#15: Tablets, Ultraportables, and Crossovers

02 Dec 2014

In this episode, we talk about tablets, ultraportables, and crossovers. We specifically mention devices like the iPad, the rumored iPad Pro (or iPad Air Plus), the Surface Pro 3, Lenovo Yoga 2, HP TouchSmart, the Chromebook, and even reach back to talk about the Motorola Atrix (and its "webtop") and a brief history of computing.

Brian
Hello and welcome to The Missing Byte.

This is a special season 1.5 episode. You're probably listening to this week after Thanksgiving but we just couldn't  couldn't stay not podcasting for a  for a whole month and a half so here we are. We're gonna to talk about some stuff and as always this podcast is brought to you by Synapse Software. No letters this this episode; we'll return to letters and buzzwords starting with Season 2 but oh yeah...

I'm joined by Nathaniel...

Nathaniel
Yup. I'm here.

Brian
...and I'm Brian, as always.

Today we're gonna talk about tablets, ultra portables, and crossovers  so things like the Microsoft Surface and Lenovo Yoga 2 type things. And this was actually inspired by a conversation I had earlier today with another person who works in this building. We started talking about the computers that we use to do our work our development and computers that have worked for us, computers that didn't work for us, how often we use and don't use our iPads and it just kind of spiraled from there, and so I figured we'd talk about it on the show.

I also listened to an episode of Hanselminutes by Scott Hanselman from I want to say about a month ago. He and another person who works for Microsoft  they both work for Microsoft  both had Surface Pro 3's and they were talking about ultimately getting at what was the ultimate developer laptop and they're both Microsoft people, they're not automatically going to jump on the Microsoft bandwagon because they're trying to talk to a larger audience. But they were talking about development from a Windows background, which is different from what we do, so I figured even though they've kind of talked about this topic there's still room for us to talk about it.

So basically there are different rumors going on that Apple's going to release a larger iPad and what does that mean for things? Meanwhile iPad and tablet sales as a whole are decreasing, so what does that  what impact does that have? Plenty of people still use MacBook Airs and even though they're smaller smaller computers certainly less capable and less able to run some of the things that we run while were doing development, and then there's this this Surface thing that kind of has a dual mode to it  you've got the look formerly known as Metro in Windows 8 that seems to work well for touch screens and this is optimized for tablets and I guess phones to a certain extent though even that's kind of its own OS, still running Windows but it's a little bit of a customized version and it's got a full desktop mode.

So I think I've given it enough background so let's start off with your thoughts.

Nathaniel
My thoughts. So yeah.

So me and you were talking a while ago about what we thought might come out from Apple or you did mention something maybe Apple might combine the Air into something that might be a Surface-y kind of thing, which is going to be interesting because that's one of the things that's missing from Apple is something of a hybrid.

As far as doing development work I think the Surface Pro 3 is too small  just the screen size.

Brian
Right, yeah. What is the screen size?

Nathaniel
The Pro 3 I think has a 12" now, but it used to be like 11".

Brian
So it's, it's biggish compared to tablets, but it's still considerably smaller than looking at my 15 inch MacBook Pro Retina and then that's 15 inches and is a retina display. I'm not sure what the pixel density on that, on the Surface Pro is but I think it comes pretty close to what when you can get on a retina screen or at least the the when I bump this up to the highest largest number of screen pixels like a display on the screen it gets pretty close to that density, but it's still a significantly smaller screen. I have seen Visual Studio running on the Surface Pro 3 but it's tiny. It feels small.

Nathaniel
Yeah. Especially when we're used to the 27" screens.

Brian
Yeah, we're kind of spoiled, aren't we?

I think you hit on something that's a big difference between Apple and Microsoft, at least right now, and that's the fact that Microsoft has the Surface Pro 3 specifically targeting the I mean their tagline is the tablet that can replace your laptop its one device to do both things. And in my opinion I think it kind of it fails to do either real well, but I think it, somebody had to be first. I think it provides a good proof of concept model that this is something that people might want. This is something that lays the groundwork for how something might work better in the future. 

