IT & Infrastructure
Almost every business problem can be solved in part or in whole by IT using an astute selection of software and the hardware it runs on. Business can automate, capitalise on previously unseen trends and bring people thousands of miles apart together through IT.
Yet, even today, there are organisations that are relying on paper for mission-critical business processes. Most businesses are paying costly annual software licences when they can have similar software for free.
Onley Group can dramatically cut your annual IT bill. We can replace cumbersome business processes with secure, low-cost automated systems that get the job done effectively and release more value.
- Category: IT & Infrastructure
- Published on Tuesday, 05 June 2012 08:39
We give the Android tablet platform its most thorough road test to date. We ask Michael Brooks to leave his laptop behind and survive a 10 day business trip with only an Android tablet and Android phone. The practicalities and limitations of the new platform are discussed in detail.
So the challenge is simple... I am working away from Onley Towers for 10 days and while I'm in the wilderness I have to survive and keep all my Tech Consulting commitments up without using my laptop or borrowing someone else's computer even once. Instead, all I've been given are an Asus Transformer Prime running Android 4.0.3, and an Android phone (HTC Desire, rooted with Cyanogenmod 7). I've got 3G internet via a Bluetooth tethering arrangement. The challenge is to see if Android and tablets are really ready as a laptop replacement.
The Rise of Android:
Android is the world's most popular smartphone operating system. It was conceived in 2003 by Android Inc as a mobile operating system which would be more intelligent and capable of adjusting to the user's location and preferenced. Android Inc. were then purchased by Google in 2005. By 2007, the project was opened up to a consortium of companies interested in mobile computing called the "Open Handset Alliance". The first major release of the platform was in 2008 timed in response to the Apple iPhone.
Before Android and the iPhone, the closest thing to a smartphone experience was Symbian, an OS produced by Nokia. It had an icon-led interface which made it touch-screen navigable, but was quite clunky and sluggish on the generally low-spec hardware upon which it ran. Very few third party applications were available, and Nokia's early lead was quashed by the emergence of the iPhone. In contrast iOS and Android behaved much better with many more options for third party apps, and being a bit later, could take advantage of more powerful hardware.
Android is based upon the Linux Kernel and like its underlying core, is entirely open source with the codebase being largely C plus Google's modified version of Java. The open source nature has allowed a plethora of developers to produce applications "apps", most of which are hosted in Google's Play Store which is integrated with all Android installations.
Unlike the iPhone, Android needs to work on a broad range of devices from a wide range of manufacturers including Samsung, HTC, Sony and more recently Toshiba and ASUS. This has necessitated lots of underlying code to support the various RF chips, camera modules, screens and wifi modules that come on these devices. All these devices do have one thing in common: a very different chipset to that found in desktops and laptops. Desktops and laptops historically have run usually Intel chipsets and Intel or AMD processors. These are processors tuned to performance, to tear through the greatest number of calculations possible per second. But in the era of mobile computing, such extreme performance focus has come at the detriment of something: battery life. Batteries simply are not good enough to keep a modern Intel processor chugging away for more than a couple of hours, which means that Intel just isn't an option for a phone which needs to keep operational all day long.
This battery limitation spawned interest in a different chipset architecture designed by ARM. ARM, founded in Cambridge UK set out to design processors which were energy efficient, physically small and low heat generating for use in 'embedded devices' such as microwave ovens, TVs and routers. ARM's focus has been on energy efficiency, but as time has gone on, the speeds and capabilities of ARM chips has crept up and has begun snapping at the heels of Intel's processors. This is what drew attention to them as processors for smartphones. In 2008 it was possible to have a low-cost, small, passively cooled 32-bit processor chip running at 1GHz, which drew less than 1 watt, thus satisfying all the specs for a 'smartphone' which can run all day long on one battery charge. However, the traditional operating systems (Windows, OS X) simply could not talk to an ARM architecture, and also required too much processing power for all their various processes, thus making them unsuitable for loading onto smartphones. Instead, Android was designed to be resource-light and to run specifically on ARM chips. So, Android became an operating system for the new generation of ARM powered devices which were known as 'smartphones', to give an operating system to a land which Windows and OS X couldn't touch.
Convergence of Computing and Rise of Tablets
The world of computing is converging. Laptops, mobile phones and digital cameras are all on a collision course to become one homogenous device which does office admin tasks, graphics, phone calls, takes pictures and provides internet browsing while still being portable. Mobiles phones are the consumer device with the most potential consumer revenue simply because they are viewed as essential by most people and most of these people upgrade them every year. This has made the mobile phone into the forerunner of the portable computer forms. The problem though is that the small size of a mobile makes it difficult to use as a word processor, and the small screen size puts a limit on the kinds of things you can do (graphic design and spreadsheets require lots of screen area). This has led to larger and larger smartphones appearing.
