I was a bit disappointed with the iPad 2. Yes, it was a little bit faster, a little bit lighter and it finally had the cameras that it should have had in the first place if Apple had not been such an unpleasant company and deliberately avoided reducing their profits by a dollar or two per device so they could squeeze a few more sales this time around. However, it’s an unequivocally worse design. The curved corners make it harder to hold but, more importanty, mean that whenever you rest it on something you invariably wind up pressing a button you dont want to press (often the volume key, which can be disconcerting) and, to fit it into a marginally smaller space, the quality of the speakers is noticeably lower. And, while the magnetic ‘case’ is innovative, it’s virtually useless under almost all normal use cases, offering minimal protection, falling off with even a light shake and being notably awkward to balance when used as a stand. So, when the first Android came out that really looked like a competitor, I thought I’d give it a try. So here I am now, $500 the worse for wear, typing this on a 16GB Asus eee-Pad Transformer. The combination of price, performance and features makes this the first tablet of any kind that I have come across that potentially offers better value than an iPad – others can do better prices and some have marginally better features, but this is the only one I know of that does both, decisively.
The hardware is great
First impressons are mixed. The aesthetic is a cross between steam punk and 50s kitsch and I’m not sure I love it. It’s certainly not as adorable as the iPad though it is definitely quirkier. With its keyboard detached it feels a little lighter than the iPad 2 and it’s much easier and more comfortable to hold for long periods. With the keyboard attached it is much heavier, but it works and feels like a very good netbook with all the nice benefits of a multi-touch screen and multi-touch mouse. The keyboard is easy to type on and feels like a higher quality mechanism than even the Macbook Air, though it is rather small overall and the space bar and return keys in particular are much too tiny. The main thing the keyboard gives, however, apart from two full-size USB ports and a fullsize SD card slot, is a stonking 16 hours of battery life. I really love that. I like that you get a second micro-sd slot in the tablet part of the machine, I like the two perfectly usable cameras, sensibly centre mounted, and and HDMI output that works at full resolution. I don’t like the proprietary USB connector, but I understand the need for it, given the smart docking needed. I prefer the Apple power supply but the Asus equivalent is not too bad.
Android has some good points
The machine comes with a straightforward and pretty plain Android 3.1 installation, with a few useful apps such as a workable office suite ( Polaris – not at all bad) and a universal book reader that pulls in books from other readers like Kindle and so on – and they supply Angry Birds (ahem). I’ve spent a fair bit of time on the Android Marketplace and have replaced most, though not all of the apps I love most on the iPad. Of those I really miss, I don’t think anyone is likely to improve on Garageband for the foreseeable future and Netflix, though available for some Android devices, is not yet available for this machine, at least not in Canada. There are other quirky apps that use the various Apple goodies to do nice things that are not there yet (the compelling iDough, for instance, or the truly magic MagicPlan, or the brilliant PhotoPuppet), and Apple’s own office apps are very hard to beat but, in general, there are good alternatives and the Google integration (much better docs, maps, Goggles, search and G+) is great. I’m sad to say that Skype’s alleged support for video in Android 2.2 and greater does not extend to 3.x – obviously, now they are being purchased by Microsoft, they have adopted a similarly creative approach to arithmetic.
I really like being able to really choose a web browser (Chrome, Firefox, many others) rather than being stuck with the awful limitations of Safari’s mobile webkit which sits under every browser in iOS. At last I can use a proper rich text editor on the web, and upload files easily and without intermediate steps. Even though the rich-text editing is not quite perfect (very hard indeed to position a cursor on the form, only really works with the detachable keyboard) this alone makes it a viable notebook replacement for travelling. Little touches like a virtual keyboard that doesn’t require three keystrokes just to open an HTML tag mean that I can use plain HTML almost as easily as on a desktop machine so, even when the WYSIWYG editor is not usable, I can still write in web forms. This means I can now do virtually all my routine work on a tablet computer, not just most of it. There are even plausible bibliography managers which I can hook into desktop tools like Mendeley. I like being able to choose email clients too: currently I’m leaning towards K-9, which is a good open-source toolset, but the built-in Android mail client is OK and it would be better than the Apple Mail client were it not for the inability to search IMAP server messages. The widgets that let me show stuff that interests me most are really cool and I like the great control over general look and feel for most aspects of the machine. I like that I can install apps from anywhere I wish but that the Android Marketplace is sufficient for most needs (though I wish it would make it clearer whether an app is only for phones). There is a noticeably much smaller range of apps available and the quality of apps is, on average, much lower than those written for iOS. However, though there are some surprising gaps in the range here and there, there are plenty from which to choose. Some of the interface choices are good, once you are used to them – I slightly miss the single button control of the iPad but the Android navigation buttons are mostly pretty sensible and generally fairly consistent.
