Tablets seem to be the new ‘must have’ device, and a few staff have been asking us for our thoughts on these. While we wouldn’t necessarily recommend a particular device, we do have a couple you can try out, and the thoughts below might be of some help.

What are they good at?

Tablets are great for carrying around. They’re small, and lightweight, and as a general rule, start-up time and battery life are both much better than a laptop. They are great for on-the-go tasks, like checking email and browsing the web. The point to remember though, is that they usually use a mobile (cut-down) version of the operating system, similar to that used in smartphones, which means that they can’t run the same type of software as a laptop or desktop computer. The software usually comes in the form of ‘apps’, which have different functionality to their desktop counterparts.

What are they bad at?

This varies between models. They usually have a mobile (cut-down) web browser installed by default, which can struggle with web pages that are not designed for mobile use. Famously, the iPad won’t play any Flash content in the default web browser (Safari), so watching video content on the web can be tricky unless there is “an app for that” (for example, there are native apps for Youtube and BBC iPlayer). It can also be tricky to transfer files between your desktop computer and your tablet, unless (for the iPad) you are an expert iTunes user, or (for Android) you use other ‘cloud’ applications to store your work online (such as Google docs).

A quick note about browsers: if you have a tablet, you don’t have to use the default browser that is already installed. Other browsers are available to download, although they may not be free.

Common tasks for University staff

We put some of our tablets through their paces to see if they could support some of the common tasks staff carry out using technology. The findings are below. If there are some more key tasks that you would like us to try out for you, please add your suggestions as comments on this post.

Task iPad (Apple) Motorola Xoom (Android)
Syncing work email (Exchange) Works fine, including calendars and contacts. New appointments can be added but can’t be set to private. Email, calendars and contacts all work fine.
Editing documents Has a basic Notes app already installed, that allows you to type text and email it to yourself.
The iWork suite of apps allows you to work with Word, Powerpoint/Keynote and Excel, and document transfer is done via iTunes or cloud storage services.
Google docs can be accessed via the app or the browser, although editing is fiddly.
Doesn’t come with a basic note-taking app, although Freenote is a good one you can download, that also saves handwritten notes.
Documents, spreadsheets etc. can be imported/exported via Google docs, although disappointingly the editing functionality in the browser/app is not much better than in the Apple app.
Using NILE* (Blackboard 9.1) NILE can be accessed through the browser, but editing and adding new items is fiddly as it can only be done with the Visual Editor switched off. Box pages display slightly strangely in the browser. You can add and edit items, and type using the Visual Editor, but it struggles applying settings from pop-up menus (e.g. text colours).
Using Turnitin and GradeMark Originality reports can be viewed, but navigation doesn’t always work properly. Commenting in GradeMark does not work. As with the iPad.
Presenting The iPad 2 supports video output, so as long as you have the right connector, you can plug it in to the VGA lead on a lectern (as you would with a laptop), or the HDMI lead for your HD TV, and demo whatever you like.
The iPad 1 only supports video output from certain apps, like Keynote.
Motorola haven’t as yet produced a VGA connector for the Xoom, although it does have HDMI output via the mini-HDMI socket. Apparently it is possible to adapt this to VGA output – see this forum on the Motorola site for more.
Adding blog posts (WordPress) Works in the browser, but better in the (free) app, even though it does display the HTML version rather than WYSIWYG. Slow and clumsy in the browser – again better in the app.
Reading e-books & journals** Online journals: the Metalib search pages work fine, although the fact that it opens everything in a new window can mean you run out of browser windows quickly (you can only have 9 open at a time). Other useful apps include EBSCOhost, iBase (searches open access repositories, arXiv (e-prints for science subjects) and iScholarReader (Google Scholar app).
Library eBooks: Dawsonera – read online works fine, but it doesn’t seem to want to download for reading later. Safari Tech books online works fine, although watch it for it locking you out as the browser has trouble with session IDs. Netlibrary books also work for online reading, although these will soon be moving to EBSCOhost.
Other eBooks/files: The iBooks app (already installed) allows you to download from the iTunes bookstore, and EPUB/PDF files can be transferred via iTunes. There is also a free Kindle app available.
Online journals: Metalib works fine, and opens new tabs, which is more manageable than the iPad browser. There are also Android apps for arXiv and gScholarReader (Google Scholar).
Library eBooks: Dawsonera books do not display in the browser (blank pages), and the download option doesn’t seem to work either. Safari Tech books load ok, but scrolling is tricky. The Netlibrary reader also displays as a blank page.
Other eBooks/files: The Xoom can read EPUB & PDF files, using an eBook reader app such as Aldiko (files can be transferred via USB). There is also a Kindle app available.
Watching video Major video streaming sites Youtube and Vimeo will play in the browser, however Flash-based video (on sites like the BBC and the University’s Video Library Server) will not.
A number of apps are available for streaming, including BBC iPlayer.
Video files can be transferred and played using the VLC app.
Plays Flash-based video, so BBC video and the University VLS work fine, as do Youtube and Vimeo.
Video files can be transferred directly via USB. As yet there isn’t an official VLC app, but QQPlayer seems to handle most file types ok.
Taking Photos/Video*** The iPad 2 comes with a camera that takes VGA quality stills (0.69MP). There are two options for video, with VGA quality on the front camera, or HD (720p) on the back.
There is an iMovie app but it’s only for the iPad 2, and costs £2.99.
The Xoom has a 5MP still camera, which will take better photos than the iPad, although they don’t always look as clear on the screen.
Also shoots 720p video, and comes with an editing app (Film Studio).

*more information on accessing NILE on mobile devices will be coming soon, watch this space for more details…

**we also have a Kindle available for loan – if all you want to do is read, then this might be more suitable for you (and cheaper). You may also be interested in the Web Tools for Researchers guide.

***If the camera is your thing, have a look at this comparison by PC World, or this one from TechCrunch.

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One Response to Tablet comparison

  1. Julie Usher says:

    You may also be interested in this article from TechRepublic, discussing tablets vs laptops in general:
    Tablets are for people who hate computers
    Thanks to Scott Turner for the link,