iPads vs. Android tablets vs. Surface vs. PlayBook vs. e-readers: which is best for lending to students?

As I mentioned very briefly in my post about how I landed my job through networking, I’m working on some fascinating projects at Seneca. One of these projects is to choose a mobile device for Seneca Libraries to lend out to students. I’m doing it as part of a committee, but I want to share my personal thoughts here.

The committee was asked to look at the various e-readers and tablets available, test a few of them, and then make a recommendation as to which would be best for lending. As you can imagine, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to play with a bunch of gadgets! I’ve done my own (very limited) comparison of mobile devices before, but that was a couple of years ago, so I was interested to see the latest tech. First we all did some research to decide which devices we should test, and then we ordered a few of each so we could all try them out. Here’s a photo of some of the devices we bought:

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Here are some (but not all) of the devices we tested.

And here are my thoughts on each of the options. I should first mention that I own an iPad 2 and use it every day, so I may be slightly biased simply due to my familiarity with this device; however, I’ve done my best to be objective. Also, I have an Android phone, so I’m not a total Apple fanboy.

  • Sony Reader & Kobo Glo
    • Clearly, it’s unfair to compare these basic e-readers with the more full featured tablets in this group. However, they do have some advantages, such as the e-ink display, which some people find easier on the eyes than a back-lit tablet screen, and which can still be read in the dark thanks to the Glo’s side lighting. There’s also the portability factor: these were the smallest and lightest devices in the group, making them the easiest to toss in a backpack. And finally, they’re considerably cheaper than the tablets, which means we could buy more of them.
    • For someone who wants to read some fiction while on vacation, or on the subway, these devices make a lot of sense. The reading experience for epub files is excellent – the text flows to fit the screen, and the slight flicker when turning pages doesn’t bother me.
    • In terms of a device we could lend to students, I think it’s important that they be able to do research on it, and unfortunately these readers don’t connect with enough of our resources. It’s possible to download ebooks from some of our databases (such as OverDrive), but it involves first downloading the file to a computer, then plugging in the device, and then transferring it, whereas the tablets can do it all without any wires or intermediate steps. Both the Sony and the Kobo can connect to WiFi and have browsers, but surfing the web is an incredibly unpleasant experience (to be fair, neither company heavily promotes the browser; it’s sort of a hidden feature in case you’re desperate to get online and no computer is available).
  • BlackBerry PlayBook
    • We all wanted to like the PlayBook, since it’s made by a Canadian company (albeit a struggling one) and sells for not much more than an e-reader, and it does have some great features. It was the only device we tested that plays Flash out of the box (which is necessary for watching videos on SeneMA, the Seneca Media Archive, though many of our other streaming videos don’t require Flash), and the interface is intuitive and efficient. It connects by Micro USB rather than a proprietary port, which means that replacing the cord will likely be easier and cheaper, and the Micro HDMI port means it should be simple to connect to an external monitor or TV.
    • Unfortunately, the PlayBook suffers from a serious lack of apps compared to Android and iOS. For example, there’s no way to read DRM-protected ebooks from sources other than OverDrive (Bluefire Reader is not available), and the device takes a very long time to restart. And personally I find the 1024 x 600 screen format to be awkward – if you hold it portrait-style, it’s too narrow, and landscape-style it’s too wide.
  • Microsoft Surface
    • The Microsoft Surface (RT version) was promising, and indeed, it offered the most laptop-like experience. I love the built-in “kickstand,” and the large screen is great for watching videos. It’s the only device to offer a native Microsoft Office suite (no surprise there), which would be appreciated by students who have papers they’ve already started writing on their home computer, and the full-sized USB port (also unique in our testing) makes transferring files even easier. And for anyone not ready to embrace tablet-style navigation, it’s possible (but awkward) to switch into the more familiar desktop mode.
    • The Touch Cover is a great idea – it’s a keyboard that also serves as a screen protector when not in use. It attaches magnetically, and it’s easy to snap on or off. The keys themselves, however, are not very pleasant to use. They’re touch-sensitive, so you have no tactile confirmation that you’ve successfully pressed a key, but unlike typing on the virtual on-screen keyboard, it requires more pressure than a simple touch. I imagine the similarly-named Type Cover, with mechanical keys, would provide a better typing experience, but I haven’t had the chance to test one of these.
