In the initial installment of this informal series about potentially unexpected hardware choices for Apple users, I wrote about the iPad Air as an alternative to the MacBook Air (“iPad Versus MacBook for the Mobile Writer,” 17 February 2014), focusing on writing. That made sense, thanks to the addition of one of the many third-party keyboard covers and cases that turn the iPad into a quasi-laptop.
I did note one big problem with such an arrangement: These keyboards are cramped by necessity to fit the iPad Air’s compact dimensions. Even though the keyboards built into such peripherals are tailored to the iPad’s lengthier landscape orientation, typing on them is not as comfortable as using a roomier desktop keyboard.
Comfort plays a significant role in two other mobile-productivity setups in this series, Google Chromebook notebooks (see “Google Chromebook Makes for a Fine Auxiliary Laptop,” 24 February 2014) and Microsoft Surface tablets (see “Microsoft Surface: A Tale of Two Computers,” 11 March 2014). The physical keyboards used in both scenarios are roomier, and therefore more appropriate, for extensive typing.
This leads me to a fourth kind of mobile-productivity setup, consisting of tablets that run Google’s Android operating system, along with their associated keyboard accessories.
Android tablets are direct competitors to Apple’s iPads, unlike Chromebooks, which compete more with inexpensive Windows laptops. Android tablets are available in a wider range of sizes, and from a variety of makers, including Acer, Asus, Amazon, Lenovo, Motorola, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, ViewSonic, and others. Google even sells its own Nexus-branded tablets in partnership with hardware makers like Asus and Samsung.
Android tablets tend to be more affordable than their iPad equivalents, too. For instance, my favorite Android tablet, Google’s 7-inch Nexus 7, starts at $229. The cheapest comparable Apple tablet, a 7.9-inch iPad mini without a Retina display, starts at $299. Acer’s 10.1-inch Iconia A3 is $250, while the cheapest Apple equivalent, a 9.7-inch iPad with Retina display, is a relatively whopping $399.
Despite this cornucopia of choices, I have long been skeptical of the Android world in a mobile-productivity context for a couple of reasons.
First, app choices on Android are not as good as they are on Apple’s iOS platform for those wanting to accomplish real work. As I noted in my iPad Air article, iOS users have a stunning assortment of apps just for writing. The choices on Android are not as ample or appealing, though there are good some options.
Second, there are fewer keyboard covers and cases for Android tablets, though some that are available are nice. Belkin, Logitech, and ZAGG are among the hardware makers catering to Android users with high-quality typing add-ons. Regardless, these accessories suffer from the same cramped-typing conundrum that iPad users confront. For keyboards to match Android tablet dimensions, the keys must by necessity be scrunched.
My advice for those seeking a tablet expressly for productivity has rarely wavered: Get an iPad if at all possible. You will probably be happier.
Recent developments on the Android hardware and software fronts (including one from Microsoft) have caused me to shift my thinking on this a bit, at least for those who are otherwise invested in the Android ecosystem.
Most notably, Samsung released additions to its Galaxy Note and Galaxy Tab tablet lines with one big new feature: they are extra large at 12.2 inches. This is unusual in the Android ecosystem, where hardware tends to tops out at 10 inches or so. Apple’s iPads are no larger than 9.7 inches, too.
Such gigantic Samsung tablets would not mean much to me in a productivity context without decent keyboard options to go with them, but several companies have delivered. Logitech has released a Logitech Pro keyboard case for each of these jumbo tablets.
ZAGG offers a Cover-Fit keyboard case for each of the tablets, too.
I recently tested a 12.2-inch Galaxy Note Pro with the corresponding Logitech and ZAGG keyboards, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised overall.
