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My Gear: Can an Android Tablet be a Daily Driver?

The Asus TF700 in all its spun metal aluminium glory. I was a huge dork and waited an extra month for the "champagne" color.

The Asus TF700 in all its spun metal aluminium glory. I was a huge dork and waited an extra month for the “champagne” color.

The keyboard is very satisfying. It may not be a real clacker  but it will give any mac book a run for its money when it comes to responsiveness.
The keyboard is very satisfying. It may not be das keyboard but it will give any mac book a run for its money when it comes to responsiveness.

Both a Tablet and a Laptop.

The first question might very well be: Why? Why buy an expensive device that will poorly perform the functions of two cheaper devices? For me the answer is (A) convenience and (B) the “cool” factor.

Convenience is pretty simple to explain. Whenever I want to sit in bed and use my TF700 as an e-reader, I just pop it out of the keyboard dock. If I’m on a plane, the tray-tables are down, and I want to type an email, I can can pull out the dock rather than peck awkwardly at the cold lifeless virtual keyboard. Generally speaking, you’d be amazed at how nice it is to have a keyboard with a tablet. Pre-TF700 I don’t think I realized how much I’d come to dread simple log-ins for apps. The mere act of inputting a username and password was stressful. With the TF700 every text based interaction becomes (or returns to) a familiar and easy experience.  Unlike bluetooth keyboards for iPads, the TF700 dock is solidly connected, and linked by physical connection rather than unreliable wireless. And, with the dock, I get extra battery life, a full-size SD card-reader, and a touch pad (that I inevitably switch off in favor of touching the screen).

The “cool” factor is not so much the relishable look of amazement I get from peers when I casually brake my pretty netbook into two halves while sitting in class (although that’s fun and hard to resist). What I really mean by “cool” factor is the feeling I get while using it. Legal research and writing can be really boring (you are shocked); tablets are, I think, inherently fun. By bringing a little tablet to my otherwise humdrum computing tasks, I can feel a bit of joy and excitement filter into the otherwise soul-eating experience. Also, and this is an unintended consequence, tablet apps are full screen and uncluttered. Nothing helps you focus on the work in front of you better than having (A) no visual distractions — no menu buttons, blinking notifications, terrifyingly happy talking paperclips — and (B) the extra additional cost to switch tasks. If I have to switch full screen apps to chat with my friend, I’m probably not going to do it as often as when there’s a window floating off to the side of my work.

This is why they named it transformer, and the combo still beats the pants off of anything out there (here's looking at you Surface).

This is why they named it Transformer, and the combo still beats the pants off of anything out there (here’s looking at you Surface).

Yes, that looks like PIE from Paranoid Android 3.0, but my Android nav bar replacement, LMT Launcher, actually came from XDA's noname81.

Yes, that looks like PIE from Paranoid Android 3.0, but my Android nav bar replacement, LMT Launcher, actually came from XDA’s noname81.

 I bought it; let me break it.

The biggest selling point for Android is that it’s open source. There is a veritable army of people fastidiously modifying and improving every Android release that comes out of Google HQ. Just the other day, I was talking with a friend about how annoying it is to get a somewhat less than mainstream, early-release Android device; it can take weeks, even months (!?), before someone has rooted it and made custom ROMs (customized Android versions). I’ve come to be obscenely spoiled in this regard. I buy a new tablet or phone and instantly ask: Why aren’t people working without pay faster to give my lazy ass more free stuff!?

Anyway, if you don’t have experience with Android, here’s the deal: These forums exist, like xda-developers, where an array of people, whose motives and abilities I only partially comprehend, post the latest and greatest versions of android, complete with their own useful customizations.  There is a learning curve to rooting your device, and probably some risk (although I’ve never permanently broken anything I own) but the end result is almost always a faster and smoother experience.

Currently I’m running Cyanogenmod 10.1 (probably the largest and most popular of customized roms). It’s based off of Android 4.2, Jellybean. The official version of Jellybean hasn’t even been released by ASUS for the TF700 but here I am enjoying the crap out of it. Peer-production rocks (and has fascinating legal/economic implications , see . . .  the rest of this website or, better, anything written by Clay Shirky or Yochai Benkler).

Apps Apps Apps

This is Repligo Reader and it's saved my sanity. Law Professors love to assign long pdf's from hell (well from Law Reviews mostly). Repligo allows me to store them all on gdocs, annotate them and keep my notes/highlights current.

This is Repligo Reader and it’s saved my sanity. Law Professors love to assign long pdf’s from hell (well from Law Reviews mostly). Repligo allows me to store them all on gdocs, annotate them and keep my notes/highlights current.

But, of course, the real question with regard to tablets and daily drivers is, “what can you do with ’em?” In my two years of Android exploration, a lot. A year ago I remember lamenting the shininess deficit that I noticed between my apps and the apps on my girlfriend’s iPad. That has changed. In many cases, Android tablet apps now equal their iPad cousins. Additionally, Google has cultivated a design aesthetic, Holo, that is actually cleaner and less unnecessarily skeuomorphic than the iPad alternative. In other words, most major android tablet apps are simple, clean, and useful.

Evernote is the cloud-based note-taking app that made this whole experiment worth it for me. I now have years of class notes available on any device I own.

