March, 2013

The bulk of this article was written in late 2011 when I made the decision to purchase my Motorola Xoom. Tablets are a rapidly developing and hot sector of technology. This means that unless I revise this every few months (which I do not) that this information rapidly gets out of date. In fact when I first started this (early 2009) netbooks were popular - now they have all but vanished, being wiped out by the poularity of tablets.

If I was buying a tablet in mid 2013, I would look at one of the Asus tablets, probably the TF700t with a 1920x1200 resolution screen, 10 inch on the diagonal, 32G inside, 1G of ram, and a micro SD sloot. A version with 64G inside may even be available. The Google Nexus 10 would be a great choice, except for the lack of an SD slot.

The first thing you should do, if you are considering buying a tablet, is to answer the question "what do you want to do with it". This is actually what you should do before making any computer or technology purchase and I cannot say too much to endorse doing so as honestly as possible up front. In my case I want to move my gtopo map application to a tablet. This means that a real hardware satellite GPS receiver is a must. It also means that I must be able to freely develop applications for whatever device I purchase in a language that I find pleasant.

This Wikipedia article provides some excellent tables listing most current tablets and comparing their features:

The Apple iPad

The iPad essentially defines the tablet (estimates in late 2011 are that iPads account for 70 percent of tablet sales). I have entirely ruled out the iPad because of Apples awful developer policies. For more on this see my iPad notes. To get an iPad with a real GPS receiver, I have to spend $850. For that kind of money there are better options without developer hurdles.

Just to throw more well deserved mud at apple, let me remind you of the odd Apple versus Adobe feud. For some unknown reason Apple will not let you run flash on their devices. I don't know why, and it is not my problem given I don't intend to buy one. Apple got mad at Adobe about something, and though they claim that Adobes flash technology "doesn't meet their standards", I suspect that "follow the money" would tell the real story. Adobe is no nest of saints though, so who knows what hot coals they may have been trying to rake Apple over. The bottom line is that Apple owners get the short end of the stick. No such trouble with an .....

Android Tablet

There are a plethora of these and more coming along all the time. The Amazon Kindle Fire and the Barnes and Noble Nook are special purpose Android tablets, 7 inches in size (highly portable), pretty much in a class by themselves. Beyond this there are 10 inch tablets, which appeal to me and are by no means to big and heavy to tote around.

I am quite taken with the Motorola Xoom, but the Samsung Galaxy, Asus Transformer, or any number of other ARM based android tablets are worth looking at.

As a curious point some cell phones are really just tablets with tiny screens (such as the Samsung Galaxy phones and the TMobile G2x made by LG, which is pretty much just a Motorola Xoom with a 2x3 inch screen). Or looked at from another perspective, tablets with cellular capability are just giant cell phones. My son Alex has an HTC Mytouch 3G, which he likes a lot.

The Motorola Xoom

The Xoom runs the Android operating system from Google. In what I think is a very sensible bundling, their Wifi only version of this thing does include a real GPS, and for a price around $550. (Xoom prices came down below $400 in late 2011, probably because of the anticipated release of the Xoom-2 in early 2012).

The screen is both a bragging point and a source of complaints. The good news is that it is made out of what they call "gorilla-glass" which is reportedly scratch proof (people with gorilla glass iPhones carry them in their pockets with their keys for over a year with no scratches). The bad news is that the display itself it not the hottest thing going (though it seems absolutely fine to me, even off axis). Battery life is reported to be good (on the order of 10 hours). It comes out of sleep in less than a second and can run in sleep for over a week without totally draining the battery. Booting it from power off takes something like 40 seconds. It has 32G of flash built in and a micro SD slot to insert up to 32G more. The Xoom also has a USB port. It is possible to get the cellular Xoom at a reduced price if you also sign a 2 year Verizon contract, but you won't get a hardware GPS receiver.

I bought a Xoom in mid December of 2011, and have a lot of notes on my Xoom at this link.

The Xoom has been replaced by the Xoom 2, which changed very little, and the most significant change is for the worse, the omission of the SD card slot. It is still a 1280x800 screen, and the only real change is that the CPU runs at 1.2 rather than 1.0 Ghz, which makes little difference. No SD card slot means that I look elsewhere at either Asus or Samsung tablets. Motorola has a stupid attitude, much like google does, about the SD slot becoming obsolete. And Motorola is now owned by Google, hmmmm.

The LG VK810 "G Pad"

A friend gave me one of these that had gotten screwed up and they sent back to someplace (Verizon perhaps) and were told it was "out of warranty". So it was given to me, sans SIM card. The battery was dead and it would not charge. I did as recommended by one fellow (who was shown the trick by a Verizon rep with a clue). Namely, with the device disconnected from charger, hold the power button down for 20 seconds. I believe it tried to start perhaps 3 times then gave up. Then I connected it to my charger (via micro USB) and it charged up just fine.
Press and hold the power button for 20 seconds while it is off the charger (this is the equivalent of a battery pull). Then plug it into a charger and press the power button to turn it on. If it doesn't turn on leave it on the charger for 15 minutes before trying to turn it on again. It seems too easy to be true but .........
The problem seems to happen if the battery is completely drained.

