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Three years on: the state of the tablet market

Posted on 22 Apr 2013 at 09:31

Three years after he devoted a column to tablets for business, Paul Ockenden examines the current state of play

If the noughties was the decade of the smartphone, the tensies (is that what we’re calling it?) is the decade of the tablet.

There’s little doubt that tablet sales kept many a struggling high-street retailer afloat last Christmas, and evidence the tablet has become a mainstream device is all around us, from full-page adverts in the national press to little old ladies playing Angry Birds on the bus. The BBC has just announced that tablets have overtaken smartphones in terms of devices accessing the iPlayer.

Almost three years ago, I devoted a whole column to tablets, and wondered whether had become serious business tools or were they still just toys. I even tried to write that very column on an iPad (you might remember that I failed). So, how have things moved on since then?

Three years is a long time when it comes to technology, so you might expect tablets to be radically different by now, but they’re not. That isn’t a bad thing, though. What we’ve seen is evolution rather than revolution. Tablets have slowly improved both in terms of their physical hardware and their operating systems.

Apple’s iOS still looks just the same (some might say it’s even starting to look dated), and although today’s iPads are quite a bit slimmer, the hardware really doesn’t look much different. The Android user interface has moved on and looks somewhat different today, but underneath the make-up it’s still much the same.

What has changed is the quality of Android tablet hardware. There are still a few not-so-good examples around – I even spotted one with a resistive screen the other day – but those are few and far between. Even at the lowest price point, some of the kit isn’t too bad. I mentioned a £35 tablet on Twitter recently and a couple of you went out and bought one (I wasn’t expecting that). The general consensus was that it’s actually quite impressive.

Playing by the book

Remember, too, that Apple and Android are no longer the only players in the tablet market; we now have Microsoft with Windows 8 and Windows RT, and of course there’s BlackBerry’s PlayBook too. Windows 8 makes much more sense running on a tablet than on a desktop or laptop – its Modern interface actually becomes a help rather than a hindrance. Microsoft’s Surface hardware is very good, too; its main downsides being the somewhat upscale pricing (compared to Android rather than Apple) and its sparse and poor-quality selection of apps.

Apps are a weakness for the PlayBook as well, although the tools BlackBerry has created to easily port Android apps certainly help (and if you’re prepared to do a little fiddling you can use a technique called sideloading to run many Android apps natively). Where the PlayBook really wins out is on price. Its original version is available for spectacularly small sums: the 64GB can be picked up for around £120 if you shop around, compared to £430 for the same-sized iPad mini. This is a real bargain, considering its high build quality. The other day, for example, my local PC warehouse was selling 64GB flash drives for more than the price of a 64GB PlayBook.

At the time of writing, most PlayBooks are running OS 2 or 2.1, but at some point in the near future we should see a version of BlackBerry 10 – the new OS on the company’s latest phones – appear as an over-the-air upgrade. Despite that 7.9 increase in version number, the differences won’t be huge. OS 2.1 is already a great tablet operating system, with many innovations that go beyond what iOS and Android offer. What should improve, though, is the selection of apps, as BlackBerry has devoted plenty of time and cash to persuade developers to make their wares available when BlackBerry 10 OS devices hit the market.

Turning the page

When I wrote that tablet column three years ago, one of my biggest concerns was the lack of professional software and, perhaps more importantly, the lack of professional features in so-called business apps.

For example, I complained that Apple’s word-processing app Pages didn’t even have a word count – something that’s essential for any professional writer. As it turns out, within a couple of weeks of me writing that column a new version of Pages came out with a built-in word count. A more immodest writer might claim credit for this, but I was only one of many thousands crying out for this essential feature.

You’ll find that many professional writers use a piece of software called Scrivener on their desktops or laptops, which is a brilliant tool targeted at those who churn out words for a living. It isn’t only suitable for journalists and authors, but also those who write corporate reports, proposals and so on.

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User comments

Thanks for taking an objective look at the playbook. It's true that it doesn't have the same dept of apps as android or iOS but if I've wanted something I've been find something that fits the bill. The playbook also comes with the full version of documents to go as standard. It's basic but it works.

By JamesD29 on 22 Apr 2013

typing

I tried a couple of cheap Bluetooth keyboards with my Nexus 7 - but eventually chanced on the Microsoft Wedge and it made serious work viable - it's not a cover though its own cover does double as a stand, and for me it gets the perfect balance between portability and a comfortable size for typing - it's also very robust.
I wish there was an Android version of Scrivener, but Mobisystem's OfficeSuite Pro is a good cut down approximation of MS Office, seems to handle docx files well and synchronises seamlessly with the major cloud storage offerings (I use Sugarsync, which has good offline functionality - essential on the Nexus 7 which is wifi only)

By tennyson09 on 22 Apr 2013

Windows Tablet...

I've found the big advantage of the Windows tablets is that I can take notes on the move, where I don't have network access, then, when I'm back at my desk, I plug it into its dock and I have the tablet apps and my desktop (on an external monitor), where I can continue working. No worrying about syncing or having the same apps available on multiple platforms, I just continue working.

The cloud is just there to ensure that my work is backed up, when I have a network connection available.

It can't do 100% of what I need - it is only an Atom; so I keep my Core i7 laptop around for photo editing, but for day-to-day office work, it is a brilliant all-in-one solution, especially with keyboard and desktop docks.

By big_D on 22 Apr 2013

@big_D

Hiya

What tablet are you using?

Would you say it would run Scrivener OK (if you're familiar with it)?

Thanks,
Andyt

By snoog on 23 Apr 2013

@snoog

I'm using a Samsung ATIV SmartPC 500 - Atom Z2670 based, 2GB RAM, 64GB storage (plus 64GB SD) and a WACOM stylus for handwriting / drawing.

I have they keyboard dock (which turns it into a laptop) and a desktop dock. I use the desktop dock all the time, the keyboard dock very rarely.

When I'm on the move, I'm 99% of the time in tablet mode.

It is fine for apps and general office software - I have Office 365 on it, as well as our ERP software and a few other applications, such as openVPN, Notepad++, Skype etc. and some apps, like Audible, Kindle, Stimulsoft Reports.

Scrivner should work fine, although there isn't currently a TIFKAM version. The question is how well it interacts with the onscreen keyboard, but with the keyboard dock or an external keyboard, it should be as good as any small laptop.

The keyboard dock is surprisingly good to type on - I had the older Series 7 Slate (Core i5, 4 hours battery), but the supplied Bluetooth keyboard was dreadful.

By big_D on 24 Apr 2013

Typo

Sorry, that should be Z2760 CPU.

By big_D on 24 Apr 2013

@big_D

Thanks for that feedback. Just looked at some reviews and it looks pretty awesome, 400 nit and amazing battery life. Looks like a good all round solution.

Regards,
Andy

By snoog on 25 Apr 2013

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Paul Ockenden

Paul Ockenden

Paul is a contributing editor to PC Pro specialising in smartphones, mobile broadband and all things wireless. He's technical director of a combined IT and marketing company, which works on websites and intranets for several blue-chip clients.

Read more More by Paul Ockenden

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