Having spent the past few days in Fiji, I thought I’d share some of my frustrations – and hopefully insights – about the perennial choice between netbooks and tablets for productivity and consumption with technology. As I’m now fully grappling with some of the strategic decisions regarding which device to recommend for my school’s 1-1 implementation later this year, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to take along my ASUS eeePC 901 and Apple iPad for the holiday and see which device would prove the best for which situation.
My typical uses for these technologies included:
– RSS reading
– Checking, posting and replying to emails
– Social networking (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter)
– Updating this blog (WordPress)
– Updating my travel blog (Blogger)
– Drafting blog posts with Google Docs
My eeePC usually runs Ubuntu Linux but as part of the experiment, I installed Windows 7 to see how it would fare with some of the more proprietary programs I like to use (iTunes, Word, Excel, MobileMe, Evernote, etc.) I currently use an Apple bluetooth keyboard with my iPad that I purchased in the US a few months ago.
It’s interesting to note that with just a few days of milling around in my spare time and trying out all of the above on each device, it’s very clear to me when each device comes to the fore as the best device for certain tasks (granted, many people have already written on this but it helps to experience the difference for yourself). All of this said, there were a few issues that really complicated things and need to be noted first, especially given that they apply to many people around the world (including many of the kids I teach):
1. Many applications and/or operating systems are not geared properly for offline-use or use with slow and/or patchy internet connections. This especially applies to circumstances where there is no good alternative to web platforms such as Facebook – which needs to be constantly “on” and is very data intensive (side note: Facebook used to have a “lite” edition that worked very well with poor internet connections – where did that go?)
2. Blogging is especially difficult where the internet connection is patchy and slow. Although there are some good offline blogging platforms, very few properly utilize a WYSIWYG approach to editing, especially when it comes to including and manipulating images as I frequently need to do in my travel blogs.
3. We are so often restricted by proprietary affiliations between different applications and/or software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions – such restrictions stifle creativity. For example, when using Windows Live Gallery to manipulate images, the user can only upload images to certain services like Facebook with a mandatory MSN account. On Picasa, ‘Blog This!’ only works with Google’s Blogger.
In any case, I found the following:
1. The iPad – Powerful and Slick (but on Apple’s terms)
The iPad quickly showed its power as a superb email device, RSS and ebook reader, handy tool for social networking and reasonable device for drafting the text for my blog posts. Not having a SD card reader adapter, however, I immediately hit a wall when it came to importing/editing photos, having to rely on Windows Live Gallery instead (although I usually run Picasa on Ubuntu) through the netbook. Nonetheless, with my bluetooth keyboard, and unified inboxes on the iPad’s email app, I was easily able to stay in touch with friends and family. The email app also works very well when wifi is patchy, saving a message to the outbox and sending it when the next connection becomes available. Apps like the very successful Yoono also allowed me to quickly stay in touch with all of my social networks on the one screen. As for RSS reading, MobileRSS has now become my indispensable go-to application for staying in touch with all my never-ending feeds.
Where the iPad fell short – and where the netbook picks up – is in the limitations and restrictions of the apps and the highly restricted functionality of the up-to-now mandatory Safari browser. Writing in either Blogger or WordPress through the browser was next-to-impossible, with half a draft disappearing in smoke the minute the wifi signal dropped out. While drafting text is all well and good in Notes, Pages or the WordPress app, I needed to upload and manipulate images for my blog and to date, as far as I’m aware, this is simply not possible.
2. The Netbook – Highly Functional, Flexible and Open (if you can weather the lag)
As for being a reasonably full-functional and familiar computer, the net book shines, as long as you set it up properly and don’t expect the world in performance (this is precisely why I will never again run Windows 7 on an Atom processor!) Being a huge fan of customizing an OS, pimping out my browser and tweaking everything to be the way I like it, I’m also a fan of any device that truly lets me do this. Short of jail breaking, apps on the iPad are forever restricted to Apple’s approval which is, as we know, becoming harder and harder to gauge and even harder to predict.
While I got away with – and rather enjoyed – doing most things on the iPad, there was that familiar sense of joy that I got when firing up Firefox and having my favourite skins, toolbar buttons and plugins. There’s also a familiar sense of woe in accepting that such an open browser is unlikely to make a debut on Apple’s poster child any time soon.
So the verdict? Unfortunately I remain in two very divided technology worlds and two minds on the subject. While the CES convention has unmistakably touted 2011 to be the year of the tablet (and an Android one at that), the real test in my view will be the extent to which the device can be genuinely shaped to suit the needs of the user, by the user. These days, I have increasingly less time for being told how I should be using a device. While there’s no silver bullet (and probably never will be), there’s plenty of scope for putting pressure on the big players to collaborate, keep things open and listen to us. That much should give anyone cause for optimism, at least for now!