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Know Thy Enemy – Less Hypocritical Thoughts on the Android Tablet

by on June 28th, 2011

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As a member of the iPad community, I’ve often been very critical of competitive tablet platforms, perhaps hypocritically. Afterall, I haven’t owned an Android tablet and really had no reason to; I loved the iPad. More recently, though, the Asus Transformer caught my eye and I decided to pick one up to play-test with it, and I was completely shocked. To fully jump the shark, here’s my entire review in one sentence.

The best Android tablet is a netbook.

Wait.

What?

Yes. You heard me.

If you haven’t heard of or seen the Transformer, I don’t blame you. It’s completely under-marketed, and stocks are in short supply across the country. (I picked one up at my local Canada Computers in an undiscounted open-box. It’s not even available at Future Shop, Best Buy or any of the big-box retailers.) However, according to Gizmodo, Engadget and a number of other high profile tech blogs, it’s purported as the best Android tablet on the market right now. Retailing at $399 for the 16GB model (a bargain!), it’s a standard 10″ tablet in the 16:9 aspect ratio, much like the Acer Iconia with a major difference. It comes with a detachable keyboard dock (for an extra $149) that transforms (no pun intended) the tablet into a clamshell laptop with extra USB ports and even an SD card slot. Sounds good so far, right? But how does it stack up to the iPad?

The Honeycomb Just Isn’t That Sweet

The Transformer ships natively with Android 3.0 (aka Honeycomb) and automatically updates itself to 3.1. Having used my fair share of Android phones before, I have to admit that Honeycomb is a big step up from previous iterations of the device while maintaining the same look-and-feel and functionality. In fact, most iPad users wouldn’t have an issue jumping from one platform to the other. However, Honeycomb still packs very much the same issue that are inherent in all Android devices – that it just gives too much control and too many options to the user. What I love about iOS devices is that it’s usable out of box (save the abhorrent tethered activation process with a desktop/laptop). I don’t want to setup my shiny new toy by being forced to go through a full-fledged setup process to make sure my Google account is ported over, nor do I want to root the device just to make it work the way I want it to or so that the speakers work as they should.

As I’ve discusssed before (and I feel vindicated now), the list of tablet optimized apps for Honeycomb devices is still quite meager. I’ll be honest. I’ve spent quite a few hours trying to loadup the Transformer with all the apps that would help me mimic the functionality of the iPad, and I’ve come up short.

Not to completely rain on Honeycomb’s parade, though, there are a number of features that trumps the iPad. Notifications are better (for now), and apps can be automatically updated over the air, not to mention that apps can be purchased and downloaded from the desktop and pushed onto the tablet automagically. For what it’s worth, though, these benefits don’t completetly overshadow the faults with the OS.

Form & Function Revisited

Now I’ve ranted on this point countless times. The standard Android tablet form factor ratio of 16:9 just isn’t natural when you’re holding it, and the Transformer is no different. In landscape mode, the stretched length of the device effectively forces the on-screen keyboard to be stretched by the same ratio as well. The effect is that the virtual keys appear squished and harder to type on. Furthermore, because the width is shrunken down, by a significant factor, the on-screen keyboard takes up a very large portion of the screen, making day-to-day word processing an arduous and an almost impossible task. Let’s not even begin to discuss how the keyboard fares in portrait mode.

Now, the virtual keyboard is only one part of Transformer’s form factor issue. The 16:9 ratio just doesn’t sit well in my hand. In landscape mode, the device was just hard to control. The on-screen controls (reminiscent of the taskbar from Windows), is somewhat hard to access when using the device with one hand. Reading eBooks is uncomfortable compared to the iPad; it just feels unbalanced in my hands in spite of it being lighter than the iPad.

More Than Meets the Eye

Without infringing on any trademarks or copyrights around robots that change form at will, the Transformer really starts to shine when the keyboard dock is attached. To begin with, the keyboard dock solves all the problems with the on-screen keyboard and removes the need to hold the device in-hand. Furthermore, the dock adds a number of hotkeys that makes changing settings (such as caps-lock, brightness, Wifi toggles, and producing screenshots) a breeze. In fact, the keyboard dock brings the device on-par with the iPad in terms of functionality, which goes a long way.

A major flaw with the keyboard, though, is that there’s a tendency for my hands to slip onto the touchpad (yes, there’s a touchpad! And a mouse icon!) and cause my cursor to skip around the screen. However, it seems like the folks at Asus have foreseen this and has a tiny hotkey that would disable to touchpad too. Clever! (Though it probably shouldn’t have come to that.)

Final Thoughts

To be frank, the Transformer is a pretty sleek machine, but I’m not sure I would’ve picked it up if it didn’t come with a keyboard, and at $600, it’s quite steep for simply a netbook. However, an Android netbook just seems right for some reason, especially when you look at the other netbook offerings out there like Windows 7 and Chrome OS. It’s light-weight, apps based, snappy and sits on my lap when I’m on my couch.

Wait. I just described a MacBook Air, didn’t I?

On second thought, at $600, this is a steal.

Have you had a chance to play with any of the Android tablet offerings out there? What do you think? Am I completely off-base?

Always happy to entertain your thoughts – feel free to let me know if you’d like to see more general tablet thoughts in the comments below.

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