Tablets and laptops and phones, oh my!

May 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about what the “best” mobile device is for students and teachers since the tablet wars started heating up, but I hadn’t really spend enough quality time with all of the available devices to be able to speak intelligently on the subject.

It’s taken some time, but I have finally had a chance to play with all of the major players out there. In no particular order, these are the devices that I’ve used and will be discussing in this post:

And the winner is?

It depends.

No, really. It depends. When people ask me what device they should buy, the very first thing I ask them is, “what are you going to use it for?” It’s the same thing I tell people when they ask about what type of computer they should buy. If all you’re going to do is surf the web, then you don’t need the most expensive or fastest laptop. If you’re going to do video editing and graphics production, then we can talk about specs and screen resolution and color reproduction, but if all you’re going to do is check mail and look at Facebook, any old device will do.

And so, here are my notes on each of these devices and what they do well.

  • Apple iPad (2nd gen), Apple iPod touch (2nd/3rd gen) – I’m combining these two because they run most of the same software. I’ll point out the differences in the camera and web browsing experience in those sections.
    • System software – iOS is pretty polished, but not very customizable. You can change your background and lock screen, and that’s about it. But if you’re looking at classroom use, it’s also pretty hard to screw up, so from a teacher perspective, it’s nice because everyone’s device will look pretty much the same.
    • Installable Software – App based, and there are a TON of apps for it. Because it was the first tablet of its kind, it gets the most attention. Do a search for “education ipad apps” and see how many more hits you get than if you search for “education android apps.” Does that mean the iPad apps are better? Not necessarily. But developers tend to develop for iOS first. There is also a larger percentage of iOS apps that are NOT free, but there are hundreds of sites out there that will track when apps go on sale or become free for a day.
    • Camera – the cameras on iOS devices get better as the generations progress. The first generation iPad and 1st/2nd gen iPod touches didn’t have a camera (sorry, early adopters). The second gen iPad has an HD camera on the back, but the front one is pretty poor quality, and it’s noticeable on video calls with Skype or Google+.  The rear camera  on an iPad is awkward to shoot photos and videos with, but it doesn’t stop people from trying. The cameras on iPod touches are as easy to shoot photos and video with as any phone or small camera, and are the perfect size for student hands. If you’re going to have students doing photo and video products, these are great devices to get. They cost the same as a similar quality point and shoot camera but come with the ability to run apps and browse the web.
    • Web – you’ve already heard it – iOS doesn’t do flash. This has probably lead to the downfall of many flash-based sites, and has lead to an uptick in HTML5 based sites. The web experience on an iPad is somewhere between mobile and full, but not quite as good as you’d get on a Windows or Mac laptop/desktop. The experience on an iPod touch is pure mobile. If you’re going to be doing a lot of web browsing, you probably don’t want these devices. Also, if your school or district has sites that have to be run in Internet Explorer (don’t get me started), you won’t be able to access those on an iOS device.
    • Overall experience – the flash and the glitz and the glam of Apple devices is nice, but my biggest question is always, “Is it worth the cost?” When people as “should I buy an iPad,” my answer is almost always, “I like mine, but I wouldn’t shell out $500 of my own money for it.” With more and more developers starting to cross over and develop the same apps for Android that they do for iOS, I think Apple is going to have to innovate more in order to justify their cost. Android continues to beat Apple in specs on devices and features in those devices at a much lower cost.
  • Kindle Fire
    • System software – a heavily modified version of Android. This makes it virtually impossible to customize without “rooting” the device. The good new, like with iOS, is that it will be a very consistent experience for students.
    • Installable Software – Android apps, but only from the Amazon App Store*. This is a curated app store, so you can’t install google apps like Google Drive, or Gmail (if your district uses those things). The * is because you CAN sideload apps, but it’s not easy to do. You have to dig around in the system settings to allow apps to be side loaded, and you have to download the APK beforehand, meaning you can’t just pick it out of the store and have it install automatically. One upside to the Amazon app store is that they do offer a different app for free every day. You can also load the Amazon app store on any Android device, so you can get those free apps anywhere.
    • Camera – The original and second generation Kindle Fires don’t have a camera. The Kindle Fire HD (both 7″ and 8.9″) have a front facing camera.
    • Web – Amazon’s silk browser is supposed to be faster than traditional mobile web browsing, and offers a more full browsing experience than iOS devices, albeit on a smaller screen (except the 8.9″ Kindle Fire HD). I found that on the 7″ devices, full versions of web sites were difficult to read without zooming in. This goes for all 7″ devices.
    • Overall experience – the Kindle Fire is as locked down as an Android device can get. It’s almost as locked down as an iOS device, but with fewer available apps. It’s great as a pure consumption device. You won’t be creating any videos or photo collages on a Kindle Fire, but you will be able to surf and check email. At it’s price point though (under $200), maybe that’s worth it.
  • Kindle Fire (as a Nexus 7 – rooted and with stock Jellybean installed), Galaxy Nexus
    • System software – Android. Highly customizable. The Google Play store has hundreds of downloadable widgets, home screen launcher replacements, etc. The good news is that students and teachers can create home screens that suit their needs. The bad news is that every device can look different, making it difficult to troubleshoot problems.
    • Installable Software – The Google Play store has almost as many apps as the iTunes app store, and will probably beat iTunes to one million available apps. Apple enthusiasts will talk about quality, as Google does not have as strict of quality controls as the iTunes app store, and several apps in the Play store have recently been removed due to malware. However, Google has a higher percentage of free apps compared to iTunes.
