Tech review: Which tablet is right for you?

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The iPad changed mobile computing forever, but is it the best tool for field and office construction professionals? New tablets on the market offer more security, less glare, and serious business applications for builders, designers, and construction users alike.

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Tech review: Which tablet is right for you?

September 22, 2011

Apple changed the entire consumer computing landscape with the introduction of the original iPad in April 2010, but many builders and contractors shun consumer electronics for their employees due to issues of security, IT control, and in-the-field rigidity. While none of the new generation of Android and other tablet devices have been able to touch Apple’s 80 percent share of the tablet market, some of them could be right for your business simply because they are not designed for the average consumer.

“Construction is perfect for tablets because it’s a use where you definitely need a larger screen than you can get from a mobile phone,” says Ned Trainor, CEO of BuildsiteMobile.com, a website designed for mobile devices that allows construction professionals to specify products on the job site. “We’re not picking any platform right now — iOS or Android or whatever. What we’ve done is design our website so that it works with all mobile platforms from a browser.”

Professional Builder took a hard look at the iPad 2 and all its popular rivals — the Blackberry Playbook, Cisco Cius, HTC Flyer, Motorola Xoom, Panasonic Toughbook H2, Samsung Galaxy, and Trimble Tablet for Construction. Here is our analysis of the current tablet device landscape (also, download our product comparison chart - PDF):

iPad 2: the reigning champ

The iPad 2 offers a host of features that are ideal for use in home-building environments. Its front and back cameras are great for documenting construction issues on the jobsite, and its built-in FaceTime app allows for quick and easy meetings and sharing of jobsite information. Moreover, iPad’s robust app store is leaps and bounds ahead of any competitor when it comes to specialized apps, primarily because Apple had a two-year head start on competitive platforms.

Download tablet product comparison chart - PDF

Its 9.7-inch screen has a pixel count of 1,024x768, giving office and jobsite users plenty of bright real estate to work with. Finally, its A5 processor gives tablet users two processor cores to draw from when multi-tasking. When the iPad 3 debuts next year, it will inherit a fully stocked app store with years of developed apps — such as AutoCAD WS and programs that deal with its screen-glare problem — and widespread adoption among builders, architects, and designers.

Cisco Cius: security and connectivity

Cisco Systems’ Cius, released to the industry in July, brings enterprise-grade encryption and security to the tablet market. If your business has made an investment in a Cisco network, the device gives control of each tablet in the field and all the information on it back to your IT department.

The Cius’ on-board security offerings include Cisco hardware-accelerated encryption, network security, certificate management, virtual private network, enterprise access, and policy management tools. It’s the only tablet available with built-in enterprise security, according to Tom Puorro, Sr., director of project management at Cisco. IT managers can tailor policy controls to the needs of their Cius fleets, allowing as much (or as little) access as they see fit. Another security plus: for the device to work, a hardware and software match is required, so if it’s lost it can be immediately wiped by an IT administrator.

Built on a modified Android OS (version 2.2), the Cius has a large speaker cavity, hi-definition (at least 720P) video presentation capability, and built-in Telepresence and WebEx video conferencing. Embedded applications include WebEx, Cisco Jabber (an instant messenger) with standards-based protocol, and Cisco Quad (enterprise version of social networking with capability for posting information). It also has a Micro HDMI port to connect to projectors for presentations.

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Cisco has built a business applications store, AppHQ manager, similar to the iTunes and Android app markets. AppHQ is a store within a store specifically for the employees of a company using the Cius enterprise-wide. This allows value-added resellers to customize the mobile experience for businesses to give users preloaded, secure, validated apps while also allowing them to download whatever they might need from their company’s AppHQ. Cisco says developers have been working on applications for the AppHQ for the last year.

The Cius tablet can be docked to a Cisco-networked media station. The dock has firmware, a keyboard and mouse, and HDMI and USB ports. It offers several advantages. For example, if you have to get up and leave in the middle of a call while you’re using a docked Cius, it won’t drop your call if you disconnect since it’s entirely based on Cisco’s network. The tablet works on 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, 3G, and 4G wireless.

Bottom line: This is a tablet for the business professional, and its suggested retail price ($650) reflects that.

HTC Flyer: Is the pen mightier than the finger?

HTC is known for developing boundary-pushing handsets such as the EVO 4G and the HD2. The company’s entrée into the tablet world is a similar category-buster. The HTC Flyer doesn’t pretend to be an iPad. At 14.8 ounces, it won’t compete with any of these other tablets for slimness or lightness, however, it has one natural element users have long clamored for from tablet makers that every other manufacturer has ignored: the ability to write with a pen.

