In the past, I’ve counselled buying a tablet that has 3G (cellular) access, but this may not be the best option for you

My reasoning has always been straightforward. You will quite probably wish to take your tablet around with you. That’s what it’s for. But, away from your own wi-fi setup, you may not be able to connect to anyone else’s wi-fi. if you do not have a 3G (cellular) connection available to you then you may have no internet access.

On the other hand, buying a tablet with 3G access will, typically, cost you about £100 more than a tablet that relies solely on wi-fi access. You will also need to subscribe to a 3G plan costing from £5-£15 a month. So, it’s not exactly cheap to have 3G access.

iPhone with wi-fi iconWith a newish smartphone, though, you may have an alternative method of connecting your tablet to the internet. You may be able to configure the smartphone so that it becomes a “personal hotspot”. In other words, your smartphone broadcasts a wi-fi signal that your tablet can use. If you manage to connect this way then the data downloaded to the tablet will, of course, count against your data download allowance for the smartphone providing the wi-fi. But it means that you only need one device with 3G access to get internet access on both devices.

In years gone by, the mobile service providers (Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile etc) used to “cripple” the phones that they provided to stop you from doing this. The small print of their contracts also expressly forbade using their data plans in this way unless explicitly stated otherwise. I remember about five years ago paying-T-Mobile about £10 per month more so that I could pass an Internet connection from my Windows mobile phone to my netbook via a USB cable (it was known as “tethering” then). In fact, I think I’m still on the same plan, but it’s much cheaper now.

I have just carried out a very quick survey of Orange and Vodaphone plans on their websites and can’t find any reference to personal hotspots so maybe they no longer worry about whether you are using your data allowance on your smartphone or on a connected device (and why should they?). It’s still possible, though, that if your iPhone was supplied as part of your contract, then the method detailed below will not be available to you. It may also be good advice to check the details of your plan to ensure that you won’t get hit by large charges.

It wouldn’t work for me, anyway, as I use an iPhone 3GS. This does have the option to create a personal hotspot, but the connection is via a USB cable or bluetooth. I have, in the past, used the connection via a USB cable to a Windows netbook, but I’ve never had much luck with bluetooth.

iPhone Personal Hotspot settingsHowever, if you have an iPhone 4 or 5 then your “Personal Hotspot” settings include an option to “connect using wifi”. This is simple and secure. Just follow the instructions (as illustrated). If you go into “Settings” and then “Personal Hotspot” but do not see the option to “connect using Wi-Fi” then it is either being blocked by your provider or you have iPhone 3 or earlier.

This potentially very handy facility was pointed out to me by a reader, and it caused a little lightbulb to ping into life in my head. I bought a 3G data plan with my first tablet last year. It came with a mobile broadband USB “dongle” so that you can put the 3G SIM into this and connect a Windows machine (such as a netbook) to the internet. So, if I needed an internet connection on either of my Sony tablet or netbook, I would fiddle about, removing the SIM from one device and putting it in the other.

When I moved to an iPad Mini I carried on with the same method. This was made even more fiddly by the fact that the iPad Mini uses a “nano” SIM, whereas the dongle is made for a “micro” SIM, so the SIM has to be put into an adaptor before fitting to the dongle. All rather tedious and just the sort of thing I don’t want to be doing in front of a client in their time.

So, this lightbulb moment consisted of realising that the iPad may be able to serve as a “personal hotspot” and give the netbook an internet connection just like an iPhone 4 or 5 can. And it can! Magic! The SIM now stays in the iPad. Giving internet access to the netbook (or even a client’s machine) consists of just going into “Settings” and “Personal Hotspot” on the iPad and then connecting to that wi-fi signal on the other machine.

If you have an Android smartphone, then you may or may not be able to create a personal hotspot. Go into “Wireless and Network Settings” and look for “tethering and portable hotspot”. On a Windows mobile phone go into settings and look for “Internet sharing”. I understand that newer Blackberries with the latest operating system can also provide a wi-fi personal hotspot.

