Sunday, July 27, 2014
Surveying the Surfeit of Cheap Tablets
[This article originally ran on DCBarroco.com in anticipation of Black Friday but has been updated for the Summer of 2014. While the prices may have passed, the advise for analyzing features is golden]
As Black Friday and Cyber Monday approaches, many merchants are highlighting inexpensive tablet computers as doorbusters or loss leaders to gin up overall Christmas holiday sales. But before making impulse electronics purchases, it is wise to consider how you would use a tablet in mobile computing.
It used to be that tablets were the ideal media consumption device. Tablets with 7" to 10" screens allow an individual to have an almost immersive view of videos. Applications (a.k.a. apps) generally provided shortcuts which facilitated internet interactions. Some tablets like the Nook and the Kindle were more e-ink reading devices which could have proto-tablet functions (checking e-mail, Wikipedia, and text based websites). But Amazon’s Kindle Fire sought to be a loss leader which was a shopping portal doubling as an entertainment device. Samsung’s strong showing with its Galaxy Tablets as well as the “phablet” Note series sought to tie tablets to cellular carriers.
Discern what are your mobile computing needs. If you want a communications device with a larger screen (and you don’t mind carrying a 5.5" device in a pocket or a purse), then a “phablet” like the Samsung Note may be the best choice for you. Many retailers will be offering enticing prices for such hybrid phone/tablets, but be prepared to be locked into a cellular carrier for a year or two. If you want to keep having the latest and greatest devices, look into the early upgrade programs from major cellular carriers.
Tablets sales used to be driven by Apple’s i-Pad, which came out in 2010. The i-Pad still wins 29.6% of the tablet market while asking for a premium price that is rarely discounted. While this writer is not purposely not part of the Apple cult, if one feels compelled to buy an Apple for its reputation of ease of use, enticing design or to keep up with the Jones’, then buy an i-Pad and sleep in on Black Friday.
As an electronics consumer, I like to get the most bang for my buck with tables and not be limited by a vertical monopoly manufacturer. Currently I own a couple of Amazon Kindles and a WebOS HP Touchpad. I love to read on an e-ink device like the Kindle. Unfortunately, my Kindle 2 (with the slow but unrestricted 3G coverage) is losing its charge and computer geeks are reluctant to change out the battery. While the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite provides even better e-ink resolution, the newer model has dropped the headphones option and the text-to-speech feature. For my purposes. the text-to-speech ability is important for times which I want to enjoy books but can not have my eyes on the screen. But text-to-speech is included in the Kindle Fires.
Regarding my HP Touchpad, I knew that it was a dead-end from the moment I acquired it in the HP fire-sale in the August 2011. But WebOs is an elegant operating system and the HP Touchpad had upscale features. Two years later, it is running fine and should be serviceable for the foreseeable future. Alas, there are not many new WebOs applications available. In order to use some hotspots, there are apps that are necessary and I am reluctant to make it a dual booting Android tablet. So between an ailing e-reader and a red headed stepchild tablet, I have my eye out on the surfeit of cheap tablets.
Some have tried to take advantage of the slow demise of the Barnes and Noble Nook by using the SD card as an Android boot. It can work, but realize that the Nooks OS takes up nearly 3/4ths of an 8 GB e-reader. The 16 GB Nook HD tablets (list $150) offer more storage. But there are serious questions to the long term viability of the Nook. So it may only be good for reconfigured use or as a stuck in time tablet.
Having owned several Kindles over the past four years, I am entrenched in Amazon’s e-reader market. The Amazon Kindle Fire HD has achieved around 5% market share, but it should suffice for my own supplemental tablet/ infotainment needs. Although a 16 GB Kindle Fire HD (list now $169) has a 7" screen is markedly smaller than the 9.7" HP Touchpad screen, it is a more manageable size for e-reading functions. Moreover, my mobile computing needs have not been as video oriented. The Kindle Fire HD has Bluetooth, which should allow a wireless keyboard for productivity. The Kindle Fire HD does allow for hotspot connection hence buying a 4G version is costly and unnecessary.
For those interested in getting Black Friday bargains for the Amazon Fire, be aware that the discounts will be for the Fire HD (2nd generation) not the newer Fire HDX.
If one can live without using a tablet as a camera or a phone or having the “Mayday” feature, the HD will have most of the improvements of Kindle Fire OS 3.0 “Mojito “ (a forked version of Android). Many of the cut rate Kindle Fires are 8 GB (which should leave around 6 GB for internal storage along with the cloud).
While most mobile computing people look to tablets as a media consumption device, some industrious individuals want to have a tablet that is a quasi laptop without the bulk or balking at the price of a MacBook Air (list $999). When Microsoft entered the tablet market, it tried to appeal to such customers with the Microsoft Surface RT. The price point of the Microsoft Surface 2 (list $449) rivals that of the i-Pad (list $499), but Microsoft throws in fully functioning version of Office and 200 GB of SkyDrive storage and plenty of cloud storage, features which generally cost extra elsewhere.
The 10.6" touch screen of the Microsoft Surface makes full use of Metro interface, but if one wishes to run old programs, it is necessary to buy a Microsoft Surface Pro (original MSRP at $899 but Surface Pro 3 now lists at $799), which is much pricier. The big tiles on the start screen are customizable and offer updated embedded information. The Surface RT allows multitasking.
The body of the Microsoft Surface RT includes a built in kick stand. The Surface RT has micro SDSX ports allowing users to add memory. The magnetic Touch Cover is ordinarily a $119 add on which both protects the screen and can be used as a keyboard. While the Windows Apps store is not as robust as the Android or i-store, they claim that plenty of apps are free.
If you have Surface appeal, it was possible to find a Surface RT for under $200 during Black Friday sales and for similar prices on Ebay. Invest in the cover as the keyboard cover is key, otherwise it is just an overpriced tablet running an apps limited version of Windows 8.1.
There will be plenty of Black Friday sales on Android tablets. If Android tablets have an appeal, determine which version of OS the hardware has, as earlier versions of Android (prior to 4.0“Jelly Bean”) are not optimized to tablet proportions. Also be aware of how much storage is on the tablet. A $40 tablet that only boasts 4GB will barely hold one movie. That might be good enough for kinderspiel but would quickly be condemned to the land of misfit toys for most other tablet users.
This holiday shopping season it may be easy to acquire a tablet but take the time to choose the right tablet for you. Consumers who are content to pay premium prices for an entertainment consumption device which is touted to work out of the box should opt for an i-Pad. Busy businessmen may want the Microsoft Surface to be able to do Office work while surfing the web on their tablets. Those who want an all in one mobile communications device should consider a “phablet” like the Samsung Galaxy Note. Avid readers who want the functionality of a tablet should lean towards the Amazon Kindle Fire. And there are a variety of inexpensive Android tablets which may motivate impulse shoppers.