Category Archives: Tablets and Slates

Quick Charge 2.0 won’t lead to a standards war

In my recent column for CNET, I discussed Quick Charge 2.0, the proposed standard from Qualcomm (a client of Reticle Research) that promises to dramatically improve charging time for smartphones and tablets. Quick Charge is pretty exciting for people who find themselves fighting for a few precious minutes of juice at a spare outlet throughout the day or who want to avoid having to keep a power stick awkwardly connected to their phone for too long.

As I mention in the column, greater power via the USB connector is also coming via the USB Implementer Forums’ Power Delivery (PD) initiative and has the potential to finally standardize connectors across virtually all devices within the home. But there are some drawbacks. PD adapters require new USB cables and could be larger depending on how much power they deliver.

A blessing and burden of being so close to the center of the mobile universe as Qualcomm is that it must often consider or even support competing standards even as it advocates its own. The company has shown this with its support of multiple wireless charging standards and there’s no reason we couldn’t see similar coexistence with both technologies operating over the same charging accessories.

Where will it all shake out? One likely scenario is to think of Quick Charge as being focused on devices that use USB connectors now (mostly smartphones and tablets) and PD as bringing larger devices into the USB connector fold. We saw some excitement around this with the HP Chromebook that Google promoted last year.

With more devices supporting both standards, consumers can one day look forward to bringing one charger and cable with them that will work with everything from their smartphone to their laptop . But until that day, there’s no need to hold back getting more juice to the mobile devices that need it most urgently today.

Samsung’s Pro tablets go big, leave home, have consumer relevance

Mobile World Congress will soon be upon us and will surely bring with it news of tablets that was mostly missing from CES despite such products continuing to be among the hottest categories in consumer electronics. One exception to the dearth of CES announcements was the Samsung 12″ Galaxy Tab Pro and Galaxy Note Pro. The Pro” sub-subbrand takes over from the “Note” subbrand as Samsung’s most premium denotation, leaving Note to just represent pen input. To contrast, pen input is part of what differentiates Microsoft’s Surface Pro, but of course has nothing to do with the MacBook Pro.

The Pro line will also mark the debut of Samsung’s first Android tablets to break the 12″ barrier. In 2012, Toshiba reached well beyond that barrier with the 13.3″ Excite, but the pricey product vanished soon after it was released. The Samsung device is not only smaller, but thinner and lighter — a key advantage when dealing with a larger tablet.

The big Pro tablets are Samsung’s Android play to eat into a bit of the market for Windows and Chrome notebooks for on-the-go productivity. The company highlights the extended comfortable soft keyboard on the big screen. It also seeks to position the big tablet as supporting multiple open Android applications, a multitasking feature that allows Android tablets to better answer the functions of Windows. Paradoxically, this occurs as Windows is moving toward reducing the number of apps that can be on the screen at one time, at least in its Modern interface.

But the larger screen should yield content consumption benefits as well, particularly for applications such as playing games and movies, reading magazines and sheet music. It’s doubtful it will do much to stem the glut of 7″ devices that have democratized the Android tablet. But it could help push Android into a screen size where there have been few altenratives for those valuing screen size over portability.

Surface off a surface: better but still not great

With its signature keyboard cover detached, it was easy to use the original Surface RT in your lap. However, actually trying to type with the device while it was positioned there could end with your Surface hitting the lowest surface in the immediate vicinity, often the one at your feet. It was simply too easy for the weight of the device to overwhelm the high center of gravity that the Surface had when resting on its kickstand, particularly on an uneven sloping landscape, e.g., one’s lap.

It’s a bit surprising that Microsoft would implement a second kickstand position that extends its already larger-than-laptop footprint when the keyboard cover is extended. However, it has done just this in the name of better stability, particularly when used in that common scenario that gives that laptop its name. The result has been an improvement when used in the lap as the lower center of gravity helps with stability.

However, it’s still not as stable an experience as a laptop. The keyboard cover’s connection to the tablet does not cover the device’s width and its rubbery texture allows for a lot of give. As a result, there’s a good chance you’ll notice the screen to tilt to a slight angle off from where you’re typing. Customers may not find this so distracting, but it drives home the point that there continue to be some things that the trusty old clamshell form factor handles better than the type cover.

That said, newer designs like those on the Dell Venue Pro 11 and Nokia Lumia 2520 rely on a type cover on which the entire tablet rests and where there is no gap in terms of the footprint as there is with the Surface’s kickstand, so lap stability may be better.

