An executive's guide to tablets

Patrick Gray reviews several of the major players in the tablet market to see what they really offer executives on the go, including the iPad 2 and the Asus Transformer.

I've long been a fan of the concept of tablet computing, from the time I first laid my hands on an early tablet in the late 1990s, which is eons ago from a technology perspective. We're now besieged by an array of consumer tablets, and the average exec can't help but be confused as they try to decipher the techno-babble, superlatives, and constant references to Angry Birds as they attempt to determine if one of these things might actually be useful in their work and personal lives.

I'm using myself as the "average exec" referenced above. I do all the boring things you rarely see in the sexy tablet ads: sitting on planes, reading online and print news, checking email, and writing documents. While I may wish I was the lead guitarist in a band, more than a casual photographer, and able to pull off the disheveled "je ne sais quoi" of the hipsters that frequent tablet advertisements, you're more likely to find me using a tablet to adjust my to-do list than lay down beats for the next club anthem.

I've used Microsoft's tablets for several years and recently spent a few weeks with an Android tablet (the Asus Transformer) followed by a few weeks with Apple's iPad 2. All these were paid for by my own funds, purchased at major retailers, and didn't involve any special consideration beyond those of the average electronics consumer. I also have ignored security and "enterprise integration," topics that may or may not be important to you, and have instead focused on whether these devices improve my personal productivity or provide compelling information access and sharing. Here are my impressions.

The iPad 2

The iPad is the 10,000 kg gorilla in the tablet space, despite Microsoft's half-hearted attempts over the better part of a decade. The device has been hailed as "magical and revolutionary" by its creators and as "just a big iPhone" by detractors, and like most debates, the truth is somewhere in between. The "big iPhone" jibe actually rings quite true, and for this type of device, it is largely an advantage. If you've used an iPhone, you'll feel right at home, and if you haven't, the learning curve is more of a speed bump than a mountain.

Frankly, I found the actual operating system underwhelming. Messages to alert you to a new email or other messages are just as bad as the iPhone (an annoying pop-up window, slated to be fixed in the next version of Apple's iOS operating system), and two minutes after you pick up an iPad for the first time you may find yourself asking, "This is it???"

Where the magic happens is with the available applications. You've likely heard this refrain before, but it is a distinct advantage for people like me. While the iPad is dead simple to the point of being boring, you'll find 3-50 contenders for every function you wish to accomplish, from task management, to travel, to note-taking. My beloved Wall Street Journal has an app that nearly mimics the positive aspects of reading the paper, and there's even a slew of apps to track and manage my fitness as I train for a triathlon. While I'm loathe to write more than a couple of paragraphs on this type of device, there are several applications that handle Microsoft Office documents, and DropBox allows ready exchange of files between all your devices (including the other tablets in this review).

Even the exceptionally nonmagical task of handwriting notes in meetings is well-represented on the software side of the iPad, with a half-dozen compelling note-taking applications. Due to screen technologies, you are forced to use a special "stylus" with a squishy rubber tip to take notes, which is less than ideal but workable and is offset by the huge benefit of being able to rapidly email a PDF of your notes for sharing or transcription.

In the United States and from my experience in Europe, Apple has also managed to strong-arm mobile carriers into offering commitment-free devices and data plans -- a major benefit when many U.S. carriers are requiring a two-year commitment to get a device with mobile broadband.

The Androids

I purchased an Asus Transformer, which runs Google's Android "Honeycomb" operating system, its nascent attempt at conquering the tablet space. One of the benefits to Android is that multiple hardware vendors use the software, so you have a wide range of devices to chose from, versus Apple's "Henry Ford model" where you can have any iPad you want, as long as it's black or white.

The Transformer, in particular, has a compelling price and an available keyboard that seems like an exec's match made in heaven: take the tablet for your basic email, web browsing, etc., then pop on the keyboard when there's real writing to be done. The unit also had a superior screen to the iPad, and I preferred it for reading books in the Amazon Kindle app,  even with its distended screen, which is narrower and longer than the iPad.

Where the tablet fell down was the software and application catalog. I never had any crashes with Google's Honeycomb. I appreciated that it updated itself without a PC connection, but niggling flaws arose through the system. The battery would be dead after two days, with no use one week and then fine the next. Wi-Fi setup on our secure network took nearly 30 minutes of exploring various options, and then the connection would inexplicably drop. Even some appointments did not appear on my Transformer's calendar, which was linked to Microsoft Exchange; these appointments were fine on my iPad. Whereas the iPad offered three to-do applications that integrated with the online service I use, Android Marketplace had zero, and the story was the same for most productivity-oriented applications.

I really wanted to like Andoid, since the operating system offers more control to the user and seems more open to vendor-driven experimentation than Apple's tightly controlled iOS. At the end of the day, the Transformer seemed like an exotic super-car that required special fuel; while it was a hoot to drive in limited circumstances, that doesn't help you get work done.

The "Other Guys"

Conceptually, Windows tablets should be a slam dunk. Handwriting recognition and superior application support (these tablets can run any Windows application) have Windows looking strong, until you actually have to use the thing. While I loved the handwriting capabilities of my tablet PC, waiting 8-30 seconds to boot up your "pad and paper" is troubling, just as having those same tools run out of power midway through the workday. Pen-and-touch support in Windows is also an afterthought rather than the main event, and it shows as you try to live with one of these devices on a daily basis.

I've never used the RIM PlayBook, but the lack of an email application without a paired BlackBerry phone makes it a nonstarter for me, and presumably the software situation is even worse than Android. HP's upcoming Web OS is in a similar boat. Although the tablet software looks interesting, one wonders how many different tablet operating systems the market can bear. Finally, Microsoft seems to have awoken from its tablet slumber, but its promised enhancements may be too little, too late.

To wrap it all up, Google is making major inroads in the mobile phone space, so I suspect they're the key player to watch as the most likely candidate to dethrone Apple. RIM seems thoroughly confused on several fronts, and HP and Microsoft may yet prove to be viable dark horses.

Personally, I've found my iPad to be a helpful companion, allowing instant access to critical information ranging from my calendar and task list, to travel schedules and client notes -- well worth the $500+ price of admission. With some thoughtful selections from the app store, the iPad moves from entertainment device to business tool quite adeptly. Essentially, the iPad provides a value proposition similar to a Windows PC. There's nothing wildly exciting or compelling about Windows or the hardware. The propeller heads in the midst are quick to trumpet all of Windows' technical shortcomings, but there's an undeniable breadth of software available to accomplish any task I might imagine. I can communicate with nearly any other person on the planet through all the major technical standards.

If a competitor could provide a broad app catalog, easy and cost-effective mobile broadband, exceptional touch experience, and handwritten note-taking, all in a well-designed and instant-on package, they might replace my iPad. For now, it's the best tool for my toolbox. In any event, Apple and Amazon both offer excellent return policies, allowing you to "sample the goods" on your own before making a long-term commitment.