You’ve Got To Pick A Tablet Or Two

So we've gone from a tabletless state to a twin fondleslab-equipped household in a little under two weeks. My wife no longer has to squint at Facebook pages containing 4 point text on a tiny smartphone screen, and I don't have to wait for Windows to get started on my "downstairs laptop" when I want to check my email. Technological nirvana perhaps?

Normally, I try to standardize our household purchases. While we don't tend to wear matching shell suits (at least, not since the late 80's), I did insist that she use a Windows 7 computer in her office so I would be able to fix it. And we both have the same HTC phone so that she can use mine after hers falls onto the tiled floor, or I can use hers after I drop mine in the bath.

However, things don't seem to have worked out quite that way with the fondleslabs. She's familiar with Android on the phone, and so when she decided that the cats could buy her a tablet for Mother's Day it was inevitable that it would be a Google Nexus 7. It's had some of the best reviews of the Android-powered ones, and is about the right size - some friends have 10" iPads but she reckoned they were a bit unwieldy.

And then, out of the blue just a week later, our friendly post lady turned up with my company-issued Windows Surface RT complete with the cheaper touch keyboard. First impressions are that it's a really neat piece of kit with a glorious screen, and it's surprisingly fast for a Windows O/S equipped mobile device.

So, as we've been dual-tabletized for a couple of weeks now, what's the verdict? Obviously, as a 'Softie I need to be a bit careful here, but it's interesting to compare the two in several areas. In particular what my better half thinks of the two, based on the things she most uses a tablet for - email, Facebook, web browsing, YouTube, etc.

In terms of speed there seems to be nothing between them. Both are superbly responsive, though the Surface does seem to take a bit longer opening some applications. But strangely, perhaps because of the position of the control buttons, she instinctively uses the Nexus in portrait mode and the Surface in landscape mode; which makes the text larger on the Surface because the page is wider, but you have to scroll more. Yes, you can rotate both devices and stretch the screen to enlarge the text, but the Surface just naturally seems to be better for browsing complex web pages.

However, figuring out where to go and what to do when she suddenly ends up on the Windows desktop is confusing, though the hardware button below the screen takes you straight back to the tiled intro screen. What does seem odd to her is that you need to swipe on nothing at the edge of the screen to get the options menu, and several tasks require swiping from the top or bottom - again there is no visible "tab" to indicate this. On the Nexus there's either a tab at the edge of the screen or a button displayed in the status bar.

Navigating within applications on the Surface also seems harder sometimes, especially when going back to a previous screen. The Nexus has a "back" button in the status bar, but many Surface apps have a hidden "back" button on the page that only shows when you touch the screen. So figuring out how to stop playback of a music track on the Surface, for example, takes some getting used to.

One area where the Surface does score well with my wife is the sound quality through the built-in speaker; it seems clearer and more rich than on the Nexus. The Surface also has an onscreen keyboard that feels more usable because of the size in the default landscape mode, but she hates the clip-on physical Surface keyboard with its lack of feedback and floppiness. And I find that, unlike a laptop, it's almost impossible to use the Surface on your lap with the physical keyboard. The screen angle with the fold-out stand seems wrong when you put it on the table or a desk.

After playing with both, my wife has gravitated to the Nexus for the familiarity of the applications and navigation (it's much like her HTC phone), and because it seems to be easier and more natural to hold in one hand while prodding and swiping with the other. She also seems to prefer the default portrait orientation - perhaps, again, because it is similar to the phone. But she's impressed with the Surface, especially apps such as the weather (much better than the Nexus one) and the availability of a proper back-facing camera (the Nexus only has a webcam).

Which is the better one as far as I'm concerned? I like the Nexus because it's neat and handy, and quite happily integrates with our own private email providers. But I hate it because it doesn't recognize the format of all our stored music and video files (WMA and WMV). I suppose this isn't surprising, and probably I should have used MP3 and MPEG when I ripped and stored them. The Surface, of course, does recognize WMA and WMV.

But what's won me over to the Surface is Windows 8. I never thought I'd like it (and maybe I won't so much on a non-touch laptop or desktop when I get around to upgrading), but on the tablet it's really good. The tiled interface is perfect, especially after a bit or reorganization around the apps I use most often. And, best of all, I can drop into the desktop where everything is familiar. If I want, I can fiddle with settings in the same way as all the other computers in our house.

Even better, it does proper networking with my Windows domain through the wireless router. By setting it up with a local account rather than a Microsoft (Live ID) account I can access any of the read-only shares on the network where we store music and video, so copying them onto the machine was easy compared to plugging the Nexus into a USB port of another computer. And I can save files I create in Word (such as these rambling blog posts) to a shared folder on the server that is backed up each night.

What's clear, I guess, is that the Surface is really a touch-enabled Windows laptop without a keyboard; and almost a laptop when you clip on the touch keyboard. OK, so you can't install standard Windows applications, but it has everything we typically use for non-work activities already installed. Plus Word, which to me is the most useful of all. The only real limitation I've found so far is that, unlike my Android phone, it can't connect to Microsoft corporate email servers because it doesn't meet the remote security requirements.

So, the final decision? With the very limited range of uses my wife has for the device, the Nexus seems to do it all except handle her favorite music videos that are in WMV format. And it's half the price of the Surface. Yet, after using the Surface for a while, I find the Nexus awkward and I miss having the familiarity and power of real Windows underneath. It's like I know what's happening with the Surface, even if I'm still struggling with some parts of the new tiled interface, whereas I'm never quite sure what the Nexus is doing.

It looks very much as though I'll be Surfacing the web, while my wife is sitting Nexus me...

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