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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Getting the most for your money on an Android tablet

My ongoing experience with tablets has led me to a number of conclusions, the primary one for this article is that if you don't have a tablet yet, now is the time to get one.

Loyal readers of my blog (ok, there aren't any of you, but I'll pretend) may recall back in 2011, I posted an article where I said it was not time to buy a tablet.  They were too expensive and much better things were coming along shortly.  In the intervening two years, things have changed and now the options are much better.

I have long been a fan of Android over the iPad.  In earlier posts I have discussed why I think Android is superior to iPad and I continue to believe that.  I have now owned five different Android tablets (and four Android smart phones).

My first tablet, the Toshiba Thrive, was probably my favorite.  Although it is old now, the fact that it had a full size HDMI port made it very easy to connect to a TV.  It also had a full size USB port which made it easy to connect my flash drive for access to files.  A full size SD card reader also made it incredibly simple to transfer files from my laptop, which also has a full size SD card reader.  The price for all of these ports was that the Thrive was a little thicker and heavier that most people would like, but well worth it to me.  Combine that with nice graphics and a good battery life and I have to say I really enjoyed it.  Unfortunately, this model is an older one running Android 3.1.  Newer versions of the Thrive did away with all the full sized ports, leading me to move in other directions.

My next tablet was an Arnova 10b g3.  This was a 10" tablet that I purchased probably two years ago.  The draw for me was its price.  At under $200, for a 10" tablet, that price was practically unheard of at the time.  But unfortunately, it had some real drawbacks.  First, Arnova made some basic changes so the Android OS that prevented users from accessing the Google Play store.  This is apparently a practice that several low end Android manufacturers employ.  They try to push  you to their own stores instead (Amazon does this with the Fire too).  Unfortunately, the Arnova store was extremely limited and denied me access to most of the basic Google tools I wanted (e.g. no Google Maps, or Gmail).  I was able to find a hack that wiped out these limitations and installed a version that would give me access to the Google Store.  But the hoops I had to jump through to get there would be beyond most users.

If that was the end of my dissatisfaction, it would be tolerable, but there were more.  The main one was battery life.  I could not get through even one day of moderate usage without the battery dying on me.  It was only good for a few hours of use.  Further, even when the tablet was in sleep mode, it completely drained the battery in a few days.  By comparison, the iPad can be in sleep mode for weeks without needing recharging.  So I had to keep the tablet turned off when not using it.  This meant having to go through a power on process that took a few minutes every time I wanted to use it.

Another major limitation was the 4GB drive that ran the tablet.  This left almost no room for any apps at all.  I think I could install just over a dozen apps before being warned I was out of space.  Apparently, only a portion of the available free space was reserved for Apps.  Even though it had a mini SD card port, Apps had to be installed on the very limited internal space, so that was a serious limitation.  Finally, the cheap plastic casing and low end video graphics were tolerable for such a cheap tablet, but certainly didn't add anything to my enjoyment.

 The Arnova had a micro SD reader, which was convenient, although I needed an adapter to move the card to my full size SD reader on my laptop.  This was one small step backward from my Thrive, but it seems no tablets have full size SD readers anymore, so I've learned to live with that.

My two important lessons from this tablet where these: Just because a device is an Android does not mean you have access to all the standard Android features.  Manufacturers sometimes create serious roadblocks to usefulness.  Second, internal memory matters.  Don't rely on the ability to add external memory.

Not having completely learned my lesson, I bought a Coby Kyros 4.3 "tablet".  I put tablet in quotes because with a 4" screen, it looked more like a cell phone.  I bought this device for $50 mostly because I wanted a cheap device for voice dictation and little else.  I knew the Android 4.1 on the device was capable of good voice dictation so I decided to give it a try.  Unfortunately, even that limited use did not seen to work right.  The device was complete junk and I gave up on it in less than a week.

Having been burned by low end devices, my next tablet was a Nexus 7.  I was drawn to this by the fact that it installed the Android OS as Google intended, without some third party interfering with it.  It also seemed to have good hardware specs.  Most of all, I was happy to see such a good tablet under the $200 mark, although I ended up paying a little more than that for the 32 GB version.  My experience with the 4 GB Arnova told me, don't skimp on space.

There were two things that made me hesitant to go with the Nexus 7.  The first, was the "7" part.  I really liked the 10" screens on my earlier tablets.  In fact, I would really like a larger screen so I could look at full size 8.5 x 11 documents on my screen.   When I want smaller size and mobility, I have my 4" smart phone for such things.  My eyes strain on smaller screens, so I was not crazy about losing three inches.  That said, once I got it, I got used to the 7" screen pretty quickly.  It was not as bad as I thought and I could actually fit the tablet in most of my pants pockets.  While I would still prefer a larger screen, the 7" was tolerable and since 7" tablets seem to be less than half the price of 10" ones, it seems a reasonable compromise for now.

The second thing that made me hesitant was the lack of any sort of memory card port.  This meant no expansion.  It also meant that I could not easily transfer pictures, documents, and music back and forth from my computers using an SD card.  Yes, I could connect the tablet to my laptop with a USB cable, but this was not always convenient.  Also, Windows has an annoying practice now of showing the tablet as an external device.  While I can move files back an forth, I could not assign a drive letter to the tablet.  I have several utilities (including my favorite sync utility) that require a drive letter, so this was a big disappointment.

