Monday, July 4, 2011

Small, Medium, and Large Tablets

In 2007 I called the first generation iPhone a mini tablet. Since then I have had every iPhone generation (iPhone, 3G, 3GS, 4), and switched my personal phone a year ago to a Samsung Captivate (My office phone is the iPhone 4 now, replacing the much disliked-by-me Blackberry line).

All of them are small Tablet Computers. Not the Blackberries, the other ones. Apparently the Blackberries are "smartphones".  Maybe when QNX comes out they will be tablet computers, or at least some of them will be, like whatever the QNX version of the Storm is. I like RIM, and I hope that they can get it together. At the time of this writing they are still not getting it and getting beaten to death by Android and Apple. But I digress.

I had an iPad 1, but that has moved to a Motorola Xoom. Now, another tablet has entered the scene: A Nook Color.

The means I while I am still a slacker in this department relative to some, I now have 4 tablet computers: The iPhone4, the Captivate, the Nook, and the Xoom. All rest on my nightstand when they need to eat:

Hungry Computers
I should say that I was a bit leary of the idea of a 7 inch tablet. It seemed too fine a split between the 4 inch Captivate and the 10.1 inch Xoom. My wife got one, and while she mostly uses hers as B&N intended, I.E. a reader, I was interested in the way the the little Nook pushed her iPad out of the way for most things. It was more portable. It was lighter to hold for long periods of time. It had a very nice, very readable screen, with good 169 DPI across its 7 inch, 1024x600 screen. Not as good as the iPhones 326, or the Samsungs 233 DPI... but better than the iPads 132 and slight better than the Xooms 160. DPI (or PPI if you prefer) are not all there is to a screen of course, as I have noted here that I prefer the saturated colors / viewing experience of the Captivates AMOLED technology screen over the higher DPI, less saturated, yellower iPhone. It is an interesting comparison point, and I am nearly certain that the iPad3 will answer the current iPad critic's with a higher DPI display. It pretty much has to. I am guessing they'll double it, like they did the iPhone, for about 264 DPI. But I digress....

(side note: Nifty DPI page on Wikipedia)

  • Small: Captivate: CyanogenMod Nightly build, Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread). As of this writing its build 48, but that changes every night of course...
  • Medium: Nook Color (AKA Encore): CyanogenMod 7.1 RC1, Android 2.3.4. Nightlies for the Nook are actually higher than the Captivate, at Build 122 at the time of this writing, however as easy as the Nook is to install CM7 on, it takes almost that same process to update it everynight, so I settled in on just installing the release candidates for now. The problem is that the way the internal partitions are set up, there is not enough room in /mnt/sdcard to hold even one nightly build. But this works...
  • Large: Motorola Xoom, Android 3.1 stock.

Medium Tablet

Like my wife, I find I use the 7 inch NookDroid quite a bit. I prefer it for reading books over the Captivate or the Xoom for example, although the Nook app on Android is not as good as it was in the native B&N 1.2 OS release. That is a bit odd, since that was just 2.2/Froyo under the covers, so clearly B&N does not release the latest/best/most optimized version of the Nook reader to the Android Market. This compensated for by the fact that:
  • I can run any reader I want now: I like to shop all the eBook shops to get the best deals. I do buy from B&N when they have the best price.
  • The web browser options are much better (I mostly use Dolphin HD on it)
  • Most all the 'droid apps work on it, and most work better than they do on the Xoom for some reason: You would not think there was that big a difference for an app between managing the screen real estate of 1024x600 and 1280x800 but there is.
  • Gingerbread is rocking fast on this unit: Hardly any lag anywhere. The Nook 1.2 software was OK, but it stopped to go think about things all the time, for no apparent reason. My wife, who still runs the stock version most of the time is often frustrated by its lagginess.
  • I have the overclock kernel on it (The Nooks TI OMAP processor is amazingly flexible about speed) , and can watch video, although I prefer that on the Xoom (screen size) or the Captivate (color saturation). It's nice to have the option if it is all I have with me at the moment.
The things holding back the NookDroid are:
  • It really needs 3.1's tablet optimizations. I guess that really means it will get Ice Cream Sandwich when it comes out, since that will have source for the CyanogenMod folks to use.
  • I miss the GPS: The Xoom has an awesome GPS chipset, and the Captivates GPS works like a champ now with CM7. It's amazing how many things, like maps and navigation and whatnot, are used without thinking of their reliance of GPS.
  • It would be cool if the FM radio worked. As shipped from B&N, the radio chipset only enables Wifi, but it has Bluetooth and FM radio on it too, and the CM7 crew has the bluetooth going.
Still: It has convinced me that there is value in the 7 inch form factor, and at half the price of anything else out there, it is an amazing little unit.

Small Tablet

I have not talked here very much about the Captivate since I got it. I replaced the tiny 1500 MAh battery with a 3200 MAh unit (almost as big as the Nooks 4000 MAh battery), which has been a lifesaver, if looking slightly like a humpback whale. No heavier than the iPhone in its Mophie skin though.

