If you’ve kept up with technology over the last few years you’ve undoubtedly seen countless articles and advertisements for tablets. After following the hype for a while and allowing others to consume the first primitive iterations, I decided it was time to see first hand what the hype was all about. Well let me say, not since I got my first Commodore Amiga back in ’89 has a device managed to captivate and grab my attention as my new tablet has. So, which tablet did I buy and how did I make my purchasing decision? Read on to find out.
Before I get into which tablet I bought, let me start by saying that the decision on which one to buy was difficult and not made any easier by the marketing materials provided by the manufacturers. All three of the top players: Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft have very confusing product line‑ups which are made even more complicated by overlapping versions that are sold concurrently as their new models are introduced and the old ones are phased out.
But before diving into particular models, the first thing I needed to figure out was which platform (OS) to go with, with the choices being iOS, Android, and Windows. Generally most apps are created for iOS, with Android being a close second, while the quantity of available Windows apps is lacking but slowly catching up due to Microsoft’s late entry into the game. After some research I ruled out iOS tablets from Apple fairly early because they felt very “closed” (e.g. you have to iTunes to manage files and Flash isn’t supported) and in general, seemed suited more for consumption rather than productivity.
I then turned my attention to Microsoft’s tablets attracted by the prospect of possibly using the table for productivity. However, their product line up was extremely confusing to sort through. Their offerings include those with both tablet-only functionality and others which can be run as both tablets and full‑on laptops when paired with a keyboard add‑on.
This line up currently includes their Surface, Surface 2, Surface Pro 2, and Surface Pro 3, each of which is available in different sizes. In a nutshell, the “Pro” versions run Windows Pro and can be used as full‑on computers running all Windows software, while the non‑pro versions are for tablet‑only functionality (meaning they can only run apps).
Once I got this sorted out, it was the lack of applications and excessively‑expensive price tags that not only ruled out Microsoft’s tablets, but also led me to the conclusion that my existing laptop would remain as my portable “productivity” device, while the tablet was going to be more for entertainment and consumption.
On a side note, the more affordable version of the Pro tablet hadn’t been released yet, but even then the projected price was way too much to spend on a piece of disposable technology. Also, I did take a look at some other Windows tablets from other manufactures, but they all felt cheap, heavy, and unrefined — kind of like most modern Windows PCs.
So this left Android as the final OS, which like Windows, runs on tablets from many manufacturers. However, in this arena, there really is only one name to know and that is Samsung. In a recent visit to a drug store, the Samsung 10” very quickly caught my eye for its ease of use, light weight, and crystal‑clear display.
It did however take another very long visit at a Samsung store before I could sort out which model was which. There was the Samsung Galaxy “Pro” series, “Note” series, and the “Tab” series (of which there are various numeric versions), so you would think that the “Pro” series was the top of the line but you’d be wrong. As it turns out, the Tab “S” is actually the top of the line, and the “Pro” series is being phased out. On top of this, there are WiFi‑only and cellular versions to choose from.
In the end the Tab S was the winner and I quickly added an SD‑card to increase its limited 16GB storage space, and a Bluetooth Logitech Keyboard which also serves as a case and a stand. The keyboard is awesome and I plan to do a future article on it, but I should note that it was not available in any store at the time and could only be purchased directly from Logitech’s website.
Getting back to the tablet, it is simply a joy to use. To start with, there are apps—both free and paid—for virtually anything you can think of. Thus the availability of apps is probably the main consideration when purchasing any device and Android has them in spades. In fact I may try to use it for limited productivity at some point such as for taking notes, reviewing documents, and recording meetings, but it will take some time before I figure out the best apps for that.
The user interface of Android will be familiar to anyone who has an Android phone, and has become quite refined. I particularly like the “back” button which other tablets don’t always have, as well as the task manager button which allows me to quickly see what all is running.
The touch screen itself behaves and performs almost flawlessly while offering very intuitive controls and gestures. The apps available have also used these controls in very clever ways and the whole experience feels very natural.
I also like the fact that I can plug the tablet into my PC’s USB port and manage files on the device, just as if it was a USB stick or digital camera. As noted above, I eliminated the iPad early on, and this was due in part to its lack of ability to be handled in this way. Being able to just plug a device into a PC and work with it is simply a must, so any device which cannot do this gets low marks in my book. That said, the iPad is hugely popular and I’m sure the use of iTunes and any other alternatives work fairly well for other people.
The Tab S of course is not perfect. With Android being an open operating system, you do get “bad” or poorly created apps from time to time, something that Apple controls on their iPad. However, anyone who has used Windows for the last decade will be used to this, and having such openness can lead to a nice variety of applications. On the contrary, I find the Google offerings very difficult to use—not just on a tablet but on any device. The user interfaces for things like Google spaces, mail etc. confuse the heck out of me as it seems I can never find the menu or button that performs a specific task. Since Android is by Google, the Tab S tends to be Google centric, so be prepared to learn the “Google way” if you go with an Android device.
In terms of tablet design the Tab S is fairly ergonomic but I don’t care for the lack of dead space on each end. This makes the tablet difficult to hold horizontally without accidently activating something on the touch screen. Surprisingly, earlier versions of the tablet did have this extra dead space so I’m a little surprised that it was removed.
And at the hardware level, the mini‑USB plug is surprisingly difficult to insert requiring just the right angle and finesse. The camera also doesn’t seem to take good pictures, despite what the marketing and reviews say. I’m not sure if it’s operator error or if there are better camera apps I should be using, but the images seem to be very grainy. Hopefully I can figure that out at some point.
Despite these drawbacks however, the device has been a joy to use. One piece of advice if you’re considering a tablet is to not rule out different sizes. I found the 10” to be a good size but it can be a bit heavy and bulky especially when equipped with a keyboard. An 8.4” would be lighter and easier to hold on to when out and about (e.g. when on an airplane). Larger sized tablets (e.g. Microsoft 12” tablets) are also available, but would be better suited when using the device more like a laptop.
Overall though it all comes down to what you think you’ll use the tablet for. The iPad seems to be best for consumption, while the Windows Pro tablets would be a good choice if you want the functionality of a laptop. In the middle sits Android which seems to offer a little of each and I couldn’t be happier with the Samsung Tab S.