One other limitation I discovered after purchase was that the Nexus charges via the micro-USB port.  All the other tablets I had up until this point came with their own adapters.  The micro-USB charges more slowly.  If the battery was very low, it could take 8-10 hours to recharge.  My other tablets could charge in a couple of hours.  Still, even with this limitation, I think I prefer having the micro-usb charging.  I carry around about half a dozen other devices that all use micro-USB.  I like having to carry just one charging cable for all my devices rather than a different charger for each device.  For me, the convenience of carrying just one cable for everything outweighs the slower charge time.

Those limitations aside, I really liked the Nexus 7.  It worked very well. the battery lasted through a whole weekend of moderate use without recharging.  The screen graphics were great and I never experienced any speed or lag issues.

Overall, I grew to like the Nexus 7 and was pretty happy with it.  I really thought the addition of a micro SD reader would make it nearly ideal.  Almost all other Android tablets have this feature so I still don't understand why this one does not.  I thought it might have to do with cutting as many hardware costs as possible to get to the $200 price point.  But since Nexus just released its next generation device for $229 and still no card reader, I guess that wasn't it.  They spent extra money upgrading the screen pixel rate and cameras, but no SD.  What a disappointment.

I would still be happily using my Nexus today if I did not somehow manage to crack the screen on it while carrying it in my briefcase.  Even though the crack was rather small, it caused the touch screen to stop working, making the tablet worthless.  I started using my Arnova tablet again, only to crack the screen on that, also causing the touch to fail on that one too.  I should mention the reason I stopped using my Thrive was also because I dropped it and cracked the screen, although the touch does still work on that one.  For my next tablet, I am definitely getting a cover!

For my next tablet, I really gave a lot of thought to the new Nexus 7.  But the increase price and, more importantly the lack of an SD reader, drove me back to trying a different low end brand.  I read good things about the Asus MeMo pad and decided to give it a try.  The fact that Asus is the same company that makes the Nexus gave me some faith in its ability to make its own good tablet.

I have had it for about a week now and am really enjoying it.  It is almost exactly the same size as the Nexus 7.  The Android 4.1 OS is not the latest (4.3) but it does everything I need it to do.  I have access to Google Play and all the apps I want.  The device even "remembered" many of the settings on my Nexus because I had backed them up through Google.  Battery life is very good.  I can get through the weekend on one charge with moderate use.  It has a front facing camera for video chats, but not a rear facing one for easily taking pictures.  But I don't take pictures with my tablet.  I use my phone for that.  All the apps I use run well.  It does not have GPS, but I mostly use that on my phone, not my tablet.   All my tablets have been Wifi only as I'm not paying another monthly data charge to AT&T.  In short, I notice little difference with my MeMo Pad from my old Nexus 7 with one key difference: it has an SD reader!  Yes, I can now transfer files back and forth easily via the reader.  That alone makes is superior to the Nexus.

Oh, and did I mention the price?  Because the new MeMo Pad HD was just announced, I picked up what is now last year's model for a mere $106.  Less than half the price of a Nexus 7.  The new MeMo Pad HD will retail for $150, which is what the old one had been selling for, still significantly cheaper than the Nexus.  The new device will add a rear facing camera.  So if that is important, go with the new one.  So far, however, I am very happy with my purchase.

Two years ago, my blog post complaining about tablet prices was on the mark but a little too pessimistic.  I predicted that within 10 years you could get a great tablet for under $150.  The industry has met and beaten that challenge in just over two years!  There is great functionality in these low priced devices.  I think just about anyone can afford one now.

I would recommend the MeMo Pad to anyone who asks.  But if you want something different, a few things to consider:
  • Battery life is very important.  Tablets are mobile.  You don't want to be attached to an outlet or constantly looking for a recharge.  At least 7-8 hours of running time is easily available.  
  • I would be reluctant to get a tablet with only 8 GB of internal memory (4 GB is out of the question for me).  Most tablets come with at least 16 GB which seems a good level.  If you carry lots of media, there is room for plenty of music or pictures.  If you plan to create or store video, 32 GB may be better. 
  • .Card readers are very useful.  These cards are much cheaper to buy than  the extra money you will pay for extra internal memory on the tablet.  It also makes transfers between your tablet and PC much easier.  
  • Make sure your tablet can access Google Play so you can download the apps you want.  Some cheaper no-name manufacturers, as well as the Amazon Fire don't give you this access.  If you don't have Google Play, you will not have a real Android experience.
  • Don't fall for the HD hype.  I have had no serious video quality complaints with any of my screens.  HD is important when you are buying a 70" TV.  It is not at all important on a 7" tablet screen.  You are spending extra money for nothing.
  • There is a big difference between Android 4.0 and Android 4.1.  I would not get anything lower than 4.1.  Android 4.0 was known as "ice cream sandwich."  Android 4.1 is "jelly bean."
  • There is not much difference between Android 4.1 and 4.2 or 4.3  All three of these versions are part of the "jelly bean" line.  If a device has at least 4.1, I would not worry.
  • And finally, as my three cracked screen can attest, buy a cover for your tablet!
Well, those are my thoughts.  I welcome any comments.