When Apple first announced their first ever tablet, the iPad, I wasn’t too interested. Like many people, I laughed it off as a giant iPod Touch with a silly name. A large, expensive touchscreen with no physical keyboard or buttons, running only toy apps designed for an iPod/iPhone, minus the phone capability — sounds pretty useless, right? (Well, we all know how that turned out.) Imagine my surprise when my fiancée’s father had already bought one — with 64GB and 3G, no less — and moreover, he didn’t have a use for it, so they were going to give it to me! I wasn’t sure whether to be excited or tell him he’d wasted his money. After all, I didn’t have any real use for it either, but it would be my first iOS (actually my first Apple) device, and I wanted to see what all the hype was about.
Fast forward 10 months later, and I was starting to find a use for the tablet… in bed. No joke. I kept it on a nightstand unused for weeks at a time (a testament to the great battery life), and only picked it up after an especially tiring day, when I just wanted to lie back and relax. (Why? If I’m awake, I’d be using my real laptop connected to a 23″ monitor at my desk.) I loved the large touch-screen, the light weight, and the long battery life, but it was also frustrating. So much potential, but there was so much that I just couldn’t do.
Dealbreaker #1: No Flash
To be sure, the iPad is an entertainment device, mainly good for three things: reading, gaming, and watching videos. With that in mind, the number one thing that is missing from the iPad is Adobe Flash. Sure, many mainstream video sites like Youtube already have a mobile version to deliver video through HTML5, but that wasn’t enough for my needs. Up until maybe 8 months of ownership, there was no way to watch The Colbert Report on my iPad; today, their iPad-specific site still only shows short clips, while the full site has always streamed full episodes using Flash. To watch these, I would have to sit at my desk or use my laptop on my lap, which I try to avoid since the rear vent gets hot enough to cook an egg. Using a tablet, which stays cool, would have been ideal, but alas, the iPad still doesn’t quite have it.
Eventually most video should move to HTML5 (although apparently true live-streaming video is not available in HTML5), so this argument will become less important. However, there’s also a whole other world of Flash games and animations. When done right, using vector art instead of pixels, Flash can look beautiful and sharp no matter how large you scale it, without any blocky zoom or muddy compression. Think classics like There She Is, End of the World, and Banjo-Threeie. Most games I’m content to play on a computer, but DJManiax, one of my favourite rhythm/music Flash games, has a selectable tablet input mode that is really perfect for a large touchscreen. It was quite disheartening to know that my iPad would never be able to play this great game, but then I saw this video of Android 2.2 supporting Flash 10.1 beta and started to get my hopes up. That was just a phone though, and I’m not sure there were any Flash-compatible tablets at the time. I contented myself to playing the same 15 free levels of Angry Birds over and over…
Dealbreaker #2: No Filesystem; Only iTunes
One thing that I really liked about the iPad was its slick interface for browsing photo albums by flicking your finger. In fact, flicking anything in iOS is pretty satisfying. So naturally, I thought it’d be the perfect way to read full colour comics — instead of clicking on links in the web browser, why not download them into albums so I can flick through the comics while I’m offline? I started by saving a couple of comics (as JPEG images) from Safari, and they were automatically placed into to a saved images album. But wait! All saved pictures go into the same album. How do you create or move pictures into new albums? Turns out you can’t do that from the iPad itself. In fact, you can’t manipulate or organize files in any way. What if I plug it into my computer and transfer the images that way… That’d be faster, right? Nope! For whatever reason, unlike 99% of phones and MP3 players out there, you can’t use the iPad as a USB mass storage device. (You can see the files, but it’s read-only). So instead of doing a simple drag and drop of files to the iPad, you need to install iTunes and have it sync the photos from your computer’s albums. For all its user-friendliness, Apple still makes some simple things needlessly hard. I gave up on that without installing iTunes. It just wasn’t worth the trouble.
