Thursday, March 24, 2011

Initial Thoughts: iPad 2 vs. Android 3.0 (Honeycomb)

I'm a big proponent of open source software.  I absolutely love my HTC Evo 4G (running CyanogenMod 7), and I've been using Ubuntu on my home computers pretty much exclusively for ~5 years now.  I use MythTV on my media server so I can record OTA HDTV broadcasts via my antenna for free; it even automatically detects commercial breaks so I can skip them with a simple press of a button when I'm watching recorded TV shows.  It's pretty sweet.

So, simply put, Apple products aren't really designed with me in mind.  I like to have full control over my software and hardware so I can tinker with it to get it to run just the way I want.  That's the beauty of open source software, but it's not for everyone.  Apple makes excellent hardware, and their software works beautifully together.  My issue with Apple isn't their products, but rather with how their software is managed.  Apple's iPhone, iPod, and iPad products are also meant to be managed with iTunes, which I can't use because I run Ubuntu.  I prefer my mobile device to act like a USB flash drive so I can transfer music and other documents to it myself and have it detected by the device's software without issue.  This lets me use my Evo as a USB storage device to transfer files between pretty much any computer I want without them needing to have iTunes installed.

I tried out the Motorola Xoom for a few weeks when it came out, but with it being Android's tablet debut, the Android software just isn't there yet.  Primarily, I wanted to be able to use the Xoom to view PowerPoint presentations and PDF files for school, and annotate them (and view PPT notes) as necessary.  Documents To Go, unfortunately, does not have these capabilities on Android (yet?).  The delay in software being released is mostly understandable, seeing as Honeycomb (the new version of the Android operating system) is VERY new while Apple's iPad has been around for almost a year now.  Unfortunately, this just wasn't going to work very well as a study tool, so I ended up returning it so I could wait for the newer (and cheaper) Android tablets coming out later this Spring/Summer.

Two close friends of mine in medical school absolutely love Apple products.  They're not software tinkerers or OSS advocates like I am, and Apple products work wonderfully for them.  I frequently remind them of Apple's shady practices and how much they limit their products' capabilities in order to lock consumers into the Apple ecosystem, but they're pretty much already in that ecosystem already so they don't mind.  To each his own, and Apple products serve their needs very well, but I do try to remind them that the Apple approach isn't always the best just because Apple says it is.

But being tabletless until at least June, I decided to put my money where my mouth is: I bought an iPad 2 today.  I know that there are apps that can do what I need for school, and after I jailbreak the iPad 2 (when it's available, hopefully next week), I may have enough freedom with the software to do what I want without Apple's restrictions.  Another benefit of Apple products is that they have excellent resale value.  Knowing that, if I end up not liking the iPad 2, I can always sell it on Craigslist in June when I pick up an Android tablet and probably only lose $50-$75.  What do I have to lose, right?

So over the next few months, I'll be trying out my first Apple product.  I'll post my thoughts and opinions throughout this experience, but I wanted you to know where I'm coming from as an Android/Ubuntu user.  I'm not the typical Apple user because I don't want iTunes to try to do everything for me -- I prefer to have more control over my user experience.  Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to this, and I'll start with my initial impressions from having the iPad for a few hours.

Initial Impressions
The iPad 2 is very pretty, skinny, and light.  Apple makes absolutely beautiful hardware!  The colors and brightness of the screen are excellent.  Images on the screen seem to "pop" a lot more than they did on my Xoom, although the screen isn't quite as sharp as far as the resolution goes.  The UI is very speedy and lag is rare.  It's still present in some apps, which made me feel a little better about my Xoom, which would have lag every now and then until it ramped up the CPU speed as necessary.  I won't get into the software too much otherwise because I'm not used to it and some of my complaints might be addressed once the device is jailbroken.  It's comfortable to hold, both with its weight and rounded edges.  Typing can be a little awkward because even in portrait mode my thumbs don't comfortable reach the center of the screen (as with pretty much all tablets), so I'm hoping I can find a "thumb keyboard" after the jailbreak is made available.  SwiftKey has a special thumb keyboard beta for Honeycomb, and I got to use it for about a day before returning my Xoom and that keyboard was awesome!

As far as initial negative impressions, I miss having consistent UI buttons, whether they're software or hardware keys.  On Android, you always have a back, menu, home, and search button (that setup is a little different in Honeycomb; nevertheless, the main softkeys are still there but in a different configuration).  In iOS, most apps have a "back" button somewhere at the top of the screen so you can go back to the previous screen, but it's not quite as convenient or consistent as having a dedicated "back" button.  The "menu" button is also missed, because if I want to add something or change settings, I knew that I'd find that option by pressing "menu" on my Android device.  In iOS, this isn't as consistent.  A lot of things can be adjusted from the "Settings" app from the homescreen.  This is awesome if I want to adjust settings for the device and multiple apps (assuming they have their settings there), but less so if I just want to add another calendar from my Google account without exiting the Calendar app.

Aspects of iOS are also still tethered to a PC, which seems silly at this point.  I had to boot into Windows on my desktop so I could activate my iPad in iTunes and begin using it.  Why can't I create an iTunes/Apple account from the iPad?  I understand connecting to iTunes to sync music and other media files, but having to do so to just begin using the device makes no sense to me.  The iPad platform has been around for a year now, and Apple's promotional video (Conan did a hilarious spoof of this video) loves to call it a "post-PC device", in which case I have to wonder why I have to connect a "post-PC device" to a computer and download/install 100+ MB of software just so I can begin using it!?  I also had to sync the iPad to iTunes again just to get it to import my Google contacts.  I'm not sure why the iPad can't do this on its own over WiFi.

So those are my initial thoughts.  I'll have more to say after I'm able to jailbreak the iPad and spend some more time with it.  In the meantime, I'm looking forward to the experience and I'm trying to keep an open mind.  Google and Android are far from perfect, and I'm curious to see how the pros/cons compare between the Google approach and the Apple approach to mobile devices and software.  I'll keep you all updated!

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