At the opposite end, laptops are getting smaller. The standard 15 or 17 inch laptops require something akin to a briefcase to carry around and typically weigh 3-5 kg. Transportable as the thing you'd fling in the back of a car, but not particularly portable as something to carry around all day. This has led to smaller form laptops, with 13 inch screens becoming popular, and a subset of laptops "netbooks" which are less powerful 10-11 inch models. More recently, the weight and the volume of laptops has been trimmed by ditching seldom used features such as CD/DVD drives, serial ports and surplus USB ports to produce "ultrabooks"; a trend again started by Apple with their Macbook Air.
The gap between enlarging smartphones and shrinking laptops has been filled by a new entity: the tablet. Buoyed by the rise of the iPad, a range of touchscreen 8-10 inch devices have appeared, containing very similar low energy chipsets to smartphones. They have gained rapid popularity among consumers because they provide a new way to interface with a large screen: by touch. For the device to be comfortable enough to hold for long periods, weight and thickness had to be kept down. This meant small components, small batteries and therefore the same slimline ARM architecture as smartphones, rather than the chunky metal-heatsink cooled Intel processors of laptops. The underlying ARM architecture and gold rush by manufacturers to capture the tablet market is probably the reason why the smartphone operating system, Android, has been stretched to tablets rather than something more bespoke being created. It is upon such a tablet that I'm writing this entry.
Android is now being marketed as a tablet operating system, which means it is supposed to be capable of reading and commenting on documents, web browsing, emailing, word processing and spreadsheets, as well as the usual phone stuff of making calls, texting and taking pictures.
My Experience With the ASUS Transformer Prime:
Of all of the Android tablets, I chose the Transformer Prime for its keyboard dock and battery life. If you need to do any serious coding or writing, soft screen keyboards don't cut it because they are cramped, suffer from latency issues, and instantly consume half the screen the moment they appear. This is what I loved about the TFP: you can shove the tablet into the dock's hinged groove, instantly turning it into a mini laptop. Spec-wise, the processor is the new ARM based nVidia Tegra 3 which provides four cores at 1.4GHz, 1GB of RAM, and an embedded solid state hard-drive with 64 GB of space. It comes with WiFi and Bluetooth, although doesn't contain a 3G radio, thus to be truely portable, you'll need some sort of tethering arrangement to a 3G mobile. The screen is 10.1 inches, multitouch. It comes with Android Ice Cream Sandwich and some proprietary software.
Because the processor, GPU and wifi gubbins are all in the tablet behind the screen, the keyboard dock contains spare space. ASUS have smartly filled this space with a second battery. This means that once docked, the tablet will run for up to 18 hours in constant use! This made it ideal for the 3 hour train journey I was going to go on, in an overpriced, dirty, crowded train cabin, with no mains power sockets for laptops, where my laptop would otherwise run flat after 2 hours.
The build quality is excellent. It is all-aluminium and feels solid. You can pick the Transformer Prime up by one corner of the keyboard dock without feeling like it's going to snap. The keyboard uses the spring lever keys as seen on Macbooks, which feel solid to use and sturdy enough to withstand a keyboard basher like me. The multi-touch touchpad is responsive, and has built in mouse buttons making it work just like a laptop. A scroll margin would be nice, but you can do the same by swiping with two fingers instead. The tablet part is equally well built with a solid aluminium back, and a thick Gorilla Glass coating on the front. The multitouch screen is very responsive, and the LED backlighting is bright keeping it readable even in full sunlight. I have however noticed that green colours seem a little pale which suggests they have used blue/yellow white LEDs rather than the more sensible LCD colour-matched RGB tricolour LEDs.
The tablet comes with an impressive 8MP camera on the back, and a smaller one on the front plus in-built microphone, making video conferencing feasible. There's a slot for a microSD, enabling you to expand storage, a full side SD slot in the keyboard dock, a USB port on the right (useful for a separate mouse) and a headphone output.
Other classic Android stuff such as Angry Birds, the gallery and the camera work well. Amazon's Kindle app makes PDF and eBook reading smooth. The file browser is sensible and does the job. Music playback is stable, and sound quality through headphones is excellent. The built in e-mail client is stable, and provides full IMAP access to all my e-mail folders. Being a Google platform, it integrates well with Gmail, although annoyingly won't let me choose which address to send outgoing mails from, unlike the Gmail web client. It also has a habit of putting "Sent from my Asus Eee Pad" at the base of the compose window. This is a rather annoying trend in electronics: having paid half a grand for this piece of kit I don't expect to be used as an advertising billboard for the product as well. Also, where is it going to stop? "Sent from my Asus Eee Pad atop a custom built work top made from wood from B&Q and brackets from ScrewFix, while sitting on my IKEA kneeling chair and powered by Lava Java coffee from Taylors and Harrogate" Anyway, for casual flitting about on the net and staying in contact, so far, so good.
