Gadget Bag: The Tablet Revolution

Between their bright displays, thin and lightweight designs, and the incredible range of apps from which to choose, tablets are rapidly becoming must-have accessories for nature photographers
This Article Features Photo Zoom

These slick, thin, computing wonders are technically referred to as tablet computing devices. Each manufacturer has given its product a descriptive name that implies its purpose. Two years ago, they didn't exist, and now there's a gaggle, all busily collecting fingerprints on the outside and free apps on the inside. Does an outdoor photographer need one? Did Mathew Brady need a tripod? Ultimately, it's the apps and how you use them that make a tablet more or less useful. There are more and more photo-related apps coming online every week, and nature photographers also will find mapping apps to be particularly useful. And, of course, simply having a big, bright, beautiful display for viewing your images anywhere and everywhere can't be overstated as a benefit. Yes, now is the time to add a tablet to your bag.

Apple iPad 2

Apple iPad was the first to appear, and it was met with incredible success. It singlehandedly created the category. Offering a generously large 9.7-inch display and tipping the scales at just a pound and a half, it was available in 16 GB, 32 GB and 64 GB storage configurations, each with or without 3G connectivity. Screen resolution of 1024x768 made it ideal for reviewing photos in the field. The original iPad was equipped with a 1 GHz A4 CPU and 256 MB of RAM, and could run for up to 10 hours between charges. Starting at just $499, it may prove to have been the most successful electronic device of all time.

Apple iPad 2
, introduced this past April, added something that was notably absent from its predecessor: a camera. In fact, the iPad 2 has two cameras; one is rear-facing for video phone conversations. It also features a faster CPU (an A5 Dual Core) and twice the RAM, and is slightly smaller and thinner. While it's unlikely that a serious photographer would ever use it as a primary capture device, it's fun and handy to be able to shoot 720p HD video. Although iPad 2 shines like a star when compared to many other tablets, and offers tens of thousands of apps (many free), it has its disadvantages, too. Apple iOS doesn't support Flash—the oh-so-popular format for animations—and it measures 9.5x7.3 inches—a might too large for a pocket or waist pack.

RIM PlayBook

RIM, maker of the ever-popular BlackBerry communication devices, introduced the PlayBook this spring. The PlayBook is smaller (7.6x5.1x0.4 inches) and weighs just nine-tenths of a pound. The trade-off for the enhanced portability is a smaller screen, although a 7-inch diagonal LCD can hardly be called small. It's powered by a 1 GHz Dual Core processor and runs on BlackBerry Tablet OS. It comes in 16/32/64 GB flavors, offers 4G service, and has a screen resolution of 1024x600. If video is your thing, the PlayBook captures at 1080p and has a 3-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 5-megapixel forward-facing camera for stills.

Samsung Galaxy Tab

Samsung's entry to the tablet market, the Galaxy Tab, is somewhat similar to the RIM product. It measures 7.5x4.75x0.5 inches and weighs 13.5 ounces. Powered by a 1 GHz Cortex A8 processor, it offers 16 GB storage, a 7-inch LCD and a screen resolution of 1024x600. The Galaxy Tab uses Android OS and, therefore, is suitable for watching Flash animation. Two cameras are built in, at 3 megapixels and 1.3 megapixels, respectively.

iOS Vs. Android

Is it VHS vs. Betamax all over again, as Android users square off against devotees of iOS? Apple iPads use the latter, while all other tablet brands use Android or a proprietary operating system (e.g., HP's nifty TouchPad is powered by webOS). Which is better? For most users, it depends on what you want from your OS. Android runs Flash applications, and that's huge. Apple's iOS does not. And iOS is harder to customize. Android is reputed to have a faster browser. Both systems multitask and enable Folders. Apple's iOS noses out Google's Android in the final analysis because more apps have been written for it—over 65,000 specifically for the iPad. But given the sheer number of Android-powered tablets on the market, that situation may change soon.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Motorola Xoom

Resembling the shiny half of a netbook (because the screen is so large), the Motorola Xoom takes top honors in the LCD-size category with a 10.1-inch display. Remarkably, the overall size is quite similar to iPad 2 at 9.8x6.6x0.5 inches. Available with up to 32 GB of storage, the Xoom runs under Android and weighs 1.6 pounds. Screen resolution is a class-leading 1280x800 pixels. Equipped with two cameras—a 5-megapixel camera for photography and a 2-megapixel webcam—the Xoom captures 720p HD video and is a solid choice for field use.

