30 December 2011

A tablet for (just after) Christmas

Over the last few months I've found myself strangely attracted to the idea of a tablet - not ibuprofen (although that has its pleasures), but the dinky little oversized phones with large touchscreens that are the biggest growth area in the computer market ever since Apple brought out the iPad almost 2 years ago. It's interesting, and largely unpredictable, what takes off and what doesn't in the computing world. Most of the pundits shared my initial opinion that the iPad would be a flop because at the end of the day, what was it? An oversized phone that doesn't make phone calls. But in fact, it was a huge success, on the back of very slick marketing, the excitement of the app store, and the integration with iPhones and Apple computers.

I haven't bought an iPad for several reasons, the main one being that I consider Apple kit somewhat overpriced for what you get - they are to computing what BMW is to cars, although I am pleased to report that Apple owners don't try to run you over in the same way BMW owners do. The iPad 2 is undoubtedly better value than the iPad 1 but there was still something about the £500 price point that didn't say "value" to me. £200 says value to me - I don't know why, but if there's a piece of kit that's less than £200 I am so there... if it's more than £200 I have to think carefully. This number is arbitrary and takes no account of inflation, but still... that's the way it is for me.

The other thing that pisses me off about Apple is the Stalinist approach to software and media management. I do have an iPod nano (2009 edition) because I got it free with an Android phone (hilarious irony!) One day I decided I'd like some MP3s on the iPod. It appears on my Windows PC as a USB hard drive, but can I copy across MP3s by drag and drop in Explorer the same way I can with any other MP3 player on the market? No, sir... I have to use iTunes which is the crappiest piece of software (at least on a PC) imaginable... Charlie Brooker called it a "binary turd" and that was being kind IMHO. Apple doesn't trust you to be able to get music on your device the way you want... you have to do it their way, or not at all. Similarly, Apps have to be approved by Apple before being placed on the App Store. This takes the free-for-all open approach which was the foundation of success for the internet and replaces it with a digital North Korea (I'm borrowing terminology from Van Patten here, but in this case the analogy is a good one). Contrast this with Google's Android platform where you can use any damn music player (and file format) you want and there is no central oversight to the application repository - anyone can get out there on the Android market. This probably means a higher percentage of shit applications but hey, I'm an intelligent consumer and I'll take my chances.

So why haven't I bought an Android tablet yet? Two reasons. One is that Android wasn't really tablet-ready until version 3.0 (Honeycomb) and Google reckon that it won't really be fully optimised for tablets until version 4. The other reason was the price of a good tablet. Any fool can sell you an el cheapo tablet held together with string for £150 or so, but the good stuff starts at about £330 with the Asus TF101 Transformer - and at that price point ol' tight wad comes into play again. It feels expensive and not at all an impulse buy. So again, at this point Android didn't feel quite ready for me - nor I for it.

What about other options? Until about 48 hours ago my response to that question would have been "ho ho ho", in the seasonal spirit. The main competition is RIM's Blackberry Playbook. At this point the tech-savvy among you will have fallen about laughing, so [in-joke alert] if your name is Foley let me return you to the floor by reminding you about the biology lab microscope.... :-) But Blackberry. Are you serious? The platform that gives you 72 hour outages because they didn't spend any money on infrastructure? An App Store less well populated than the Outer Hebrides? Hello?

Well, yes. Why? Two reasons, both the converse of why I rejected Apple and Android. One, cost. At its launch price of £400, the 16GB Playbook was really no better value than Apple, considering it is a 7-inch tablet rather than 10-inch. But PC World have now discounted it to £170 and at that price, in hardware terms, it's a steal. God bless underselling products.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this is a "stealth" Android tablet. The Blackberry App Store remains woefully underpopulated (although RIM have released a utility for easy conversion of Android apps to Playbook apps which has helped a bit), but with version 2.0 of the Playbook OS (due in February 2012), there will be a built in launcher application allowing users to run Android apps on the Playbook! Furthermore, the tech-savvy among us can install the beta version of the 2.0 OS, root the Playbook, and - with some hacking about - install the Android Market on the Playbook, thus gaining access to (slmost) the full range of Android apps (subject to some library compatibility issues which will no doubt be sorted out down the line in any case).

An Android tablet with high build quality for £169? It's a reality. OK, if you believe the hype from the late great Steve Jobs that 7 inch tablets are crap then this won't be for you. But I don't - in fact, for me the iPad always looked a bit unwieldy. So rock on with the Playbook into 2012, kids.

1 comment:

Van Patten said...

Due to my wife I'm an apple purchaser by default, but I share our misgivings abou the apple Store which is a truly dreadful piece of software. Let me know how the Blackberry tablet works out.