Opting for a 7-inch screen (the iPad’s is 9.7 inches), the Flyer could be a replacement for a smart phone (sans the phone) or a laptop. Currently, it runs Android 2.3 (Gingerbread), the latest in Google’s smartphone stable, not the tablet-oriented Android 3.0 (Honeycomb). But this was done by design to allow the user to take advantage of other HTC advances, such as an LCD touch screen and a user interface that is nearly identical to that of HTC’s successful handset, the Samsung Sense. The biggest advantage is it allowed HTC to write a significant amount of software for the Flyer’s Magic Pen accessory. The pen is an aluminum stylus that comes with each Flyer (HTC provides a free case to hold both the tablet and pen) that not only allows users to take notes, but also capture screenshots of any website and write notes over it. This application would be highly useful for use with Android apps such as AutoCAD WS, which allows users to share 2D plans with tablets and smart phones. Now builders can take notes on top of their 2D plans. The device’s Notes app also takes timestamps of everything the user changes. 

The potential uses for a pen-and-tablet PC combination on a construction site are endless (punchlists, submittals, material audits, etc.), and the Flyer could easily replace a smartphone for today’s construction office personnel. The key, though, will be the development of more apps by both HTC and independent Android developers. Right now, HTC’s Notes application is the only app that takes full advantage of the Magic Pen.

Blackberry Playbook: Flash-enabled, business-friendly

The Blackberry Playbook runs a very industry- and business-friendly OS, called QNX. If your employees already have Blackberries or other RIM devices, giving them Playbooks will keep them just as secure and IT-controlled as those Blackberries already are. The Playbook supports Flash, displays Powerpoint presentations quite well, and has a custom version of the Adobe Reader PDF viewing software. Its Android compatibility, however, is a bit questionable — users are required to open an Android app player to run any Android app.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1: strong video capability

The Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 weighs in at just 1.24 lbs. and measures 10.1 x 6.9 x 0.39 inches. It’s an easy-to-carry, compact Android 3.1 (Honeycomb) tablet that can still pack a strong, 720P video punch, thanks to its NVIDIA Tegra 2, 1Ghz dual-core processor. Along with the Motorola Xoom, it’s one of the slimmest tablets on the market.

Motorola Xoom: smallest on the market

Clocking in at 9.8 x 6.6 x 0.51 inches and only 25.75 ounces, the Motorola Xoom is the smallest and lightest tablet on this list and is the long-awaited device that takes complete advantage of the Android 3.1 (Honeycomb) OS to compete with the iPad. If you want a more PC-like experience on a multi-touch tablet than what you get with the iPad, the Xoom is your device. With a native Honeycomb OS and widgets, it delivers all the apps developed for Android, has an excellent web browser, and includes Flash, so you can view those Flash sites in their natural form. It’s available for $599 with a two-year contract with carrier Verizon.

Trimble Tablet: rugged design, 3D viewing capability

The Trimble Tablet is a rugged touch-screen tablet PC with a 7-inch sunlight-readable screen, a cellular modem, GPS, and controller. There are two different versions of Trimble’s Field Link software available with the Windows 7 tablet — one for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing contractors and one for steel, concrete, and general contractors.

The company has produced field products before, but this is the first with a full 3D model viewer that allows personnel to view 3D DWG and DXF design models in the field. The Trimble Tablet connects wirelessly to Trimble’s SPS series Total Stations and GNSS Receivers. If your construction task doesn’t require high accuracy GNSS, you can use the Trimble Tablet’s internal GPS with SBAS corrections for field positioning.

Panasonic Toughbook H2: military-grade toughness

The newly released Panasonic Toughbook H2 includes a 10.1-inch, dual-touch display that offers both digitizer (pen) and touch-screen functionality. The display also features Panasonic’s TransflectivePlus display technology, which can generate up to 6,000 nit of transflective brightness, in addition to a circular polarizer and antiglare/antireflective screen treatments, making it easily viewable in direct sunlight. The device is certified on the Sprint and Verizon Wireless 3G networks and features Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and optional Gobi2000 3G mobile broadband technology from Qualcomm.

Like all Toughbooks, the H2 is MIL-STD-810G tested, meaning it’s certified for military use after passing rigorous testing that includes a 6-foot drop test. It is designed to be operational in extreme weather conditions and is engineered and certified for vehicle use. The H2 also boasts an Intel Core i5-2557M vPro processor (1.7GHz with Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz) for faster speeds and enhanced device management.

However, all that rigidity does cost extra. The H2 has an estimated street price of $3,449 through Panasonic resellers. Panasonic recently announced it’s developing an Android tablet to be released this fall that might be more in line with the cost of other tablets.

  

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