Conclusion: you don’t necessarily need 3G access on a device if you can create a wi-fi personal hotspot from another device. You could even use this method to give internet access to your home setup if your home broadband service went down.

… and I’ve just found out what “SIM” stands for – it’s a “Subscriber Identity Module”.

iPhone 3GS

Is there a self-help group for people who fear becoming “Apple Fanboys”?

I bought my iPhone 3GS secondhand almost a year ago. According to Wikipedia, the 16gb version was discontinued in mid 2010, so that makes it 3-4 years old now – maybe time for a replacement. I didn’t buy it with the intention of using it as my own smartphone: just for learning how to use it so that I could help my computer clients with their own iPhones. However, it took less than a weekend for me to be completely convinced that the iPhone was the phone for me. It’s been faultless for a year and can still support the latest operating system (updated to version 6.1.2 just this morning). I’d like to convince myself that it’s worth spending up to £699 to buy an iPhone 5, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason at all to do that. OK, I don’t have Siri, but I wouldn’t use that anyway and I’ve only seen one of my computer clients use it. The iPhone just works so well and so intuitively for so many different apps that I am content to accept its shortcomings. I don’t actually mind that there are very few configurable options. I’ve seen what a “configurable environment” in phoneland looks like by having an Android tablet and it is, in a word, messy. I do realise that the last few sentences encapsulate the difference between the Apple view of the world and the worldview shared by Microsoft and the Android systems – and that it seems as if I’m slipping over to the dark side. Oh dear.

iPhone - selecting text

A long press brings up the handles and the commands. Drag the handles and then issue the command

One thing I’ve been having a lot of difficulty with, as a “PC man”, is getting to grips with the cut/copy/paste function on the iPad and iPhone. It has recently dawned on me what the problem has been. On a PC, you first select the piece that you want to work with (by dragging the mouse over it), and then you tell the system what you want to do with it (eg cut or copy) . It works the other way on an iPhone or iPad. There, you start by issuing the command with a long press (to bring the select/select all option up) and THEN you select the content by dragging the handles to the start and endpoints, and THEN you issue the command.

I’ve found the copy/paste on the iPhone and iPad so much easier since that small fact sank in, that I’ve now found it’s worth using it to help in another situation – typing long text messages in that awful cramped space with that awful iPhone keyboard. What I do now is create the text message on my ipad or on a PC and send it to myself as an email. I open that email on the iPhone, select and copy the text, and then paste it into the tiny little text box in the text app. I no longer have to try and do very much on the little iPhone keyboard. This is much quicker and easier to do than to read about, but it’s only worth the effort for text messages longer than a sentence or so.

Also on the subject of the iphone keyboard (and, probably, other smartphone keyboards as well), I wonder if it took you as long as it took me to realise that typing is much easier if you tip the phone over into landscape mode. Duuh! My excuse for taking so long to realise this is that my previous three smartphones had been HTCs with “proper” inbuilt keyboards so I never gave the orientation a second thought. I miss having a proper keyboard on the iPhone, but I’m prepared to pay that price.

Woman touching iPhone to noseOne cold morning earlier this week I was on a number 35 bus heading for Clapham Junction. There was a rather elegantly-dressed young lady sitting close by with an iphone in her hand. She was wearing black leather gloves. Now, as we all know, the iPhone has a “capacitive screen” (see this earlier blog on capacitive screens). You can’t get the iPhone to recognise the touch of a gloved finger. Instead of taking her glove off, this young lady was operating her iPhone by tapping it with her nose! She looked quite good at it (if somewhat silly). If being skilled with one’s fingers makes one dexterous, does this make her “nastrous”?

