Wednesday, October 02, 2013 ... /////

Android tablet: first experience

For 11 hours or so, mostly nighttime, I had a new Android tablet.

After having looked at several candidates and reviews describing them, I decided this 10-inch tablet (Asus MeMO Pad ME301T) looked OK. Well, Nexus 7 (7 stands for 7 inches) was a frontrunner but at the end, I concluded that those 7 inches just looked too small to me and I wanted something larger. Female readers will surely forgive me but there's some sense in which even 10 inches is too little.

Naively, the 1280 x 800 resolution (the Pythagorean hypotenuse is 1509 pixels) seems like a lot for a 10.1-inch screen (it's 149 pixels per inch or 5.88 pixels per millimeter). How could I see finer patterns? But it turns out that you can see it. If you want real quality, I am telling you that those 2560 x 1600 pixels of e.g. Google Nexus 10 (its 2nd, Axus-not-Samsung, edition will be out in two weeks) are surely improving things visibly. That's an important lesson for those who don't care whether or not the price of their new device doubles.

The basic manipulation with the Android system looked straightforward to me – after all, most of these things are similar to the iOS that I have interacted with since 2010 (thanks, Paul O.).

There is a switch button that makes the screen black if you press the button for a very short moment. If you press it for a second or two, you get a menu offering you peaceful restarts, airplane modes, and turning off. Ten seconds is a hard turn off, something is needed if the device freezes and that may damage your data. I hope that I won't be checking this functionality for some time.

You may tap things on the screen – single clicks, so to say, to run programs and to choose options from menus. A longer tap often offers you some customization – moving the app icons between the five home screens, changing the wallpaper, choosing words on pages, and so on.

Swiping (moving finger along the screen so that it never sits on one place of the screen) left-right or up-down often gives you previous-next pages (e.g. if you read books or view a long web page). Pinching is great for zooming things in-out – it is a feature in which tablets surely beat mouse-based PCs already today. In the bottom bar, there are three icons meaning "move one step back", "go to the [main] home screen", and "task bar" (a more stable version of Alt/tab in Windows; you may quickly close apps by swiping them to the left side).

In Android 4.1, the options and notifications from apps are accessed through clicking the right lower corner. Within three minutes or so, the gadget got updated to Android 4.2 where you access notifications by swiping from the upper left corner and options in the upper right corner. It offered me to upgrade the launcher to Android 4.2 (where the back-home-taskmanager triple button is also stretched over much of the bottom bar) but I kept the Android 4.1 style (despite having Android 4.2) because it seems more comprehensible to me.

Google Nexus 7 2 was the first device with Android 4.3; Android 4.4 KitKat will be out in two weeks along with the new Google Nexus 10 and with the Nexus 5 smartphone.

The Android appstore (also with books etc.) is at play.google.com and there is a nicely done app on the Android device to access it. There are many apps. Some of them, like the app for play.google.com or for receiving Gmail e-mails, are aesthetically and functionally pleasing. The Chrome browser (and its brandless cousin) are also OK – it seems that they don't play Flash again (although there exist tricks to play Flash on Android). Most of the apps, including many of those that look pretty professional and usable at iOS, are however looking highly amateurish – many of the apps are only optimized for small displays of smartphones. It's my feeling that in the iOS content, many more apps are optimized separately for iPads (tablets) and iPhones (smartphones) so they never look as ugly as some of the Android apps. As you can see, I would still say that the iOS apps family is a year or two ahead of the Android apps.

There are some things that I was positively stunned by; and there are some missing features whose absence seems incredible to me on the negative side. Google Earth is stunning – for example, the Prague Castle and thousands of surrounding buildings are drawn quickly and smoothly and the multitouch navigation is very natural. Google maps and Mapy.cz maps (the latter app, by Seznam.cz, the leading Czech local Google competitor, offer us a 400 MB file with an off-line map of the whole Czech Republic) are OK. The StreetView seems "more clicks away" than what I would find natural but OK.

One feature is unbelievably advanced. There's the microphone-based voice search for Google. It took me a little while to believe the possibility enough to investigate whether it's there but finally I did it. The voice recognition understands my Czech (I guess that the Wi-Fi connection is needed for non-English languages) and it does a tremendous job in doing so. Well over 90% of politicians' names were recognized and written flawlessly. I could write quite complicated things through the voice. English seems to be mostly recognized, too, although I don't achieve the same impressive rate (but seeing "Václav Klaus" written successfully after I said "Vaklaff Clows" like the Yankees do was the first hint that I was underestimating the Voice Search's capabilities).

