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Florence Ion

SAN FRANCISCO, CA—Although Google's keynote at the I/O conference this week focused heavily on the APIs and behind-the-scenes development of the Android operating system, it looks like there's a lot more in store. This idea was especially apparent in a panel discussion today involving eleven members of the Android development team. The team sat for a forty-minute question and answer session, and while they dodged most inquiries about forthcoming features for Android, they did offer a bit of insight into what the future of Android might look like, what developers could do to help further the platform, and what they’ve learned from their journey thus far.

The conversation began with a question relating to whether or not the Android team would have done anything differently from the beginning. Senior Android Engineer Dianne Hackborn said the team "should have had more control over applications. A big example is the whole settings provider, where we just let applications go and write to it... it was a simple thing that we shouldn’t have done." Ficus Kirkpatrick, one of the founding members of the Android team and the current lead for the Google Play Store team, added that “you’re never going to get everything right the first time. I don’t really regret any of the mistakes we’ve made. I think getting things out there at the speed we did…was the most important thing.”

The team also briefly touched on fragmentation and how they’re working to combat the issue—it was even referred to as the “F” word. "This is something we think about a lot,” said Dave Burke, engineering director of the Android platform. He explained that many silicon vendors take the open source code, break it apart, and create their own Board Support Packages (BSPs) to make their hardware compatible with the software. To streamline the process, the Android team made the code for the platform more layered, so if a vendor needs to make changes, they have a clean abstraction layer to do so without affecting the entire operating system.

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At last year's RSA security conference, we ran into the Pwnie Plug. The company has just come out with a new take on the same basic idea of pen-testing devices based on commodity hardware. Reader puddingebola writes with an excerpt from Wired: "The folks at security tools company Pwnie Express have built a tablet that can bash the heck out of corporate networks. Called the Pwn Pad, it's a full-fledged hacking toolkit built atop Google's Android operating system. Some important hacking tools have already been ported to Android, but Pwnie Express says that they've added some new ones. Most importantly, this is the first time that they've been able to get popular wireless hacking tools like Aircrack-ng and Kismet to work on an Android device." Pwnie Express will be back at RSA and so will Slashdot, so there's a good chance we'll get a close-up look at the new device, which runs about $800.

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I'm a little embarrassed to admit how much I like the Surface RT. I wasn't expecting a lot when I ordered it, but after a day of use, I realized this was more than Yet Another Gadget. It might represent a brave new world of laptop design. How can you not love a laptop that lets you touch Zardoz to unlock it?

Zardoz-surface-unlock

(I'll leave the particular unlock gestures I chose to your imagination. Good luck hacking this password, Mitnick!)

I have an ultrabook I like, but the more I used the Surface, the more obsolete it seemed, because I couldn't touch anything on the screen. I found touch interactions on Surface highly complementary to the keyboard. Way more than I would have ever believed, because I lived through the terror that was Pen Computing. If you need precision, you switch to the mouse or touchpad – but given the increasing prevalence of touch-friendly app and web design, that's not as often as you'd think. Tablets are selling like hotcakes, and every day the world becomes a more touch friendly place, with simpler apps that more people can understand and use on basic tablets. This a good thing. But this also means it is only a matter of time before all laptops must be touch laptops.

I've become quite obsessed enamored with this touch laptop concept. I've used the Surface a lot since then. I own two, including the touch and type covers. I also impulsively splurged on a Lenovo Yoga 13, which is a more traditional laptop form factor.


Yoga-13-rotation

One of the primary criticisms of the Surface RT is that, since it is an ARM based Tegra 3 device, it does not run traditional x86 apps. That's likely also why it comes with a bundled version of Office 2013. Well, the Yoga 13 resolves that complaint, because it's a Core i5 Ivy Bridge machine. But there is a cost for this x86 compatibility:

 Surface RTSurface ProYoga 13

weight1.5 lb2.0 lb3.4 lb

volume27"39"78"

runtime8 hr6? hr5.5 hr

display10.6" 1366×76810.6" 1920×108013.3" 1600×900

memory2 GB / 32 GB4 GB / 64 GB4 GB / 128 GB

price$599$999$999

The size comparison isn't entirely fair, since the Yoga is a 13.3" device, and the Surface is a 10.6" device. But Surface Pro has x86 internals and is otherwise as identical to the Surface RT as Microsoft could possibly make it, and it's still 44% larger and 33% heavier. Intel inside comes at a hefty cost in weight, battery life, and size.

You do get something for that price, though: compatibility with the vast library of x86 apps, and speed. The Yoga 13 is absurdly fast by tablet standards. Its Sunspider score is approximately 150 ms, compared to my iPad 4 at 738 ms, and the Surface RT at 1036 ms. Five hours of battery life might not seem like such a bad tradeoff for six times the performance.