My clients sometimes ask me what computers I have. In short – nothing special. Nevertheless, I thought I’d indulge myself by telling you

My main machine is a Samsung RF511 15 inch laptop

Samsung RF511 Laptop

Samsung RF511 Laptop

Bought in late 2011 for about £700, this has 8gb RAM and 1tb hard drive (1tb = 1 terabyte = 1000gb = 1000 gigabytes). It has the middle-of-the-range Intel i5 processor (better spec than the i3, but lower than the i7).

This is my third Samsung laptop. They have all been solid and reliable. It does everything I need and is well up to the job. I would only crave a higher specification if I started editing video files.


 

My Samsung NC10 netbook still provides excellent service

When I bought my first tablet last year I tried to see if it could replace the netbook that I always carried with me when visiting my computer clients. The answer is “no”. The lack of a proper keyboard definitely hampers a tablet if you are going to do a lot of typing (such as writing a blog post or a business proposal or something of that nature). Also, if I am with a client and need my own machine to fetch something off the internet for transfer to the client’s machine, there is too much fiddling about working out how to achieve it with a tablet (whose connectivity is somewhat challenged).

Nevertheless, the netbook is at least twice as large and heavy as a tablet, so now I tend to think carefully beforehand about what I’m likely to need on any particular client visit. I used to think this decision-making was a bit of a nuisance (and rather challenging early in the morning), but that’s the wrong way to look at it. The need to make a decision between them proves that they are doing different jobs: they are not perfect substitutes for each other. So, if you are thinking about buying one machine for carrying around with you, it really does pay to think carefully about exactly what you want it for. I wrote a blog post on Tablet vs Netbook a few months ago.

I love my new iPad Mini

I’m still new to this, but some aspects of the iPad Mini really stand out:

  • Superb build and finish
  • Perfect balance between size/weight and usability
  • Ease and smoothness of use

I chose to buy the mid size of storage – 32gb. I’m already thinking that maybe the 64gb would have been better for me. This is because I like seeing my photos on the iPad, and I’ve finally started downloading from BBC iPlayer (thanks to the Christmas TV schedules reaching a new level of dreadfulness this year). I have been astonished at just how smooth the whole process of downloading and viewing TV programs from BBC iPlayer to the iPad has been. This led me to thinking about connecting the iPad to my (old but fantastic) Sony Bravia TV. I know I should have got used to Apple by now, but I still get enjoyment from being outraged at their prices. In this case, the outrage was caused by finding that an official Apple connector from the iPad to an HDMI lead costs £39.

So where does that leave my Sony Android tablet?

Sony Tablet S

Sony Tablet S

I think this has now become the most expensive digital photo frame I could have bought. For anyone wanting to avoid Apple and buy an Android-based tablet, this is probably still a perfectly reasonable machine. For myself, though, I now find the disparate bits of software on the Android clunky and messy. This tablet is just no fun any more, after experiencing the iPad for a couple of weeks. I’m trying not to feel guilty about buying the Sony tablet. Actually, it’s not such a bad situation for me as I needed to have an Android machine to provide support to my clients. For anyone else contemplating buying a tablet, I would suggest that the first question might be “Am I prepared to consider Apple and the price of an iPad?” If the answer to that is “yes”, then look seriously at the iPad before looking at anything else.

My Samsung Q35 notebook is still going strong

This was my “main machine” for five years. It has behaved absolutely perfectly, except that the display is now starting to go darker. I could always overcome this by connecting an external display, of course, but it’s not necessary as this machine is now semi-retired: it just hosts Windows Vista, so that I can provide support for that operating system as needed.

My Compaq Desktop also looks set to work until the end of time

Goodness knows how old this machine is – eight years at least. It now has two hard drives as its day job is to host data backups from my other machines. It’s also the only machine I now have that hosts Windows XP. Definitely still needed as there are plenty of people out there who still look for support for Windows XP. Remember, though, that Microsoft will stop providing all support for XP – even security updates – next year.