A pit stop in the Android tablet race to the bottom

Leaving the Surface RT in Microsoft’s shiny new Surface 2 lineup lets Microsoft offer a product that is closer to the price range of the iPad 2 and iPad mini. It also helps the company save a bit of face after the RT’s dramatic price decline in the wake of flagging sales. What it doesn’t do, though, is enable Microsoft’s first-party tablet efforts to play in the fastest-growing segment of the tablet market, products that are small (7″) and cheap (sub-$200). Apple isn’t playing in each of those subsegments, either, but it’s closer than Microsoft in both. I’ve written before about how the breakneck price compression in the small Android tablet market has forced manufacturers such as HP and HiSense to cut prices at or shortly after introduction. The latter’s Sero 7 LT is now available for well under $100 at Walmart while the Tegra 3-equipped Sero 7 Pro has hovered close to a double-digit price tag on sale. But two announcements last week hit pause on the 7″ price avalanche.

Monster, which knows a thing or two about competing in — and even begetting — oversaturated categories, introduced its own M7 7″ tablet in eight different colors with a rounded top right corner that, in a bit of inside baseball, resembles the left half of Monster’s logo. It becomes yet another exclusive for Walmart, which has shown a voracious appetite for inexpensive 7″ Android devices. Not surprisingly, Monster really hopes to differentiate based on the quality of its audio output,. This is a proposition that, at a basic level, hasn’t enabled HP to command much of a pricing premium with its Beats-enabled tablet. Monster will follow up with a 10″ tablet.

Speaking of HP, its second Android tablet, the Slatebook X2, has been early to support NVIDIA’s Tegra 4. But it will soon see some speedy competition from a number of smaller, mostly regional, distributors selling NVIDIA’s Tegra 4-equipped 7″ Tegra Note distributed via NVIDIA’s GeForce card brand companies. The tablet supports NVIDIA’s DirectStylus technology for improving passive stylus performance but — here again — stylus support hasn’t translated into strong market performance for tablets such as the Surface Pro and Galaxy Note tablets.

The M7 has debuted at $149 while the Tegra Notes are coming in at $199 . The way things have been going, though, they may be priced considerably less before long.

10″ iPads are minivans

In a particularly poignant analogy at the D8 conference in 2010, Steve Jobs compared tablets to cars and PCs to trucks. As the market for tablets has matured, we’re seeing more differentiation between different sizes of tablets. Clearly, Apple started with the 9.7″ iPad, which still retains the main iPad branding proper with the smaller iPad being dubbed the mini. That latter device competes with a host of inexpensvie 7″ Android tablets that grow in number while shrinking in price.

Starting with a 10″ device allowed Apple to significantly differentiate from the iPhone in terms of size and the MacBook in terms of user experience. Had Apple started with the mini, it would have been harder to encourage developers to create more robust apps, something that Android tablets continue to struggle with. But, among users, the temptation is strong to turn the iPad into a faux PC, the new netbook. And indeed, this is the main thrust of the approach — encouraged by Microsoft’s positioning — that PC vendors pursue.

The adoption of smaller tablets has been driven in large part by lower prices, but also by greater portability and practicality. They have replaced e-readers for books in many cases, and are large enough to handle the recreational tablet staples of video, games, maps and books. They haven’t been as great with the Web, but higher resolution is helping with that as well. They are becoming the sedans of the Web while larger tablets are the minivans; they can be pressed into service to haul a bunch of cargo and get things done, but they’re not built for industrial duty.

The Courier’s path not taken

As I predicted, news of Steve Ballmer’s impending resignation has ushered in a series of articles looking back although the real deluge will no doubt begin when he finally steps down. Tom Warren at The Verge invokes the Courier digital scrapbook/organizer as a missed opportunity:

But perhaps no Ballmer-led decision has gotten more attention than that shelving of the Courier, which had been spearheaded by forward-thinking Microsoft designer J. Allard, back in 2010. The move has served as a rallying cry for Microsoft detractors ever since, a microcosm of a corporate culture where delays — often driven by internal politicking — have put the company behind.

Courier was a daring and differentiated device initiative from Microsoft, the kind that would have created a new category. In that way, it was like the original Surface, the legacy of which is germinating the name for Microsoft’s also-ran but successor-destined tablet. At least the addressable market for Surface has been established by the iPad and been eaten into by cheap 7″ Android tablets such as the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire. But of course, that doesn’t mean everyone has been successful with smartly designed, low-priced and decently distributed tablets.

Courier, unlike the original table-based Surface, was a consumer product, or at least a personal one, and I guess that it would have cost somewhere between $500 and $1,000. I wonder why detractors have adopted it as a rallying cry, though. Innovative as its user interface was, its use case was simply too limited, at least from the videos of it that leaked. Even iPad apps that mimic its design as repositories have failed to attract much buzz. Really the only way to justify Courier is as a statement product like , Courier may have been worth pursuing. Certainly, people were intrigued by it. Assuredly, it couldn’t have done any worse than the ill-conceived Kin..

