A few weeks with an android tablet, app picks

Posted on 2011-12-14 07:13

A few weeks back I got an ASUS transformer which is ostensibly an android (3.2) tablet, but with the "optional" docking keyboard its more like a netbook running android.  It was shortly after testing an Acer Iconia A500 for work that I decided I couldn't live without one of these things and ran over to Best Buy and let them pry some cold hard cash out of my hands.  I had some vague idea that it would be great for reading online mags, checking email, and the occasional game but beyond that I really just wanted to become more familiar with Android.  Its been a couple weeks now and I have a much better idea of what it can do, and more importantly what it can't.

If you're not interested in my typical blathering just scroll to the end of the story for my android app recommendations.

A recent NPR story on tablets suggested that tablets are replacing a lot of the functions of the traditional computer for many folks, and I'd have to agree that this is possible. Since its only the size and weight of a hardcover book, I find it easier to grab the tablet to check email, twitter or G+, or read some news or blogs, or watch some online videos than the laptop. The laptop, even the small ones I favor have to be plugged in to run for any length of time, take time to boot up, log in and I need to find someplace with room enough to use it comfortably. 

While I can do a lot of things on Android, its not "powerful" when compared even with my aging desktop or MacBook. Since the hardware is so under-powered, any illusion of having the same power as a modern machine is only sustained by making dedicated applications (apps) which are restricted to doing only one thing at a time. Want to browse the web? Fire up the web app (with the annoyance described in following paragraph). Want to check email? Fire up the gmail app because you'll be waiting awhile for the web interface to load in the web app. Want to check twitter? Better fire up the Plume app since twitter nearly chokes in the web app. Want to watch a Youtube video? Better fire up the Youtube app because its probably going to choke in the web app. Switching between different apps for tasks that I'm used to running in a single web browser (in separate tabs) is frustratingly slow. Each app has an entirely different interface, and the act of switching between them requires a hunt and seek operation each time.

Another annoyance is that both the web browsers I've ended up using (built-in Chrome and Dolphin) are designed for tablets and announce themselves as such to whatever site you visit. This means that websites don't render as they normally do on a machine powerful enough to run a full OS. You can't do everything or see everything you'll see in a normal browser. Sometimes the things you want to do on the site are just not possible in the tablet version. In the version of Chrome on the Transformer, you can easily switch the Agent ID (how the browser identifies itself to the website) in the Settings and get the full browser page, but it will render much more slowly and things might still not work as expected.

Android is not a desktop OS and the hardware on the tablet isn't powerful enough to really replace a computer either for all things I use a computer to do or provide the kind of experience I am used to having on a computer. If it wasn't for the optional keyboard on the Transformer, I would be running back to the laptop a lot more often.  This post was started on the tablet, but since the processor is kinda slow I can't even really use the built in web browser (Chrome) to make a post on my Wordpress site, and instead ended up downloading the Wordpress android app. This isn't listed as a "pick" because it was more of a requirement if I intend to ever blog from the tablet - which I don't really. Blogging for me is usually more involved than just typing flat text into a box and clicked save, I tend to spend time researching and I really need a full out browser with a LOT of tabs open. Sometimes it involves some photo-editing (something I haven't bothered to even attempt to do on the tablet).

I wasn't deluded enough to think that the tablet would be as fast as my old Mac, but I did expect it to be a bit more capable.  Streaming full screen video isn't a problem on its 10.1" screen thanks to the Tegra2 nvidia chip and 1GB of ram, but you've got to use an android application meant to do video or its hit and miss.  Trying to watch video embedded in a normal web page for instance using the built in Chrome browser may work for Youtube, but either fails or performs miserably for other video streaming sites.

Don't expect to code or do serious analysis in a spreadsheet or work on a database directly in Android. In fact just editing simple Google Docs (something you might expect the Google-developed android to excel at) can be painfully slow and kludgey.  You can find apps to ssh into a Linux server or Remote Desktop to a Windows machine where you can access real horsepower, but without the optional keyboard (or a buetooth equivalent for a different tablet) this would be far too much of a pain to even attempt with any hope of being truly productive. I've remoted into some servers at work to check on disk space or whether a backup job completed ok, but beyond that I'd be pulling out the laptop.  The transformer's keyboard is tiny and the keys aren't as responsive as my Mac's chicklet keyboard (which I never liked so this is saying something) but it has a touchpad and provides easy button access to everything critical.   For instance, turning wireless on and off is just a button press with the keyboard while its four touch presses (and another to close the settings screen) without.

Figuring out what an android touchpad is good for, and what its not good for what part of the fun for me of course. I really thought I was going to immediately root the thing (and may yet), but have not done so far. I was very frustrated by not being able to view logs and make small tweaks to the OS but it hasn't risen to the level where I need to root as yet. CarrierIQ might have sealed that deal, but since I don't have 3G wireless in the tablet, its not installed anyway.

The built in camera(s) are nice since I don't usually have a camera with me when I want to post a quick picture to G+ or post up on my Gallery site or in Picasa. The quality of the cameras isn't that great, but they work for Google hangout (video chat) or just documenting something as long as you don't need a flash (there isn't one).

Here are some of the apps I have installed and use often:

  • reading and responding to simple emails in the gmail app, texting with Google Voice, and IM with Google Talk
  • checking reddit (with the handy reddit is fun app of course)
  • twitter (with plume)
  • using Google maps on the go (optimum wifi hotspots are everywhere now)
  • playing MP3s at band practice and in the car (using Power AMP) because the built-in Google music player is pretty limited. I'm not sure I will buy this app, but I'm certainly leaning towards doing so today.
  • If you're a Netflix user, the fact that there's a Netflix app might be good news.
  • Having a decent notes app is critical. I haven't yet warmed up to SuperNote which came with the Transformer, but installed AK Notepad instead which is pretty simple.
  • VPN is simple enough to set up, but accessing it is a pain. I prefer an icon to jump to the right place in the settings. For that I use VPN-menu. Sad in a way that just making a launcher (think shortcut) to do this isn't built into android.
  • androidVNC and Remote RDP allow me to access remote systems when I need to.
  • Wuala has an android app so I can access my cloud data just like on any machine. This makes the fact that there isn't a lot of disk space on the tablet far less of a problem.
  • AndChat gets me into IRC on the go.
  • I still haven't purchased Scanner Radio but I do mean to. Its that good. If you're at all into listening to police or fire radio (which I have been since I was a kid) this app lets you listen to internet streams from radio scanner operators around the world.