Toying with my tablets

September 2012

Don't tell my boss at iPhone Life magazine, but I used my unspent Christmas bonus to buy the new Google Nexus 7 tablet. Yes, I'm consorting with the enemy. Don't get me wrong, I still love my iPad. But you know how it is: sometimes a guy just wants to experience another platform to see what it's like.

And this guy likes his Nexus 7. With a 7-inch screen, it's about half the size of my iPad. And about half the weight. It's designed so that you hold it in your left hand and caress it (er, touch it) with your right. It fits nicely in your left hand, almost phone-like. It seems to be designed to be used mainly in portrait mode, but most apps also work in landscape mode.

And really, that's it, in a nutshell. It's simply more portable, small enough to fit in a coat pocket or purse, and in some ways easier to handle than an iPad. And the price is low: $199 for the 8GB model and $249 for the 16GB. (By way of comparison, a new iPad 2, which has a 9.7-inch screen, starts at $399 for 16GB. And the latest-generation iPad starts at $499.)

The Nexus 7 is attractive, with a sharp display and vinyl back, and runs the latest flavor of Android, called Jelly Bean. You can download apps, movies, music, books, magazines, etc., in the Google Play store, though the selection is currently somewhat limited. The voice recognition is, in some ways, even better than the iPhone's Siri.

The Nexus clearly exceeds the other $200-level offerings out there, such as the Kindle Fire, in that it includes GPS, a front-facing camera for videoconferencing, and both WiFi and Bluetooth wireless.

Jelly Bean also has a bunch of widgets available that let you customize the home screen. My iPad limits me to simple icons. But on my Nexus, I can place a dynamic YouTube widget on my home screen that's four times larger than the usual icon. By "dynamic" I mean that it rotates a series of horizontal video screens, showing you still images from the current popular videos on YouTube. Tapping the widget takes me to YouTube and the video starts playing.

Or for my WeatherChannel app, I can select a widget that automatically shows the current conditions in an icon on the home screen. Again, tapping the widget brings up the full app. It makes the interface more flexible and fun than on my iPad. (But Android is also a bit more confusing in small ways.)

Available since mid-July, the Nexus appears to have had strong sales, with a number of stores selling out. But make no mistake, the iPad is still the king, with all other tablets together constituting a fraction of iPad sales. Apple sold 17 million in the June quarter, compared to, for example, an estimated 4.7 million Kindle Fires sold in the December quarter last year (with sales falling off steeply in 2012).

In general, tablet sales continue to explode, while PC sales are declining. You'll likely be getting one, if you don't already have one. Everyone loves the portability and simplicity. Tablets perform many functions well, such as email, browsing the Internet, reading books, watching videos, listening to music.

And more tablets are coming. Microsoft will be coming out with two 10.6-inch models, called the Surface. One will be tablet-like in that it runs a simplified operating system. The cost will likely be around $600. But the other one, anticipated to be in the $1,000 range, will run the full version of Windows 8.

As I write this, Amazon is expected to improve on its Kindle Fire offering with a more full-featured tablet with a 10-inch screen. And Apple itself is rumored to be coming out with an "iPad mini," with some rumors saying it will be announced this month. It's expected to have a 7.85-inch screen, making it about two-thirds the size of an iPad and to cost $250–300. And Samsung keeps developing its Galaxy tablets, though they haven't really caught on.

So which one should you buy? The iPad is still the best value, and has many more features than the low-end models. My Nexus, for example, doesn't have a camera for taking photos and videos. And I like my iPad's ability to connect to the cell phone data network.

So if you have the money, go for an iPad, but wait until the rumored mini is announced before deciding. I think the Nexus 7 is the runner up, and a good choice.

Or heck, buy all of 'em.

This month's hot tips:

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© 2012 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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