I have been through quite a number of ROM's on the SC. The Captivate must be one of the more ROM'ed phones around. That is probably due, at least in part, to the hardware being great, and the OS, as shipped by Samsung... not so much. In addition to the stock 2.1 and later 2.2 releases, I have run all sorts of versions of Andromeda, Cognition, and Serendipity. Now CM7. Originally it was to get the AT&T apps off the phone, and get it to 2.2 fast than AT&T/Samsung were doing. Later it was to just replace the much slower version of the OS that ships stock. 

After messing around for the better part of the year in custom ROM space, last month I went from a botched CM7 nightly back to stock AT&T Froyo (2.2). I wanted to know how much better 2.2 was over 2.1. When the battery started lasting 1/4 the time it was before, and the phone lagged and generally acted like there was sand in its bearings, I realized that I had no idea just how much better the custom ROM world, with its occasional hiccups, was to the stock world. It's like Samsung has no idea what to do with their own hardware. I read on and on in the forums, as I suffered through the long week on stock 2.2, about how bad the device drivers were, and why the aftermarket had created the "Lagfix" and so forth.

The minute I got back from that trip, CM7 went back onto the phone and in the 20 or so builds since has not had any major issues. Right now, on build 48, I have to remember to turn back on the phone ringtone because it is defaulting to vibrate for some reason. Nothing major though.

That being said, I am watching for what the next phone will be. Front runner right now is the Galaxy II S once it hits AT&T... and I see a CM7 build for it.

Large Tablet

The main thing to say about the Xoom at this point is that I wish Google / Motorola would get the lead out, and get the update that supports the SD card into place. As a "Google Experience" unit (and the reason I went with it instead of the A500 or a Samsung 10.1) it is weird to not be having the full experience. The forums go back and forth about why there is no SD card support, and in truth the reason no longer matters. It is just silly now. The ROM market has hacked a version that does have SD card support. There is SD card support outside the US in the stock OS. Why does not matter. It just needs to be fixed.

Ice Cream Sandwich can not come soon enough, except to get the merge between the 2.x and 3.x lines right. Seeing the seams around the edges of 2.3.4 on the Nook, it is clear that running a tablet benefits fro having an OS that "gets" the screen size. 3.1 is nice, but in small and medium spaces, I have seen the advantages of letting the community have the code and fixing the problems. The Captivate and the Nook are far better for the AOSP (Android Open Source) version for the code. The Xoom needs that too, because it is clear that Google / Motorola are not able to deliver feature / function in a timely manner.

None of this is to say I am ready to run back to the iPad. I'd be interested in seeing one with a high resolution screen, and the Android feature functions of iOS5 like notifications, but as I have said here before I am tired of the jailbreak cat and mouse in that space. I don't care about jailbreak for my iPhone 4 because it is really my employers and so it is bone stock. I use it for work things only, not most of my daily life. At this point every app I was using on the iPhone is either on the 'droid, or has an alternative that is as good or better.

Cables and Power

One thing that is interesting to note is the different ways that the phone/tablets go about solving their battery charging needs. The Captivate comes with its own charger that seems to talk to the Captivate differently. The phone does not report being on a USB cord when plugged into it It also seems to charge more quickly with it, probably because the Samsung Charger is 700 MA (Milli Amp) rather than a standard USB ports 500 MA. Still, to charge the 3200 MAh battery takes a while. The nice thing is that the cables can be standard, OTC, MicroUSB. Nothing special required cable wise. It will charge more quickly if I hook it to the Nook charger, or the 2000 MA iPad charger (I still have the charger), but I usually avoid fast charging it for fear of not knowing how well the internal parts can deal with the higher wattages.

The Nook has a standard looking MicroUSB cable, but closer inspection reveals it is longer: The shank goes more deeply into the socket. it turns out the cable is not standard (at least not currently standard), and has extra wires at a second depth. The charger is 1900 MA (1.9 amps) and that charges the Nook even while in use. If you hook a standard cable to it, it will charge slowly while turned off, or extend battery life while on, but the Nook uses more than 500 MA cables provide while on, so the battery does drain if it is, for example, hooked to your laptop USB port. I have no qualms about putting the Nook on the iPad USB charger, as there is not that much difference between them in terms of milliamps.

The Xoom has a MicroUSB port on it, so it can use the same cord as well... but only for data. The power comes in via a tiny barrel connector (or a couple pins on the docking station), The Xoom charges faster than either the Samsung or the B&N unit though. The special power cord means that they did not have to play USB voltage games, so the 6500 MAh battery of the Xoom, despite being the largest in the group, is the fastest to fill up. The advantage of 12 volts at 1.5 amps (19 volts at 1.58 amps for the docking station with speakers). That also makes the car charger for the Xoom pretty small, since nothing much has to be done with the voltage coming out of the cars accessories port.

I like that the Xoom charges so fast, but I would like a USB port option. As USB evolves to charge more and more things, I am wondering if the Nook USB design might go wider. I can see nothing in the standards about such a thing though. I am guessing that once the market is as full of MicroUSB devices as there once where MiniUSB devices, and the people that make cords need to make some more cords that we might see another standard emerge. If it does, at least it will solve the needing 2000 or more MA@5v on the USB cord problem...