Thursday, December 30, 2010

My First Android Tablet

I recently purchased an Android tablet, and I wanted to share some of my initial thoughts and reactions.  I did a good bit of research and finally decided on the Viewsonic gtablet.  The reason I decided on this tablet was that the hardware in the unit looked great on paper.  I was able to pick it up at the last minute from a Sears for cheap ($370 at the time I bought it).  But anything that I can list out here can be found at the above link.  There seem to be a lot of varying images for the tablet, but the one we ended up with looked like this

My motivation for this purchase was to entertain our twins (1 year old boys) on a long drive (28 hours in the car spread out over 4 days of driving).  We had borrowed a in car DVD player from one of my wife's co-workers, but the engineer in me spotted some immediate problems.  

  1. Keeping up with, changing, and dealing with fragile (prone to scratches) DVDs was not going to make our drive any easier.  
  2. They each get their own screen, but the screens are poor quality, only 7 inches, and only show the same image.
  3. There are a lot of wires running all over the place with these things, and if you have a toddler you know how irresistible a draping cable is!
  4. They don't have a battery (stopping for gas?) so turning off the car resets everything.
  5. While I could go on -- they are just pretty lame too...

What  you see on the screen above is the Tap-n-tap firmware that comes loaded on the tablet.  This is probably the source of most of the issues, but more about that in a bit.  For now here are some of the pros and cons for this tablet.


  • Resolution - The screen looks great when viewing it close up or even at a modest distance at a narrow viewing angle.
  • Speed - Compared to my first generation Motorola Droid and even when compared to my wife's second generation Droid the hardware (at least on paper) is quite adept.
  • Size - This thing is stylish and svelte even compared to the iPad.  The screen ratio is even better for viewing widescreen movies.
  • Battery life - The battery on this thing lasted for about 6 hours of continuous use.  We were either playing mp3s on it or playing a movie for the kids, and we did not have to charge it in the car once.
  • Sound - My wife and I watched a movie on the tablet at the in-laws one evening and much to our surprise the tiny speakers on this made a reasonable sound.  We were impressed enough that we even used it to play some holiday tunes one morning.  
But for all the pros that this tablet has there are some problems that one has to contend with.

  • The software on the tablet as it comes out of the box is not usable.  This is not and exaggeration, and keep in mind that I bought the first Android phone with the first version of the software.
  • The touch screen has issues with sensitivity.  Even once the available adjustments are set such that the screen is at its most sensitive, it is difficult to get it to register a touch.  This is especially true around the edges of the tablet.  Given the wide spread nature of this issue and the fact that it is consistent across different versions of software, I believe that there are obvious hardware limitations at play.
  • While the screen looks fantastic from strait on, the viewing angle is somewhat limited.  If you have never owned or used a slate style tablet before, then you probably aren't expecting that the tablet is a social instrument.  I was surprised by the fact that unlike a phone, the tablet provides a comfortable opportunity for collaboration.  The twins were far enough away from the tablet so that it wasn't too much of a problem, but when viewing a movie with my wife I found that the angle needed to be fine tuned frequently.

The update from Viewsonic was a vast improvement over the firmware that was on it out of the box, but the interface was still very poor.  I used a couple custom roms (Cyanogenmod and TNT-lite) and I am sure that more can be found with a quick Google search.  They made the tablet much better, but there were some lingering issues like the battery meter always reading 100% and force closes.  One piece of software that I did not get to test, but that sounded very cool was GPS tethering.  The idea is that you can take advantage of the large screen for navigation.

In preparation for our trip we needed to find a good mounting location that provided easy access from the passenger seat with a good view from the back seat.  I thought long and hard, and finally I decided that the front sunroof of our Discovery II was the solution.  I bought a cheap cell phone mount at a box retailer, and cut off the part that held the cell phone.  Then I cut a piece of plywood so that it was about 1/2 inch bigger on all four sides of the tablet.  I drilled holes at the four corners of the wood to thread elastic straps through.  The last step was to mount the stub of the phone mount to the back of the plywood.  This allowed for a lot of flexibility in placement, and held sturdily.  I will be making another one, but this time I will not be using a cheap phone mount.  The one I had used a stiff, but pliable adjustment.  The next one I build will have a hinged mechanism.

For a car charger you can't use a USB charger (not even with some custom wiring) because the output is too low.  SO I had to buy one at Radio Shack.  Not a big deal, but still an annoyance.

All in all I think the tablet fulfilled it purpose of entertaining our twins, but the thought of trying to use it for anything other than viewing media was going to be a nightmare.  The touchscreen issues killed it for me, and in the end it was returned.  Sears was great at returning it.

When I left Sears though I stopped by the Apple store to play with an iPad.  I still don't care for iOS, and the arrogant Apple clerk made me want to run screaming out of the store (full disclosure we have 4 macs at home and two more at our jobs).  That being said, there is no comparison between the responsiveness, and how smooth the iPad operates.  Maybe jailbreaking would make me feel better about the closed nature of the iPad, but that won't help me swallow the price.  Still this just reinfoces the idea that you get what you pay for, and after this experience I am going to have a hard time buying another Android tablet.  I just don't feel good about being an iPad owner.