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A convert to tablet computing

I’m definitely a convert to tablet computing.

Many computer scientists can’t see the point of tablet computers, and indeed I was one of them. They’re too large to be truly personal devices (like smartphones); too small to be usable as “real” computers (like laptops); and don’t really support many of the functions and activities people like me spend a lot of their time doing (like coding and writing). Given all that, what’s the point?

Having taken the plunge with a Samsung Galaxy 10.1, I can safely say that all the above are true — and that that’s not the point at all. What tablets are great for is consuming, be that papers, photos, videos, news, web pages, and any and all other information. In fact they’re so good for it that I can’t see me using a laptop for these sorts of activities again.

Home screen with fish

It’s hard to explain why tablets seem so much better: it’s probably the naturalness of the interface. That may not sound too surprising, but for a computer scientist a keyboard is basically as natural as breathing, and I’ve never felt that a keyboard is a barrier — indeed, I often find keyboards more natural and powerful than GUIs. So I’m surprised that I find a touch screen so much better than a mouse.

It’s interesting to compare the Galaxy with the Kindle (the ordinary one, not the new tablet). Kindles are fantastic for reading books, especially outdoors, and have the other great feature that they isolate you from the internet and other distractions while you’re reading. The e-ink display is very restful, too. What they’re not as good for is reading PDF files (and annotating them), as the screen resolution and size are both “off” for most paper formats: if the document you’re reading doesn’t re-flow, forget it. That makes Kindles less useful for academics than they could be, given we spend so much time consuming papers. I have to say that I also like the ability to jump out of a book and onto the web, or into linked content. Despite the arguments over the impact of linking, it’s hard to argue that restricting access to information improves understanding.

I always made do with reading off my MacBook Air, but for some reason that’s never been very effective. So I was surprised to discover that reading PDFs on a tablet is actually extremely easy and restful: more so than the laptop, even though the screen resolutions and pixel densities are comparable. My only suggestion for why this is so is that a tablet can be moved more easily, like a book: you constantly change the angle at which you view it, to conform to your reading position, how alert you feel, and so on, in a way that you can’t with a laptop. (If this hypothesis is correct, it’s a really good example of the subtleties involved in designing mobile and pervasive and their interfaces.)

Given that I’ve had the tablet for less than a week I certainly haven’t found all the apps I want to, but here are my favourite so far:

  • TaptuNews: Taptu. The tablet comes with Pulse, but I think Taptu is better: it seems to be more aggressive about downloading the articles it lists, which means it’s more effective to read on the train.
  • PDF: Adobe PDF Reader. Good display capabilities but no annotation: apparently ezPDF allows annotation, so might be worth buying.
  • Books: Kindle Reader. The only choice, really.
  • A sample Zinio magazineMagazines: Zinio. Subscribe to or buy single issues of a wide range of glossy magazines covering virtually all topics (from Maxim to National Geographic to Shutterbug).
  • Game: Air Attack HD Part 1. Basically a clone of the old console/arcade game “1942” — blow up everything in sight with no sign of strategy. Way better graphics, of course, and I don’t think the Nazis actually used airships or had big electric-spark-generating towers for destroying marauding aircraft, but great fun!!! (Fruit Ninja comes a close second.)

What the tablet doesn’t do well is anything to do with typing. Soft keyboards have no “give” and no tactile feedback, so typing on one is a lot like drumming your fingers on the table. This isn’t something I could do for any length of time, so writing anything longer than a quick email is going to be problematic. (Before you ask, I’m writing this on the Air.) But this limitation is massively outweighed by the advantages.

Even the little things are challenging to the status quo. A tablet is pretty much always-on (since it sleeps by default rather than shutting down), and instant boot. Why can’t “real” computers do that? Of course, they can — and indeed did, 30 years ago — but we’ve accepted a different approach as normal. There are reasons for this — it maximises flexibility to load everything off disc through a flexible boot process — but once you see an instant boot it’s hard to make the argument that it shouldn’t be replicated on all devices.

I feel about tablets the same way I feel about the first laptop I encountered: it’s game-changing. But in fact they’re more game-changing than laptops ever were, because they open information up to an enormous new user population who’d never use a traditional computer effectively. Using one for even a few days sparks off all sorts of ideas about what should be the future of books, the future of programming languages, rich information linkage, the ways we educate and the ways we make information available. Tablets are easily the most exciting new piece of kit I’ve seen in the past decade, and I can’t wait to see where we can take them.


6 Comments

  1. Well I remember the early adopter at school bashing away at his new BBC keyboard …..and that was a long time ago for both of us. I guess something this game changing was long overdue!!!

    • If you go Android you get easy access to the local FS, but I wouldn’t want to do much development on a tablet: like I said, it’s like drumming your fingers on the table. But they’re great for keeping any reference books you need 🙂

  2. Yeah, but that’s where the bluetooth (or just portable wired) keyboard comes in, like they’ve done in that article! We’ll see, lots of new hardware coming out in the next few months with Ice Cream Sandwich and Tegra 3 just after being released.

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