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July 18, 2012

Keep taking the tablets

Follow-up to Another tablet from Snap!

I've been looking for the ideal tablet (for my needs) for some time and written previously about my experiences with two 10" tablets (the original iPad and the Acer W500 Windows tablet). These tend to be heavy and cannot be read for more than a few seconds holding them by a corner.

So I have also been looking at 7" tablets such as Kindles. I've had the Kindle Keyboard, then the Kindle Touch and finally a Kindle Fire. The slim grey plastic Kindles with eInk screens do what it says on the tin. They are light weight and excellent readers. They have an experimental web browser which is quite slow and clunky, so they should not be viewed as anything more than a very good reader.

The Kindle Fire is an Amazonised Android tablet with an excellent LCD screen, so more of an iPad competitor. As a Kindle it is fine, though with a backlit screen it has both advantages and disadvantages over the other Kindles. Its battery gets eaten up quickly and the screen is harder to read in strong ambient light. As an Android tablet, it is crippled at the moment by the lack of UK support. You can find ways to install Android apps, e.g. initially using a Dropbox account, so the Opera browser provides an alternative to the built in Android browser. Kindle is a pretty good PDF reader so for my purposes, once set up the Kindle Fire is an alternative to an iPad which is easier to carry around and use on the go.

Just under a week ago I received an early delivery of a 16GB Google Nexus 7 from eBuyer. It seems they jumped the gun, but I'm not complaining :)

It is slightly lighter than the Fire, similar form factor and a backlit LCD screen which looks to my eyes slightly less saturated than the Fire and paradoxically, since it has higher resoultion (1280x800 versus 1024x600), sometimes less sharp. I don't do video or games so the more powerful processor in the Nexus is not really noticeable, but the integration with Google Play makes kitting the Nexus out with apps more straight forward.

However, running Android 4.1, the Nexus is beyond Adobe's cutoff point for Flash, so there is no Android browser and currently no iPlayer. Instead there is the Chrome browser installed. Which is fine. Presumably websites which accommodate the other non-Flash tablet will also do so with the Nexus. Then I can watch the BBC News again.

The Android email client works well with my different accounts.

Android is as deficient as iOS in not having a TeX installation. I can use cloud TeX services just as on the iPad. But if I need offline access to a TeX installation then it has to be a laptop or the Acer W500 tablet which has TeXLive installed. This is, of course, also the heaviest of the lot.

Leaving aside compiling TeX on the go, then the three 7" tablets I currently use (Touch, Fire, Nexus) all have plusses and minusses. Probably the one which will get squeezed out is the Fire. The Touch is far and away the lightest and has great battery life. The limitations on what I can currently install on the Fire means the Nexus will have the edge in software. With UK support for the Fire the gap would be much less. The iPad trails in last.


December 02, 2011

Another tablet

Follow-up to iPad from Snap!

Some time ago I wrote about my experiences with an iPad from the point of view of a travelling mathematician. Like most iOS and Android devices it provides email and web access through wifi (and 3G if they use the mobile phone networks).

But I want to be able to write mathematics conveniently and whilst there are editors for LaTeX source files on both iOS and Android, processing of the source files to PDF output has to be by a remote TeX installation. Whilst such services exist they need a live internet connection to use and my experience with 3G and hotspots is very poor. Hotels frequently charge a fortune to use their wifi services, and 3G dongles often cannot get enough signal to be used reliably.

It would be much nicer to have a self-contained system. E.g. an installation of TeXLive on the machine. These exist for Mac OSX, Linux and Windows. But not for iOS or Android. There's no Apple tablet besides the iPad and Linux tablets seem hard to obtain in the UK whereas there are Windows tablets.

I decided the only thing to do was buy one and see if I could get it set up to work like my MacBook Pro or my netbook which is set up to run SLED 11. Both the latter have TeXLive 2011 installed which provides the TeXWorks editor and previewer, and both connect to my Subversion server using public key authentication so that it does not matter which machine I work on, I have access to the same files.

I bought an Acer Iconia W500 (list price £449) which comes with a 32GB SSD and 2GB of RAM, 1280x800 screen, AMD dual core processor, dual web cams, SD slot, wifi and bluetooth. It weighs 960gms and is 16mm thick. The operating system is 32 bit Windows 7 Home Premium plus some touch screen software which I don't use. Like the iPad it starts to feel heavy fairly quickly if you try to hold it in one hand and operate it with the other.

I had read reviews of Windows 7 based touch screen systems so I was prepared for a terrible experience. But it wasn't. I haven't yet mastered bringing up the virtual keyboard exactly where and when I want it, but most of the time things work fine. There are two USB ports so I can plug in a wired mouse and keyboard if I want and it also supports use of bluetooth peripherals which connected without problem when I tried generic devices.

I used the smaller MiKTeX distribution for LaTeX rather than the full TeXLive as the 32GB SSD will soon fill up. No problems installing it and running TeXWorks. The MiKTeX package manager added a few extras the first time I processed one of my papers and I expect this will happen less and less over time as it builds up the set of packages I use frequently.

Then I tackled getting SVN to work. I downloaded TortoiseSVN and installed it, created an SVN directory and then created directories for the papers I am working on and my CV. You then right-click on a directory and add the information needed to checkout the files from the SVN server. I use the svn+ssh protocol so ended up entering my password for the server many times for each checkout. That encouraged me to seek a public key solution which is to install the PuTTY suite of applications, set up the public/private key pair, copy the public key to the server and install the private key in Pageant. Then tell Tortoise to communicate with Pageant for authentication. That worked fine except you need to install the private key into Pageant on every boot. There are instructions on the net for editing the Registry to get around this but I worked out a different solution. I created a link to Pageant, got its properties and edited the command to be run to include the full path to the PuTTY private key file. After clicking Apply, I moved the link into my Startup items folder so that when I log in to my Windows account, Pageant gets loaded with the key for accessing my svn server. You can protect access the server by setting a passphrase for the private key which will be asked for just the once when Pageant loads the key instead of being asked for the server password many times per transaction.

I am pleased with this setup. The 32GB SSD is not large but large enough for my purposes and can be backed up onto a 32GB SD card, and another SD card (or more) can provide additional storage space.


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