Nearly forgot my Mac Mini

As most of my regular clients know, I’ve never been a big fan of Mac OSx machines. I’m trying to change that now – partly because an increasing number of my computer support clients want me to, and partly because I’m slowly being won over to all things Apple – seduced as I have been by the iPhone and the iPad. At the moment, though, my Mac serves mainly as a rather expensive music player and as a tool for helping me to support my Mac clients. The machine is now three years old and I’ve never had a single problem with the hardware – despite my pulling it apart to double the RAM and install a larger drive.

Mission Control

Mission Control – but not in Clapham!

Now that I look at this list of hardware, it doesn’t seem too ridiculously self-indulgent for a Computer Support Consultant. I reckon the 7 machines I’ve listed here have given me a total of 24 years service. That’s an average of about 3.5 years each. I think most home users and individual professionals keep their computers for 3-5 years.

Hmm, does that mean I can soon have a Microsoft Surface?

Today’s blog is just a couple of iPhone/iPad items that I want to share with you but which don’t merit a blog post of their own

First Impressions of the iPad Mini

So many of my clients have been asking me for training on their iPads that eventually I had to have a chat with myself about whether to buy one. The problem was that I had bought a Sony tablet earlier in the year to learn the Android operating system, so could I really justify the cost of buying another tablet? Well, the decision became much easier with the release of the iPad Mini. This is completely compatible with the iPad software-wise, so anything you can do on an iPad can be done on an iPad mini. The only differences are the physical size and the Mini does not have the new “retina display”. I managed to convince myself that the iPad Mini wasn’t replicating the utility of the Sony as I needed to see if the smaller size really is relevant in choosing a tablet (well, it seemed like a convincing reason to me).

By the time that the 3G version (or “cellular” version, as Apple call it) was released at the beginning of December, I had convinced myself that I need one. At first I ritually phoned the Apple store in Regent Street every day for a week and waited 15 minutes in the phone queue each time before being told they hadn’t got any yet, but they might have tomorrow so please call again. Then I had a brainwave and went to the John Lewis website and found they’d got eight and I could place my order today and collect from the Oxford Street store tomorrow. Absolute cinch. No problems.

iPod Mini in Filofax

The iPad Mini fits neatly into an A5 Filofax as long as there’s not too much paperwork in there (which there shouldn’t be, of course, as most things are on the iPad!)

It’s a beaut. I’d long since suspected that the iPad was better than an Android tablet and I was right. If you are thinking of buying a tablet I would suggest that your starting point might favour an iPad unless you have a specific reason for looking elsewhere (eg price or a specific application/need that can’t be satisfied by Apple apps). I was amazed at the difference that the size of the iPad mini makes. It has very little of the feeling of being difficult and cramped that you can easily encounter using any smartphone (iPhone or otherwise), and yet it really is light enough to hold in one hand for more than a minute or two at a time. It’s so small and light that I can imagine hardly leaving home without it. I carry an A5 size Filofax around with me when I am working and was chuffed to realise that I can actually carry the iPad Mini safely zipped inside the Filofax. That’s it, then – more or less my entire office in a stylish A5 leather case. How cool is that?

If you are considering buying a tablet – and especially an iPad – then I would seriously suggest that you check out the iPad Mini as well as the standard one. You might easily find that the smaller size is a benefit. One final suggestion, and this is one that I do not apologise for repeating, is that I recommend you consider buying a tablet with in-built 3G. They tend to be about £100 more than the WiFi-only versions, but the usefulness of any tablet is severely hampered if you don’t have an internet connection. You can’t always rely on being able to connect to someone else’s WiFi when you’re away from home. Buying a tablet without 3G connectivity is, as my mother would say, “spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar”.


Marking all emails as “Read” on the iPhone and iPad

iPhone 3GS

I bought this secondhand iPhone 3GS to learn about IOS. Within two days it had become my main smartphone. HTC, eat your heart out.

Apart from the dreadful soggy and imprecise keyboard, I really like my iPhone 3GS. Everything is very smooth and as intuitive as it gets. However, there is one feature of the Mail program (or lack of feature, actually) that niggles me several times a day – the inability to mark all incoming emails as “read” with a single touch.

