Torn between two (or three) tablets


Living as a (self-professed) technophile is difficult, especially when you’re actually “living the life” and getting some cool new gadget, even if only once in a while. Even harder when you’re actually trying to cut down on the number of gadgets you use actively. That was the situation I find myself in when trying to decide which of three tablets to choose as my one and only slate of choice. The one that I’ll always bring with me. In an ideal world, I’d bring all three where I go. But, as they say, we don’t live an ideal world. So it’s down to a choice between the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, the Lenovo Yoga Book Android version, and the Apple iPad Pro 9.7. It’s not a coincidence that each has a different operating system, which actually affects the decision as well. Unfortunately, I’m as undecided today as I was a month ago when I first thought of the question.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

The oldest of the three, it is also the biggest and the heaviest. It also happens to be the most versatile as far as software goes. Of course out of the box it ran Windows 8.1 (upgraded to Windows 10), but it wasn’t long before I installed Linux (Fedora) side-by-side. Being practically a regular x86 tablet/laptop, it’s the only one of the three able to do this. In practice, this means that I can do almost anything and everything on it, software-wise. Work or play, it can handle the job.

It’s not, however, the most portable tablet. Its size and weight make it painful to hold for prolonged periods. I may have made a mistake in getting the Intel Core i7 model. It may be faster than the others, but it also runs hot and gets noisy. And that’s even with throttling. Its touchscreen is wasted with the lack of decent touch-friendly Windows apps. And don’t even get me started about how touch-friendly desktop Linux can be.

The Surface Pro 3 is an excellent portable desktop. But as a tablet, I’d say it fails miserably.

Apple iPad Pro (9.7)

I never was and never will be an Apple fan boy, so it pains me to admit that i consider the iPad Pro one of the best gadget purchases I ever made. Don’t get me wrong, it’s far from perfect (otherwise there wouldn’t be a need for this blog post) but it comes damn close to it when it comes to design. It’s thin and lightweight, the ultimate portable tablet. And yet, aside from arbitrary iOS limitations, it’s actually a very capable device. I admit that the Apple Pencil, for all its stupidity in the charging design, is actually a pleasure to hold. And the Smart Keyboard was unexpectedly quite good despite the cramped space.

Too bad that it can only run iOS, which isn’t, of course, a surprise. For the life of me I can never really get the hang of this platform. I’ll admit that there are a few apps that have caught my attention, like Pythonista, Codea and Procreate, but much of their ingenuity probably comes from the limitations imposed by iOS. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, or something like that. I have to give props to Apple for how it has fine-tuned iOS to run butter smooth on constrained hardware. Technically, the iPad Pro actually has the weakest hardware of the three, and yet it is the only one where I have not experienced any debilitating lag, even when running multiple apps. Granted, iOS’ memory management is a bit too aggressive for my tastes.

So why is the iPad Pro even a solid contender? It’s because of one particular and one other “best purchase ever” device. That device is the GPD WIN and that app is Duet Display. Imagine a device as big or small as a Nintendo 3DS, had a small QWERTY keyboard in addition to gamepad buttons, and ran a full copy of a Windows 10. That’s what the GPD WIN is and it practically and almost literally lets me carry a Windows 10 desktop in my pocket. It was made with gaming in mind, despite its rather weak hardware, but it can also be used for many desktop uses as well. Of course, the screen and keyboard isn’t ideal for that purpose, which is where Duet Display comes in.

Duet Display is an app that lets you use an iPad, or even an iPhone, as a second display for a Mac of Windows PC. It uses a USB cable so you won’t have to worry about any lag from an unstable wireless connection. While Duet Display is hardly the only game in town, it has two things I have not yet seen in any other solution. You can use the Apple Pencil, complete with pressure sensitivity (Astropad is a wireless alternative) and, as for late 2016, it also supports the Smart Keyboard. In practice, it turns my iPad Pro into a combination thin client for the GPD WIN as well as a makeshift Wacom Cintiq. In theory, at least for the basic tasks, it can replace the Surface Pro 3. I get a portable and “holdable” tablet when I want it and a makeshift desktop when I need it. I haven’t found any similar combination on Android, which brings me to the next contestant.

Lenovo Yoga Book (Android)

The youngest of the three, the Yoga Book is also perhaps my most debatable purchase. Don’t get me wrong. I love the way it looks, and the way it feels. The futuristic design is very appealing for a tech nerd like me. The Halo Keyboard is actually no problem for me, even though it feels frustrating at times because of reduced accuracy and speed. In fact, I wrote this whole post on it in about an hour’s time, which included the actual thinking part. The Wacom-powered Create Pad is a very nice touch, though, like my experience with a Wacom Bamboo/Intuos, the disconnect between eye and hand is a bit disconcerting. And the idea of being able to use paper and still have it automatically recorded digitally is a dream come true for a scribbler like me.

