Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Android tablet or iPad or wait some more?

The buzz is all around the iPad 2 (for once, mercifully launched by Apple in India in a timely fashion) and now, around the upcoming iPad 3, which is rumored to have a high resolution display, akin to the Retina Display on the iPhone 4. Time after time, reviewers have compared upcoming Android tablets to the iPad and concluded that the iPad is ahead of its rivals in useability, GUI and of course, the sheer number of apps available for the tablet (100,000 and counting). So, do you close your eyes and buy the iPad, or do you look at the very attractive Android alternatives that are coming into the market? Or do you wait?

If you don't really have a need for a second handheld device in addition to your mobile phone, it might be a good idea to wait. For the iPad 3, or for subsequent upgrade of Android from Honeycomb to Ice Cream Sandwich. Or you might figure that a high end smartphone can serve your needs much better. A phone can still offer all the functionality of a tablet and then some more, and in a compact, always-on form factor. A tablet is still only an add-on to that.

I bought the iPad 2 because my Samsung Wave could not keep up with my browsing needs. I looked at a netbook first, but the category has been pretty much stagnating for some time.

If you are keen to get a tablet, be prepared that it is still primarily a content consumption device. Great for browsing, movies, music, even as a part time ebook reader. Easy to power up and start using anywhere, anytime. Nowhere near a PC substitute. And if you plan to do a lot of typing, keep in mind that you might want to invest in a bluetooth keyboard. Those are expensive (Rs. 3500 plus) so factor it into the cost.

The iPad 2 is currently available in India at a price range of approximately Rs.30,00 to Rs.40,000 for the wi-fi only model and Rs.37,000-48,000 for the 3G+wi-fi model, depending on the storage capacity. Until recently, iPad 1 was still available at a reduced price range starting from Rs.25,000, but I was told that this is only till stock lasts. In any case, when you are spending so much money, I would not recommend the iPad 1 in a category where specs are growing leaps and bounds. And the iPad 3 is due before the end of the year. So if it's an iPad you're eyeing, wait. It's a content consumption device, so it is worth waiting for a better screen. And it will most probably be at the same price as the iPad 2.

From my own experience of the iPad, I would say buy it if;
1) You don't like to mess with your devices and just want a simple, no-fuss, consistent and reliable user interface and experience.
2) You are mainly looking at browsing, reading, social networking, email and any other form of content consumption
3) You are excited by the prospect of using multiple apps. Especially for a gaming experience, the iPad is unparalleled. I have played Angry Birds on an iPhone, an Android phone and in my web browser, but the iPad just takes it to another level. It's a fantastic casual gaming device and the selection of free and paid games is amazing.

Now let's look at Android tablets. The pick of the market currently is the Acer Iconia A500 (Approximately Rs. 26,000 for 16 GB and Rs.31,000 for 32 GB - prices from Ebay India). Both models are wi-fi only.

(Image from CNet)

And the other option is the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. It was expected to launch in India in June according to
pluggdIn, but does not seem to have hit the market yet. Expected pricing for the 10.1 inch version is Rs.35,000 and above (16GB/32GB/64 GB)  and all models are 3G+Wi-Fi enabled.


Both tablets have good reviews and similar hardware specs and their downsides trade-off against each other. The Acer Iconia A500 is heavier than the Tab but it has great inbuilt speakers. Also it has great connectivity - a USB host drive, Micro SD Card slot, mini HDMI out -  and therefore allows added functionality to view content. It is also very competitively priced against the iPad. The Samsung Galaxy Tab has a good display and the distinction of being thinner and lighter than even the iPad 2. In terms of hardware, both have pretty similar specs. Unless you need the 3G connectivity, the Iconia seems to have an edge between the two.

Now, irrespective of which Android tablet you are considering, the hardware is not the limiting factor. In fact, hardware specs are ahead of the iPad 2 on paper. It is the limitations of Honeycomb as a tablet operating system that makes reviewers time and again rate the iPad as superior to any Android offering. These limitations will obviously be overcome in subsequent updates from Google. But meanwhile, I believe that you should buy an Android tablet if;

1) You are ready to be adventurous. If the occassional bug or crash does not unnerve or irritate you. If you are ready to root your device. In fact, rooting is what I would recommend for an Android tablet today. It adds flexibility to the usage which offsets the limitations of Honeycomb. And rooting a tablet is (at least for me) a relatively peaceful proposition compared to rooting your phone. I would be nervous of bricking my phone, but a tablet is a toy and its meant to be played with. Rooting will uncover the full potential of the hardware which the current OS is not yet tapping into. I do not recommend jailbreaking iOS devices as it takes away the selling point - the user experience. But with Android devices, rooting enhances the functionality and flexibility of use. My friend Sanjay who is a real techie unlike me, has reported positive results from rooting both the Iconia and his Dell Streak.

2) If your usage is more oriented towards consumption of media (movies, YouTube etc.) rather than other content. Full HD out to your TV is a cool proposition! Being able to browse Flash content without disruptions  is another strike for Honeycomb.

3)If your usage behaviour is more oriented to browsing and less app centric. Do not look to Honeycomb yet for apps - tablet optimised apps in the Android market place are still few in number. And while all Android apps will run on Honeycomb tablets, they may not run optimally. This PC World article explains the app problem in depth.

I guess this analysis answers why the iPad continues to be the top selling tablet. Most users (and in this case, I count myself) use them as passive devices and are not really prepared to experiment. But for the select and adventurous few who are ready to experiment in order to harness bleeding-edge hardware, Android tablets maybe the answer.