The Hardware -- The new tablets are surprisingly portable for their size at only 0.31 inches (7.9 mm) thick (only 0.2 inches or 0.4 mm thicker than an iPad Air) and weighing a not-bad 1.6 pounds or 726 grams. The iPad Air is much lighter at 1 pound or 469 grams, while the original cellular iPad weighed 1.6 pounds. These aren’t gadgets you can hold in one hand while reading an ebook in bed — at least not for long — but they don’t come off as beasts on the couch.
Their 2,560-by-1,600-pixel screens are stunners, too, and fantastic for Hulu and Netflix. That’s almost a million more pixels than the iPad Air’s 2,048-by-1,536-pixel resolution.
With the addition of a keyboard, I could see real potential on the productivity front.
The Logitech keyboard case is my favorite. Its sturdy, folio-style exterior keeps the tablet nicely protected when it is not in use. When it’s time to work, the top cover with attached tablet flips upward, and the Galaxy Note fits firmly into a slot just beyond the keyboard in a landscape orientation.
The tablet also can be removed from the case and placed into the slot in portrait mode, but that’s a bit of a stretch given the tablet’s roughly 16-by-9 screen ratio, which makes it comically tall in a portrait orientation.
The Logitech keyboard is what won me over. It is wider than any iPad keyboard case I’ve seen, and wide enough that I never felt cramped. Chiclet keys — little squares with rounded corners — are subtly scooped for a superb tactile feel.
(I immediately thought of Logitech’s Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for iPad Air, whose keys bulge upward, not downward, for a far-less-pleasing typing experience. Why Logitech went one way with its Android keyboard, and another with its otherwise superb iPad accessory, is beyond me.)
The Galaxy Note Pro with the Logitech Pro case amounts to a top-notch mobile workstation, albeit one that is a bit bulkier than a MacBook Air or Windows Ultrabook. This was not a major drawback for me as I used the hardware combo at home, work, and a parent committee meeting at my son’s high school. I entered the latter with the gear tucked under an arm, flipped it open in a heartbeat at the meeting table, and began taking notes.
So why not just get a laptop, such as my beloved MacBook Air? (See “How Does the MacBook Air Compare to the Latest Ultrabooks, Surface?,” 3 July 2014.)
That’s a valid question, and one to consider carefully, but I like that this Android arrangement allows for the tablet’s removal to be used in touch-only mode on a whim. That’s a nice bonus.
Another great feature, Verizon cellular data access, made me all the more productive on the Note Pro at that parent meeting. At one point, when purchase of a domain name was called for, I was able to complete the transaction right on the spot, despite not having Wi-Fi access. My fellow parents were impressed.
I’m not as taken with the ZAGG keyboard case, which is the kind of device that clamps over a tablet’s screen for protection when the hardware is not in use. That’s fine, and ZAGG has made fine keyboard cases for iPads, but its Galaxy Note Pro model strikes me as a bit chintzy. The keyboard is roomy, but its flat keys don’t feel as good as the scooped Logitech ones. Getting the case on and off the tablet is a chore, too, and I don’t like that the tablet’s back is left unprotected.
On the plus side, the ZAGG keyboard case and the Note Pro make for a far less bulky package. The back of the case has a pleasing texture, though with the same ugly faux stitching that Samsung favors.
One of these jumbo Samsung tablets with a companion keyboard case and, optionally, cellular-data service will come at a steep cost. Verizon, for instance, charges $749.99 for the Galaxy Note Pro with a two-year wireless commitment, which is $42.49 a month. You can also buy the tablet without the cellular service for $849.99, and activate that later.
You can buy either tablet without wireless capability at a lower cost, but I found such prices to be highly variable. On Amazon.com, for instance, I found the Tab Pro model with 32 GB of storage listed for $543.99 and the 32 GB Note Pro for $647.99. This is cheaper than a MacBook Air, but you have to also factor in the cost of the keyboard case at $99 for the Logitech model or $78.45 for the ZAGG variant.