I like the Yoga 13 a lot, and it is getting deservedly good reviews. Some reviewers think it's the best Windows 8 laptop available right now. It is a fine replacement for my ultrabook, and as long as you fix the brain-damaged default drive partitioning, scrape off the handful of stickers on it, and uninstall the few pre-installed craplets, it is eminently recommendable. You can also easily upgrade it from 4 GB to 8 GB of RAM for about $40.

But there were things about the practical use of a touch laptop, subtle things that hadn't even occurred to me until I tried to sit down and use one for a few hours, that made me pause:

  1. The screen bounces when you touch it. Maybe I just have hulk-like finger strength, but touching a thin laptop screen tends to make it bounce back a bit. That's … exactly what you don't want in a touch device. I begin to understand why the Surface chose its "fat screen, thin keyboard" design rather than the traditional "thin screen, fat keyboard" of a laptop. You need the inertia on the side you're touching. The physics of touching a thin, hinged laptop screen are never going to be particularly great. Yes, on the Yoga I can wrap the screen around behind the keyboard, or even prop it up like a tent – but this negates the value of the keyboard which is the biggest part of the touch laptop story! If I wanted a keyboardless tablet, I'd use one of the four I have in the house already. And the UPS guy just delivered a Nexus 10.
  2. A giant touchpad makes the keyboard area too large. On a typical laptop, a Texas size touchpad makes sense. On a touch laptop, giant touchpads are problematic because they push the screen even farther away from your hand. This may sound trivial, but it isn't. A ginormous touchpad makes every touch interaction you have that much more fatiguing to reach. I now see why the Surface opted for a tiny touchpad on its touch and type covers. A touchpad should be a method of last resort on a touch laptop anyway, because touch is more convenient, and if you need true per-pixel precision work, you'll plug in a mouse. Have I mentioned how convenient it is to have devices that accept standard USB mice, keyboards, drives, and so on? Because it is.
  3. Widescreen is good for keyboards, but awkward for tablets. A usable keyboard demands a certain minimum width, so widescreen it is; all touch laptops are going to be widescreen by definition. You get your choice between ultra wide or ultra tall. The default landscape mode works great, but rotating the device and using it in portrait mode makes it super tall. On a widescreen device, portrait orientation becomes a narrow and highly specialized niche. It's also very rough on lower resolution devices; neither the 1366×768 Surface RT nor the 1600×900 Yoga 13 really offer enough pixels on the narrow side to make portrait mode usable. You'd need a true retina class device to make portrait work in widescreen. I began to see why the iPad was shipped with a 4:3 display and not a 16:9 or 16:10 one, because that arrangement is more flexible on a tablet. I frequently use my iPad 4 in either orientation, but the Yoga and Surface are only useful in landscape mode except under the most rare of circumstances.
  4. About 11 inches might be the maximum practical tablet size. Like many observers, I've been amused by the race to produce the largest possible phone screen, resulting in 5" phablets that are apparently quite popular. But you'll also note that even the most ardent Apple fans seem to feel that the 7" iPad mini is an inherently superior form factor to the 10" iPad. I think both groups are fundamentally correct: for a lot of uses, the 3.5" phone really is too small, and the 10" tablet really is too big. As a corollary to that, I'd say anything larger than the 10.6" Surface is far too large to use as a tablet. Attempting to use the 13.3" Yoga as a tablet is incredibly awkward, primarily because of the size. Even if the weight and volume were pushed down to imaginary Minority Report levels, I'm not sure I would want a 13.3" tablet on my lap or in my hands. There must be a reason the standard letter page size is 8½ × 11", right?
  5. All-day computing, or, 10 hours of battery life. The more devices I own, the more I begin to appreciate those that I can use for 8 to 10 hours before needing to charge them. There is truly something a little magical about that 10 hour battery life number, and I can now understand why Apple seemed to target 9-10 hours of battery life in their initial iPad and iPhone designs. A battery life of 4 to 6 hours is nothing to sneeze at, but … I feel anxiety about carrying the charger around, whether I've charged recently or not, and I worry over screen brightness and other battery maximization techniques. When I can safely go 8 to 10 hours, I figure that even if I use the heck out of the device – as much as any human being reasonably could in a single day – I'll still safely make it through and I can stick it in a charger before I go to bed.

To appreciate just how extreme portrait mode is on a widescreen tablet, experience it yourself:

Yoga-13-landscape-small

Yoga-13-portrait-small

This isn't specific to touch laptops; it's a concern for all widescreen devices. I have the same problem with the taller iPhone 5. Because I now have to choose between super wide or super tall, it is a less flexible device in practice.