I deeply dislike the corollary of the flexibility and choice of the Android approach. Compared with iOS, it feels clunky, awkward, ugly and unreliable. It is a long time since I felt the need for anti-malware tools. On my desktop Macs and Linux machines I do use such things but they are very light weight compared with those I use for Windows. Android makes me nervous again and I’ve installed some malware defences. That’s a small issue compared with the big one: the vast majority of Android apps are inconsistent, poorly integrated, fail to adjust to hardware properly and often fail. They frequently provide options for things that the device cannot provide (for the Transformer, this includes options for buzzer settings and things relating to phones and GPS). I’d judge stability to be around half that of iPad apps, on average. This is certainly true of tools that are duplicated on both platforms such as Pulse, Skype, Zinio and YouTube, and I am fed up with having to respond to unnecessary alerts: it feels a bit like Windoze again. The much vaunted Flash support is a *really* bad idea and is a great advertisment for Apple’s stance that it should be wiped from the face of the Earth. On the rare occasions it actually works for a moment roughly as you might expect it to work, it is slow, unstable, with features that occasionally succeed and often fail. Worse, it doesn’t quite know what to do about multitasking so you can wind up with a Flash movie not-quite playing in the background with no obvious way back to stop it. It is painfully inconsistent, even compared with early iPad apps. A particularly irritating lack of consistency is that some apps understand what it means to rotate the machine, others do not. Some behave differently with a keyboard attached, some do not. This is made all the more unfortunate because the eee-pad uses soft keys for the Android navigation that move (or sometimes do not move) with the screen orientation. Some apps like to provide a settings menu in the right place, others like to move it around. Some allow other buttons to be used when dealing with settings, others do not. There are few parts of the screen on which I have not found the settings menu. At least almost (but not quite) all leave the home and back buttons untouched.
I like the configurability of the machine for most things but sometimes it is tedious (K-9 mail is very flexible and configurable if you have an hour or so to spare in order to make it behave the way you wish) and some are extremely irritatingly unconfigurable: right now I can’t make the VPN work at all with AU’s PPTP servers and there is really nothing to set that would fix the problem: and yes, I have already tried a vast range of tools and utilities that claim to help. It *is* (of course) possible to root the device and thus add pretty much anything to it, including OpenVPN, but I think I’d generally prefer a Linux machine if I were intending to go to that much trouble.
My expectation of an Android tablet, admittedly based on my experience with iOS devices, is that it should be an appliance, not a full-blown computer. And that’s the problem: unlike Apple, Google find it very hard to let go of the computer underneath: they make it part of the way but don’t follow the path to its logical conclusion. I’m an unreconstructed geek and I’m used to file systems and like being able to browse the SD card and see the system logs, but even for me this kind of stuff is a throwback to a less enlightened age and it greatly reduces the usability of the machine. Likewise the ‘friendly’ pop-up messages that tell you what the system is doing, what kind of errors it is experiencing and so on. It takes away from the experience because it emphasises the workings of the underlying machine, not the technologies that it is enabling which are what we really want and need. Why should I have to care about which bit of hardware my file is saved on or how the system has decided to record it? Why should I have to find a peculiarly placed ‘save’ button when I have just done something that clearly was meant to be recorded? Why do I need to know that a device has been added or removed? Just show me the thing, don’t tell me what I know I have just done! The computer is here to help me, I am not here to help the computer.
I’ve really really tried to love this device. I hate Apple as a company and I feel fairly positive towards Google and towards Asus, who have produced every one of my favourite non-Apple machines over the years. I much prefer the relatively open and evolutionary approach to the tightly controlled and design-led approach. I believe in freedom and diversity as essential elements of creative and positive growth. The eee-Pad Transformer is a very well designed and keenly priced bit of hardware that oozes quality and sturdiness even if it does look a bit like one of those stunningly ugly brown plastic Dolce and Gabbana bags beloved by bag counterfeiters. It has all the good things of an iPad, plus wonderful battery life, wonderful flexibility, better sound, better input and better output options. When the next version comes out in a couple of months with 3G and improved hardware, it will be hard to beat as a bit of hardware.
However, I am sad to say that Android is not ready and I fear it never will be as long as it tries to compete head-on with iOS while still trying to battle the likes of RIM and Nokia on home ground. It’s not just a question of evolution and refinement, though it is getting a little better and a little more slick with every point release. No, the problem is at the most fundamental design pattern level. The philosophy behind Android is too heavily oriented to the machine, not the human being. With some effort I could probably make the Android do pretty much anything the iPad can do, but why should I have to struggle when the iPad does it painlessly already? There are probably many really great apps that just work perfectly with the machine but why do I have to struggle to find them when every app, no matter how awful in concept and execution, just works on an iOS machine? And, if I really want some serious flexibility, it makes more sense to use a real operating system like Ubuntu, with a friendly interface on top of it. Android is fairly successfully trying to please everyone by being as many things as it can be, but there’s not much in it to delight anyone. It is much like Windows of yesteryear: it’s the next best thing, an adequate, cheap and flexible alternative to what we really want. It could be more than just the Windows of mobile devices, the cheap family car version of the real thing, the system you use if you have a really good reason not to use an iPhone or iPad. However, it needs a clearer vision and a braver attitude to become something better: the true genius of iOS lies in what Apple were unafraid to take away, not in the features that they provided. Android has dipped a toe in the water but won’t leave the beach behind.