Actually, this isn’t the iPhone’s problem: it’s in the IOS operating system, so it’s the same on the iPad. I’ve seen most of my incoming emails on my main laptop so don’t need to read them on the iPhone. Therefore, I just want to mark them all as “read” so that I can ignore them. Why on earth isn’t there a one-touch feature that marks all emails as read? The easiest way that I have found is:

  • Go to the Inbox
  • Tap the “edit” button
  • Click the circle against each “unread” message (one at a time!)
  • Tap the “mark” button
  • Tap the “Mark as Read” button

Phew. If anyone knows of a quicker way, I’d love to hear of it.

Tablet or netbook? Which is best? Fight!

Since I’ve been going on about my new toy (a Sony Tablet) recently, several of my computer support clients have asked me whether they should buy a tablet or a netbook to take away with them on holiday.

It seems that we’ve now reached the position where even comparatively “casual” computer users want and expect to be connected when they are away from their static computer.

I’ve found that – even when taking into account what I know of the client’s habits, preferences, and wants – it’s often not clear which is the better option. So, I thought it might be useful to list what I see as the salient features, and try to give some idea of how the different formats compare:

Table of comparisons between tablets and netbooks

My own personal experience

Whenever I go to visit a computer client, I find that I am now making a conscious decision as to whether I will be likely to need my netbook (which is more powerful and gives me pretty well everything I have on my static computers), or can I get away with taking just the Tablet (much lighter, and more convenient for short sessions – such as checking emails or catching up with news or blogs). Certainly I would now take the tablet in preference to the netbook if going away for days, unless I expected to have a work-related reason for taking the netbook.

Conclusion

There’s a great deal of overlap between netbooks and tablets. If I needed to bring it down to a simple formula for deciding which I’d recommend, I’d say:

  • Consider whether you have an overwhelming reason for buying a netbook (probably to do with the keyboard or needing Windows software).
  • Tend towards a tablet for fun and leisure purposes.
  • Tend towards a netbook if you just think of the thing as a “tool” and want the minimum “involvement” coupled with the maximum “functionality”.

Policeman's helemts and tablets - visual punA few weeks ago, I bought a Sony tablet, wondering how useful it would be. Click here for my initial thoughts.

So, was it worth it? Yes. Other people will undoubtedly have different uses and priorities, and other tablets may have different strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless I thought it might be useful for any of my computer support clients who are thinking of buying a tablet computer to hear an evaluation from my few weeks of use.

As a Worktool

Plus

  • Much easier to dig out of a backpack and start using than a netbook. Very useful on longer tube journeys to catch up with reading technology blogs and news feeds. These are automatically updated when connected to a wifi or 3g network so are ready and waiting even on the tube. The e-reader is also good for these times as well, of course.
  • Emails and web browsing are much better tackled on a tablet than on a smartphone. I’m now on my third smartphone and have never yet managed to overcome the limitations of web browsing on such a small device.
  • Thanks to “Dropbox” I can easily access most of my important office files – including Word, Excel, pdf, jpg files. It took a bit of working out how to manage OneNote on the tablet (using the same data files as on the laptop at home), but I think I’m there now and just have to train myself to use it properly.This means that I have most of what I need on the Tablet when I’m onsite, providing computer support.

Minus

  • I haven’t yet found a perfect solution for a password manager that has a Windows application (for the laptop) and an Android app (for the Tablet) and that shares the same data file.
  • File encryption and password-protection don’t seem to be very advanced in the Android environment. It’s true that you can set up the Tablet to require a password to access it initially but I like to have another layer of security for sensitive files.
  • I haven’t found a way of reading Access data files on the Tablet. This is no surprise. Databases are very complicated and I imagine it would take a great deal of work to create something useful. My guess is that this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future as it seems that everyone expects to get their programs (“apps”) for free on Android or to pay no more than a pound or two. I think it would be pushing expectations too far to think that a Tablet could cope with Access applications or that anyone would invest a lot of time and brainpower in creating something that the market would only be prepared to pay a fiver for. My own compromise (when I get round to it) will be to define more reports in my Access database that print to pdf files in my Dropbox folder. Those reports will be immediately available on the Tablet and updating the pdf versions won’t be too onerous.