But that's absolutely true with Apple that I have my MacBook and my iPad and they do very different things. I will not use my iPad for things that I use my Mac for and I can't use my Mac for things, or other way around I will not use my Mac for things I use my iPad for and I cannot use my Mac for things I use my iPad for because the iPad doesnt have a real terminal. I can use an SSH client and SSH to another machine, but it's another machine. I have to have another machine running in order to access the terminal. I can't run a web server on the iPad. It doesn't even have a real keyboard and keyboards that do go with it are small and dinky or Bluetooth and you can't fit your fingers on them, especially since I have the iPad mini, the iPad mini retina but still a smaller iPad and Sara has a keyboard that she got to go with her iPad mini but the keys are, they feel almost as small as the, the buttons on the phones, the keyboard on the phones, just because they have to packs the buttons in such a small space you can't really, if you touch type you can't really touch type on those keywords because your fingers just don't fit. 

Nathaniel
Right.

Brian
And I think it would be interesting to see if Apple worked to bring something out that was kind of a cross between. So I guess let's kind of segue into that area and then we can get back to talking more we can rant about the Surface more, because I'm sure we can we could go on and on and on about this, and I just looked at the time and were only 8 minutes in, so we can go ranting for even more time now. 

But I think rather than so it seems like Microsoft and Apple are taking two different approaches to this problem, if you want to call it that: Microsoft has released a device that sits in between what a tablet is and what a PC is and tried to bring both worlds together. Apple seems to be they have the MacBook Air and the MacBook Air has been out for years and that spawned the craze about netbooks and ultrabooks, I guess theyre called ultraportables really small computers. I always felt like if I tried to use them I would be so hunched over that my back and my neck would be screwed up.

Nathaniel
Right.

Brian
Theyve taken the computer and made it really small and at the same time they've taken the iPad and, the rumor is this hasnt happened yet so who knows. We could just be talking about something that will never happen and I kinda hope it doesnt.

I think having a large iPad Pro would it's just big. I feel like it wouldnt be useful unless it really had a keyword associated with it and I can run OS X-type stuff on it. I don't need a screen that large to run iPad stuff. But that's kind of the reverse. Its taking something that is a tablet and scaling it up so that people who want a bigger tablet can have a bigger tablet. And then theyll make the line so you won't have an iPhone 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, but itll be an iOS device number and the number will be the size of the screen.

So I think it's kind of a difference of how they want to do it. I'm not sure that an iPad Pro would really take off or be effective. Im not sure what it accomplishes.

Nathaniel
I can only think like in a presentation room, you like it hanging or something and you could touch it.

Brian
But there are that size touch screens so doing that if you're hanging on the wall, why not just have a normal screen and plug it into a computer you can hide the computer behind the wall. I guess it is nice if you don't have to have any wires going through the wall and you can just have a tablet on wall.

Nathaniel
Yeah I can't really think of really good situation where I would want to use a huge tablet, I guess. 

Brian
Yeah, I'd have to agree. The only situation in which I think it would be useful to me is if they kinda basically copied the Surface Pro. So, made an iPad Pro or whatever theyre gonna call it big iPad gave it a keyboard that was built into the cover. Yeah I know the Smart cover can roll into a stand and that sort of thing, but have it be a keyboard that had physical buttons so that it feels like you're typing on a keyboard. And if anyone can pull that off it would be Apple. I have no doubt in Jony Ives ability to, to do that and make it really really awesome.

So have give it a keyboard and also give it the ability to run OS X.

Nathaniel
Right, give it the full

Brian
And you, youll have to be careful with doing that because one of the areas where the Surface Pro 3 really its kind of a shortcoming is that because it runs the full version of Windows you can run a desktop version of a program on it like Visual Studio even when youre unplugged, disconnected, and the battery is not a laptop battery. Its more of a tablet battery. So if youre running Visual Studio you can run down the battery pretty quickly.