One final hardware-related note: at one point my Galaxy Note Pro went berserk, throwing up error messages by the dozens on launch and relaunch, creating a horrid kind of paralysis I could resolve only by doing a hard reset to restore it to factory defaults. I never figured out what the issue was, and it happened only once, but I feel duty-bound to report it. To be fair, I have occasionally experienced such extreme malfunctions on the iPad as well.
The Software -- Productivity software for Android is a mixed bag, as I’ve mentioned. Those who need to write, for instance, do not have as many options as their iOS counterparts, and few such apps display the spectacular styling and attention to detail that is routine in the iPad world. As a writer, going from iOS to Android isn’t like going from heaven to hell — but I’d definitely describe Android as purgatory.
Samsung positions its jumbo tablets more for business than for pleasure, but its software offerings did not impress me as much as Apple’s iWork iOS apps have.
There is something called Hancom Office on the Galaxy Note, but I couldn’t figure out how to switch it from file-viewing to file-editing status, and I therefore don’t have much to say about it. This is not an anomaly. Samsung insists on offering its own download mechanisms for certain apps, and while it does not block the Google and Amazon app stores, its in-house app infrastructure is a glitchy, opaque nightmare.
Samsung tries to capitalize on the Galaxy Note’s large screen size with supposedly productivity-enhancing features that come off as gimmicky. There’s a desktop-style option for having multiple floating app windows arranged on the screen at the same time, but this proved to be a hassle and I quickly reverted to the classic one-app-at-a-time format that Apple continues to emphasize. Besides, only a subset of the apps on my tablet were compatible with this “Multi Window” mode, which defeated the purpose.
My Note Pro loaner included a stylus, as all Galaxy Note models do to set them apart from their Tab cousins. The Note Pro is loaded with stylus-friendly apps, including sketchbook, note, and memo apps. I am not a stylus guy, so they don’t do much for me, but I can see how they might appeal to others.
I used the Note Pro the same way I have used all other Android tablets — with a combination of app icons and interactive widgets (for Gmail, Google Now, Flipboard, the New York Times, and others) on a handful of screens. The difference was that everything looked big and beautiful due to the Galaxy Note Pro’s extra-large display dimensions.
For productivity (which primarily means writing for me), I turned to all the usual app suspects, most of which have never thrilled me. These include Google Docs, which I use heavily in Web-based form on PCs and Macs and in app form on iOS devices, and Microsoft Office-like apps such as Docs To Go, Polaris Office, Kingsoft Office, OfficeSuite Pro, and others.
Google Docs, my default on all mobile devices, works on Android pretty much as it does on iOS (as in, just fine, thanks). (For my take on the latest Google Docs apps for iOS, see “New Google Docs, Sheets Apps Aid Mobile Collaboration,” 3 June 2014.)
Among the others, I like OfficeSuite Pro the best. Still I feel like that kid on a tricycle in “The Incredibles.” When Mr. Incredible barks at him, “What are you waiting for?” the tyke responds, “I don’t know. Something amazing, I guess.” Office-style apps for Android are reasonably functional, but they never amaze.
That is where the aforementioned Microsoft comes in. The software giant recently released a version of its Office suite for the iPad to nearly universal acclaim and solid sales (see “Office for iPad: A Deep Look,” 3 April 2014).
The company said at that time that it has been working on touch-friendly versions of Office for Windows-based tablets and for Android devices.
Microsoft Office is the last piece of the puzzle, the remaining element to make Android (and notably these 12.2-inch Samsung tablets) serious productivity rigs. The only problem is that Microsoft gave no clue when the Android version of Office might be released — it could be months (but hopefully not years) away.
Still, I am excited to finally add Android to my list of mobile-productivity platforms. It has been a long time coming. The combination of the 12.2-inch Samsung tablets and the currently available Android productivity apps won’t excite iOS users or cause significant numbers to defect, but it is sure to delight Android stalwarts who have until now lacked anything that could compete with the iPad in any significant way. Sometimes bigger really is better, at least when it comes to tablet productivity.