Evernote is the cloud-based note-taking app that made this whole experiment worth it for me. I now have years of class notes available on any device I own.

My favorites for productivity are Evernote, Google Drive, and Repligo Reader. Between them I have, powerful cloud-based note-taking, document drafting, and .pdf annotation. To me this is the beginning and the end, the whole holy trinity of good scholarship (or at least the sacred minimum of actually doing work rather than merely playing with a new electronic toy).

I won’t lie, these apps will not satisfy someone dependent on old-style PC or Mac applications. Drive can’t do footnotes, so that exempts 95+% of legal writing.  Repligo isn’t great at making pdf files — it’s no acrobat — and Evernote can be limiting (but how fancy do your notes really need to be?).  What they do all offer is connectivity to the cloud. All my docs, notes and annotated reading assignments are now ubiquitously available. I can see them on my android phone in a pinch or download them onto any “real” laptop or desktop that I please.

And finally, the wrapper. My awesome girlfriend got me this wool felt and leather sleeve. It's custom made for the dimensions of the tablet with keyboard dock from an amazing seller on Etsy.

And finally, the wrapper. My awesome girlfriend got me this wool felt and leather sleeve. It’s custom made for the dimensions of the tablet with keyboard dock. It comes from an amazing seller on Etsy. Her name is Christa Sievers and her company is Willow and Company; they sell sleeves for all sizes of devices.

So, should you take the plunge?

One more sleeve shot.

One more sleeve shot.

The answer is a qualified yes. If you are like me and:

  • can and would enjoy rooting and then tinkering with the device
  • want to keep all your data in the cloud
  • enjoy being a little different than your peers

then you will love ditching the iPad for an Android. The TF700 remains (after a year, oddly) the top of the line when it comes to tablets that have removable keyboard docks (a must for productivity) but be on the look out, new hardware is coming fast.

Links:

The Wool Sleeve (just ask her to repeat the job she did for mine: Asus TF700 with Keyboard Dock)

The TF700 

Rooting the TF700

Cyanogenmod 10.1 for the TF700

LMT Launcher (the PIE lookalike)

  • Someone on G+ asked me about the pdf higlighting process and styli, my response: A regular old capacitive stylus works (I used to have one but can’t find it a t the moment) It’s still no more precise than your finger though. For pinpoint accuracy you need a tablet with a built in WACOM screen (like the samsung note). That said, highlighting hardly demands pinpoint accuracy.

    In repligo you don’t quite get the paper feel. You need to first press the highlight button and then you can highlight whatever you want. (multiple highlights will require the perfunctory button press each time) That said, the system works very intuitively for me. I shot a video in case you are interested. Repligo highlight

  • kay_funk

    One under-emphasised aspect of the PC replacement ability of the Infinity is remote desktop apps. Chances are you also have a PC or Windows laptop somewhere. On top of the native productivity apps, you can get some real horsepower w/ a remote desktop session.

    Jump Desktop is the best of the best from my extensive testing. Splashtop is probably second. I use both to connect to my home Windows 7 laptop and my Enterprise Win 7 desktops at work. Throw in a wireless mouse and you are definitely set up for leaving Windows at home…

    Full screen apps round out the effect by using all of the screen real estate

    • Totally agree. I should have mentioned that one of the most used buttons on my home screen is splashtop. I haven’t tried jump. will have to take a look.

  • A Windows 8 desktop at home coupled with a great tablet and dock combo like this can really enhance functionality of both worlds. It would actually give people a reason to install Windows 8 apps from the store on their desktops. Yes I know it’s probably counter intuitive to be “proxying” Windows 8, as it were, instead of just getting a Win 8 tablet. But for the price and battery life the TF700 is hard to beat even when it goes up against the Atom-based W8 tablets. Nice review, sir. The formatting and professionalism makes me feel like I’m reading something from a tech enthusiast site such as the Verge.

    • Thanks for the kind words. Definitely helps with the motivation to keep up a new blog. (and Verge has by far my favorite aesthetic so that is high praise).

      Regarding Windows 8 and and proxying through splashtop or jump. I’m still running 7 on my desktop so I can’t say I’ve tried this. My concern would be the responsiveness of touch interactions as they travel through the proxy service. Also, as for myself, I’m hoping to get android on my desktop rather than windows on my tablet. Long ago I went head first into google services. Accordingly, having an OS that integrates them is important to me. All I want from MS these days is a version of word the runs on Android and auto syncs with docs (not happening I suppose). That’s just me though, I know lots of people are rooting for MS now that they’ve shown that they are willing to be innovative again. We’ll see how this plays out in the next few years. But as we approach convergence I think we’ll see either Android or Microsoft emerge as Apple’s chief competitor in computing space that has unified mobile and desktop hardware under common OS. I don’t think there is a stable three player market there (and I don’t think Apple is going away anytime soon).

  • Alex

    Hi Peter, thanks for the article. I have a TF700 as well and would like to know what gesture input# you used to configure LMT launcher on your device (the TF700 is not in the list). Many thanks!

    • Hey. I’ve since abandoned LMT because I felt it was slowing down the tablet too much. Back to the normal plain vanilla android system navigation now. I wish I could answer your question but I don’t remember the settings I used. Good luck, maybe search xda forums for LMT and TF700.