    • Although using it with the kickstand works well, I don’t like the way it feels when holding it. It’s heavier than a full-sized iPad, and, as I noted with the PlayBook, the 16:9 screen ratio is awkward for reading (though great for watching videos). And, again like the PlayBook, the app store has a limited selection, and won’t allow you to read DRM-protected ebooks. Finally, the proprietary power adapter is a bit awkward (and presumably hard to replace). I’d say it’s a great first-generation tablet, but it’s simply not the best option currently available.
  • Android tablets: Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, Google Nexus 7, and Fujitsu M532
    • Sadly, two of the three Fujitsus we bought had severe battery life issues (one wouldn’t turn on at all when not plugged in), which meant that (a) I didn’t have the chance to test one, and (b) while it’s entirely possible that they just came from the same bad batch, we decided to look for a more reliable product.
    • From the outside, the Galaxy Tab and the Nexus 7 are very similar 7-inch tablets – their dimensions and weight are almost identical. Functionally, they’re quite comparable, though on the inside there are a few important differences:
      • The Nexus has a faster processor and a higher resolution screen.
      • The Nexus uses the version of Android that comes straight from Google, while Samsung puts their own spin on the OS. It’s a matter of opinion which interface you prefer, but I would certainly opt for the pure Android experience. Samsung has their own app store, in addition to Google Play, which students may find confusing.
    • At $209, I think the Nexus 7 offers the best value of the devices we tested. Although there aren’t quite as many apps available for Android as for Apple devices, I was able to do everything I could do on an iPad (Bluefire works well for downloadable ebooks from our databases). I like the Micro USB connector and the hardware specs in general, but I can’t quite get past the screen’s aspect ratio and small size, so it’s not my pick of the litter.
  • Apple tablets: iPad 2 and iPad Mini:
    • Considering how much I’ve been complaining about the devices with smaller screens, I liked the Mini more than I thought I would. Maybe it’s the extra 0.9 diagonal inches, but more likely it’s the 4:3 ratio. In any case, although it’s considerably smaller than the full-sized iPad, it doesn’t feel cramped (and the reduced weight makes it more pleasant to hold in one hand).
    • I came across a few small glitches, especially when using the Chrome browser instead of the default Safari, but overall Apple provides a very smooth experience, and most things “just work” in a way they don’t always with the other devices. The selection of apps (both free and paid) is unmatched, so the only danger is the many hours you can spend just browsing through the App Store.
    • Edit: It was pointed out in the comments that my evaluation of the Apple products was rather one-sided, so here’s what I don’t like about the iPad. The proprietary cord is undoubtedly a downside, and the most recent cables aren’t even compatible with earlier iPads, such as the iPad 2. Android’s notification system is much better (though this is more important on a phone than on a tablet), and iOS doesn’t offer as much customization (e.g., you’re stuck with Apple’s on-screen keyboard, which hasn’t changed in years, whereas Android offers brilliant alternative keyboards). And if you use a lot of Google accounts, like Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Calendar, you’ll find they’re easier to set up, and more deeply integrated, on Android (which is a Google product).
    • Personally, I read a lot of magazines on my iPad, so I would never trade it in for a Mini. However, the Mini’s advantages in portability and price are certainly attractive, so I would heartily recommend either of these tablets.

So there you have my pick: the iPad 2 or iPad Mini. The newer full-sized iPads are more expensive and have no improvements that would be significant in the context of doing academic research; the higher resolution screen and more powerful hardware don’t matter much for reading ebooks, annotating PDFs, and watching videos (well, the videos might look better, but they wouldn’t be any more educational). However, I think it’s important to note that none of the devices we tested can do everything that a computer can do. At Seneca Libraries we already lend out laptops, and anyone who wants to hunker down and do hardcore research would be better served by even an underpowered netbook than by a mobile device that’s designed more for casual use.

Whew! That’s enough from me – does your library lend out tablets? Do you have a preference for one device over another? Let me know in the comments.