 32 Gb; Wi-Fi / 3G), a Galaxy Tab 8.9″/10″ costs between $490 and $650. Galaxy Tab 7″ may cost as little as $300 (if you get it from T-Mobile).
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 has become my favorite tablet. It’s the only one that I can actually use in my design workflow. I take it with me, meet with clients and collaborate using Adobe’s tools (Kuler, Proto, Ideas, Debut, Photoshop Touch). I’d hesitate to give it to my mother or my son though.
Asus Transformer Prime
The original Transformer was lacking in build quality but the new Transformer Prime seems much better. I haven’t had the time to test it enough to make an objective review, but I’ll update this article as soon as possible.
Motorola Xoom, Toshiba Thrive, Lenovo IdeaPad
I lumped all these together. To save time, I’ll start with the conclusion: none of these tablets impressed me.
They all use the same Honeycomb OS with minor tweaks. They have roughly the same 10.1″ size and the same screen resolution – 1280 x 800 pixels, are all pretty thick (up to 6.62″ / 16.8 mm – double the Galaxy Tab) and heavy (1.7 lb / 0.75 Kb). Battery life is lower – 5-6 hours. Apart from being $100 cheaper, there’s really nothing to distinguish them and I cannot recommend them.
What to Buy
The decision process pretty much boils down to three questions:
- Who is it for?
- What will you/they use it for?
- How much money do you have?
If the tablet is for someone not proficient with computers, especially elderly persons and children, nothing beats the iPad. Samsung Galaxy Tab may be a better choice for artists (although they tend to buy Apple stuff) and for those who want full control over their device. Blackberry owners and businesses may like a Playbook as a companion and will appreciate its security options. Students will probably appreciate the Kindle Fire as an advanced e-Reader.
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1/8.9 is the most versatile of the bunch. You can use it for photo/design, documents, navigation, games and watching movies in any format. Next comes the iPad 2, best for games, presentations via projectors and e-magazines. Playbook is fine for documents and movies but doesn’t shine in any area. Kindle Fire is basically for buying stuff from the Amazon.com, mainly books, music and maybe some games and the occasional movie.
At $199, Kindle Fire is unbeatable as an “entry-level” tablet. As I’m writing this, Playbook is $270 on Amazon.com, a huge discount from $500. At $270 it’s a great bang for the buck. At $500 it’s overpriced, even if they add Android support later. Samsung Galaxy Tab is about $450 for the 16 Gb Wi-Fi only version, which is pretty attractive for its features.
|Apple iPad 2||Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1||Blackberry Playbook||Kindle Fire|