Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Portable Device Purchase Paralysis

For the past few months, I have wanted to purchase a portable computing device but have been paralyzed by an inability to determine what best to buy. I don't have the budget to buy everything, so I've been trying to decide whether to buy a tablet, e-reader, or netbook. Recently our laptop computer has been gravely ill and so this adds to my purchase dilemma.

Basically, my requirements for a portable device is that it facilitates reading, note-taking, word processing, and Internet browsing. I'd also like something that plays DVDs as this has proven invaluable for entertaining my daughter when direly needed.

Media coverage and reviews of these devices hasn't helped me choose what to buy. Fortunately, my faculty provides loaners of tablets, netbooks, and e-readers, so I have been able to take these out for a test drive.

Recently, I tried an iPad for a few days. My faculty doesn't have an iPad 2, but from what I gather iPad 2 significantly differs in offering more content creation functionality. As this isn't essential for me, the original iPad seemed like it would meet most of my needs.

Within a few moments of using the iPad, I was greatly impressed on how user-friendly and intuitive it is. I have never used touchscreen devices beyond various service kiosks or amusements, but I was able to start using it within seconds. I have seen demos and tried it on in stores so I wasn't completely new on what to do, but considering how limited my prior experience was, the ease of use is a sufficient accomplishment.

Apple's user experience (UX) status is legendary, but my prior (all bad) experiences with Mac and the cultish fervour of Apple devotees had put me off Apple for years. I didn't have an instruction manual or getting started guide (not that these have historically been particularly useful). So it did take me trial-and-error playing around to figure out some operational functions.

Overall, I found the iPad to be a great content consumption device as hyped. The display of graphics and documents are better than any other mobile device or even a regular desktop computer I've encountered. Graphics looked amazing! I was also very impressed with how quickly programs load and close. The touch interface to read documents is incredible - it is so easy to turn pages, adjust display size, or to zoom in.

The device also passed the public transit test. On a crowded bus or subway, it is impossible to use most devices except smartphones. I even found it annoying to use a netbook without a stable surface to set it on - so using it at live events or lectures is often difficult. But the iPad in contrast, due to its size, weight, and on-screen keyboard enable it to be used in the less-than-ideal environments that I frequent.

Even though the device itself was relatively easy and convenient to use, there were some serious usability problems. The iPod doesn't handle direct light well, as I found the Kobo e-reader did. I was surprised that I couldn't view at all the screen with my sunglasses on (the polarizations must not like each other) which is a real pain in sunny conditions. The omnipresent fingerprints on the screen also drove me crazy.

The device seems to have problems discerning a precise location of a user's touch. This was a huge problem when trying to edit notes as it seems impossible to direct the cursor to the middle of a word. Similarly, web-browsing was unnecessarily painful as it was often too difficult to click on links or open menus.

The two things that I most hated with the iPad were the difficulty in typing and the inability to import photos any way without an iTunes account. I read a workaround to avoid using iTunes to import photos, but really it shouldn't be necessary. I definitely would like a USB port, which would make importing photos and connecting to other devices much easier. The difficulty in typing is a major barrier as I need to regularly take notes at live events or lectures or to compose blog posts and papers. I found the on-screen keyboard lacked any way to non-visually confirm that my fingers were correctly positioned. As a result, I made more errors. Also one had to toggle to another keyboard screen for the number and other keys, which slowed me down way too much.

Other annoying things with the iPad were the lack of a spell-checker, the inability to have two programs running simultaneously, and a lack of persistent application menus (or at least an easy way to recall them).

Still of all the devices I've recently test driven, I am leaning to an iPad. Each device has its advantages, but as I can only afford one I need something with more functionality than an e-Reader offers. Netbooks are better for typing than an iPad but aren't as flexibly usable as iPods, nor is reading on them as good. I'm not considering RIM's tablet, PlayBook, as it is too small and I want to have access to the latest and most innovative apps as seems best with Apple.

Although the iPad may be the best option, I am unconvinced that the problems outweigh the cost. I find typing to be so difficult that it is a deal-breaker for me.

This all may be a moot point, however. Recently the Toronto Transit Commission has put up posters advising riders not to use electronic devices due to theft. I ride the TTC regularly and have never perceived theft problem, but it must be for the TTC to post warnings. At least no one will wants to steal my print-outs, course books, or notepads. So I'll probably have to make do with just old tech and my smartphone for awhile longer.

No comments: