Tablets - A concise guide

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Tablets, a device with a shape<footnote>or to be technical "form factor"</footnote> that sits in the gap between smartphones and laptops/netbooks. So what are they all about, who started the craze off and what are they like?

Firstly, tablets and slates are two terms that are often used to mean the same thing. Tablet Pc's often refer to laptops where the screen could be turned 180 degrees on the x axis and then folded back down so the screen was pointing away from the laptop not towards it. The screen would be touch-sensitive and they were mainly operated by a stylus

Slates are a similar to the tablet PC, the difference being that they did away with the bottom section of the laptop and just left the screen. The bottom section of the laptop is where most of the processing and storage devices are kept tucked away. With this section gone these devices were relocated to behind the screen.

This meant that a few changes to the components had to be made. No longer could hot, power hungry processors that needed fans could be used as they were too thick and noisy and the exhaust vent could get blocked and cause it too overheat. Thinner storage devices also had to be used, standard laptop harddrives were too big and so another form of permanent<footnote>for the geeks among you the correct term is non-volatile</footnote> storage had to be found.

Battery life was also an issue, with less space smaller batteries had to be used and this reduced the battery life. However because less power hungry components were being used this offset the smaller size of batterys somewhat.

The tablet niche is also housing a few other devices that had previously been classified as otehr devices.

Tablets PC's is what shall be used for the rest of the article as slate and tablet are now being used to mean the same thing and tablet is the more common word.

The whole tablet era was kicked off with the release of Apple' s iPad which sold over 300,000 on the first day. However due to they way Apple works there's various areas where the iPad doesn't excel. No flash, no multi-tasking (until the next update), apps have to be approved by apple, etc. So various other manufacturers have been designing tablet devices but waited for Apple to release their iPad first to see what happened.

The iPad generated a lot of interest and soon many tablet prototypes, and mentions of various devices, appeared. All of these tablets are designed to do a similar job to the iPad.

As you can see getting the right bit of kit for your needs is important, as this short article shows.

What makes them tick?

Tablets are no good if they're too slow to do any of the tasks that you want to, but there's a catch, the more powerful hardware typically takes up more power. The quickest desktop processors out there will sue 140w of power. That'll ruin your battery life like there's no tomorrow. And to get hardware accelerated video playback you'll need some form of graphics chip. The high end ones of those will use over 300w of power. Now obviously they won't be using those in a tablet, but it does raise an interesting point. How do you get the performance you need and the battery life you need?

The answer came from a company called ARM Holdings. They design what's called a microprocessor. A Microprocessor is a processor and RAM in one device, the brilliant thing about ARM processors is the amount of power they use. Or rather the amount of power they don't use. Comparing an ARM microprocessor to an low power processor designed for net-books such as the Intel Atom processor the ARM offering kills it. The ARM microprocessor has a number of clever tricks up its sleeves to help it achieve lower power use but the key point is that longer battery life means longer time to mess around on your shiny, new toy. After all you don't buy a tablet to spend all of your time charging it and limited to the range of the power cord.

There are various different families of ARM microprocessors but the ones that are designed for mobile devices are the Cortex-A Family. ARM advertises this microprocessor as

“High performance processors for open Operating Systems”

which is exactly what they are used for in tablet devices. The Cortex-A family operate at speeds of up to 2ghz which is needed for full HD video decoding (CHECK!!), have native support for Flash, have multiple cores so they can parallel process (run lots of programs at once) and they are power friendly.

The other good thing about ARM chips is that ARM licensees the design to other companies. So other companies can make ARM processors and modify them a bit too (CHECK THIS).

A lot of the new tablets are based on NVIDIA's Tegra 2 chipset. The Tegra 2 chipset includes a dual core ARM Cortex-A9 processor, a GPU by NVIDIA which will provide hardware acceleration for Flash and full l080p HD, 3d rendering. Because the Tegra 2 uses an ARM microprocessor and the optimisations NVIDIA have done to their GPU they claim between 16 hours of HD video and 140 hours of music on a single charge. Of course this will change depending on the other hardware, screen size, size of battery etc.

What the devices run?

Obviously the iPad runs apples own OS, but the other tablets won't. So where do they turn? To the internet giant that is Google. Why Google, all they do is search the internet? Well that might have been true once but with the release of Chrome OS, and the Nexus One Google have shown that they are a company that can excel in many areas. Google gave us Android.

Android History.
Android was originally designed by a company called Android, Inc., this company was based in Palo Alto in California and in July 2005 Google stepped in and bought Android. Google then continued development of Android. 4 of androids co-founders went to work with Google. These people where

Andy Rubin (co-founder of Danger)
Rich Miner (co-founder of Wildfire Communications
Nick Sears (once VP a T-mobile)

When Google bought Android not much about Android Inc, apart from that they made software for mobile phones, was known. Mobile phones was where Android first hit the big time and this demonstrated that Android could go beyond mobile phones.
Once Google had Android Rubin and his gang of merry men used the Linux kernel to develop a mobile device platform. This was shown to handset makers and carriers and it was designed to be a flexible and upgradeable system. Android is an open-source project which means anyone can look at the source code, tweak bits and release these updates to improve the whole thing. Android went open-source on 21 October 2008 and its released under the Apache licence.

Android has seen many updates since its was released, it is currently at 2.1 but not all devices may have been updated yet.

Open Handset Alliance.
The open handset alliance is a group of companies that are devoted to open standards for mobile devices. Companies that make up the OHA include handset makers, application developers and chip makers.

So tell me about these devices!

In a moment, first up there's a few things to consider.

Tablets are new.
Very new, so there's going to be a few problems with them, hardware and software wise. Some of the tablets haven't been released yet and some might still be buggy, however reading reviews of the tablet that you want should get you the specific information that you need.

Effects on body
How are you going to hold you tablet? In the wrist, some of these devices are 15” big, laid across your arm? If you can try them out in store. How you hold it may also depend on what or where you use them. On a train you can probably lie down on the table or rest it on the back of the seat in front of you. In a car maybe passengers could rest it on your knees. But, what if there isn't anywhere to rest it against? Well your best bet then is probably to lie it on your arm unless you need both hands for typing. This issue may only be a problem with the larger devices.

All tablets use touch-screens, its part of the attraction of them, typing on them won't be the same as using the keyboard, there wont be any tactile feedback, however it is probably something that you will get used to in type, many of these devices have USB ports so you may be able to plug in a keyboard if needed.

Some touch-screens appear to have trouble with registering touches. This may or may not be a software problem, as more devices appear this issue should clear up.

The Screen
Some screens don't work well in daylight E Ink has developed a screen that does work well in daylight, but if you plan on buying one see if you can try it out in various conditions or find reviews from people who do have one. Remember boosting the backlight to compensate for sunny conditions will affect the battery life.
Is the screen big enough for what you want to do. The tablets available range in screen size from 5” up to 15”. If you don't need a bigger screen there probably isn't much point going for one, large screens will make using a tablet easier but make sure that it is still easy to carry around.

The Apple iPad will multi-task when the the 4.0 update comes through, but I'm not sure if this update will be available to the earlier iPads. This sort of links back to the first point, their new, let other people find the mistakes first.

Which network will you buy your tablet on? Tablets on networks are heavily subsidized, so its cheaper for you, but what if you don't like their network rates etc? Most of the time the tablets will be offered on more than one carrier, but they might not be. Sometime the tablet sill be offered carrier free but it will cost.

Does it have the kit you want?
USB ports, HD content, Flash, SD card support the list goes on. Try to make a list of things you need, and things you want. Then pick the one that does what you want best.

Can you print from your tablet? Will you need to? Android at the moment can print natively but future updates may integrate this functionality. Some third party applications do allow printing from Android devices.

is it removable? Does it have a big enough charge? Don't go on manufacturers statistics for batteries, check out real life reviews of how long it lasts, and make sure the reviewer lists what they've been using. Playing you-tube videos and doing lots of stuff that require having the wireless on and using the hardware accelerated functions will mean that the battery lasts for a shorter time than just using twitter to tweet.

How well does it work, are the photos the correct colour and how well does it work in low light conditions? Can you use it for video calls?

Some tablets have swivel cameras, others have two cameras, one on the front, one on the back. Some just have one. Again it comes down to your needs as to how many you need. Having a camera there can be great for a quick snap but if its a large tablet actually taking a picture could be tricky. If there's a USB port you might be able to plug a webcam in.

Does it support Bluetooth, 3g etc The list of acronyms and specifications goes on and on so make sure you find out the ones that you are likely to use and make sure it supports them.

Android supports :

What connectors are there on the side and are there enough of them for your needs? Plugging extra devices in may also reduce battery life.
Typical ports include :
dock connector

The User Interface (UI)
Some tablet makers aren't suing the default Android Interface and are designing their own, this means that you'll rely on the manufacturer for the latest updates ad the updates may have to be tweaked to work with the custom UI. This won't be a problem if the manufacturer tweaks the updates quickly and releases them quickly but if the manufactures stops providing the tweaked updates you'll be left without the latest patches.

The available applications
Are there the applications you need available? As time goes on more applications will be available t download, check that there aren't ways of doing what you want to before heading off to download some.

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