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Life with an Android Tablet One Week On

July 28, 2011 2 comments

I’ve had my Asus Transformer tablet for approximately one week now. I have endeavoured to use it fairly constantly and as my sole means of computing. It has worked to varying degrees of success. After the first couple of days, I discovered that if I actually wanted to achieve anything, I needed a proper keyboard. To that end, I have ordered the keyboard docking station for the Transformer, and I am also writing this post on my three year old netbook.

A word of warning though about the Transformer docking keyboard – buy the package of tablet and keyboard to start with! This only attracts a £50 premium over the tablet alone. Buying the docking keyboard separately has set me back almost £120. I purchased from Amazon and couldn’t find cheaper on eBay, Google’s shopping results nor Tottenham Court Road (where it was not possible to buy the keyboard as a standalone item). I’ll live and learn.

There are both good and bad points about this Honeycomb 3.1 tablet. Let’s start with the good.

The Gmail integration is stellar. It is a much better Gmail experience that I have ever had through a regular web browser. I suppose this is as you would expect from a tablet running Google’s Android operating system.

The tablet is great for having around on the coffee table, on the train, in bed etc. It’s very easy to simply pick it up to check email, read a website or research something of interest.

The “instant on” aspect, with massive hours of standby battery time, is much better than any laptop I’ve ever experienced.

Now for the frustrations….

There is another built in mail client, which can be used to connect to both IMAP and Exchange email servers. Unfortunately this has some limitations that frustrate me when trying to deal with business email. There’s no search functionality, it is only possible to synchronise up to one month of email from the server, it is impossible to create an HTML or Rich Text email signature and I also can’t figure out how to synchronise IMAP calendars (Exchange calendar works fine though).

The standard web browser is buggy and crashes regularly. I haven’t thoroughly tested, but I also think it may have a memory leak. Over time it simply slows down to a grinding halt. Using the back button to return to a Google search result often loads just a blank page and sometimes after entering a website’s URL, I am simply re-directed to Google’s search homepage. This browser has a user agent of “Android Tablet,” however many websites simply see this as “Android” and deliver a mobile version of their offering. I can change the user agent to “Desktop” instead, but that also creates a few rendering problems. Opera Mini and Firefox Mobile don’t seem to have this option, and thus you’re stuck with mobile webpage versions in some cases. I’m now trying the Dolphin HD browser. One would think, that with an excellent browser in Chrome/Chromium Google would have this area sorted out.

Some apps from the Market are OK, but it’s a bit hit and miss. Many of them are built only for Android phones, so don’t render brilliantly on the wider tablet screen. I haven’t bought any apps yet, as I haven’t found anything so compelling to warrant a purchase. I have found some nice free apps though, such as MapQuest’s OpenStreetMaps and FBReader for ebooks (I grabbed a lot of classics from Project Gutenberg).

The on-screen touch keyboard is reasonable, but still has some frustrations. For some reason at least 10% of the time my space bar presses do not register. There are also no forward and back arrows. The only way to jump to another part of the text is through very delicate and precise touches on the screen. This might improve when I have a mouse connected to the docking keyboard’s USB port, but for now so much for keyboard navigation. There’s also no Control key, which makes cutting, copying and pasting laborious.

I can’t find any virtualisation software for Android either, which I wanted to use to run a different flavour of Linux. Maybe I can do do something via dual booting, from a USB key in the docking keyboard. That will be the next project.

In summary, after a week’s solid use, I can’t see this being my sole computing device. I’m just not sure Android’s mature enough. It’s a good enough device, which I am sure I will continue to use regularly, but it is not the one device to rule them all.

Updates on WebM Support – All Aboard!

June 2, 2010 Leave a comment

As could probably be predicted, there’s been a lot more press around WebM over the last ten days or so. A few articles are worth noting.

CNET posted a reasonably ordinary piece regarding the quality of WebM, when compared against H.264. However, there were two interesting links in this piece. 
The first pointed to a WebM project page where the indepth encoding parameters for WebM content are outlined. If you’re planning to create WebM files, reading this page is essential. 
The second link, to the quAVlive website provides some various examples of H.264 (using x264) encoding compared against WebM. I can’t really see a lot of visual difference in the “Sunflower” example. However, it is easily clear to my eyes, without even enlarging the screenshots, that in “Park Joy” and “Riverbed” H.264 is certainly superior. I would like to have seen more information regarding the time taken to transcode these examples, with each codec, and the resulting file sizes. Picture quality isn’t always everything, transcode time and storage requirements should also be taken into consideration.
Everyone’s jumping on the WebM bandwagon with software and hardware support. Gstreamer claims full plugin support, which means in turn there is Moovida support and the Transmaggedon transcoder can also output VP8 codec files, although not in the Matroska/WebM container yet. Not to be outdone, Flumotion, will also stream live VP8/WebM content. The Miro Video Converter will also output valid VP8/WebM files, claiming to be the first to do so. The list could go on, but the easiest thing is to probably just keep tabs on the WebM project page listing all the supported devices and software tools, both commercial and open source.
Also worth a shout is the fact that both Mozilla and Opera are pushing for VP8/WebM to be specifically included in the HTML5 specification. Previously, major browser makers couldn’t agree on one specific video file format – Mozilla and Opera backing Ogg Theora and Apple sticking with H.264. I can’t see that particular situation changing now. 

WebM – The New Open Source Codec on the Block

May 27, 2010 Leave a comment

In August 2009, Google acquired codec developer On2 Technologies for a rumoured $106 million. The flagship On2 codec was VP8 and it was also rumoured at the time that Google may open source this technology in the future, although a number of challenges lay ahead.

Late last week this rumour became reality and WebM was born. Alongside Theora and Dirac, WebM now enters the open source HTML 5 ready codec battle. Almost immediately all major web browsers, except one, but including Internet Explorer announced support for the codec. Using the might and muscle of Google WebM must have a solid chance of taking on the dominance of H.264 in the web video delivery battle. This really will be a solid kick in the pants for Theora, which now seems destined to remain a reasonably niche product, even with direct HTML 5 support from Firefox.
In short order some early comparisons between H.264 and WebM appeared online. Some with more technical detail than others. The debate also began as to whether Google was benevolent or evil. Did WebM contain submarine patents that not even Google were aware of?
Producing WebM video for the masses was the next step. Easy to follow FFmpeg tutorials are available and just a few days ago a major commercial transcoding software vendor announced WebM/VP8 support.
WebM video is already available on YouTube, in experimental form. How long before at least all new YouTube video is transcoded to this format? If WebM quality is on parity with H.264, and the jury is still out on that, what is the unique selling point of H.264? Why would anyone continue to use it? 
There will be a substantial legacy component to overcome. Many people and organisations have invested heavily in H.264 technology, and a move to WebM may represent an operational, although not licensing, cost. However, with Google behind it, many of Big Business’ concerns around open source projects may be alleviated.
Adding to this, H.264 video within a Flash player still has significant advantages over HTML 5 delivered video content, in terms of presentation flexibility and perceived security.
H.264 video is of course still dominant for web delivery, just as VP6 and VP7 was in the past. However, WebM is an exciting development with a bright future. Using the collective power of open source development, and no small amount of corporate backing from Google, watch out for WebM to challenge MPEG-LA’s codec in the future.
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