It is when it comes to creating and editing content do the cracks show. To try and make the tablet more of a laptop, ASUS have included the proprietary software "Polaris Office". It offers a word processor, a spreadsheet editor and a slideshow editor. Polaris Office is essential a clone of MS Office, with most of the fluff stripped out. They have done a good job of making the user-interface work with a smaller touchscreen. It is easy to use and stable when it comes to creating documents, and is surprisingly satisfying to peck at the screen with your finger in order to move and resize objects. The main hang-up though is that it only opens and saves in MS Office 97-2003 format. This is not much good for an organisation such as Onley which runs on open-source software thus tends to use LibreOffice, nor is it good for our many clients who like to send us documents in the newer open XML standards such as those saved by Microsoft Office 2007+. Table support is present, but limited, and the restricted range of colours, borders and line styles makes creating anything that fits with the corporate brand very tedious if not impossible.
Google offers the next best alternative: Google Drive. They have ported their browser based document editors to Android. The document editor is basic in features but very stable. However, because it is all cloud based a constant internet connection is required even between saves. Frequently my document locked up with the message "Cannot edit because there is no internet connection"; not much good for a portable device on the move. There is no decent page-layout based desktop publishing program on Android at all. So, if I need to produce a quick internal spreadsheet, or internal document in dirty default fonts with default alignment and default colour schemes which no client or the public will ever see, Android is fine, but for anything with branding and clarity, it's not up to task.
Graphic editing on Android is pathetic. There are a variety of photo editing apps, but these just allow touching up brightness / contrast, removing a bit of red eye, or sticking stupid clip art lips and smiley faces on top of a photo. Nothing exists which allows vector art creation, nor supports external fonts or complex gradients. Some apps provide multi-layer brush art, but nearly all require you to pay something in order to export your work to make any use of it. Contrast this with your ordinary Windows / OS X / Ubuntu laptop where you can marry free tools like Inkscape and GIMP and Scribus to produce professional web graphics, reports and glossy publications and export them in tens of different formats.
Most people at Onley Group do coding as part of their job. This is where Android (which I'll remind you makes a big deal about being a developer-friendly open-source platform) falls embarassingly short. The ASUS Transformer Prime comes with no Integrated Developer Environment (IDE) installed. IDEs are the bedrock of programming. They are a text editor which highlights bits of code in colours and can track all the variables / functions / classes / properties / methods you use. Third party apps do exist for the job, the best being one called TouchQode. However, TouchQode hasn't yet been properly redesigned for tablet screens, and most annoyingly doesn't recognise the TAB key on the TFP keyboard. For programmers, being able to use whitespace is very important. TouchQode can run a variety of Java code though, allowing you to test as you develop. An alternative IDE, DroidEdit, has a habit of bombing out with a crash unexpectedly on the Transformer Prime, so I couldn't give it a test.
Multitasking is a nightmare on Android. Because Android had been conceived as a mobile phone platform where device RAM was generally small, it has taken control of multitasking away from the user to try and limit the number of open applications consuming resources. On a normal desktop or laptop running Windows / OS X / Ubuntu, the operating system ties up some RAM and CPU, and then every additional program you open consumes a little bit more RAM (and CPU while it's actually doing something). The user can then flick between open programs as they please, which retain the state of whatever they are doing until the user closes off the program. It's therefore up to the user to close off the programs they no longer want. Android isn't like that: there are no tabs to switch between programs nor a Mac-like dock. Instead, programs either run as the single foreground application, or as a service, or not at all but with some memory as to their state when you last touched them. When you switch from one program to another, the program is held in memory only until some of its memory needs releasing for the next task, the background program is then wound down and its state cached on disk. This means you can be switching between several programs and find that every so often one program must go through its whole loading cycle to bring it back into memory. So Android doesn't really have "background" programs, but instead has the currently active program, and inactive programs which may be in memory so quick to resume, or may be closed and cached, with Android deciding which is which. This would be a reasonable method of memory management, except for the fact that Android seems to make a pig's ear of it on a regular basis by making bad guesses at what apps the user is most actively using, and for the fact that the user interface for switching is rubbish.