    • Camera – The rooted kindle fire doesn’t have a camera, but the camera on my Galaxy Nexus is good enough to be my day to day camera. Most of the time, I’m finding I leave my DSLR at home unless I need to compose really great shots or do telephoto shots. As with iPads, shooting on any device larger than a phone is going to be awkward, but the cameras on the latest high end phones are as good or better than many point and shoot cameras, and almost all can shoot HD video as well.
    • Web – This is comparable to the iOS devices as well. Mobile only experience on the smaller devices, fuller experience on the larger, but still hard to read without zooming. Android devices historically supported flash, but Adobe dropped flash support on mobile devices last year.
    • Overall experience – I’m a pure android guy so I’m going to be a bit biased, but I think for the money, I’d buy an Android based device over an iOS device any day of the week. You have a much more open experience in being able to customize your device to fit your needs, and you’re not going to spend as much money as you would with an Apple device, either for the device itself or after you’ve bought it, because of the number of Android apps that are free.
  • Google Chromebook
    • System software – Chrome OS, which is basically a Chrome web browser. Everything happens in the browser.
    • Installable Software – pretty much any Chrome extension. These aren’t “installable” in the traditional sense of software or apps as we know them, but they do show up in your menu as installed to Chrome. The nice thing is that no matter where the web apps are installed, they’ll show up if you’re logged in to Chrome. I had adblock plus installed on my Windows laptop’s Chrome browser, and the first time I logged in to a Chromebook, adblock plus automatically installed.
    • Camera – A front facing camera suitable for video chat, but not much else. If you thought taking photos with a 10″ tablet was awkward, try taking photos with a laptop’s camera
    • Web – The only drawback to the web browsing experience on Chromebooks thus far is no java support. While this isn’t a big deal for most sites, it IS a major drawback if you’re thinking about using these devices for online testing (at least in Texas), as Pearson’s TestNav site requires java. Other than that, you have a full web browsing experience. On the Samsung and Acer Chromebooks, the screens are a little small for my 40 year old eyes, but ctrl+ works just fine to increase the font on those web sites I have trouble reading. The 12″ screens on the Intel based Samsung Chromebooks were just the right size.
    • Overall experience – I use my Chromebook as my daily computer when I’m away from the office. It’s lightweight in two ways – in physical weight, it’s not much heavier than most tablets. As a computer, the Chrome OS is very lightweight. When you log in, you’re in. No waiting for other programs to start or policies to load. If you can type fast, you can boot the device and be on the web in less than 15 seconds. While it doesn’t have a touchscreen (yet…the Chromebook Pixel does, so maybe this is a new direction for Chrome devices?), it does have an attached keyboard. Maybe that will be a relic in the coming years as students who have come up typing on virtual keyboards grow up and enter the workforce, but for me, an actual keyboard is still important. My Chromebook is my go-to device. I usually leave the iPad sitting on my desk. And, by the way, you can buy 2 Chromebooks for the cost of 1 iPad.
  • Dell XPS convertible laptop (Windows 8 touch-screen ultrabook), Dell Latitude 10 (Atom-based Windows 8 tablet)
    • System software – Windows 8.  If you know Windows, you know what it can do. Throw the new tile-based UI over it and you’ve got Windows 8. The UI can take some getting used to, but overall, it’s a solid experience.
    • Installable Software – As long as you get a full Windows 8 tablet (not RT), you can install any software that you could install on legacy systems. That’s to say, pretty much anything.
    • Camera – For the life of me, I couldn’t get the camera on the Latitude to take a photo. Maybe I’m just not getting the UI, but all I could do was shoot video, and the quality wasn’t fantastic. I hope these get better cameras and that the software gets better, but as with the other devices, how silly are you going to look shooting video or photos with a big old 10 – 12″ device?
    • Web – Full web experience. In fact, this is the only mobile device that truly offers a full web browsing experience. The drawback here is, again, the size. For kids, it will be fine, but my eyes are starting to go, and I had a really hard time reading without zooming.
    • Overall experience – I love the idea of a full windows machine in the tablet form factor, but I just don’t think it’s there yet. When it’s in tablet mode (that is, you’re using the start menu and related apps as they’re intended) it works really well in that form, but drop to the desktop and try to do anything, and the screen size really becomes an issue. I also loved the flip-screen on the XPS 12, but those extra two inches and the full keyboard and everything else that’s attached just made it too bulky as a tablet. Using a Windows 8 machine in desktop mode (as most of us are used to from previous versions of Windows), you almost have to have a mouse available. The legacy Windows UI is just not designed for touch, and on these devices at the screen resolution they’re set at, it’s just too tiny to even try to work with unless you have a mouse. On the flip side, the touch UI in Windows 8 just doesn’t feel polished. There are back buttons everywhere (like in the store) that don’t work, and the UI overall is just not intuitive (another post about that is coming). I use Windows 8 on a desktop machine and it works great, but if Microsoft is going to make it work in a tablet, they still have a long way to go.

One caveat to the mobile web browsing is that Google’s Chrome browser is available on all platforms now, which allows you to sync you bookmarks and other information across devices. It will even sync the latest tabs you had open, so you don’t have to “send to…” anymore. Open a link on your desktop, then go to your phone and open “Other devices” in Chrome, and your link should be there. Of course, this requires that you are logged in to Chrome with your Google account on all of your devices.

Like I said in the beginning, it all depends on what you want to use your device for. That will determine what you should get. For me, the Chromebook is exactly what I need for the work I do. However, in the evening, I like to switch to the iPad to do some reading in Flipboard or the Kindle app. If I was buying for myself, though, I’d buy a 8-9 inch Android tablet to do those things, since you can pick one up for around $200, and run those same apps.  At the end of the day, there are things that each of these devices do really well, and other things they don’t do so well. You have to decide for yourself which of those things are important and pick your device accordingly.

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