Dell Streak 7; HP TouchPad

The HP TouchPad is roughly the same size and weight as the original iPad and has the same-size screen, 9.7 inches. It's outfitted with a 1.3-megapixel communications camera and offers 1024x768 resolution. HP decided on webOS, originally developed by Palm, for an operating system. The processor is a Qualcomm Snapdragon Dual CPU running at 1.2 GHz. At 1.6 pounds, it's the heaviest of the bunch, but still portable. The TouchPad is available in 16 GB and 32 GB versions.

The Dell Streak 7 is ideal for trekking because it's quite compact. It has a 7-inch screen that delivers 800x480 resolution, and it runs Android OS. Powered by a Nvidia Tegra 2 CPU, the Streak 7 features a 1.3-megapixel webcam and a 5-megapixel digital camera, and comes with 16 GB of storage.

Power, Power, Power

The battery life for all of the tablets mentioned herein is about 10 hours under optimal circumstances. That's long enough for most flights, day trips and camping excursions. Just be sure to allow the tablet's battery to drop to its lowest safe operating level before you plug in the charger. While modern lithium-poly batteries, which are found in Apple iPads and many other tablets, feature the latest battery technology, they also have a finite life span that can be extended with proper care.


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    One tablet that was left out of this list as the Acer Iconia A500 tablet. It’s comparable to the Motorola Xoom as far as hardware specs, however, the A500 has a fullsize USB2.0 port on it. This makes it far more useful IMHO for a photographer because all it required is a USB card reader to review your images in the field. Images can be reviews directly from the card, and isn’t sucked to the tablet, like I believe the iPad requires. I think the only problem I have is no RAW support, but I think that’s for all android and ipad devices currently.

    To correct Tim J’s errors – 1) the Ipad2 does support raw and 2) you can import pictures from an SD card using the camera connection. I use my Ipad2 in the field and there is nothing like seeing your pictures on a 10 inch screen to better gauge your shots. My biggest gripe is that I can’t view AVCHD video from my camera on my Ipad due to the incompatibility.

    The iOS vs Android comparison is confusing. iOS is proprietary and WebOs is, but Android which is sandwiched between the two is not. This makes it more confusing to read than it needs to be.

    The problem with proprietary OSes is glossed over. You will always be paying for your OS and at the mercy of the OEM. With a free OS you can upgrade and even root your device as newer versions are developed. Also Apple devices are locked down in many other ways and do not even provide ports for expansion. So as your device ages you must buy a new device or live with its limitations.

    I have read several articles on the tablets and enjoy the OS and screen comparisons but have yet to see an article address the way we put images on the device. Where are they USB ports and/or slots to transfer data without having it manipulated by using software to get it there. I would love to see this issue addresed. I guess this is why I have not bought one yet even thought I love the gadgets.

    I’m surprised at how little in-depth info this article has. I would at least assume a photo mag would give a comparison of the types of photo apps available on each platform.

    The iOS vs Android comparison is also a bit weak. It’s true that Android does Flash. But every reputable reviewer I’ve see has pointed out that Flash seems to slow down video delivery to a jerky mess. It’s just not ready for prime time on mobile devices.

    The reviewer says iOS is “harder to customize.” And I guess that’s true. But my guess is less than 5% of current tablet users have the technical chops to attempt that. That’s more of an issue with smart phones.

    As far as “iOS noses out Android” in terms of apps written for the tablet — there’s a huge understatement. The last estimate I saw was under 50 apps written for the Android tablet OS. Hardly any of those are photo apps.

    I’ve been using the iPad to show off my images since it came out. Its a great device and would highly recommend the Sort Shots for iPad App. Adds a bunch of functionality that the default photo app doesn’t have like using keywords already assigned to your photos.

    Be careful on the raw storage.

    Now I don’t know that much about the Android OS, but I do have an iPhone 4 and because of that have chosen to not use anymore Apple products. Every thing requires iTunes, one of the worst pieces of software I have encountered. All of these devices should have a USB and an SD port. This is the 21 century. For the iPad one must purchase another accessory to load pictures. I was wondering if one of the new SD cards with built in WiFi would do the job. The Toshiba tablet with interchangeable batteries has the most appeal to me at this time.

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