The web pages look OK, they can be zoomed in and out quickly, and I have already mentioned that these things lead to a better experience than anything you know from PCs. However, there are some incredibly stupid omissions. The key Internet browsers are Chrome and its nameless counterpart which is functionally similar. I have been using PC Chrome since the first beta versions in 2008 (today, the Chrome 30 stable is out). An important part of that experience of mine are dozens (perhaps a hundred) of custom search engines. For example, click at the link to see what I get if I write ss maldacena to the omnibox on my laptop.

Shockingly enough, the custom search engines don't work on the Android at all, despite the vast inter-platform synchronization of many other things. They even seem to say that it's not among the plans they have. I can't believe it. Commodore 64 would be enough to deal with this simple text substitution. The tablets are often more powerful than the PCs sitting on our desks but they just don't add the elementary search engine functionality. It's so dumb. Of course that I would like the Omnibox in Android Chrome to behave just like it does on the PC Chrome.

The on-screen keyboard is OK. I can type several characters in a second – that's still slower by a factor of 3 or so relatively to what I achieve using a PC. The Czech characters are a bit of a pin. I have to hold a letter for a second and get a list of diacritical signs that can be added on the letter. Given the fact that almost every other letter (OK, every third or fourth letter) in the Czech language has diacritical signs, this is clearly not an efficient way to write a legitimate Czech text.

In English, the keyboard works fine but so far I wasn't able to find a good enough counterpart of the cursor arrows, page up/down keys, and manual positioning of the cursor somewhere (the finger's resolution is generally worse than the mouse cursor's resolution). Because of these things, I believe that my efficiency in writing blog posts such as this one would be reduced by a factor that is vastly more dramatic than the number 3 mentioned previously. That's a pity, especially because many of the defects that prevent [Android] tablets from becoming everyday-life creative tools for writers (and other groups) could be fixed very easily.

There are some other incredible stupidities in the tablet's behavior. For example, I browse arXiv.org and everything works almost the same as it does on a PC. Suddenly, I open a PDF file with a preprint to face a shock. Instead of seeing the PDF file, the tablet downloads it to the Downloads directory. I did need quite some time to get to the Downloads folder. As far as I can see, there's no fix – there's no way to force Chrome for Android to simply open the PDF file as soon as I click (even though many PDF readers are already installed on the device; they look OK, given the resolution, but I would expect the Kindle and other viewers to be richer in functionalities, too).

As you can see, many of my complaints may be described as missing functionalities we know from the PC – what I really mean is "from Windows". They're the reasons why the Windows 8-based tablets like Microsoft Surface 2 Pro may be good for you. They're substantially more expensive than the Android tablets and they're not sold too well but I now understand that for many people, the extra price increase is safely justified. What I find much more surprising is that the Android (and Android app) developers just don't add the elementary Windows functionalities to their software.

Incidentally, I have mentioned the Czech keyboard. An online keyboard that would behave almost just like the PC keyboard (with any layout, including e.g. Czech American Lumo keyboard), would be useful as well. It couldn't be difficult to write the code that does such things.

Your comments, especially about Android, will be appreciated. Well, some of you may even tell me how you – Android users – are achieving various goals that physicists (and others) routinely do with Windows machines. How do you open the papers (PDF files) quickly, for example?

snail feedback (33) :

Good choice! :-) 7" won't do any good... it's just a dollar short kind of size. And I'm speaking from experience.

I don't use tablets. They are left-wing and for the sheepisch masses who buy every crap just to go with the flow. For communication I have my handy, for work I have my high-end notebook from Eurocom (Canadian company), for e-books I have Amazon Kindle. Papers in pdf I mostly print.
I was hoping Amazon would make some kind of large Kindle for pdf viewing (based on the e-ink technology and in color). That would be really cool for many researchers and there would be also a fairly large market

It's silly to have an e-reader that doesn't do the other tablety things.

Otherwise your being capitalist is amusing given the fact that all the money you get for it come from the German taxpayer's wallet.

Left-wing? :-) Go with the flow thing would be if you buy iPad. It has some status symbol value, other tablets don't have that quality.

To me, tablet is a nice addition to my device repertoire. It has its own places and moments where it does a good job.

What are the advanteges of e-ink technology?
1) battery life-time. The battery in Kindle lasts over 100 hours (I don't know exactly, but I need to charge once in a month)
2) the e-ink display has a very different quality from the regular display. It is much nicer to your eyes.
3) Kindle is much smaller and weights much less that a tablet, it fits into my jacket pocket.

I agree with Mr. Mephisto, tablets are for middle class leftist wankers. I have an Android 2.3 phone. This works reasonably well except that it should allow the power button to answer a call. It is a disaster pulling the phone out of the pocket and trying to FF the screen to answer it. Another shortcoming is that it wont allow SMS message to be typed on PC while connected. Otherwise Android seems okay but as a medieval user my opinions may be irrelevant.