Sony Tablet S

Sony Tablet S

As a Plaything

Plus

  • Photos look great on the Sony Tablet.
  • Beyond Pod” is a great program that downloads the latest blog postings, news items, podcasts for offline reading/listening.
  • BBC iplayer works fine in “normal” mode. It does stutter a little bit if played full screen.
  • Playback quality of videos is excellent if the video itself is recorded at a good quality.
  • All the little apps are great. Some that I happen to like include live bus/tube/train information, live Google Analytics, BBC newsreader, weather, the online versions of the Grauniad and Indy, documents scanner, pinball games, and loads more.

Minus

  • The screen doesn’t go quite bright enough in strong light.
  • The speakers are very tinny (but you can connect headphones or external speakers – as I do when watching BBC iPlayer in the kitchen).
  • I’m not sure that the battery life is good enough to be able to expect a whole day’s use and, unfortunately, the Sony Tablet doesn’t re-charge via a USB connection. Instead, it has its own proprietory charger and connection (that you wouldn’t want to carry around with you).
  • The onboard data storage is a bit limited. I made a wrong assumption that I could have as much storage as I liked because there is a slot for a 32gb SD card. This is true, but you can’t install programs onto that card and most programs won’t access data from this external card.

    In practice, this is not as bad as it sounds because you can launch video files directly from the external SD card, view photographs, and listen to music (although I’ve only got it to play music tracks on at a time so far). Since video, music, and picture files are by far the largest types of files you would want on a Tablet, this means that the restrictions that apply to the external SD card are not as bad as they first seem. Nevertheless, whether buying a Sony or any other type of Tablet, I would now recommend looking carefully into the storage situation and how you can connect external storage. Another mistaken assumption I made was to think that because the Sony has a USB interface I could connect an external hard drive – not so. It will recognise a “flash drive” (ie a pen drive) but not a hard drive. This is probably due to power restrictions. Again, this may be different with other types of Tablet, so I would recommend investigating carefully when buying a Tablet if these aspects are important to you.

Conclusion: if you like electronic gadgets and/or would like something more sophisticated, versatile, and easier to use than a smartphone, or are considering buying a netbook, then you may be as pleased as I am with what tablets can do and how well they do it.

I wasn’t really expecting it, but I can honestly say that the Sony Tablet has put a lot of fun back into computing for me and it’s useful as well. It hasn’t yet completely replaced my netbook, but it may do so in the next few months. One caveat, though, is that I bought a Sony Tablet. These are good machines that I am sure compare well with the iPad (click here for a review of the iPad 3). I really don’t know if the cheaper tablets offer comparable functionality and value for money.

Since I bought my Sony Tablet S I’ve been trying to consolidate all the different bits of software I use so that as much as possible is available on both my main Windows 7 laptop and on the Android tablet. “Android“, by the way, is the operating system on the Tablet. In other words, it does the job that Windows does on most computers. It was specially designed for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet PCs where the screen is typically much smaller than that on a PC and where there is likely to be no physical keyboard.

So, if you want to move smoothly between a laptop and a mobile device with the same data and functionality available on each device then you have to consider:

  • Whether there is an identical or similar program available on both devices.
  • Whether these programs access the same data files so that you don’t have to worry about trying to reconcile different versions of your data.

