Are Android keyboard-enabled tablets ready for business use?
As an IT solutions consultant, my job keeps me pretty mobile, spending much of my time away from my office in front of clients.
This nomadic workplace lifestyle has encouraged my adoption of mobile-friendly technologies to enable device – and location – independent access to my files, perhaps most notably my adoption of Dropbox as my ‘live projects’ repository.
In order to maximise my productivity and improve my interactions with clients, some time ago I dismissed the adoption of tablet-based solutions for note-taking – which in my case is prolific – opting instead for the ‘real keyboard’ of a netbook PC, allowing me to type away whilst maintaining eye contact with my clients to minimise disruption to the flow of ideas.
After some analysis of market options at the time, I settled upon what has been a fantastic combination: An HP Mini netbook running Ubuntu Linux (originally 10.04 netbook edition, then 11.04 with its Unity interface which runs superbly on a small-screen device), with all my files automatically syncing with Dropbox via a Netcomm MyZone portable 3G hotspot, allowing full Windows-based access and editing back at the office (where Windows is the corporate platform).
Why Ubuntu Linux? Although the HP Mini came pre-installed with Windows 7 ‘starter’ edition, it frankly ran like an anaesthetised, lazy dog. Loaded with various OEM HP ‘productivity tools’, the device was practically unusable. But I had done my homework. I already knew that this device, with its 6-cell battery life of up to 6-hours constant use – often lasting several days on one charge, sleeping between meetings by simply closing the screen – was known to run superbly with Ubuntu Linux, no additional drivers or user-compiled kernels required.
With the included OpenOffice – later LibreOffice when 11.04 came out – inter-compatability with MS Office was fairly high, especially since most of my mobile work is simple note-taking. I was able to take notes or meeting minutes, then email them to the client and other stakeholders right there in the meeting. Suffice to say, this cheap device greatly improved my productivity, which had suffered with my employer-supplied laptop with its high power requirements meaning it often wouldn’t last even half-way through a customer meeting without mains power.
Recently however, a gadget-loving colleague told me about the ASUS eee pad Transformer TF101, an Android Honeycomb tablet device equipped with a ‘real’ keyboard which adds an additional 6.5 hours worth of power to the tablet’s own 8.5 hours (as stated by Asus). This device seemed to represent the best of both-worlds – the stunning Android Honeycomb interface and the massive collection of Android Market apps, with the benefits of a multi-touch tablet screen, coupled with a real, tactile-feedback keyboard which is really required for touch-typists.
Excited, and no doubt influenced by my recent ponderings on possibly purchasing an Apple iPad2 for home-entertainment use, I read every review I could find, and within days had purchased one (just before the end of the financial year – thank you tax-man).
Now, after using the device for my business purposes for two weeks, I can report mixed results, and my conclusion is that it’s a compromise, but potentially one worth making.
- Battery life: There’s no denying, this thing lasts forever. Despite constant note-taking, web-browsing and email use, I seldom need to top up the tablet’s power before bed-time. The keyboard constantly charges the tablet, so the main unit maintains a full change until your keyboard goes flat. At this point though, you can’t continue using the keyboard – you’ve got to disconnect and go into tablet-mode. Even so, I’ve not had to do this at all, and the supplied USB charger can top up the device from either an AC mains power socket, or any available USB port. I already have a USB car adaptor, and the device seems to charge happily from this, albeit at a slower rate than it does from mains power.
- Interface: The touch screen, especially when paired with a real keyboard, has had a huge impact upon my normal work habits, so much so that I keep embarrasing myself whenever I’m in front of a ‘real’ computer by reaching out and trying to swipe pages or click on buttons. Even though the Transformer’s keyboard includes a ‘touchpad’ mouse, I rarely enable it because it’s just so much easier to reach out and touch whatever you need to on the screen itself. It’s a good idea to disable the on-keyboard touchpad whilst typing anyway, because the cursor is prone to jumping around the screen with the slightest touch of your palm, as I’ve found to be the case with netbooks too.
- Connectivity: Here’ I’ve had, well – mixed results. There’s certainly no problem connecting to wifi networks (my model doesn’t have the 3G option, which is apparently coming out soon), but the Android OS seems to have some issues with some consumer-end router-based DHCPservers. After mine got into an endless reboot loop one night at home, which I quickly ascertained was related to the WiFi service’s obtaining of an IP address from my router, I had to quickly disable WiFi to stop the device from constantly rebooting.
Upon further investigation I discovered quite a few forum-based pleas for assistance from other users who’d also had problems with their Transformers and other Android devices suddenly entering a restart-loop which was traced back to certain consumer-level routers and their built-in DHCP servers. Thankfully in my case a restart of my Dynalink router resolved my Transformer’s problem, which indicates that either my router’s DHCP service had stopped granting IP addresses, or it was answering DHCP requests in some malformed manner which the Android couldn’t interpret, leading to a kernel crash and subsequent reboot. In my case I could diagnose the problem, but the vast majority of users would have been lost and probably would have taken their devices back to their retailer for a refund. I never had any connectivity issues with the HP Mini netbook running Ubuntu Linux.
