Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Samsung 12-inch Android Tablet vs Chromebook

I just got a Samsung Note Pro 12.2" (SNP12) tablet for my birthday. It has a Logitech keyboard, with no track pad. I wanted this because I want to understand the pros and cons of the form factor and also because a 10" tablet cannot easily have a full sized keyboard. Most of my previous tablet usage is playing games on a Nexus 7" tablet. The Nexus 7 is also excellent as a single page at a time reading tablet.

As I used the SNP12, it became clear that my Chromebook did many things better. I wanted to write about the respective strengths and weaknesses. In writing this post I tried using the SNP12, but lack of spell checking, and really many other things made me switch over to my Chromebook to finish it. Much to my amusement (as I am using a Samsung ARM-based Chromebook), the Chromebook has about 2/3s the CPU power, much less graphics power and 2/3s the memory of the SNP12.

First I'll start with a review of the SNP12 as a tablet. It is incredibly light weight, weighing similarly to an iPad Air, if the Air came with the bigger screen size (the Air is 9.7"). With the keyboard it weighs slightly less than Acer's Touch Screen Chromebook. The SNP12 is 0.45mm thicker than an iPad Air. It has a respectable 2560 x 1600 resolution which is a good match for the screen size. It is much clearer to read than most laptops.

The size of the screen makes it impractical to use in a "portrait" fashion. Some Android apps (intended for phones) will work awkwardly here. But for anything "landscape" it is great. Games, are one possible exception. Many games are written used fixed-sized resources -- these might appear overly large when run on the SNP12.

Google Earth is fantastic on the SNP12 (turn on high def imagery in the settings).
Movies had great picture and sound quality.
Viewing pictures obviously is great.

It has the best ability to read dual page e-books I've seen. It is very close to reading a real book; t's high-end processor (both CPU and Graphics) giving it the ability to animate page turns like you were really using a book. Likewise, the large resolution allows you to see a full book page of text. It is my new place to read technical books as pictures and syntax-colored text is sharp and clear.

The S-pen is a really nice feature, but there just are not all that many apps that I can find. Things like SketchPad are good enough to justify it by itself for some people.
For casual web browsing, casual email and things like Flipboard or social apps, the tablet is a generally superior solution to anything I've seen... especially given it only costs about $100 more than 10" tablets of a similar level. The screen simply gives you a better experience than even on a high-density display laptop.
It is obviously harder to lug around than a 10" or 7" tablet, so keep that in mind. It would make a great "coffee table" tablet.

The only drawback I see at all to the SNP12 is that Samsung insists on making gratuitous changes to Android. Their physical "home" button. Position of buttons opposite of stock Android and their not bad, but not better, Application Launcher are a nuisance. They also preload various crapware (such as NYT and Bloomberg)... which you cannot fully delete and are constantly trying to update. Given Samsung's premium pricing, I find the presence of crapware insulting. (Note, in fairness to Samsung, they don't add just any crapware... these were likely a part of their building built-in news sources... but I don't want or need these and they don't let me delete them.)

Now moving on to the comparison with Chromebooks...

While Chromebooks can play movies, music and view pictures, their lesser quality hardware makes this less nice than on the SNP12. However, Acer has just announced Tegra K1-based Chromebooks which will greatly change this (and at half the price of an SNP12+keyboard). Still, it is much easier to curl up on the front porch swing and read a book with a tablet (sans keyboard) than with a Chromebook. Something like Google Earth just works better with touch. Tablets are in general better at media consumption, and the SNP12 has it's place there.

Where Chromebooks shine is in productivity. With the exception of video editing, the Chromebooks is far easier to use for standard productivity. The culprit here is Android apps. Oddly, one of the biggest sinners here is Google Chrome... it's is far weaker than the version available for Chromebooks and other desktop/laptop systems. For example there are no extensions available. The tabs are hard to use (I often accidentally close one I'm trying to bring forward) and it is harder to undo this -- you cannot just Ctrl-Shift-T like you can on a Chromebook). Keyboard selection and tabbing often don't work in Android Chrome. Google won't even let you touch Docs from Android Chrome. Much of Microsoft's online things don't work either. These all work on Chromebooks. Worse, many sites insist on giving you their "mobile" version... which generally means their "dumb" version... Chrome will let you "request" the desktop site, but what you really need is an option that lets you say this is a desktop browser... I mean you generally use an SNP12 on wifi and you have a 12.2" screen how isn't this "desktop"? Even though Android itself has great support for keyboards (and mice)... Android apps often don't. Surprisingly, Google is one of the worst offenders here. Google+ for example refuses to entertain my "request" for the desktop site and I spent 20 minutes trying to figure out how to post to one of my G+ "pages" and never did succeed. I tried responding to a comment on one of these pages from Android and lost 15 minutes of responding because G+ got confused. And it's not just G+, most Google properties work poorly from Android Chrome.

There is one bright spot here, the Google Google+, Docs, Sheets and Slides Android apps (with the new material design) seem to work fine and have good keyboard support. They are however underpowered vs their online counterparts... this is of course likely to change with time.

The long and short here is if you expect to do "productivity" (even blogging), then buy a Chromebook, not an Android tablet with a keyboard. BTW, the same holds true for iPads as well. More sites support them better... but they still tend to have dumbed-down versions of productivity apps and websites. Worse, iPads have no mouse support at all.

Oh... one other thing... I'm convinced more than ever that touch-screens on laptops and desktops are a bad idea. Sure, it might be fine for the occasional button press, but selection and movement of text is a real pain. Drawing is hideous. Trackpads and Mice are not in danger of going away anytime soon.

I am not the only one to believe that Chromebooks are better at productivity than tablets:

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