Saturday, December 07, 2013

Toshiba Encore review

The good

Compact – it’s a little thicker than other 7-8 inch tablets, but it is a good size for one handed use, with enough bezel surrounding the screen to get a secure grip. And as far as full computers go, this is probably as compact as you want to get and still have a useable experience.

Win 8.1 allows split screen multitasking on smaller devices – prior to the point upgrade, win 8 required a minimum resolution for the dual screen multitasking ability (1366x768), which would rule out this device. Fortunately with 8.1 you can now get that feature is the smaller screen resolutions such as 1280x800, and it is quite handy, with most if not all tile interface apps I’ve tested working well.

Battery life – I haven’t performed any testing, but in my general use (youtube videos on one pane, twitter/browser on the other) battery drain has not been alarming, and I haven’t had a low battery warning yet – once I’ve drained the battery up to about 20%, I’ll be testing the recharge rate as well.

Micro HDMI port – as nice as having a computer that is portable is, I appreciate the option to be able to connect it to a larger screen if the need arose. Certainly if I was going to be doing lots of text entry on the supplied (and full) copy of MS Office 2013, I would find the experience a lot more pleasant on a larger screen, especially since the on-screen keyboard effectively halves the viewable screen in landscape, and takes up approx.. a third of the screen in portrait.

SD card – Although the Encore does come in 32Gb and 64Gb sizes, only the former was available in stores at the time, and the only one to come under the $400 mark. Out of the box 13Gb are available for use, so having a microSD slot for storing media and larger files is a good feature to have, leaving the built in storage for apps.

Price – as alluded to above, the 32Gb model I bought came in under the $400 mark, which brings it into the realm of the ARM based tablets. Plus, with the promotion that Dick Smith was running at the time, it came with a $50 gift card which clinched the deal for me.

Performance of new atom processor – Apart from this device, I also have the Acer W510, a 10 inch tablet running the previous gen atom (clover trail) processor, which was no number crunching powerhouse, but was adequate for everything I threw at it. Running the Geekbench 3 benchmark software, the performance of the Encore returned a score of ~2600, which was over twice the score of the W510 (~1100)…so based on this, I shouldn’t have any issues with getting things done on this device, which aligns with my current experience.

USB port – although it requires an OTG cable to convert the microUSB port to a full size USB 2.0 port, it allows for accessing files in USB flash drives, and even outputs enough power to be able to run external portable drives (something which is not possible on its nearest rival, the Dell Venue Pro 8)

The bad

Build quality – maybe I’ve been spoilt by products such as the iPad mini and the current Nexus 7 (which hovers around the same price range), but the Toshiba just doesn’t look and feel as well put together, with uneven gaps in the seams between the plastic silver plastic trim around the screen and the plastic silver back, and noticeable creaking of the device when I pick it up. If you want to compare like for like, the identically spec’d and priced Dell Venue Pro 8 feels a lot more solid, using better feeling materials, and more in line with the other competing tablets in its price range.
Above: Uneven seam between plastic frame around screen and rest of chassis (red arrow)

Windows Key only works in portrait – The location of the capacitive Windows key on the bezel is on one of the shorter sides, and along with the orientation of it and the Toshiba branding implies that the tablet is intended to be used primarily in portrait mode. Indeed, if you did use the tablet in landscape, your thumb inevitably rests near/on the Win key, so in that way it makes sense that Toshiba would disable the key in that orientation. Unfortunately, the tablet seems to be inconsistent in when it disables this key, which makes it feel more like the key is broken. It’s almost as if the win key uses a different accelerometer to the OS, or perhaps has a lower threshold for determining when the tablet is in portrait/landscape. I’m hoping this can be resolved by a software update, or at the very least, provide the option to always have the win key permanently on or off. (Update - I don't think any disabling of the capacitive windows key when in landscape actually occurs, I think that there might be something wrong with my device)

Charges via same microUSB port as for USB input – This is probably not that much of an issue for the main use case for this device (ie as a standalone tablet), but if one were to “dock” the device to a screen and an external keyboard and mouse, then you wouldn’t be able to do that AND keep the device powered. Again, the solid battery life promised by Toshiba and the power efficient next gen atom processor possibly makes this issue moot, but it is something to think about.

Speaker is a bit weak – Two speaker holes are present on the “bottom” (in portrait mode), and are adequate for watching YouTube videos in a quiet room, but struggle with distortion at higher volumes when you want to be able to watch videos while having the tablet on a stand.

