Which tablet should I get?

Guest columnist: Eric Jacobson, Owner of irx, LLC

Don't get mad, get Irked

“Which tablet should I get?” is a question as old as humanity itself. I can imagine cavemen sitting around a fire asking each other which tablet they should get:

“Sure, I’m already familiar with rock tablets and I do have my own hammer and chisel, but those new wood tablets look pretty good.”

“I’ve heard learning to chisel on wood is much trickier than rock, though.”

“But, the wood ones are so lightweight!”

Back to reality.

When people ask me which tablet they should get, I respond with everyone’s favorite approach – answering a question with a question. In this case, two:

  • What do you want to do with it?

  • How do you want it to feel?

Once I have the answer to those two questions, I recommend one of the following three options.

Option 1: Apple iPad (click to visit store)

Models: Air, Mini, Retina in 16GB, 32GB, 64GB and 128GB capacities and LTE/4G or Wi-Fi-only flavors Operating System: Apple iOS What’s it good at: Lightweight, entertainment use, looking good What’s it bad at: Productivity, not a laptop replacement device, can be pricey Price Range: $299-$929

Summary Apple (re)introduced tablet PCs to the world with the introduction of the Apple iPad in 2010. If you were like me, your first reaction was “Who cares? It’s a giant iPhone.” However, once I got my hands on it, I realized that it is a giant iPhone but, also, exactly how useful a giant iPhone can be.

The iPad is great for surfing the web and checking your email while you’re watching TV. It’s also not terrible for reading magazines, watching videos, listening to music and playing a game or two from time to time. In addition, the design feels solid in your hands and is very eye-catching, plus you have Apple’s robust App Store providing you with a variety of fun-to-use (but simple) apps.

Unfortunately, as of version 7, trying to be productive using iOS is a sloppy mess. File management is kept context-sensitive with users only being able to see files specific to the app they’re using i.e. Pages only shows Pages files. It can be tricky to take a project you’re working on – even from an Apple computer – to an iPad, make changes, and get it back to your desktop/laptop all in one piece. Even with the recent introduction of Microsoft Office for iOS, productivity remains the iPad’s biggest weakness.

However, if what you’re looking for is a lightweight device that you can take on vacation or use to surf the web and check your email while you’re watching television, and you don’t mind paying a slight price premium for a truly well-designed product, the iPad might be right for you.

There are an incredible variety of options ranging from the base iPad Mini – which is surprisingly useful despite its small form factor – to the full-sized iPad Air – which is almost surprisingly lightweight and super thin. If you’re not familiar with how they feel or which size is right for you, I recommend you visit an Apple Store, Best Buy or other Apple retailer to get your hands on a demo model before purchasing.

What do I have? I own an Apple iPad Air 16GB Wi-Fi. I actually preferred the new Mini but got such a great Black Friday deal that I returned the Mini and picked up an Air.

Option 2: Microsoft Surface 2 (click to visit store)

Models: Surface, Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 in 32-512GB sizes Operating System: Microsoft Windows 8 RT or Windows 8 Full What’s it good at: Lightweight, Productivity, Well-Designed What’s it bad at: Ease-of-use, Full Windows Functionality is somewhat pricey Price Range: $299-$1,799

Summary Microsoft’s Surface series (Surface 1 RT and Pro first released in 2012) tends to be the underdog of the tablet community. The first Surface was rough around the edges with a built-in stand that only had one setting and no included physical keyboard (though the commercial campaign implied otherwise).The bummer? Microsoft’s Type Keyboard (the one with real keys) will run you about $139.00.

In addition, the Microsoft App Store was underwhelming, to say the least, as developers hadn’t jumped on the Microsoft bandwagon. What the Surface did have was a sound operating system in Windows 8, good file management, and every tablet includes Microsoft Office.

The Surface 2 builds on the design of the original with a very solid body that’s thin and lightweight. The built-in stand includes a second position for easier laptop use. In addition, even the base Surface includes a USB port and video-out supporting USB hubs, mice, keyboards, game controllers and the ability to output video to a real monitor. Also, the Microsoft App Store grew a lot over time becoming more and more robust with offerings that may one day equal Apple’s and Google’s app stores.

The base Surface 2 (and original Surface 1 RT) comes with a watered-down version of Windows 8 which looks, feels and operates just like Windows 8 with one key caveat – it can only use apps specifically designed for it and not all Windows applications. To use any application you’d use with a full desktop (such as Adobe Creative Suite, Apple iTunes, etc.), you’ll need to step up to the Surface 2 Pro version which starts at a sky-high $899.00 (and still doesn’t include a keyboard, but does include a touch pen, for some reason).

If you want a thin, light-weight, solid tablet, but still want to be productive with Microsoft Office, Surface might be for you. Windows 8′s touch interface is not intuitive, meaning you’ll need to download the well-designed Windows 8 training manual to understand how it works, but once you get familiar with its gesture nuances, it’s a solid touch-based operating system with powerful productivity. You even have a Documents folder just like desktop-versions of Windows!

What do I have? I own a Microsoft Surface RT (1st generation). Again, I’m a sucker for a Black Friday deal, and it’s really handy to have a mobile Windows 8 device of this size.

