iPad versus Android

We’re now looking at nearly 2 years since the launch of the original iPad and though the device retains some of the magic, those of us there at the beginning are no longer in awe of the fantastic design that has made so many millions for Apple and changed the way we work and play.

It now seems fairly natural to be walking around with a slim glass-and-aluminium device that’s more powerful than mainstream PCs of just a few years ago – so the only questions is – WHICH tablet should we be carrying?

I recently got my hands on a 7” Android tablet running “Gingerbread” – or Android 2.3.  Since then we’ve seen “Honeycomb” and finally “Ice Cream Sandwich” but most of the cheaper tablets are running 2.3 or lower.

To be honest I would not waste my time with anything LESS than version 2.3 is it’s fore-runners were never designed for tablet use.

Until now I’ve avoided Android tablets altogether for a number of reasons including the absolutely useless “resistive” displays that many of the cheaper ones employ. These are of the old-fashioned variety you have to press on to get any response and they are deeply unsatisfying to use. One of the iPad’s best features is the utterly responsive “capacitive” display which requires no finger pressure AT ALL to work – and so that for me is the minimum I’m prepared to look at.

The Yuandao N12 Fast Tab is one of dozens of 7” tablets out there that runs Android 2.3 and on the surface of it, it’s a mini-iPad..  the 7” format means it fits comfortably into a big hand and you’d expect that to be a big plus compared to the iPad’s rather larger format. In fact there is little apparent difference in weight.

So, in 2012 how to Android and Apple stack up?

The N12 is CHEAP – I’ve seen it at £100 including VAT in the UK so it’s not in the same league as iPad price-wise or feature-wise.

Let’s look at the pluses and minuses of this particular tablet – which is not untypical of the far-eastern offerings available right now..

Minus

  • Battery life –claimed to be 20 hours standby and 5 hours video – yes, if you are lucky, more like it 4 hours of use. The iPad has never run out on standby in the time I’ve had it and gets around 10 hours of video NO PROBLEM.
  • Microsoft Exchange – The M12 cannot handle any but the simplest of Exchange setups – if the setup won’t work with email and password, there seems to be no way to get into manual setup – this is a MAJOR omission for corporate use.
  • Display – fast and responsive but ultimately at 800*480 pixels it’s an overgrown phone and the pixilation is obvious, even watching movies.
  • WIFI – the WIFI is very insensitive, picking up less signal than many phones and dropping out occasionally.
  • Limited memory – a common Android problem, although the unit has 8GB internally with access to an external memory stick, it seems that even though you can move Apps into this larger space, there is an internal CORE of 512MB RAM (this is a common limit – see specs – APPLE do NOT have such a limit) and even Apps in external memory use up SOME of this 512MB RAM which soon gets eaten up – putting a limit on how many Apps you can install – this is really unacceptable but somehow manages to escape most reviews.
  • Speed – not quite fast enough to make good use of Flash – one of the so-called Apple-killer features, the Flash performance is poor.
  • Finish – the unit has a nice Aluminium finish which unfortunately has sharp edges – after repeated handling while, say, watching a movie, tends to get annoying. This sharp edging appears to be common among the Chinese offerings
  • Reliability – the hardware seems reliable enough but Gingerbread is chocker full of bugs – the language control means that some menu items come up in Chinese no matter what you do and installations can easily be messed up.
  • The Android market has some gaping holes compared to Apple, the latter having an excellent PDF reader (GoodReader) and several other business tools missing from Android market.
  • Front-only camera which is poor quality and not that reliable – only sometimes works with Skype. No back camera.
  • No Bluetooth – yes you heard it  – no Bluetooth (the iPhone 4 and iPad2 reliably handle 2 simultaneous Bluetooth connections – in my car for example the phone is Bluetooth hands-free but also talks to a separate Bluetooth unit to play audio through the car stereo – something the old 3GS could not quite tackle)
  • No sign of upgrades available – website is in Chinese, very little English discussion on the web.
  • Large border area around the screen.
  • 16:9 wide format

Plus

  • The 7” format would fit into a large coat pocket and just feels nice
  • The screen is bright and responsive
  • The Android market has come a long way and although still full of rubbish, there are some hidden gems in there – many of which are free.
  • External memory means no limit to movies you can store on the device.
  • USB means external keyboard is easy to implement (though Bluetooth would be more convenient)

Summary

Based on the above – for me the ideal would be a 7” tablet with little border area i.e. mostly screen, running a later version of Android which properly handled Microsoft Exchange, on a tablet with at least 1024 pixels wide, rounded corners, 6-10 hour battery life, Bluetooth, sensitive WIFI, at least 1Gb internal working RAM, preferably more.

With current improvements to the Android Market, there is definitely a place for these devices. If you look at the likes of the Samsung S2 phone – slim, incredibly light, super display – think of one of those stretched to 7” or so and I reckon there is definitely a place for such a device provided the price is right (i.e. WELL under the cost of an iPad) – as yet it does not seem to exist, the NOTE being the nearest but still too small.

For now, the iPad is still streets ahead of Android…maybe they’ll keep that lead, maybe not. There is something quite nice about the smaller form factor and lower cost of the Android devices – opens up all kinds of possibilities if only the quality bar was raised…