Obviously, a company does not ship products expecting that they will fail. Assuming that Courier lived up to the promise of its videos, perhaps Microsoft should have shipped the Courier even if it knew it faced an uphill battle. From its ashes, it could have picked up experience that could be repurposed in other products, and enhanced its reputation as an innovator. In the long-term, it is better to fail with a Newton than with a Kin.

The phonification of Galaxy tablets

A while back on my old blog, I wrote about the role of fixed navigation buttons on smartphones. Looking back to that time, the convention was:

  • Android: most commonly four buttons on phone, no button on tablet (though there were variations)
  • iOS: one button, still unchanged despite rumors to the contrary
  • Windows Phone three buttons, also unchanged
  • webOS: one button, made somewhat redundant by swipe gestures on the Touchpad
  • Playbook OS: no buttons, which held up for the BlackBerry 10 OS.

MeeGo, in its cameo moment upon the smartphone stage, had no fixed navigation buttons. And from what I can see of Sailfish or Firefox OS, it is also true for them in their initial implementations. More significantly (at least for the U.S. market), Windows 8 and RT tablets have one Start (home) button, which means that, unlike with Android, the user interfaces are subject to de jure discontinuity Over time, the Search button has waned on Android phones, and most recent flagships support either three (Droid DNA) or no buttons. The trend seems to be toward the latter with the Sony XPERIA Z Ultra, Moto X and LG G2.

Samsung, though, has taken an interesting hybrid approach on its most recent handsets such as the Galaxy Note II and Galaxy S4, centering a physical “Home” button between two capacitive ones (that I still count that as three overall). More curiously, though, and starting with the Galaxy Note 8.0, Samsung ha shifted from no buttons on its tablets to the same kind of button layout on its tablets. Indeed, the Galaxy Note 8.0 looks very much like a large Galaxy S4.

Including the button on a smaller tablet makes sense as it enables more screen real estate to be used by apps. This may be especially true for an S-Pen-enabled device where there’s some presumption of use in portrait landscape a la notepad. And this is particularly true for Samsung, which of course wants to reinforce industrial design and user interface across phone and tablet as Apple has done. Still, three buttons seems like too much on a tablet, and the placement gets increasingly awkward with larger sizes such as the latest Galaxy Tab 10.1. I think Samsung would do well to revert back to the buttonless design on at least that tablet, even if it takes a differentiation hit.

Galaxy Mega narrows the last phablet gap

Since the launch of the first Galaxy Tab, products marketed as tablets have been at the 7″ floor, with some Windows tablets going to 11″ and beyond sizes. Meanwhile, phone sizes have progressively broken larger and larger barriers,  With Samsung’s announcement of the 6.3″ Galaxy Mega, the big-screen phone pioneer leapfrogs Huawei’s 6.1″ phone announcement at CES to reclaim the ergonomic threshold crown at 6.3″. This narrows the gap between phone and tablet to a mere 0.7″, with nothing inhabiting the 6.5″ to sub-7″ range. However, Samsung leads in representing the range, having debuted entries at 5.3″ 5.5″, 5.8″, 5.8″, 6.3″, 7″, 7.7″, 8″, 8.9″ and 10.1″.

Kobo recently released an e-reader at 6.8″ and it would be nice to see a tablet dip under that range for a slightly less product for a breast pocket.

Microsoft gains greater distribution for Surface RT

Staples’ decision to carry the Surface RT probably won’t do too much to help such a consumer-focused device, but Best Buy’s carrying of it is bigger news. As much as the additional distribution will help Microsoft, Best Buy may be the bigger winner. Not only will it add to Best Buy’s selection, but it will drive store traffic to offer exposure to a host of other Windows RT and Windows 8 devices. In contrast, there was little to cross-sell Surface customers at Microsoft’s popup stores beyond perhaps a copy of Halo 4 and it stocked only two Windows devices beyond Surface.

iHS says e-readers are doomed to limited markets

iHS senior principal analyst Jordan Selburn draws a comparison between the e-reader and other portable electronics, such as portable media players and point-and-shoot cameras, that have seen their functionality incorporated into the smartphone. Fair enough, while the smartphone was the spiritual successor to the PDA (or basically a cellular-connected PDA with voice).

Still, while average e-reader screen sizes (and especially those of e-readers like the Kobo Pocket) are smaller than those of tablets, they were close enough where I always thought that that the defining attribute of the e-reader was the display. As soon as companies can affordably combine the color and multimedia of today’s LCDs with the sunlight-readability and long battery life of today’s e-paper, we will see the e-reader marginalized.