It’s not much of a war when one side gets pummeled in its first skirmish. To be fair, I see this first battle as one between Google’s 1st gen tablet versus Apple’s 1.5 version of its successful iPad. While not a perfect matchup in terms of each product’s stage in its lifespan, their close release dates simply beg me to compare and share my thoughts. I will focus on tablet specific comparisons instead of getting into the whole Apple iOS versus Android mobile debate – both have been around long enough for you to figure out which serves you best. My motivation is fueled by a curiosity in how/if/when tablets will dramatically change people’s computing habits. This desire to see how these toys can shape the future means that I’d be quite disappointed if these devices were simply a big iPod or netbook replacement. Thankfully that is not the case.
Apps Apps Apps Apps and Platform Fail
The most important thing in considering how one uses a tablet differently than a computer (or smartphone) is what you can do with it. And that depends on the underlying software and its orbital apps. That said, Honeycomb (Google’s tablet version of Android) can be at best described as a slick prototype for Android enthusiasts. For the remaining 98+ percent of the population out there today, the Xoom grossly under-delivers for its price point. The rumor gnomes claim that Google and Motorola rushed it out to beat the iPad2 announcement. Shortly after the release Google locked it away to work on until it’s really ready. Quite frankly, it shows. Basic apps like email and browser crash consistently. And the app marketplace doesn’t offer enough tablet specific apps to showcase a need for the tablet. Even many of the good mobile Android apps refused to run or install properly on the Xoom. A few saving graces that warrant commending: app switching – Honeycomb dedicates a softkey to jump between applications seamlessly, useful notification system
which works like the mobile platform, and finally, for Google Maps fans, the app runs on the Xoom like Barry Bonds hits homeruns on steroids. It absolutely tears it up. With a data connection, running navigation utterly rocks your Vegas roadtrip. And yet this is a very short list. The promising hardware provides hope that a major software update with improved app inventory will make the Xoom a compelling device down the road. As of today, not so much.
iPad2 Setting the Pace
What a difference a year makes. Since my last review of the first iPad
, the app store™ has exploded with tablet applications made with emphasis on design. I rarely gush over apps, but Flipboard
truly deserves its 5 star rating and then some. In both design and utility, Flipboard demonstrates the beauty of using a tablet device. I am excited by the prospect of applications like that popping up in the future for the tablet platforms. Other newspaper and magazine apps, like the NY Times Reader (pre-paywall) and Economist, work great in my transition for reading the same content in a different format. For someone who consumes an enormous amount of online content, the new device has been truly a pleasure. The only serious deficiency lies in the activities that require input, to be further elaborated below. In short, the iPad2 and its apps make the device a serious threat to your television and time spent in front of monitor doing non-work things. It’s the ultimate Internet consumption device for couch surfing, coffee shops, and travel.
Excellent for Media Consumption
iPad Swap Story
With some careful planning and luck, I heisted an iPad2 by swapping in my old one and paying only an extra $100. Expecting the announcement of the iPad2, I sold my original iPad in February on Craigslist for $430 cash. (Remember to keep the box.) Then during SXSW in March I started monitoring Twitter for chatter on inventory levels. The first few days at the pop-up Apple store were madhouse and I couldn’t bother with hours in line for a mere chance to buy. But one night while browsing on my Xoom I came across tweets of a re-stocking the next day. I showed up around noon and 15 minutes later picked up the iPad2. My buddy who came along bought three and shipped them to his family in Hong Kong, it’s like Christmas in March. So remember, use Apple’s fairly predictable product roadmap to plan your purchases accordingly.
Hardware as in Heavyware
Both tablets sport very nice hardware specs: the display, underlying processor speeds, battery life, and overall finish. You won’t find either underpowered until way past replacement time. The new iPad’s weight loss pays off using over long periods of time. The Xoom feels quite heavy even compared to the original iPad. One big difference on the Xoom is the 1280×800 resolution which changes the aspect ratio (think longer and narrower) making portrait mode a joy for web browsing and reading articles. Nonetheless I want both to shed more heft as hours long book reading is still preferable on the Kindle. As for the cameras (both devices have front and back facing cameras), I found little use for despite being a heavy video Skype user on the computer. I do believe there will be more interesting usages of the cameras down the road, such as for recognizing input gestures.
Wishlist for Apple
For those unfamiliar with the Apple way, Apple places an iron tight grip on every aspect of user experience, curates its app store, and imposes demanding requirements on all the parties in its ecosystem. It’s perfectly within their right to do so. I don’t hold it against Apple to position its products whichever way and letting consumers vote with their wallets. Yet there are aspects on the more open [sorry for using this loaded term] Android platform that compel mentioning. One of them is ability to change input methods, like Swype and Swiftkey to name a few. If the tablet is ever to transform our computing interaction, then the input method should as well. In a thoughtful Future of Touch Interaction talk at SXSW, (ironically) Microsoft researchers presented that our natural input language for touch devices has much room to evolve. Knowing that existing solutions are far from perfect, companies out there are working hard to improve it. My favorite: Swiftkey’s intuitive thumb type method for Android tablets, reminiscent of my old BlackBerry days, runs on top of a word prediction technology that learns from you. Apple’s current and only text input method is still based on minor refinements of a years old method. To observe an exercise in frustration ask an iPad beginner to type a long email. After 4 iterations of iPhones and a whole year of iPad experience, the best Apple can offer is something that makes people long for hardkeys. This is a serious innovation deficiency because it ignores people who want to create messages over 140 characters or otherwise express their creativity in written form.
Swiftkey’s Double Thumb Tablet Input
The other glaring hole is browser choice. Apple plays Saint Peter at the gates to the Internet, granting access only via Safari. All 3rd party browsers are stuck in app store purgatory. This brings us back to the good ole days of Microsoft bludgeoning us with IE. Having run the latest and greatest Firefox and Opera browsers on the Xoom, I would very much welcome having a choice. For users the multiple browser paradigm isn’t exactly new and doesn’t require a PhD to handle. Open it up already, please Steve?
What to Buy Today?
I recommend aspiring tablet consumers to wait 6 months for the rumored iPad3 and the next Honeycomb update, especially since both devices are still not 2.0 products yet. If you really need a tablet today, then spring for the iPad2, Android versus iOS debate aside that is.
The young tablet market has made good strides over the past year. While Google’s counter has been dismally short, I expect improvements to follow a similar trajectory as Apple’s and its own in the smartphone arena (each successive Android update added huge improvements). As we will certainly see better products coming from the numerous players within the ecosystem, I expect to be wow’ed by ingenuity and utility in features, applications, and overall package.