Key Win 8.1 feature doesn’t work in portrait – what I mean by that is that the killer feature of Win 8 (multi-screen multitasking) is disabled in portrait mode. Furthermore, if you switch to landscape mode, snap two screens/apps together and switch to portrait mode, the screen simply refuses to reorient – which caused me to check more than once that I haven’t accidentally engaged the orientation lock. Now I’m no UI expert, but not having a visual queue to tell me that the tablet has acknowledged but actively ignoring the request to reorient the screen just makes me think that something is wrong.

Overall, I’m actually quite happy with the Encore despite the bad points I’ve mentioned. For the price, you certainly get a lot of bang for your buck, since you are getting a full computer for $400, along with a full copy of MS Office 2013 (home and student) and with performance and battery life far superior to the netbooks of old.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Acer Iconia W510 week post-mortem...kinda

Ok, so this is coming through a bit later than I had planned, but I finally had some time today (being a public holiday) to write up my experience with using the Acer Iconia W510 for a week as my main device. Unfortunately, I never really got the chance to use the Win 8 tablet as my sole device not because of lack of time, but more because one of my other devices (ie the iPad 3) was more useful to me. Basically, I can boil down the reasons why I would always end up picking the iPad 3 over the W510 to two things:

1) Apps - I play games a lot on my iPad (my current obsession is a great dungeon crawler called Dungeon Hunter 4), and for now, it's a game that's only available on iOS and Android app stores. This means that during my leisure time I'm staring at my iPad 3 slaying bad guys and collecting gold/loot, which doesn't leave much time for any of my other devices.
Outside of playing games, the type of apps I like to use on my devices are: Twitter, Instagram, Buzzfeed, Youtube and the browser. Of those apps, twitter is still a little buggy, Instagram and Youtube are non-existent, Buzzfeed is crippled, and the browser (which is good, but a little glitchy at times) has to pick up the slack. The overall result is that my experience with the W510 is a significantly less polished (which makes since this is a 1st Gen Win8 device) than on the iPad 3.

2)Cellular data - The W510 model that I purchased was the WiFi only model, while my iPad 3 is the 3G model - there is a 3G model available on the Acer online store, but not on any of the brick and mortar shops that I've visited. This isn't really the fault of the tablet (though it would have been nice if it was easier to impulse buy), but it does mean that if I'm out and about, to really use the device how I'd like (ie access social media and web services) I'd have to use my phone as a hotspot. Though it works ok, the process involves enough steps and compromises that most of the time I just use the phone itself, and the W510 stays unused in the bag.

So as much as I love the W510 and Windows 8, my iPad 3 still wins the fight on which device is my daily driver. I do sincerely hope that Microsoft can somehow encourage more game developers to port their games into Windows 8, or at least stop scaring them away by forcing them to integrate with xbox (I don't know if that's a thing or not - just wild speculation) - because this would make the process of switching from one of the more established platforms (Android and iOS) easier.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Impressions of the Acer Iconia W510 after 2 weeks

Having owned the Acer W510 for over two weeks now, I thought I'd give an update of my experience with the tablet. Now, my intention was to use the W510 exclusively when I bought it, but I must confess that hasn't been the case. A combination of travelling overseas for a wedding (where the W510 mainly sat unused in my bag), and my unreasonable addiction to Sims 3 on the iPad, meant that I didn't give the Acer tablet the undivided attention that the other gadgets I've been testing I might try a full week starting tomorrow. For now, I just thought I'd build on and amend the thoughts I had of the W510 from when I first got it.

Pretty much the things I liked about the W510 have not changed, and although I haven't used a timer to determine battery life, I find it has been enough to last me a night of watching Youtube videos on one panel, while keeping an eye on my twitter feed in the other. The battery life has been good enough that I haven't had to use while attached to charger, provided I charge it before I go to bed. Charging seems to be pretty swift - I'll be draining the battery overnight so I can actually time how long it takes to charge it from empty...will update when I have numbers. Update 14th April 2013 - it takes 3hrs 45mins to go completely from 0 to 100%, though it only took 2hrs 26mins to get it to 88%.