As I said in my earlier blog on Tablet PCs, I am new to Android and I’m pleased and surprised at how good it is with these considerations. I haven’t got it all sorted out yet and some requirements are easier to satisfy than others, but so far I am encouraged and I think it is very possible for users with the typical needs and skills of my own computer support clients to get value from a smart mobile device. Some people may need some help to get started, but once things are set up they seem stable and user-friendly (Android devices, that is, not my computer clients – whose stability and user-friendliness is beyond doubt).

So, as part of that quest to get my main work needs met on a Tablet PC I went looking for a modern “Task Manager” (or “To-Do-List Manager”) that I could access from a Windows PC or Android Tablet.

ToodleDo logoI came across ToodleDo and certainly think it’s worth looking at. It works as follows:

  • It is web-based. You access it through a web browser (such as Internet Explorer or Firefox).
  • Your data (tasks, reminders etc) are held by ToodleDo on their servers.
  • Consequently, your data is available from any computer that can access the internet. It could be a Windows PC, a Mac, a Tablet PC, a smartphone.

This “model” or “arrangement” of working through a web browser is becoming more and more popular. You’ve probably heard the term “Cloud Computing” and this is it. You don’t install a program onto your own computer, you don’t have to back up your data (if you trust whoever is hosting your data to do it properly), and you don’t have to copy or reconcile different data files between different devices. It’s not really new, of course: web-based email programs such as Hotmail have worked this way for years. But it’s now becoming more and more popular for other types of programs and one of the reasons for the growing popularity is this need to have the same data available on lots of different devices.

There can be disadvantages to this approach:

  • You may need to have a working internet connection to be able to access your data (but some programs allow downloading of your data onto your own computer so as to make it available “offline” – ie available even when there is no internet connection).
  • You may be concerned about the privacy and security of your data as it’s online (“in the cloud”) and outside your own control.
  • Web-based programs are often slower, have fewer features, and are generally less pleasant to use than the equivalent “local” program would be.

A ToodleDo Screen

A ToodleDo Screen - click on image to enlarge it.

Despite the disadvantages, you don’t have to have lots of different devices to make it worth using cloud-based programs such as ToodleDo. There’s no reason at all why you can’t use it on your one and only PC. Some of the things I like about it so far are:

  • It’s free (there’s a “Pro” version available that has an annual subscription fee).
  • There are lots of ways of classifying, sorting, and prioritising tasks.
  • It’s easy to use.
  • You can receive a daily email listing the most important tasks for the day.
  • You can create tasks/reminders just by sending an email to a special email address linked to your account. This is useful for creating tasks as soon as you think of them, but it also means you can forward an incoming email to this special address so that it’s on your “to do” list.
  • There’s a data backup/restore feature (but not, as far as I know, a method for working “offline”).

So, whether or not you use more than one computer, if you are looking for a Task Manager I recommend looking at ToodleDo. And if you are thinking you may want to be using a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet in the future then I would definitely recommend bearing that fact in mind when choosing any new program or way of working.

Tablet PCs are like smartphones in that the main method of input is via a touchscreen rather than a keyboard but the much larger screens make using them a lot easier. They are like netbooks computers (but even lighter) in that they make “mobile computing” easier than lugging around a laptop computer.

I like computer gadgets up to a point, but like to think that my purchasing decisions have some rational basis. So, I’ve been wondering whether tablet PCs are just the latest trendy/geeky toy, or would one really have a place in my own computing life and that of my average computer support client in London. I do have a perfectly rational (if insufficient) reason for buying a Tablet PC in that a lot of them run the Android operating system (as opposed to Windows or Mac OS-X, for instance) and I need to learn about Android so as to be able to offer informed advice to my computer clients. Here’s a quick intro to Android.