To read a pdf doc directly use a browser with a pdf extension, like Dolphin.

As to me, I finally decided that a 12" notebook is the best solution for reading purposes and at the same time without loss of computer features.

"I have my handy" LOL, surely you mean "cell phone"?! Are you German?
LLve my handy

Lay off! He was trying to be honest without sacrificing all of his dignity by saying, "I have my widdle handy." :-)

I have an original Surface Pro 128 GB. Depending on your needs, it is either the best or worst tablet. It is noticeably heavier, and with marginal battery life. (The apps are spotty, but slowly getting better. Microsoft has a lot of money to throw at the problem.)

On the other hand, it is a full WIN8 machine, and a good one. It allows me to run all my legacy programs, some rather technical, for which there are no equivalents. If Microsoft has a good trade-up policy, I might switch to the Pro 2. Otherwise, I will get the new keyboard with the supplemental battery and keep on computing. You need to try one before going with something else.

If you do get one, the first thing to do is get a real Start Button such as Classic Shell. It will save your sanity!

I am not German, but I have been living in German speaking countries for over 5 years (Austria). Sometimes I mix the two languages (English and German)

Re pdfs: You do not have to navigate to the Downloads folder to open the pdf. If you simply tap on the notification that tells you the file has downloaded, it will open. I recommend installing EZ Pdf reader for the best pdf reading experience.

Done, thanks, good enough.

Learned, makes sense, better, thanks.

It takes a quite a bit of time and googling to get used to an Android ecosystem, but usualy there is an app for everything. I bought a tablet some time ago and at first I couldnt move files over wifi, use dropbox, make a shortcut or increase sound volume beyond barely audible level. Apps like Wifi File Transfer, Dropsync, File Manager or SpeakerBoost solved my frustrations. Now I am satisfied with my tablet, the only issue remaining is intermittent slowness and freezes, but I can live with that.

I don't have a tablet, but, like you, I am slow with touchscreen keyboards. Get a keyboard for your tablet (Logitech etc).

A touchscreen keyboard has one fantastic advantage: when you keep pressing on a letter, you are offered all the existing ways of writing it (all sorts of accents etc).

Mephisto, how do you manage to find a page you read long ago on a Kindle? It's impossible!

reader Jim Dukarm - HCT said...

Hi-
Get the SwiftKey app for a very good on-screen keyboard with predictive text and excellent support for non-English languages - как, например, русский. Piszę bardzo łatwo po polsku też. The predictive text takes care of accented characters. I use the phone version on my 10-in tablet and on my phone.
Best regards, JJD

I'd say that tablets are for girls. I assemble my PCs myself and the bigger and heavier they are the happier I am 8). Can barely lift the last one.

Assuming you remember a pair of words from that page, maybe you'd use the search function?

With these devices, with the enjoyment comes some frustrations. But to me it is a very acceptable trade-off.
I recommend you don't compromise on getting as fast an SoC as your finances allow and that the Flash-handling Firefox should be one of your browsers.
The apps included with my devices have not always been the ones that worked best - or at all - for certain tasks. E.g., most notably, .word files (emailed to me from work) could not be opened by Nexus 10 which complained the file was too large! The remedy was no problem though, since there were free - even! - alternative apps available that did the job.

You may also want to break free of unwanted memory hogging and nagging (to be updated) manufacturer-included programs by gaining "root control" so you can wipe them. Can be done easily and safely enough.

And I didn't even have to mention that my tablet's backside happens to be pink. ;-)

Which is an especially lovely thing for the French. ;-)

An average letter only has less than 1 legitimate - i.e. Czech - way of putting diacritical signs on it. So I am annoyed to see the right choice at a random place among 5-10 illegitimate accents. ;-)

Swiftkey - app someone recommended - does a better job: only the legitimate accents appear. But it does crazy things like unifying the upper row with digits (the screen surely has enough room for two rows).

LOL :D But *real* men are not insecure about their manhood! No need for promoting it ;-)

Haha! How chauvinistic ;-)

That could take hours...

Thanks, I tried it, OK enough. It doesn't show the useless diacritical signs.

At the end, however, I seem to prefer two new keyboard apps I found: Smart keyboard and especially Hacker's keyboard. The latter rich keyboard is probably my winner.

Welcome to Linux Lubos ;-)

Shannon, I never needed to find a page I read long ago on a Kindle. I read on Kindle exclusively fiction. I have all of my e-books not only in Kindle but also backed up on PC and if I need to find some text, I use Windows Grep. The only physical books I buy are textbooks