The Google Nexus 10

Google markets a number of android tablets and phones, with the number (in this case the "10") indicating the screen size. The unique feature of the Nexus 10 is the 2560 by 1600 screen resolution (and the 2G of ram). Where they totally drop the ball is the omission of an SD card slot. If they are going to drop the slot (and they have a real attitude about it), they should at least offer a version with 64G of internal storage. Close, but no cigar.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab

This is available in 7, 8.9 and 10.1 inch versions. It can also be purchased WiFi only or cell capable, and if you buy one from your cell provider with a 2 year contract, you will probably get a reduced price. Lots of options and I need to do more homework.


Here the whole business of tablets takes some odd turns. E-readers are tablets dedicated to the special purpose of reading books. The original E-reader is the Kindle from Amazon, and it was thin and light and had a paper-white E-ink display that works well in bright light, but is front illuminated (does not work in the dark). Barnes and Noble came out with a competitor they called the Nook, also with E-ink.

The game changed a lot with the introduction of the Nook Color and Nook Tablet which have backlit LCD screens. These have a much shorter battery life, they go for about 8 hours (as compared to 60 hours for a black and white reader). They are about twice as heavy as a black and white device, and thicker. They are backlit (you can use them in the dark), and of course they are color, which appeals to a new market.

The prices of E-readers (especially the color versions, which are really a whole new beast) are the big deal. These are pretty much $200 devices. They are sold at cost (or even at a loss) because the sellers expect to make their money on the books or services you buy in order to use them.

The color E-readers can be used to view movies (via NetFlix or Hulu or some such service). This just makes me itch (not in a good way either). I find it ironic that a device originally sold to the intelligent and discriminating book reader is now becoming a device providing entertainment to the less than literate. Perhaps a picture of the decay of society and civilization as we know it.

Note that both the Kindle and the Nook are android under the hood; deep under the hood. Both have ARM processors of some ilk. Not very many people who use these devices know or care.

If you buy a Kindle or Nook, you need to look as closely at the service structure as at the hardware. How much will it cost to buy books? What about books from your local libraries? This really is the thing that should most drive your decision. I have found all my dealings with Amazon to be very good, so far.

I will also note that android hackers (humans skilled with computers, not criminals) have worked up versions of the android OS that can be loaded onto a Nook Color or Kindle Fire. So you could buy the bargain priced Nook, load the generic Android release on it, get all the android apps you might want (including a Kindle or Nook app if you like) and have a full up android tablet. I am told Barnes and Noble doesn't loose sleep over this. They must feel the loss they might take on this is not worth the ugly Apple-like reputation they might earn by making this impossible for the few that would do such a thing. As of December, 2011 the Kindle Fire has not been out long enough for Amazon to show how they feel about this (which is already well under way).

Amazon Kindle

There are now many models of the Kindle, the big choice - as with the Nook - is whether you want the paper white display or the backlit color LCD via the Kindle Fire. The color display has pros and cons. It uses more power and greatly reduces battery life. The display is difficult to read in bright light. On the other hand, you can use a backlit display in the dark. My impression is that small fonts are readable on the paper white E-ink that would not be (for me) on the LCD -- and I think the E-ink would be easier on the eyes for long periods, so if you only want a book reader and don't want to use it in the dark, save money and get the black and white version.

Another odd choice is whether you want to pay an extra fee ($30) to not get ads on your Kindle. Now in my case, I wouldn't mind ads from Amazon, but if they start selling ad space to Budweiser and the like I would be unhappy. They have a new arrangement where you can pay the price difference at a later time and get the ads disabled. I think this is a great idea, as long as they keep the option available.

Another variable is whether you want WiFi only, or a version that has both WiFi and cellular networking (3G/4G). The curious thing about the cellular networking is that Amazon is paying the bill. This was an amazing bargain up until they wised up and limited their browser so that it will only access Amazon and Wikipedia via cellular.

The whole idea of viewing movies on a Kindle makes me itch, but maybe that is what the rest of the world is clamoring for. Maybe it is a microcosm of the state of the world; we start out with a device we can use to read literature, and end up with a device that serves trash entertainment to the illiterate.


Note that the Kindle is android based, just like the Nook. And only 2 months after the debut of the Fire, Android developers have already gotten the latest Android 4.0 to run on the Fire.

Barnes and Noble Nook

One highly touted sales point of the Nook, is your ability to visit a local Barnes and Noble store to get support and resolve problems. For one datapoint on how this might work out, you should read my description of the jerk salesman from Barnes and Noble incident.

At this time none of the Nook devices have any cellular network support.

None of the Nooks have cellular wireless support (3G/4G).

Another option you have is the following:

If you take the very simple steps to install Cyanogenmod 7 in your nook, then you'll get a full blown killer low cost Android tablet. Then you install the Nook for Android app and you're done. You'll lose some small things like "enhaced books" and children books, aside of that, I think Nook for Android is a bit better than the Nook Color app.
So there is a thought. Even though Barnes and Noble have subsidized the cost of the Nook expecting you to spend money on E-books, you can hack the tablet and install a full blown android OS on it (the Nook is android based), apparently with their blessing.
Feedback? Questions? Drop me a line!

Gtopo /