Dealbreaker #3: No DivX/Xvid
Eventually I did install iTunes. It was just before a long trans-Pacific flight. I learned that my plane had no personal entertainment device, and I had forgot to bring my DS. All I had was my 5-and-a-half pound Lenovo Thinkpad with a few saved movies and the iPad. It was a 14-hour flight, so I figured I’d transfer some movies to the iPad and put its 9-hour battery life to use. Installed iTunes and… nothing. iTunes only listed 2 video files as compatible with the iPad, and they weren’t the movies I wanted to watch. It turns out ONLY h.264-encoded video can be watched on the iPad (iPad uses hardware-decoding for h.264), whereas my videos were in the more common Xvid format. So you either have to buy some 3rd-party video conversion software (iTunes doesn’t convert it!) or jailbreak the iPad and install some 3rd-party video-player software. What happened to Apple things being easier to use? Suffice to say, this wasn’t something I was going to try the night before an early flight. Instead, out on the plane came the Thinkpad and it did its job admirably; its 5-hour battery was more than enough. The iPad? I never even took it out of my backpack!
The airplane fiasco was the final straw. That and hearing rumours of an iPad 3 coming out in March. I was determined to sell the iPad before it became even more obsolete. The fact that my fiancée recently got her own iPad 2 also made mine redundant, and the decision easier. But I had already imagined all the great things you could do with a more capable touchscreen tablet. So after a lot of research, I sold the iPad and bought an Android tablet instead.
Robots in Disguise
Three months later and I can say I’m very happy with my choice – an ASUS Eee Pad Transformer 16GB TF101 running Android 3.2.1 Honeycomb. I mainly chose it because of its low price ($249 on Black Friday, though I paid more than that), similar specs, and the OS. The ability to add a dock was nice to have, but I opted for the tablet only. Its smaller 16GB storage is compensated for by the microSD slot, and I don’t miss the lack of 3G. The size, weight and thickness are all nearly identical to the iPad 1. It has a brilliant IPS display just like the iPad, only with a widescreen aspect (which I love for watching movies) and higher resolution (1280×800 vs 1024×768) that actually makes text much sharper and nicer to read on. The same games that I liked on the iOS device (Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja) are all there on the Android as well, only the full versions are free! 😯
But the best part is it does all the things I wanted it to do from the start. Since it supports Flash Player 11, the first thing I did was load up DJManiax. This game is not listed in the Kongregate Arcade app, which means it isn’t optimized for mobile, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The framerate was a little low in complex sections, but damn, it worked, and it was really fun. A few tweaks to the quality and entering full screen helped a lot. The second thing I did was check out Colbert Nation. Full episodes, BAM. 😀 The third thing i did was plug it into my computer. Sure enough, it appeared as a drive in Windows and I was copying my Xvid-encoded TV episodes in seconds. The Transformer wasn’t able to play the files at first, but that was easily rectified with a quick search in the Marketplace to install MX Video Player, the highest-rated video player app available. Turns out that this is a really good video player, easily better than the default Android player. :-O It has a lot of convenient shortcuts like slide your finger anywhere at anytime horizontally to seek, vertically anywhere on the left half to adjust brightness, and vertically anywhere on the right half to adjust volume. Dare I say, it’s even better than the iPad’s interface.
Of course, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t any tradeoffs. The Android Facebook app crashes occasionally and doesn’t integrate video properly (bah). Some websites will lag or crash with Flash enabled (I have plugins set to on-demand). Web browsing on the Android feels less smooth than in iOS. Webpage rendering is definitely fastest on the iPad 2; once rendered, scrolling the page around is like gliding a buttered-up sheet of soap. It feels like Apple did a much better job of using the GPU for hardware acceleration, but that’s just a guess. Not to say the ASUS tablet is bad, but on some complex websites, there is a slight half-second delay before the page starts scrolling, which makes it feel jerky, but once you get it started, the scrolling is smooth enough. Also on more complex websites (example: TSN), it seems that portions of the page that are offscreen need to be frequently re-rendered when you scroll them back into view. I’d wager this points to inefficiencies in the browser rendering code, and hopefully a software update can improve it. I don’t have the iPad 1 to compare anymore, but I don’t recall as much jerkiness when scrolling the iPad, but it did have similar issues with re-rendering the page, which is fine given the Transformer’s higher resolution.
In the end though, the ASUS Transformer gave me what I wanted — the capability to play the games I like and watch the videos I want, and that’s all that matters. In 3 months of ownership, I have already used the ASUS a lot more than in 10 months with the iPad. I can easily live with its minor annoyances for more power and capability. Considering I actually made $100 on the iPad/Transformer trade, plus the free Angry Birds/Fruit Ninja apps, and the free games available thanks to Flash, this Transformer is a pretty cost-efficient alternative.