Tech Talk: Taking the tablets

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THE gadgets industry is on a quest to produce a better tablet than Apple’s iPad – or at least a different one. There are some worthy contenders, from Samsung and Acer, among others. There are also some clinkers.

The tablets in the latter category – and there are quite a few – often cost around a third of Apple’s. But you get what you pay for, and in the case of these knock-offs, that’s not very much.

Tablets, as I’ve mentioned before, are basically laptops without lids. There is almost nothing you can do with them that you can’t to with a less expensive (and probably more powerful) laptop. But that’s not the point.

As with many Apple inventions, the tablet is a triumph of style over substance, so if there’s no style there’s nothing else either. And that’s where the bargain basement tablets come apart (possibly literally). So many corners have been cut in the manufacturing process that the elegance which makes them desirable in the first place has been engineered out.

Tablets are nothing if not tactile; you interact with them by stroking the screen, pinching your fingers to zoom and sweeping your hand to scroll the information. The fluidity with which the display responds makes it somehow more personal than using a mouse and keyboard.

This gentle touch is the first thing that’s missing on the tablets you find in supermarkets for £150. Instead of capacitive screens which communicate effortlessly with your finger using an electrical charge, you have resistive efforts which react only to pressure. It’s the difference between freewheeling downhill on your bike and pushing a washing machine up a flight of steps.

Software is another area for corner-cutting. The most popular operating system for non-Apple tablets is Android, developed by Google. But some versions of it are already out of date and won’t handle the BBC iPlayer, for instance. Avoid anything below version 2.2.

Google only lets devices which meet its minimum standards access its Android market, from where useful add-ons (“apps”) are downloaded – so be suspicious of any tablet that doesn’t let you in, or which diverts you to some other online store.

The long and short of it is that good tablets currently cost at least £350 – and those for less are not only not Apples; they may very well be lemons.