- Stability: Again, here I’ve had mixed results. I can say with absolute confidence that my little HP Mini running Ubuntu Linux is the most stable device I’ve ever frequently used. It’s just rock-solid. The Android though seems to answer app crashes or memory leaks with sudden, unexpected reboots. There may be some setting somewhere which enables users to define the ‘app crash’ actions, which you can do in Windows and Linux PC distributions, but I haven’t found any such setting thus far. From a business-use standpoint, this means having to constantly save your work for fear of a sudden reboot and subsequent loss of unsaved meeting notes. This would probably be a show-stopper for most people.
- Applications: The number of free applications for Linux is outstanding, and I’ve had no problem with inter-platform support against our corporate Microsoft standard apps for what I do, but I wouldn’t claim this would be the case for everyone. MS Exchange support from Linux clients is haphazard and definitely not user-friendly. This is something I feel the Apple IOS platform does exceptionally well, better in fact than my experiences with Windows-mobile devices. For more complex MS Word files or Excel files, LibreOffice on Linux just can’t cope, especially with layers, drawings and some of the weird but wonderful Excel functions I’ve built into my project issue logs and work estimate sheets.
That said however, Android really drops the ball here. Yes, there are thousands of cheap apps available on the Android Market, and yes, many of them are superb (especially the entertainment / book-reading and social apps), but interoperability with MS Office, particularly if you use Office 2007 or 2010, is lackluster..
There are several third-party Office suites which claim MS format support, but the best I’ve managed to acheive thus far has been for viewing only. Editing, and working with files directly stored on Dropbox hasn’t really reached maturity on the Android platform yet, but this isn’t too surprising considering only 8 months ago it was an OS which existed only on smart-phones.
For most business users, keyboards aside, I think the Apple iPad has better cross-platform support for the MS suite at this time, with Linux netbooks coming in a distant second, followed by Android. Give it time though – I’m pretty impressed with how well the top two or three “Office emulator” apps have progressed in such a short time, and I imagine they’ll close the gap very quickly as these tablets gain popularity. My favourite so far is ‘Docs to Go’, which I also use on my iPhone 3Gs, but it doesn’t have Dropbox support on Android yet.
I would classify the included ‘Polaris Office’ as strictly a last resort. In my experience this Office-emulator seems to randomly replace the line of text above your cursor with whater you just typed (especially if you just saved), and it doesn’t do a great job of maintaining design elements such as bullets (even when they were actually created within Polaris). Without Dropbox support, it also forces me to use a third-party Dropbox sync tool which has also caused me some grief recently when it unexpectedly deleted my updated “Science on Top” podcast notes rather than updating them – an event which lead to much swearing!
- Professionalism: This may sound like a wierd catagory, but some ‘issues’ with the ASUS caused me to add it. The first of these is spell-check. The Android doesn’t have a built-in spell-check which works with the attached keyboard. If you’re using the Transformer in tablet mode, the soft-keyboard does dictionary lookups, suggestions and corrections, and this works quite well. But people are going to buy this device because of the keyboard, and providing no spell-check will possibly be a show-stopper for some. In my case, my spelling is pretty good, but there are always occasional typos which creep in, so there’s really no substitute for a spell checker.
The second is the built-in email client. It’s good – in many ways it’s great: but there’s a bug which affects MS Exchange 2007 users which incorrectly encodes apostrophes in replies to HTML-encoded messages so the recipient will see “'” wherever an apostrophe is used. This has been reported as a bug, and the Android developers have indicated they intend to fix it in the next Android update. Until then, it only affects some users and unfortunately I’m one of them. I have to remind myself to use the inverse-apostrophe (it’s above the ~ tilda character on the Transformer’s keyboard), otherwise clients haven’t a clue what I’m talking about!
If anyone asks me what solution I’d recommend for a mobile productivity tool, at the moment I’d have to say go with a netbook pc if you’re a touch-typist and need strong cross-platform support. If you’re not a touch-typist, or if you’re prepared to carry a bluetooth keyboard around, I’d probably suggest an iPad2 because it has the best MS Office suite compatibility at the moment. Give it a few months though, and I suspect my recommendation will change, because the Android really is a joy to use, as long as you can forgive the occasional random reboot and subsequent loss of whatever you were doing since your last save.
If you’re after a predominantly ‘entertainment’ class device which you might use for the occasional meeting, but want a detachable keyboard and brilliant battery life, the ASUS eee pad Transformer is certainly worth a look. I’m in love with mine, despite its faults, and don’t regret my purchase. I do miss my Linux netbook occasionally though…
- Roundup: Five tablets that are taking on the Apple iPad (news.consumerreports.org)