My beef with the Yoga Book ironically comes from its operating system. Yes, that would be Android in this case. I would still choose Android over iOS in a heartbeat, though admittedly I’d be torn between Android and Windows 10 in terms of overall usefulness. My problem is that Android, in all honesty, still sucks on a tablet, much less one that tries to be a laptop. Apps that forcibly run in portrait orientation, lack of support for sensible mouse actions, etc. And I’ll have to admit, Android apps, especially those with iOS counterparts, sometimes suck. The Yoga Book’s specs, which uses an Intel Atom CPU and 4GB of RAM, isn’t doing it any favors either, which says loads about Android on Intel. The Yoga Book also runs on Android Marshmallow, which means no split screen muti-tasking. Lenovo’s custom floating windows is, sadly, quite limited and, to be honest, useless most of the time. Plus the Note Saver app, which is supposed to bridge your handwritten notes with the digital world, is buggy and unreliable. Here’s to hoping Lenovo addresses these growing pains soon.

One problem with the Yoga Book’s pen implementation is that it doesn’t work on the screen directly. That is, you get none of the precision and finesse of the Wacom pen when applied to the display. Lenovo’s AnyPen technology does try to mitigate this limitation to some extent, but it isn’t completely usable for finer strokes, much less handrwriting. The lack of palm rejection is your enemy here as well. Enabling palm rejection usually means rejecting touch events in an area, which means disabling AnyPen for that area as well. So when the inspiration for a doodle or a scribble strikes, you’re out of luck unless you can quickly set up a laptop mode or slap on the paper pad in an instant (plus switch the Real Pen from stylus to ink).

In addition to all of the above, one other thing that stops me from completely loving the Yoga Book is the lack of something like Duet Display on Android. There are various apps that promise a wired second screen, but I’ve yet to find one that matches Duet Display’s performance. And there is none that would let me use the Create Pad. So as far as connecting the GPD WIN with the Yoga Book, that’s a no-go. Admittedly, I can work on this Android tablet with almost the same freedom as a desktop/laptop, unlike on iOS, but there are still things that I’ll never be able to do on the mobile OS that I’d prefer to do on, at the very least, Windows. And I’m not aware of anything like Duet Display working with Linux at all. Which is a bummer considering these are open source operating systems.

The Hard Choice

I’ve been mulling over this decision ever since I got the Lenovo Yoga Book 2 months ago and, honestly, I don’t have a clear answer yet. But if I were actually forced to make a decision right now, I’d have to swallow my pride and go with the 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

It is really the epitome of a highly portable tablet, one that you can not only bring anywhere but also literally carry anywhere without making your arm feel like it wants to fall off. Although I’m not exactly sold on the feel of the Apple Pencil plastic tip on the iPad glass screen, it’s a minor tradeoff for the accuracy and “direct to canvas” functionality. I can bear with iOS for the things I will want to do on it, which probably won’t be that much (hopefully). For everything else, I can hook up the GPD WIN to have a more conventional desktop/laptop experience.

Of course, the situation isn’t as simple and the story is far from over. The Surface Pro 3 is lucky that I can’t really abandon it so easily. It is currently my only Linux machine and still the best of the three, hardware-wise. It is practically my desktop at home and is unlikely to be retired any time soon. The Yoga Book’s situation is a little less simple. Let’s just say for now that I can’t part with it yet either.

And there are still some things that can, or at least I hope will, change this year that would make me reconsider my decision.

• Microsoft launches a fanless 10.2-10.5 inch Surface 4 running on an Intel Core m. That’s pretty much as big as I will comfortably go in terms of screen size and how low I’ll go in terms of processing power. This, however, might clash with the GPD WIN as an on-the-go gaming device

• Lenovo updates the Yoga Book to Android Nougat. The split-screen functionality would at least address one of my pet peeves.

• The Yoga Book gets a stable Remix OS port, which woud considerably improve the productivity experience. Highly doubtful as there’s just too many proprietary features to make that possible.

• I stumble upon an Android Duet Display counterpart or at least a combination of apps/tools that would translate to the same experience. All three of the above would make me ditch the iPad Pro.

• The GPD Pocket Ubuntu Edition ships, in which case the Surface Pro 3’s position becomes threatened.

Yeah, living the geek life is hard.

Join the discussion

  1. บาคาร่า

    just choose whatever suits you, for me I still prefer ipad.. but thats just me… hehehehehe