For example, there seems to be little logic behind when an app gets wound down or not. Android will quite happily keep the resource intensive Angry Birds in memory even when its sitting on menu mode, but will forget the contents of my Google Drive document or my third web browser tab, necessitating a reload despite me never exiting the browser. The interface also starts getting sluggish after a few hours of usage, probably because unlike Windows / OS X / Ubuntu which have a definite "close" button in the corner of every window, Android apps only properly exit if you rap the "back" button hundreds of times to backtrack through the app to the start screen until it declares that it will exit. There's therefore no telling how much space is being consumed by caches during a session, nor how much crud from apps used hours ago is sitting around. It's no surprise that some of the most popular Andoid apps are the task killers which allow you to hoof an active app off the OS proper. Switching between programs is a little illogical, your options are:
- Hit the "home" button, and hope that the app you are leaving is competent at saving / caching itself then load up the next app
- Hold the "home" button (or when docked: Alt+Tab), and see a list of "Recent Apps" which unhelpfully doesn't distinguish between which apps are in memory, which have cached data from an unfinished active session and which would result in being started up cold
- Press the new Ice Cream Sandwich window taskbar button which shows the recent apps as a scrollable list with a thumbnail of what the screen looked like last time you switched / exited / it was cached. This is most like the taskbar or dock of a full OS, except once again doesn't let you know which apps are still in state and which apps are not.
The constant hassle of hitting the back button, having apps suddenly reloading like a cold start, and having the wrong apps consuming resources with little control over which ones stay alive makes serious multitasking impossible. Unlike the home screen which offers five or seven 'panes' to stash your icons and widgets, applications in full screen can only exist on the same one pane. Veterans of any good Linux desktop environment will be used to the idea of workspaces to flick between simultaneous programs. It would be nice if Android offered the same.
Stability is highly variable, depending on what is running, suggesting that the apps are mostly the cause. Some apps just crash with no explanation. Some apps fail to run on the TFP, generating an error message on startup instead. Once every few days, the home pages "launcher" thing crashes and goes through a reload. Occasionally, the whole OS comes down causing the whole device to reboot. When these happen there is no graceful file recovery / system recovery, instead the relevant bit crashes, closes and whatever was within gets lost. For a system engineered on the Linux Kernel, possibly the most stable OS core in the world, and already in its fourth major release, this is disappointing.
The most frustrating aspect though is when trying to cross collaborate between apps. I've written this on the Google Drive app, and my intention was to then login to the Onley Group website in the browser and paste it into our content management system. Unfortunately, if I copy all the text into clipboard, then do something else without touching the clipboard, then go to paste it in the browser, the clipboard can be empty having been cleared when Google Drive got powered down. Furthermore even when the info is kept in the clipboard, the keyboard shortcut to paste it into the extremely common rich text editor "CKeditor" doesn't work, nor does the paste button. Attempting to paste it into a raw textarea as HTML code (with the intention of inserting the markup myself) appears to work, but because the amount of text spills over the bottom of the box, it obliterates the submit button, with no way of getting to this.
I then tried to download the Firefox for Android browser, but then Google Play Store decided to play up. Randomly without explanation, it just perpetually shows a "downloading" bar that never stops with no actual data being shifted. Rebooting and clearing the Google Play application only works sometimes to cure this. The problem seems to be more common when connecting to the internet via Bluetooth to my phone, yet the app can obviously see the internet because it is able to search for apps, and show the details to me. Similarly other apps such as the normally outstanding Pulse news reader seem totally unable to see the internet connection when on Bluetooth, but have no problems when using WiFi. I tried to cure the problem by tethering my phone to the pad directly, but there is no way to make the pad realise that the USB is it's internet connection, plus the phone starts sucking the pad's battery power as it tries to charge itself. So, in order to submit this article, I've had to share this Google doc with a colleague back at Onley Towers who has done the copy and paste job on a trusty Ubuntu desktop.
The ASUS Transformer Prime is a brilliantly built piece of hardware which has potential to be a laptop replacement thanks to its keyboard dock. It is based upon quad-core ARM architecture which means for the first time you can get acceptable processing capability and amazing battery life. But it is massively let down by its choice of platform: Android.
I've really struggled over the last 10 days and had to rely on resources back at base on several occasions just to do seemingly basic tasks. Next time, I'll be bringing my original Ubuntu laptop again.
For my ASUS Transformer Prime, all is not lost, however. As soon as someone finds a way to reliably root the current firmware version (126.96.36.199), I'll install a light-weight desktop Linux distribution such as Lubuntu on top of the existing Linux kernel for Android. There will probably be some hardware issues such as getting the touchpad, touchscreen, WiFi and Bluetooth to work, but nothing a few smart programmers and custom drivers can't fix. Then I'll have a fully capable, 10.1 inch quad-core touchscreen netbook, with access to all the world's Linux software applications, all with 18 hours of battery life to make Intel wince. ASUS, please ship the next Transformer with a proper desktop OS, Android is not a laptop replacement.