I would like the ability to flip a switch and have it only run tablet apps like switch it into tablet mode, where I get preferably the exact same application bundle but it only runs in tablet mode. So one of the big complaints about Windows 8 was that there were actually two different versions of Internet Explorer: one that ran in tablet mode Metro mode or whatever, Windows 8 mode, I guess. You have the normal desktop version of Internet Explorer

Nathaniel
Right

Brian
and then you had the other version which basically you have the address bar, forward and back buttons, and I think bookmarks and that's it. Thats all the functionality you had, but was two separate applications so, what I would prefer in that case is that it were one application but if Ive switched the thing into tablet mode I get the tablet experience with all my tabs and whatnot but its a simplified user interface not using all the power that the desktop version requires. And granted, I am talking about a web browser so it doesn't eat up that much battery just using a web browser, but if I am if I switch into desktop mode, sure, maybe all of the Windows 8 style apps end up in windows on my desktop like the Windows 10 Tech Preview shows. Somehow you can run the Windows 8 mode stuff on a desktop and it gets its own little window.

But I have a desktop, and since its running OS X I have the dock, I have the menu bar, it looks like its OS X and maybe that switch is something as simple as I yank the keyboard off and it says do you want to quit all of your desktop mode applications or put them to sleep because now we do have that sort of capability. We can quit an app, but it saves application state and I think it's perfectly reasonable.

Nathaniel
Right

Brian
It says do you want to switch tablet mode? I say yes. On the other hand if I want to do a presentation I can say no. I still want to have all these windows on the screen. I know it's gonna take a lot more battery, but that is what I want. But i think thats, it's still kind of Im still not sure if i would use it. It's still a very new, it's a new frontier.

Nathaniel
Right

Brian
Its a new thing and Im not sure its

You talk, while I figure out what Im trying to say.

Nathaniel
Its interesting because, lets see. lost my train of thought again.

I was going to say something along the lines of

Boy, I am out of it. Yeah, you go while I think about it.

Brian
So, well, I am skeptical as to the, the resources, the tech specs that you can put into a tablet. That's why the Surface is so thick.

Nathaniel
Right

Brian
Its twice as thick as an iPad. Twice as thin, whatever. It's twice as thick as an iPad because it's got a solid-state disk, a bunch of RAM, a beefy processor, you need to have enough space to cool that CPU without I dont think it has a fan but you need to be able to disperse the heat that it generates

Nathaniel
Right

Brian
in order to be able to, in order to make it practical to be able to run Visual Studio or SQL Server or both. You can get 16GB on your Surface Pro 3; you can only get, what is it, 2GB of memory on an iPad? So i think that's going to be, if there is an iPad Pro, that if i'm building my ideal iPad Pro, its gonna need to be able to have 16GB of memory. Im OK with the base model having 8GB of memory and if i pay $400 or $500 more by Apple prices I can have 16gb memory. Im fine with that, but in order to be practical for what we do thats kind of what its gonna need.

Nathaniel
And I remembered what I was gonna say.

Brian
Excellent!

Nathaniel
Yes. So theres kind of a coolness factor to a lot of this stuff. so back when there were just laptops and desktops there was this thing people imagined which was the kind of the 2-in-1, the Surface. And then when it came out, people got it, including myself. Not the Surface, I actually got the HP TouchSmart is what they called them. And I thought I was sign to use it all the time and it turned out I never really used the touch area and I just used it for a laptop. So Im wondering if that's part of what were talking about is, like, the new iPad and if it could run a desktop, if wed actually use it. We might actually have to use it first to actually tell if it would actually be useful.

Brian
Yeah. You bring up a good point: whether it would be worth having a touch screen on the device, knowing that were only going to be using the touchscreen less than 50% of the time, I would guess. And that, i think, I look at devices like the Lenovo Yoga 2 or whatever, that are theyre specifically designed to be laptops that can turn into tablets whereas I would characterize the Surface as a tablet that you can act like its a laptop.

And the the Lenovo machine is interesting in that it it starts out as a laptop, or its default configuration, if it really has one, is as a laptop. You can type on the keyboard. Yeah, its got a touch screen, the touchscreen is still active, you're probably not going to use it all that much, but then as soon as you bend the screen back so that it's in line with the keyboard it shuts the keyboard off.