Option 3: ASUS Transformer T100 (click to visit store)

Models: 64GB SSD or 32GB + 500GB in dock Operating System: Microsoft Windows 8 (full version) What’s it good at: Lightweight, Productivity, Full Windows Functionality, Inexpensive What’s it bad at: Ease of use, Design feels cheap (because it had to be) Price Range: $349-379

Summary On its surface (pun intended), the ASUS Transformer T100 is the best value of the bunch - using the latest-generation Intel Atom processor (similar to netbooks from years ago), this tablet does it all – it has full Windows 8 functionality meaning you can install any Windows application plus it includes Microsoft Office Home & Student Edition plus the keyboard.

So, with all of the good (and there’s a lot of good), what’s the bad? Well, without mincing words, the design feels cheap. Although this kind of makes sense since the T100 includes $240 of free software in a package that can be had for as low as $349, the tablet is made of plastic and feels a little like you’re holding the top-half of a notebook computer in your hands. In addition, the widescreen form factor makes the 10.1″ screen feel narrower than you might be anticipating with less screen real estate than an iPad or even a Surface.

That being said, the T100 is a very, very cool solution: the keyboard folds closed with the tablet to create a clamshell device (like a notebook/laptop) or you can remove the keyboard and use the tablet by itself with a virtual on-screen keyboard. Keep in mind, you won’t feel comfortable tossing the T100 on your bed like you might with the iPad or Surface. The T100 feels like a device you need to be gentler with much like a traditional notebook PC.

If you’re looking for a tablet that provides inexpensive productivity and can be a true laptop replacement (no games besides Minecraft on this puppy) and you don’t care about a really solid-feeling design, then you can’t go wrong with T100. In addition, I personally love ASUS as a company; their products (and they make virtually everything from motherboards to full-fledged computers) tend to be solid, reliable and feature-loaded.

What do I have? I’ve purchased several of these devices for clients but do not have one of my own. Full disclosure: the very first T100 I bought had a defective power button, but that seems to have been a one-time fluke as all future orders worked perfectly. For a full notebook solution, nothing replaces a full notebook for me. I run CPU-intensive apps like Adobe Photoshop, InDesign and Lightroom, so I need a full iX processor, the Atom won’t do. That being said, for the majority of users, an Atom processor may be powerful enough.

So, why no Android? Edited May 5, 2014 (edits are italicized)

I don’t like Android.

There. I said it.

Why? My first smartphone was the original Apple iPhone the day after it launched in 2007. I like the fluidity and refinement of Apple’s iOS (yes, even iOS 7+), particularly when it comes to a portable device like a smartphone. To me, the Android operating system feels clunky and unrefined – the animations aren’t as smooth, there are three physical buttons that (sometimes) change depending on the program you’re in so you need to remember what they do, and the apps feel like they’re buried behind screens and screens. Plus, there are hundreds of different Android devices made by tens of different manufacturers which all seem to be running their own little proprietary version of Android that won’t necessarily be compatible with a newer version of the OS when released.

That being said, I must admit that I’m jealous of the regular releases of new hardware on Android. Samsung, HTC, ASUS and other Android device makers create beautiful pieces of hardware in terms of design.

Apple does tend to leapfrog its competitors when a significant non-S phone device is released (i.e. Retina screen on iPhone 4), but this often occurs following Apple falling behind in terms of technological prowess. However, the different Android hardware releases make it difficult to make an easy choice for which is the “best” device to run Android – do you choose an Nvidia Tegra processor or the Qualcomm Snapdragon processor? The ASUS Nexus tablet or one of the many competitors? Sometimes many choices is simply too much choice – when you buy Apple, you know the experience you’re having is the same as everyone else’s.

If I want customization on a desktop or notebook device, I choose Windows. I get all the customization I want plus I get the most-supported operating system (speaking of the full desktop version here) in terms of program availability. When I’m using a desktop or notebook computer, I use Windows because I like being able to customize every little bit of my experience. I don’t use Linux, however, because I appreciate the range of support I receive by using the most used desktop operating system.

If I want ease-of-use for a portable device (like a smartphone or tablet), I go to iOS where Apple’s interface designers spend years making sure everything feels right, and I can quickly access the app I’m looking for without wasting time. When it comes to using a smartphone or tablet, I want it to work quickly and correctly. I don’t want quirks or customization slowing my ability to return a text or answer a phone call.

Add into all of this that Google has made all of its amazing services including Gmail, Google Calendar, Contacts, Google Apps, Chrome and everything else available on all platforms so I can still use my Gmail on my iPhone, iPad and Surface tablets without owning Android, then why would I ever want to switch?

Do you know something I don’t about why I might want Android? Feel free to tell me in the comments. Remember, keep it clean and polite or your comment will never see the light of day. Also, remember that this blog is simply my own opinion. My clients often ask me what I use because I put my hardware through harder paces than most users. My preferences are just that – they’re mine, and I invite you to share yours in the comments. Interested in an excellent Android vs. iOS piece? Check out Lifehacker’s iOS vs. Android: Your Best Arguments article from Sept. 2013.

[insert maniacal "mwa-ha-ha" laughter here]

About Irk: Eric “Irk” Jacobson started using computers when he was 3 years old with an Apple IIe. He tries to be device-agnostic using all kinds of technology from all of the major players, and he loves/hates them equally in different ways. When he’s not working, he’s likely riding his motorcycle(s) or hanging out with his wonderful family.

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