As for the negatives, the main one that worried me was the heat that I experienced coming from the top right of the tablet when charging - when I first got the W510 the heat was so intense that it was not comfortable to touch that part of the screen. Fortunately (perhaps by a BIOS update that I was prompted to install, or one of the many windows updates installed since then), I haven't experienced this issue again. When under load the section does get warm, but nowhere near the temperatures that made me worried. 

As for the build quality and the location of the speakers, they still irk me, but I've made my peace with them; with the latter issue, I just make sure to remember to not to press my palms completely over the speaker grills if I'm watching youtube videos, or better yet, just place the tablet on a stand.

If I was to complain about something, it's that the Apps that tend to use in my other tablets are either absent (Marvel comics, Sims 3 Freeplay, Vevo, Youtube), or not quite to the same standard as in iOS or Android app stores (Twitter, Buzzfeed). Fortunately (with the exception of the first two apps) I've been able to make do by viewing the content directly from the web, but I find that websites aren't as tablet friendly as they could be on the app versions, so I hold out hope that these apps will eventually make it to the store.

Am I happy with the W510? Yes - it's a good little tablet that also happens to be a full PC when I need it to be, but I do hope that more of the tablet/touch optimised apps that I use in my other tablets make it to the Windows store. 

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Asus Transformer TF300 postmortem


After dutifully carrying the Transformer TF300 to work and back all this week, I came to the realisation that as much as I love the keyboard dock and it's extra battery, I don't actually have a use for this tablet in my day to day life.

It's not to say that the device isn't bad - the battery life is excellent with or without the keyboard dock, and it's one of the few non-Nexus devices that has been keeping up with the latest updates to the Android operating system (with 4.2.2 rolling out to devices within the following months). It's just that as much as I love Asus and their innovative hardware, the tablet apps are either not there or still quite rough, resulting in a device which has so much untapped potential.

When I initially purchased the TF300, I was really excited about the whole duality of the device - undocked, it's an android tablet running the lauded Tegra 3 CPU and promises of great gaming performance; docked, the device transformed into a touchscreen netbook with a real keyboard, an SD card slot and USB port. It even had microHDMI, for outputting to an external display - I was convinced that this was the mobile, modular computer of my geek dreams.

Unfortunately, there were problems. For a start, until a recent update to the Android Jellybean OS (4.2.1 - the device shipped with 4.1), outputting to an external display only meant mirroring in the exact resolution of the native tablet ie 1280x800. It diminished the benefit of outputting to a larger screen because it would display at the same resolution, just bigger...and at such a low resolution, it's hard to find a modern LCD monitor where that resolution would look good in.

Second, the main differentiator of the transformer TF300 (and the line in general) over the other Tegra 3, 10.1 inch, 32Gb android tablets was the keyboard dock - and it works quite well, with the soft, but usable keys and the trackpad and mouse buttons. What I didn't realise until I actually used it for a little while, was that in docking the tablet to the keyboard, I had turned the transformer into a netbook...which isn't actually the experience that I wanted. Turns out, Android was an OS that really felt better on a Tablet (duh) not as a netbook. In the end, the keyboard kind of became this really overqualified clamshell case for the tablet that needed to be removed to use the Transformer for what I mainly used it for (games and reading comics), which also needed charging. And the SD slot and extra USB port provided by the dock seemed like really handy features at the time of purchase, but I've only used them a handful of times since having owned the device for 6 months.

Finally, my main gripe with this device wasn't with the hardware, but with the apps  - I've already complained about this in a previous post, and as of this date, nothing had changed. Through no fault of Android and Asus (that I could see), it still seems like the Android app store is still considered by app developers as a tier below that of iOS, and overall the quality of the same apps in the iOS ecosystem seem to have had more resources dedicated to them than their Android counterparts - fortunately this seems to be less of a problem with regards to games, at least the ones I've played.

As an aside, it's kind of sad, but I'm seeing the trend in Android tablets flowing the same path that netbooks did - initial explosion of devices, with every manufacturer seemingly churning out waves of near-identical devices, then having the market die off...though in the case of Android tablets, it seems like the devices are evolving back to having smaller screens (7 to 8 inches), instead of the netbooks which went from 7 to 10 inches.