Sony Tablet S

Sony Tablet S

So, last weekend I bought a Sony Tablet S. The nerd in me will be happy for months. But would it have any appeal for my “average computer client” and does it serve any real purpose not covered by laptops, netbooks, and smartphones? Here are some of my first impressions:

  • They’re not cheap. I paid £449 – a typical price for a “good” Tablet PC. You can buy a perfectly serviceable laptop for that price and the lack of keyboard on Tablets means that I think most people would find it hard to completely replace a “proper” computer (although it’s possible to connect an external keyboard to some Tablets).
  • Android is easy. The Android operating system was specifically written for devices whose main method of input is via a touchscreen (rather than lots of fiddly little keys – how do people with grown up hands actually use Blackberrys?) Android also seems intuitive and easy to learn.
  • Android is fun. You have probably heard the term “apps”. These are small programs that perform just one function (eg display a clock, load the BBC news site, open your email program, connect to your LinkedIn account). They are very easy to find online and install. Most apps are free but have small embedded ads. There is often an ad-free version that costs all of a pound or two.

After only a few days, I am fairly sure that the Tablet will – for me – fulfil some definite purposes such as:

  • Browsing the internet when I’m away from a proper computer. I just can’t be bothered struggling with the mobile phone versions of web browsing.
  • Dealing with emails properly when away from a computer. My mobile phone includes a keyboard but it’s still not ideal for writing a long email. The touchscreen keyboard on the Sony Tablet is easy to use – a million times easier than the virtual keyboard on an iphone! You can whip a Tablet out of a briefcase and be working on it in seconds – much more convenient than getting out a netbook in a train, for instance.
  • Ebooks. I’ve already got a Sony e-reader but didn’t quite think it worth lugging the weight of it around with all the other stuff in my case. As far as the weight is concerned, I can think of having an e-reader with me as “free” if it’s installed on the Tablet. If your are thinking of buying an e-reader I would recommend thinking about whether a tablet would be a better buy for you.
  • I think I’ll be able to get things set up so that I have proper access to my most important documents when I’m out and about – thanks to Dropbox and its Android app.

There’s a chance that I may even be able to carry the Tablet around with me instead of the heavier netbook. The main problem might be the downloading and transferring of stuff to clients’ computers. Some tablets – such as the Sony – include support for SD cards for extra storage and for data transfer. This might be enough for most of my needs. I certainly wouldn’t have bought a tablet without such flexibility.

Apple iPad 2

Apple iPad 2

The tablet will also become something to keep to hand at home. It gives such easy and quick access to everything you can’t quite be bothered to check on your “proper computer” and which is just too tedious to do on a smartphone – things such as checking the outside temperature just before going out, seeing what’s on telly, checking travel news, and, if you’re that way inclined, checking into social networking sites. The Sony Tablet even has inbuilt infrared so you can program it to replace your TV and DVD remote controls.

I’ve had a few moments of delighted surprise playing with this thing – such as discovering the app that measures the severity of an ongoing earthquake. OK – that’s probably not funny if you live in Japan or California, but it seems so in SW4. The biggest surprise, though, was discovering the app that relays the current information on bus services. This, of course, is the data you now get on the dot matrix boards at some bus stops, but having it on a Tablet means you can leave home at just the right moment. As someone who gave up driving round London 20 years ago but who travels a lot to clients, this is one of those marvels of modern life – like GPS integrated with the A-Z on my smartphone.

This is a highly personal view of what a Tablet PC might do better than a smartphone or a netbook/laptop. There are plenty of other directions I could have explored so far – including watching movies and TV, playing games, twittering, music etc. So far, I’ve discovered that Tablet PCs do, indeed, fall somewhere between smartphones and netbooks but that doesn’t mean they have no real purpose. On the contrary, stuff that’s mildly interesting but too tedious to access in other ways is easily accessed via a Tablet.

I do acknowledge that the current popularity (but NOT the creation) of Tablet PCs began with the release of the iPad. Pretty well everything I’ve said about Android Tablets is probably true of iPads (but all the Apps are different versions and are only accessible via Apple).

Conclusion: Tablet PCs do fill a niche, and they’re fun. Your life probably won’t become empty and meaningless without one, but If you’re at all curious about them I recommend further investigation. And, so far at least, I thoroughly recommend the Sony Tablet S.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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