The Yoga 13, if representative of the new wave of Windows 8 laptops, is a clear win even if you have no intention of ever touching your screen:

  • It boots up incredibly fast, in a few seconds.
  • It wakes and sleeps incredibly fast, nearly instantaneously.
  • The display is a high quality IPS model.
  • A rotating screen offers a number of useful modes: presentation, (giant) tablet, standard laptop.
  • Touchpad and keyboard work fine; at the very least, they're no worse than the typical PC laptop to me.
  • Does the prospect of using Windows 8 frighten and disturb you? No worries, smash Windows+D on your keyboard immediately after booting and pretend you're using Windows 7.5. Done and done.

It's a nice laptop. You could do far worse, and many have. In the end, the Yoga 13 is just a nice laptop with a touchscreen slapped on it. But the more I used the Yoga the more I appreciated the subtle design choices of Surface that make it a far better touch laptop. I kept coming back to how much I enjoyed using the Surface as the platonic ideal of what touch laptops should be.

Yes, it is a bummer that the only currently available Surface is ARM based and does not run any traditional Windows apps. It's easy to look at the x86 performance of the Yoga 13 and assume that Windows on ARM is a cute, temporary throwback to Windows NT on Alpha or MIPS which will never last, and understandably so. Do you see anyone running Windows on Alpha or MIPS CPUs today? But I'm mightily impressed with the Tegra 3 SOC (system-on-a-chip) that runs both the Surface RT and the Nexus 7. Upcoming Tegra releases, all named after superheroes, promise 75 times the performance of Tegra 2 by 2014. I can't quite determine how much faster Tegra 3 was than Tegra 2, but even if it is "only" ten times faster by 2014, that's … amazing.

I think we're beginning to uncover the edges of a world where lack of x86 compatibility is no longer the kiss of death it used to be. It's unclear to me that Intel can ever reach equivalent performance per watt with ARM; Intel's ultra-low-end Celeron 847 is twice as fast as the ARM A15, but it's also 17 watts TDP. In a land of ARM chips that pull an absolute maximum of 4 watts at peak, slapping Intel Inside will instantly double the size and weight of your device – or halve its battery life, your choice. Intel's been trying to turn the battleship, but with very limited success so far. Haswell, the successor to the Ivy Bridge CPUs in the Surface Pro and Yoga 13, only gets to 10 watts at idle. And Intel's long neglected Atom line, thanks to years of institutional crippling to avoid cannibalizing Pentium sales, is poorly positioned to compete with ARM today.

Still, I would not blame anyone for waiting on the Surface Pro. A high performance, HD touch laptop in the Surface form factor that runs every x86 app you can throw at it is a potent combination … even if it is 44% larger and 33% heavier.

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According to an October eye tracking study, the iPad mini beats out the Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD, and Nook HD in terms of consumer fixation, consumer recognition, and purchase intent. 

This study, performed by EyeTrackShop, used the web cameras on 600 Americans' personal computers (with their consent, of course) to answer the question "How are new mini tablets perceived by consumers?"

Here's a graphic representing what the study found, in terms of where consumers are actually looking when they look at tablets (click to enlarge):

mini tablet eye track study

From left to right, the tablets shown are the Nexus 7, iPad mini, Kindle Fire HD, and Nook HD. The tablets were placed next to each other in a randomized order for each study respondent. This image shows the areas of interest on each screen according to the eye track results.

Here is the same image, this time shown as a heat map. The areas in red are the most looked-at areas of the screens.

Mini tablet eye track study

The study showed that the respondents fixated 5 percent more on the iPad mini, recognized the iPad mini 23 percent more, and that the iPad mini created a 40 percent higher purchase intent than the other three mini tablets.

Despite these statistics, the Nook had the largest high-heat area of interest, meaning respondents fixated on a larger area of the screen. The Nexus 7 had the smallest high-heat area, with the iPad mini and Kindle Fire having similar sized high-heat areas.

When presented with the four screens at once, respondents tended to look at the Kindle Fire first, then the Nexus 7, then the iPad, and finally the Nook. 

So while the iPad mini is recognized by 73 percent of consumers (23 percent more than the average of the tablets), respondents still fixated on a larger area of the Nook, and noticed the Kindle Fire first.

It's evidence that Apple has managed to create an extremely loyal consumer base that sticks to its products, and shuns other company's products, no matter how similar they may be.

Given the choice, over 50 percent of the respondents said they would choose the iPad mini over the others if they were shopping for a tablet, according to EyeTrackShop. That's 40 percent higher than the other tablets.

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