Another parallel between netbooks and tablets that have resulted in the netbook's downfall, and is what is causing Android tablet's to evolve is that these devices worked too much like a regular computer, so much so that people started expecting to use them like computers. Think about it - a netbook was essentially a small laptop - same operating system, same interface, same input methods. When I first started using mine, I thought "wow, this is awesome!", then I started using it to do a lot of what I wanted to do on a "regular" computer - first it was web-surfing with multiple tabs, then viewing and saving my photos, moving stuff from hard drives, sending emails, writing long form blog the end it could do all those things, but sloooowly, and it made we wonder why I wasn't doing these things on a "real" computer instead.

For the most part, Android escaped from that association for me, since it was sufficiently different: different operating system, different interface, different input methods...until I bought one with a keyboard dock. Unintentionally, I was navigating this touch-optimised UI using a keyboard and trackpad, and it worked ok - I could scroll websites using two finger scrolling, I could type respond to tweets and emails using the keyboard...but I had to prop up the device on my lap or table. When I wanted to move from one part of my flat to another, I found myself holding the device like I used to hold my netbook - ie. one hand underneath the keys, while typing on the keyboard with one hand (if I was trying to respond to someone at the time). You get where this is headed...

The final straw came in the latter half of last week when I wanted to post pictures that I had taken of the full moon. That night, I took a whole bunch of pictures and transferred the SD card from the camera and inserted it into the slot in the keyboard dock. First, I could either view the files as a list with very tiny thumbnails in the file manager, or I could view them as larger thumbnails on the gallery app - ok, no big deal, I'll use the gallery app. I don't know about you, but I take multiple shots of the same subject with my camera, because no matter how great the LCD screen is on the back of your camera, you're never quite sure if that image that looks pin-sharp on the camera display is actually a touch blurry when viewed in a larger format. So I found the picture I wanted...fine. I select the "details" option in the gallery menu to find out the file name, so I know exactly which image I want to upload to Instagram. So I back out of gallery, go to the Instagram app - disregard the fact that Instagram is portrait only on android, and thus I've now got my transformer on it's side, holding the device like a book - it asks me to pick a source, and I choose "file manager" and select the image I want, because I know the file name - my keyboard dock is still attached (because that's how I'm accessing the SD card files), so the transformer is in landscape mode, and so is the file manager let's re-orient the device (with the dock attached, at least this makes more sense). Pick the image I wanted and go back to Instagram...oh yeah, portrait only, right. Let's add a comment...ok, so I'm typing on the keyboard, with my head cocked to the side so I can read what I'm typing. Not the end of the world, but not exactly ideal is it? I thought to myself "maybe twitter would be better" so I abandoned posting the picture and started over.

Click on the twitter app icon, click on the new post option of the twitter app (no silly orientation restrictions here, so I'm not forced to jump through that hoop), and I click the select an existing image icon. Unfortunately, the twitter app didn't give me a choice of source, it simply sent me to the gallery, and granted I could have chosen the image I wanted from the gallery, except that (1) The image I was wanting to post was an image of the moon, so there were quite a few thumbnails that looked the same (white disk with splotches on it, with a black background), (2) there was no image file name to tell the near-identical images apart, and I wasn't actually able to view a larger image, or select the "details" option to actually find out which one image I actually wanted. To give you an idea of what I was looking at, this is a screenshot of the moon pictures that to choose from:

 In the end, I used my MacBook that point, it was very clear to me that the Transformer was NOT a computer. Suddenly, all the arguments that I had in my head for having an Android tablet, all the less-than-perfect things that I forgave because I had convinced myself that this was more than just a "media consumption device", went out the window and I was left wondering what possible use I could have this for this device. I really wanted to like this device - heck, I bought it didn't I? - but when you have to work so hard to get a device to do something you want, I can't help but feel a bit duped. I didn't buy this device because I wanted a challenge, I bought this device to allow me to do the things I want in a way that doesn't make me angry.

Was it Google's fault that I had such a crappy experience, was it Asus'? I don't think so, not directly anyway - it was I who tried to make the Transformer work in a way that it wasn't intended, to expected this device to behave just like a Windows or Mac PC to behave. But I believe part of what made my brain think that way was because docked, the transformer looked like a 'real' computer, with keyboard and trackpad, and was so computer-like in some aspects, that my expectations changed accordingly. Analogous to having a small hatchback with a tow-bar, by attaching the keyboard dock to the transformer, my expectation for the device changed, and I was suddenly expecting the transformer to be more than what it is - like I had attached a caravan to the back of the hatchback, and was getting upset that I couldn't get the car to a reasonable speed. Take the dock away, and those expectations disappear as well.

