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?