Nathaniel
Interesting

Brian
So you can mash the keys all you want and it will not do anything. And then theres, there are three modes beyond that. So obviously you wouldnt really use it when it's open flat. Thats not very useful. There's a tent mode, where you're looking at the screen and the keyboard is facing away from you, kind of like to watch videos and that sort of thing. There is a, I think they call it a stand mode or something like that, where the keyboard is facing the table or whatever youre setting it on and then the screen you can put in whatever orientation you want to, to see it, use it as a tablet on a table, watch videos on it if you wanted to same sort of thing as the tent, but its just a different way of standing the screen and its smart enough to know what orientation the screen is in and accommodate accordingly.

And then the last one is full tablet mode where the screen, the back of the screen, the outside of the screen, is up against the bottom of the keyboard. So, the reverse of if you had it closed and then its as a tablet. A really thick tablet, but you can use it as a tablet. And I played around with one in the store a couple weekends ago and the weirdest thing for me was that the keyboard was still there. It wasnt active you could mash the keys and nothing would happen but it was still there so holding the tablet, you kind of have to push on the keys to hold on to it and that just felt weird. Im sure it would it would take some getting used to and eventually Id get used to it but it's still weird.

Nathaniel
I would feel the exact same way with the Yoga and there's this other device I starting thinking about. Its kind of different, in a way. Its an ASUS and actually ASUS was really early on in the tablet/laptop kind of era, at least with Android.

Brian
And you could swivel them around sort of thing? Or even after that?

Nathaniel
Well, no. Well Im not sure if they had any of that. HP did. But ASUS had the Android kind of things. They called them the transformers where you could plug it into a keyboard. That one I think was definitely early on in stages but about a year ago I was looking at desktop kind of things on Amazon and Id seen this this kind of iMac sort of thing and it came with a tablet and it was where you could plug your tablet into the computer and have it run as a computer, take the tablet out and the tablet could also switch between Windows and Android so you have your mobile operating system when you took it on the go and have your desktop operating system when you were at home.

Brian
And that kinda segues into another thing that I wanted to talk about and I feel like I kind of have a personal connection to this because I had this phone

Nathaniel
Right

Brian
four years ago when it was new, what was it? Atrix, Motorola Atrix. The original Atria, not the Atria 2.

Nathaniel
Yup.

Brian
And it was, Motorola had this thing called a webtop theyd invented their own word. And the idea was that youd take your phone, plug it into this thing that cost as much as the phone, and itd give you a keyboard and a screen and I think it even had a battery, a bit of a CPU, a GPU at least, and some RAM built in. So it was kind of like, if you're at all familiar with how distributed computing works, its basically two independent computers and then they can talk back forth and say hey, you do this computation. No, you do this other computation, and they can share the load that way and I think that's kind of what they were trying to get at and it never really took off but it was kind of an interesting idea.

And that could be, if that sort of situation were put together in a way where it worked well for the common consumer, I think that's a way that something like the iPad Pro might be able to work. Or the Surface would really be able to be the tablet that the tablet that can replace your laptop. Granted, that kind of means that there is a piece that you leave behind and a piece that you take with you or where do you put that stuff? Certainly, for the Surface Pro, it's nice that the cover is very thin, very light. Even with the new, the Surface Pro 3 has a physical keyboard, its still very thin. I think it's thinner than the keyboards that we have our Macbooks even.

Nathaniel
Oh, wow.

Brian
But it feels like almost normal to type. I say almost. It still feels like youre typing on a mat

Nathaniel
Right

Brian
because you kind of are, but at least the buttons are plastic and you can feel them push down. It's a little bit more of a tactile response.

What was I saying? I start rambling on about how the Surface Pro was oh, yes.

So if you were going to put that extra compute power somewhere, you probably wouldn't want to put it into the cover, but you don't want to put it in the tablet, so where would you put it? But its an interesting solution to an interesting problem.

Nathaniel
It is.

Brian
Another thing I want to talk about is while the person who

By the way, I guess I should thank him. Thank you, Scooter, for giving us this topic and hopefully you enjoy our discussion and our opinions.

