How Mobile Do You Go?
(This review first appeared in the February issue of NABE News, the newsletter of the National Association for Business Economics)
The choices are better than ever if you are looking for a mobile device to stay online when you are away from your desk. I’ve been doing lots of comparisons lately, to see the strengths and weaknesses of various devices. This review will only cover devices for which I have hands-on experience.
The picture on the right shows what I’ve been using during my trials. Going counter-clockwise from top left, they are: a a 13.3 inch Apple MacBook Pro ; an Apple iPad 2 ; a Kindle Fire ; and an Apple iPod touch 8GB (works like an iPhone except no phone capabilities). The iPad isn’t mine—it belongs to my department at work, but we take turns with it both for professional and recreational use. (Deciding who gets custody over the weekend is often a fun Friday activity.)
What to pack?
If you are getting ready for a road trip, such as to the NABE Policy Conference in late March, which would be best to take? Since I’m an economist, you already know the answer: it depends. If you need to produce lots of content, as opposed to consuming lots of content, then you are going to need the laptop. If you have to write lots of material, or work on lots of spreadsheets, or construct lots of web pages, you will need the full-blown apps and full-size keyboard of the laptop. However, if you mostly need it to read and write e-mail and surf the web, one of the other devices will do.
The two closest substitutes are the iPad and the Kindle Fire. Purely from a hardware aspect alone, the iPad is better. As the picture shows, it has a much bigger screen and can browse most websites with no problems. The screen is wide enough that the nabe.com page fits without the need for any scrolling or magnification. The iOS 5 operating system appears to be more stable and has more polished apps than the Kindle, which uses the Android operating system. If you have bought into the Mac ecosystem, especially with an iPhone, then it is easier to get all your data (mail, contacts, calendar) synced. If you get a 3G iPad, along with a data plan, then you will easily stay in touch no matter where you are. Alternatively, you can get a WiFi iPad, which will only connect at hotspots.
The Kindle does have its advantages, however. First, it is half the price ($199) of the cheapest iPad. Being smaller, it is a little more portable, although it doesn’t fit in a pocket. Its biggest advantage, however, is that it is the front-end to a massive amount of media content from the Amazon store. While the iPad also has a store behind it—the Apple iTunes store—in my opinion the Amazon store beats it in every category except music. That includes both the breadth of content and price.
I had a first generation Kindle that I had used for a couple of years and had already bought a number of e-books plus downloaded many more free books. I ordered my Kindle Fire directly from Amazon, and when it arrived it was already connected to my Amazon account, and all my existing content was already available.
Both Apple and Amazon want you to become deeply enmeshed in their ecosystems, making it more likely that you will spend additional money there. Amazon has one feature, called Amazon Prime, which Apple doesn’t yet match. For a $79 a year membership fee, Amazon Prime members get free second-day shipping on all orders from Amazon, get free streaming of Amazon Instant Videos (a close to equal substitute for Netflix streaming videos) plus get to borrow one book a month from a limited selection of e-books from the Amazon store. (The e-book has to be returned before you can make your next month’s selection.) Those features, plus the wealth of free public domain books available from Amazon, make it easier to fill the Kindle with content. A total outlay of less than $5 got me the complete works of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and Joseph Conrad; Dante’s Divine Comedy, both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and The Wealth of Nations. Popular best sellers, such as theSteve Jobs biography, will be closer to $15, while most other books are priced around the $3 to $10 mark. (You can use the Kindle reader for the iPad to read books you purchase from Amazon, but you can’t get the streaming videos or borrowed books.) This makes the Kindle more valuable to take on a long trip, when you want to get lots of reading done.
Reading appears slightly easier on the Kindle. (This comparison was done with the iPad 2, and not with the latest iPad with the Retina display.) The next two pictures show the cover and a data table from Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff ‘s This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly It also illustrates one problem with an e-book—it is much harder to get a chart or table and the text explaining it, to appear at the same time. That makes it a little harder to read a technical book such as this, but a problem you normally wouldn’t face with fiction or with a biography.
What is even easier to read—on either a Kindle or iPad—is material designed for the new medium. The next picture shows a page from the WIRED Magazine app on a Kindle, which allows swiping pages both horizontally and vertically, and allows audio and video to easily be embedded in a page. (It also shows the glossy screen of the Kindle makes it easy to catch reflections of photographers and light fixtures on the screen.) Designers are just starting to learn how to take advantage of the new medium and the next year or two should see lots of advances. Apple, for instance, just released a free iBooks Author app that will let you construct iBooks (for the Apple iBooks store), and Amazon has many publications showing how to turn your content into books for the Amazon store.
Apps on the Kindle don't approach the quanity or quality of the Apple iOS apps, in my opinion. The smaller screen also limits some of the games you could play that take advantage of the bigger screen of the iPad. Also, the Kindle does not come with a camera. That means you can't take pictures, and you also can't use it for video conferencing, as you can with an iPad, iPod, or iPhone.
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