What I Use:
– HTC Nexus 9
– Microsoft Surface 3
– Apple iPad Mini 4
Tablets are the most maligned category of personal computers, it seems you either love or hate them. I am in the love camp, and I use one or more tablets every day. Right now I am writing this article using my Surface 3, which is a 2-in-1 that I consider a tablet rather than a notebook computer. In my bag is a iPad Mini 4 and at home I have a Nexus 9. Each of these tablets run different operating systems (Windows 10, iOS, and Android) and have different screen sizes (10.1″, 7.9″, and 8.9″) and are used for different purposes.
The Nexus 9 is my oldest tablet, I bought it in November, 2014, and at the time it was Google’s flagship “Nexus” tablet. In my opinion screen size dictates how you will use a tablet, and I think the Nexus 9’s 8.9″ screen strikes a good balance between holding in one hand to read and connecting to a keyboard to write. For a while the Nexus 9 was my only tablet, and I wrote a good number of blog posts using the Folio keyboard.
The fact that the Nexus 9 is my oldest tablet says something about Android tablets. Google did not produce a new tablet in 2016, the Pixel C remains the flagship Android tablet and it was announced in September 2015. I recall being put off by the price of the Pixel C, which still costs $499, while I only paid $278 for the Nexus 9 by using some credit card reward points on Amazon. I believe the retail price was $400.
CNet includes the Pixel C in their list of best tablets of 2016, even though it is a year old. Fact is, even though it has some quirks, the Nexus 9 is still a good tablet and it runs Android 7.1.1, which is the latest version of Android. Soon Google will stop providing Android updates to the Nexus 9, at which point I will have to decide whether I need another Android tablet.
One tablet-related development from Google during 2016 is that it has made it possible for Android apps to run natively on Chrome OS, which means you can now run full apps on a Chrome OS device and that newer Chrome OS notebooks will have touch screens. I expect more Chrome OS devices, capable of running Android apps will come to market during 2017, the real question is whether Google will launch a Pixel Chrome OS tablet or notebook. It’s possible that Google replaces the Pixel C with a Chrome OS-based 2-in-1 or convertible during the year and abandons stand alone tablets. Keep an eye on the price of the Pixel C during the spring, if it is to be replaced Google will likely start discounting current units before announcing a replacement.
I bought the Surface 3 in the spring of 2015 to be my prime work tablet, mostly for its 10.1″ screen and the ability to handwrite notes in OneNote. During the day I use the Surface in portrait as my notepad during meetings, and all of my notes in OneNote synchronize with my corporate Office365 account. While I expected the Surface 3 to be a great tool for work, and it definitely has been that, I did not expect to use it as much for leisure as I have, mostly because of its kickstand.
The Surface 3’s built-in kickstand puts the tablet in three viewing angles, which makes it really useful for watching videos. I’ve watched many baseball games with the MLB At Bat app on the Surface 3, along with my favorite TWiT netcasts. I find Windows 10 works really well on a tablet oriented in landscape, and frankly if Microsoft had produced this tablet instead of the Windows RT tablets back in 2012, Windows 8 might have not been as much a failure as it became.
Microsoft no longer sells the Surface 3, although HP, Acer, and Asus all sell equivalent 2-in-1 tablets. The model of Surface 3 I bought has 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage, and I expect that it will continue running Windows 10 for a while. Even if Microsoft never released an update of Windows 10 that worked on the Surface 3 again, I think it would still be useful to me as it currently exists. Some people have complained that the Surface 3 is too slow, particularly in accessing local storage. I think the Surface 3 runs fast enough for me, which may be due to having 4 GB of RAM and that I mostly just use OneNote, I don’t need it to run Photoshop.
This summer I bought the iPad Mini 4 after I realized that the 3rd generation iPad I own will not run iOS 10 and I needed a device running iOS 10 for work. I found a refurbished Mini 4 with 64 GB of storage on Gazelle for $325 and I’ve been really happy with the purchase. I am not a fan of iOS because I like the multitasking and sharing features of Android, and I dislike the grid of icons that iOS still uses for its home screens. Moving icons around in iOS is the absolute worst user experience of any mobile device.
Despite my dislike for iOS, I have to admit that the iPads are the most elegant hardware designs, and I have found the Mini’s thinness and 7.9″ screen perfect for reading. In the evenings while I am watching TV I usually have the Mini in hand to check Twitter, Facebook, review my RSS feeds, reading web content in Pocket, or eBooks using the Kindle app. I also have to admit that apps in iOS tend to have a little more polish that equivalent apps in Android, although I really dislike app developers who force their apps to landscape. Users should always, always, have control over the screen orientation on a tablet.
While small, the iPad Mini 4 is still too large for me to carry everywhere, my Nexus 6P remains always by my side as my most important personal computer. And though the 6-inch screen is big enough for reading eBooks, I still prefer the near 8″ screen size that makes it as comfortable to read as a paperback book. When I see tablets out in the wild, they are mostly smaller tablets, either from Apple, Samsung, or Amazon.
By now, you most likely have noticed a theme throughout this article, which is that with tablets, screen size really matters. Three years ago the focus seemed to be on 7-inch size tablets, so much so that Apple seemed compelled to release the iPad Mini. Now, it seems to be the focused has shifted to larger screens due to Microsoft’s success with the Surface Pro, which has a 12-inch screen, and that Apple again followed by releasing the iPad Pro.
Not only did Apple validate Microsoft’s 2-in-1 approach by providing a keyboard for the Pro and featuring the landscape-and-keyboard form factor prominently in ads, but it also provides a stylus/Pencil for handwriting on the screen. Back when Steve Jobs first introduced the iPad, and hence launched the tablets that we now know, he emphasized that for many, the iPad could be a sufficient replacement for notebook and desktop personal computers, and the iPad Pro seems to make that statement finally come true.
As I previously stated, I really like the 2-in-1 form factor but I am not entirely sold on tablets with screens larger than ten inches. If I had a 12-inch tablet, I am sure I would mostly use it as for my notebook computing use cases, but continue to use a smaller size device for my tablet computing use cases. Still, I think during the upcoming year new tablets will mostly fall in the 2-in-1 category, with lower tier companies continuing to provide smaller tablets at lower prices.