So he's a programmer. Were programmers. We have very specific needs from our technology. We need computers with decent processing power, pretty beefy RAM specifications, but that's not what everybody needs, so for instance the MacBook Air lots of people are perfectly happy with the MacBook Air because it does what they need it to do. They don't need all the extra RAM that we need and they dont generate a whole lot of files. They don't need to install large applications like we do the compilers, the frameworks, everything we use to develop mobile apps just takes up, I think, like half of my hard drive is just applications.

Nathaniel
Wow.

Brian
Which is ridiculous. They don't need all that, so they get a 128GB hard drive and they're using like 20 or 30GB of that. The ones who are using more than that, it's because they have 20 or 30 Gigs of music, but even then theyre only using 60GB, so is there really a problem? Or, is it, does there need to be an iPad Pro for people like us and everybody else is perfectly happy with the iPad mini retina, the iPad Air 2, the MacBook Air, and even, to go even further there's the Surface, which nobody really talks about and there's the Surface Pro. There was a version 1, a version 2, now theres a version 3. Is the Surface the base Surface or even the lower model Lenovo Yoga whatever or things similar like is that sufficient for most people and do we need to really be talking about, like, the ultimate developer laptop? How we make this awesome hybrid tablet and laptop and jeez, these bugs are really irritating.

Is it a problem?

Nathaniel
Right now it's interesting because Chrome well, Google, I guess they kind of went the opposite direction and came out with the Chromebook, something is really simplified. Doesnt have a lot of use cases, not a lot of processing power, all the extras. Its something that you use for web browsing, document storage, that sort of thing. And it's a pretty big hit, so it seems like people are starting to find, you know, what they need and I'm not sure where a bigger, beefier iPad will fit in.

Brian
Yeah, thats right. So my experience with a Chromebook: I needed some office supplies, so I went to Office Depot, and saw the display for Chromebook and was like OK, I've never played with a Chromebook. Let me play around with it. I walked over to it, pulled up the whatever you call it the desktop, the start screen, the whatever I'm looking at when I open the Chromebook, so it looked essentially like Windows except there was a big Chrome icon in the bottom and a couple Chrome Apps and realized what to do for me and immediately walked away.

Nathaniel
Yep.

Brian
Because what am I going to do with it? I can do

Nathaniel
Exactly

Brian
I can do Google Drive stuff. I can browse the web. I can do twitter. I can that's about it.

Nathaniel
You can't develop anything.

Brian
I cant develop anything. I can, maybe there is a Chrome App that lets me SSH, but still were back to the same problem Id have on my iPad where I need to SSH I need to go somewhere else, either SSH or RDP. I need to go somewhere else

Nathaniel
Right

Brian
to develop so I can't take my development environment with me if Im using a Chromebook, but at the same time for people who that's all they need to do, it's more than sufficient and I think that's kind of interesting from like a computer history standpoint. Initially, computers were the size of rooms and buildings, and they were massive. There was no way you could have one in your office/home, and certainly not pocket and then only a select few people could use it and the way to use the computer was you said I have a program. I need it to run. Start it at this time. It's gonna take approximately this time. I will pay for the usage for these 32 hours, or whatever. And the operator would put your program in, it would go through, it would be done, youd pay only for the usage. Great.

Then we moved to computers that were running all the time and you had a terminal that was connected to it and all the terminal was was basically a keyboard and a screen. You typed at the keyboard, it sends it along the wire back to the mainframe, the mainframe does something and sends something back to the screen. That's it. Thats all the computer was was just a terminal. And you see like old movies like oh yeah all those old movies. All those old 80s movies: War Games, Andromeda Strain they have the old IBM VT 100s, VT 220s, whatever old terminals. And then we moved to bringing the compute power into the terminal so now we have Macbooks that we can carry around with us and even before that we had desktops that sat on our desks. Fine, theyre all kind of the same class of device.

Now were moving toward getting all of that compute power into the Cloud and we have basically a dumb terminal again. We have the Chromebook. We have an iPad. We have a this webtop thing. So our computers are basically just presenting us with content, we type at them, it sends it up to the Cloud, and brings stuff back. It's this dumb terminal sort of approach except instead of a physical connection to the mainframe, it's all through Wi-Fi, the Internet, and the Cloud, and in addition we have Amazon Web Services, which is, you pay for the compute time that you use. So we started in one way of doing computing took a detour and now were back at that way of doing computing, by and large. 