In sum, the Transformer TF300 is an interesting device for me - it's differentiating feature makes it stand out from the crowd of other Android tablets, but -for me at least - that same feature simultaneously highlights what it isn't. It straddles the fence between tablet and laptop, but doesn't do well enough as either to make it a compelling device for me.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

First impressions of the Acer Iconia w510


So after only owning this device for over 24 hours, here are my thoughts on the Acer Iconia W510 so far.
Things I like:
  • Device is nice and light. The main benefit of its all-plastic construction is that it doesn't weigh as much as an iPad 3. The device is still a bit awkward to hold in one hand in its intended orientation (landscape), but it's less tiring to hold for long periods.
  • Screen size to resolution - along with all of the other atom powered tablets and lower level win 8 laptops, the resolution of the Iconia is 1366x768. But on a smaller, 10.1' screen, the display is still quite crisp and clear. It's not retina by any means, but it's less noticeable on this screen vs the 11.6' displays.
  • Size - related to the previous point, I think 10.1' is the ideal size for a tablet...any larger and the device becomes more unwieldy, and you don't actually see any more stuff, since the tile interface scales for different resolutions anyway, while the touch targets would just end up being even smaller in desktop mode in the higher resolutions.
  • Claimed battery life - I've qualified that statement because I haven't spent a full day using this tablet as yet, but I'm not racing to the power cable after a couple of hours use, and the reviews I've read seem to support the claim of 7-9 hours of battery life. Another thing that I want to check is how long it takes to charge the device from empty - which you don't often see being tested in reviews, but are important when you're pressed for time and need to get as much juice in your device as possible.
  • Extras - I do appreciate the inclusion of a carry case (pungent as it is - see below), micro-HDMI to VGA adapter, and micro-USB to USB host cable. It's a nice touch, and means that the device is more flexible out of the box.
  • Position of ports - with the exception of the power port, which is on the bottom of the tablet, the micro-HDMI, micro-USB and micro-SD slot are all located on the side of the tablet, so they're readily accessible even if you place the device on a dock or stand.

Things I don't like:
  • Device gets really hot when charging - and I don't just mean warm, I'm talking hot. Specifically, it's only the top right-hand side that gets hot, and you definitely feel it on the display. It doesn't seem to have an effect on the screen at the moment, but it does make me worry about leaving the device to charge overnight, and of the long term impact of that side of the device getting baked with all that heat. When not plugged in that area is only slightly warm (suspect that is where the CPU resides) so at least it's not a constant issue.
  • Build quality - the device is solid overall, but there are issues with seams not being as tight as they could be, and components like the display not joining up evenly to the chassis (shall post pics in later post)...and for the RRP of $699 AU, I'd have expected more. Basically, with screen off, you'd be forgiven for mistaking this tablet for one of those budget no-name android tablets based on the materials, fit and finish of the device.
  • Stinky case - so this is nit-picking a bit, but the supplied pleather case supplied with the tablet gives off some strong solvent fumes. I've thrown it back into the box for the moment, but I'll eventually get around to airing it out and using it.
  • Position of speakers - they're basically where your hands would go if holding the device in landscape (lower left and right-hand sides of the tablet)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

5 way camera comparison - 3 tablets, 1 iPhone and 1 iPod touch

Even before I did this comparison, I've always found that the quality of images from iOS devices tend to be better than those of other manufacturers. This has been true since the original iPhone, and seems to still be the case today. Having said that, I don't have a Samsung Galaxy device at all to test, nor do I have access to the latest and greatest HTC One or Nokia Lumia 920.

Please excuse the first group of images exceeding the bounds of the blog post margins, but I think proper image comparisons really need the images to be big. My take away from this comparison are:

  • The iPod Touch 5Gen, iPad Mini and iPad 3 are equivalent in image quality;
  • iPhone 4S beats everything in this line up;
  • If Apple ever makes a Galaxy Camera type device with real camera optics and iOS as the UI, I would buy one in a heartbeat.
  • The poor transformer TF300 didn't stand a chance against this group.

 iPhone 4S
iPod Touch 
iPad Mini
iPad 3
Transformer TF300
iPhone 4S
iPod Touch
iPad Mini
iPad 3
Transformer TF300
iPhone 4S
iPod Touch
iPad Mini

iPad 3
Transformer TF300