June 2, 2014

The Summer Series - Kevin Ross

My husband has been a guest on the blog in the past. I always love when he shows interest in sharing his perspective here. His post last year about driverless cars predicted something that since has come to pass - before anyone in the mainstream media or automotive industry had done so. And it was very popular.

When I told him he'd be kicking off my Summer Series, he came up with several ideas and asked me which one he should write about. I told him he should choose. The subject matter he went with is such a perfect match for him!

If you're wondering about getting the man in your life a technology gift, this post will help break down and rate the options.

Please welcome my hubby to the blog!

What to Get Dad: A Guide to Tablets

The first step to recovery is admitting to an addiction, so here goes: my name is Kevin, and I am addicted to gadgets. Growing up in a analog world, today’s technology would have been pure sci-fi if somehow presented to my younger self. Most people walk into Best Buy and see televisions and computers. I see that the future has happened, and I’m living in it. I have a need to know how things work, and if I am going to retain my tech guru status among friends and coworkers, I had better keep that knowledge current.

Over the past eight years mine has become an Apple household because I found that Apple provided the best product integration and experience I was seeking. But lately I grew curious about Google’s Android system and the much-maligned Windows 8. Over the past six months I found very good deals on two non-Apple products, and decided to take the plunge to learn something new.

Lately I have noticed an interesting trend; phones are getting larger and tablets are getting smaller. Apple’s 9.7 inch iPad started the tablet market, but the iPad mini and numerous 7 and 8-inch competitors are the big sellers now. With Father’s Day approaching perhaps you are considering a small tablet for Dad. I will share my impressions of three of the top sellers: the iPad mini, Google Nexus 7, and Dell Venue 8 Pro.

The iPad mini is the 7.9 inch version of the iPad introduced in late 2012. A year later Apple rolled out a much-upgraded version known awkwardly as iPad mini with Retina Display, but I am reviewing the original to more directly compare prices to the Nexus and the Dell. The iPad mini can be found on sale for $250 to $270. The Nexus 7 sells for $199 to $220. The Dell Venue 8 Pro goes for $199 to $250. Shop carefully on the internet and there are better deals to be found.

The iPad mini of course runs iOS. The Nexus 7 runs the latest version of Android, and the Venue 8 Pro runs Windows 8.1.

The iPad is the most expensive of the three, and when seeing them in person it is obvious why. The iPad has an aluminum back, it is the thinnest, and is the best made. If you are reading this, you probably have experience with an iPhone or iPad so I won’t go into too many details. While this iPad does not have the Retina display, its screen is still sharp and the colors are accurate. Running Netflix movies side-by-side with the other two, the iPad had far and away the most natural picture. Even though this iPad is basically an iPad 2 on the inside, it runs apps smoothly and without drama. As Apple likes to say, it just works.

The Nexus 7 is made by Asus for Google. It has a 7-inch screen with higher resolution than the iPad or the Dell. Images and text are very sharp and photos are sharp and colorful. Though the Nexus is the same height as the iPad, the iPad has a much larger screen. That extra .9 inches doesn’t make much difference when watching movies, but for web pages and news apps the difference is night and day. The Nexus can be held easily in one hand unlike the iPad or Dell, so its narrowness does have one advantage. 

The Nexus 7 runs Android 4.4, known as Kit-Kat (yes, the candy). It has a bit more of a learning curve than iOS, but is not difficult to figure out and works well. All Nexus-branded products run “pure” Android, unlike Samsung products that run a heavily modified version of Android. If the person you’re buying for has a Samsung phone and likes the way it works, you may want to stay with a Samsung product for the familiarity.

Android can be customized more than the iPad and offers more control in its settings menu. Android also features “widgets” that can be placed on any of its five screens. As a news junkie, I have come to love how these widgets can present the latest headline or show the current weather without having to enter an app. It has taken a while, but the Nexus has grown on this Apple user and it is my go-to device for quick reading.

A downside to the Android ecosystem is the lack of tablet-specific apps as compared to Apple’s App Store. Many of the apps are simply enlarged versions of the phone apps, but in the five months I have had it I have noticed an improvement in this area. All indications are that Google’s Play Store is slowly closing the app-gap with Apple. But know that apps usually debut first for iOS devices, and Apple’s store has a much, much greater selection of educational and kid-friendly apps. If your tablet is going to be shared with the kids, iPad is going to give you the best app experience.

Dell’s Venue 8 Pro is kind of an odd duck. It runs Windows 8.1 - the same system that runs everything from tablets to desktop computers. The 8-inch tablet is a rather new, well, venue for Windows 8, and my frank conclusion is that it just doesn’t work at that size.

Windows 8.1 is a somewhat schizophrenic operating system, consisting of the touch-friendly Start menu that features apps like the other two tablets, and the classic Windows desktop. At the default settings, the desktop is simply not usable on an 8-inch tablet. The touch points are too small, and trying to do anything there results in errors and frustration.

The split-personality means the Dell has settings in both the tablet-friendly menu and in the classic Control Panel, as well as settings within each app. I spent far too much time looking for certain options, being unable to remember in which menu system I initially found them.

Microsoft was a late comer to the app party, and the Windows Store is still lacking many of the apps that users take for granted on Android and iOS. Apps like YouTube, Pandora and HBO Go are no-shows. One of the selling points of having a full Windows computer in your hand is that you get full websites - not phone or tablet-specific versions of web pages, so it is possible to use websites as an alternative to the missing apps. But using YouTube or HBOGo on the Venue 8 was beyond frustrating because the sites are not designed for tiny touch screens.

I found that some of the Windows apps, such as eBay and CNet, were far less functional than their Android and iOS equivalents.

The Venue 8 does include the Home and Student Edition of Microsoft Office, so you do get full versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. While Office 2013 hasn’t been fully designed for tablets yet, it is somewhat touch-friendly and is not a horrible experience.

The Venue 8 is the heaviest of the three tablets, but it also has the largest screen providing plenty of reading room. However I found that most apps were designed for much larger screens, and their non-adjustable font sizes were too small for an 8-inch screen. While the iPad and Nexus screens were both bright and had very white whites, the Dell was somewhat dimmer and the whites had a yellowish cast. By the way, the Dell comes with aggressive auto-dimming that makes the screen too dim to be usable. Disabling that makes the brightness acceptable, but reduces battery life. 

If I could send any of these three tablets back to myself 30 years ago they would be amazing, almost indistinguishable from magic. But in 2014 they have to compete against each other. So what do I recommend? It depends on who you are buying for. If Dad has an iPhone or a Mac and likes things simple, you cannot go wrong with an iPad. It has the best quality, the best app selection, and the best resale value if that is a consideration. If he likes to tinker with things, is an Android phone user or has a distaste for Apple products, the Nexus 7 is a quality product at a very good price. It is fast and has more computing power than my first desktop.

If Dad uses Windows at work and at home and needs Windows and/or Office on the go, the Dell Venue 8 Pro could be a good choice. It IS a full computer unlike the other two, it just isn’t a great computer or a great tablet.

I will freely admit I tend to shake my head and roll my eyes when hubby gets excited about a new gadget. But it is SO awesome to have a tech guru in the house. I don't ever have to worry about what to get and where to find the best deals. He keeps all our gadgets up to date and backed up. It's great.

He has told me he has been impressed with the way I have mastered certain technology through blogging and social media. And I take that as a major compliment.

Thanks for coming by the blog, honey!

Tune in next week for blogger and humorist Stacey Gustafson!
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