So its kinda funny.

Nathaniel
Yeah, it is.

Brian
So I'm kind of out of ideas for what to talk about more. I think there's a use case for both types of devices. I think we still have a ways to go with regard to how people use things like the Surface Pro 3 and it'll be interesting to see what Apple's response is if this iPad Pro materializes and if it does materialize if it's just a bigger iPad or if there's actually some utility.

I guess to add another thought the problem with just making a bigger iPad is that right now all iPad apps are optimized for that screen size. If you make a bigger iPad, first thing that happens is all those iPad apps just get scaled up. Basically you just have more space, but its still the same form factor, so my guess is that in order to make an iPad Pro practical, there's gonna have to be something different about the user interface and about the Operating System that runs on it.

Nathaniel
Right

Brian
Or some improved capabilities. Maybe it's not full-blown OS X, but their new You could do something new and different with it that you can't do on iPads currently, otherwise I don't think it's itll be a flop basically is my prediction.

Nathaniel
So, kind of like the phablet. Kind of like in between phone and tablet and now its between a tablet and a laptop or computer.

Brian
Yeah, I still dont understand the point of the phablet.

Nathaniel
But it has its own user interface. Its developing one at least in Apples.

Brian
Yeah, it does. You definitely have to think differently about it. 

Nathaniel
Right.

Brian
And so I ran into a site yesterday, I guess it was, that was a new responsive website, that did not look great on tablets, which reminded me of episode 12b from a couple weeks ago. Or, I guess by the time you listen to this, it will be about a month ago. We forget about tablets.

Which is disappointing but it could be an indication that tablets were kind of a gimmick when they came out and we need to actually find a reason for them to exist and how were going to use them and how we might use them. To be honest, the idea of the Surface Pro 3, I think is pretty cool. The idea that I can have a tablet and a laptop and it works OK it works well as both the biggest problem for me with the Surface Pro 3 is that it runs Windows, and that's not because I hate on Windows or anything like that.

It's just because I can go to the Apple Store, buy a MacBook and within a matter of seconds I can be developing on it because it already has a PHP runtime on it, Ruby runtime on it, and a Python runtime.

Nathaniel
It has git.

Brian
You have to get the developer tools to wire it all up but it has pretty much everything we need to do our UNIX/Linux development. To do mobile development, we do have to install extra stuff but that's because you If you could if you could develop phone apps on a phone, I imagine the same thing would essentially be the case. We can just grab a phone and start developing on it. but you can't develop phone apps on a phone because theres not enough screen space.

Nathaniel
Thats funny, because there is an app that I found just a couple days ago that does that, but I would never use it.

Brian
Yeah, I think you have to be careful when you when you get into that sort of thing. I imagine its similar to these websites you can find where you drag-and-drop components onto a web thing and it becomes your app or something like that?

Nathaniel
No it's actually a full-blown android IDE.

Brian
Oh jeez.

Nathaniel
Write native Java code, hit run and it installs and runs it, but still not enough screen space to develop.

Brian
Yeah, and thats because the Android GUI builder is so good, right?

Nathaniel
Right, yeah.

Brian
Alright. Well I think that about does it for this episode. Stay tuned for the next one, whenever thatll be. It'll probably actually be the Christmas episode, so stay tuned.

These come out every Wednesday and were not to change that so keep an eye out on Wednesdays and we look forward to rambling on about additional stuff. Weve got some cool topics coming up so I'm excited about season two and we might intersperse some other interviews with people in the middle of season 2, so it should be fun and interesting and, if you have any feedback for us, or as I mentioned this one was suggested to us by a listener, send us your thoughts, send us your questions.

If you have a question you want us to answer, either you think we have good insight on or you just want to hear our opinions on it either is fine you can tweet me @brian_c_parks and you can tweet us at @synapsesoftware. You can also find us at synapsesoftware.com/podcast and send us email or give us a call, tweet us. Wed love to hear your feedback.