We’re investigating handheld tablets at the moment. I know, all tablets are handheld, these are small ones.
The advantages of handhelds are fairly obvious. They’re cheaper than computers, their batteries last at least all day, they are always on. And I think most importantly, unlike Netbooks, tablets don’t suffer from “mission creep”. Netbooks look like laptops and sooner or later you expect them to do the same things as laptops, but they’re underpowered and can’t cope. With tablets, you don’t expect laptop performance and so, aren’t disappointed.
To the battle then. Which handheld offers the most educational value. iPod Touch 4 (Apple iOS4) or an Archos 43 (Google Android Froyo). It took a little bit of research to find an equivalent-sized Android tablet. HTC, along with all the major players, only produce phones.
Archos have come from the other way, from the media player direction and have always had devices to compete with Apple.
Cost, specifications and battery life
It’s really awkward to compare specifications for these devices, as they are quite different. What we’ve done internally for our evaluation is compare the iPod 8 Gb (~£160) to the Archos 16 Gb (~£150). There is an argument that we should have bought the 32 Gb iPod (~£230) but then the iPod would lose out straight away for its high price tag.
The Archos is a bit larger than the iPod. Its screen is noticeably bigger too, though the iPod has a much larger (and sharper) resolution. Personally, resolution on a 3″ screen isn’t something I’m bothered about.
I’m not going to get into the processor specs as direct comparisons won’t highlight anything relevant given the different operating systems.
I will say both devices impressed me with their actual battery life, given how used I am to charging my HTC phone every other day. I suppose not having to look for phone networks really saves the battery.
Out of the box
The iPod requires a computer connection straight out of the box. You have to have iTunes installed and more importantly, I seem to remember I had to set up an iTunes account (yes, I already have one, but I wanted a separate account for this work-purchased pod). Setting up an iTunes account requires a credit card, whether you ever make a purchase or not. Big black mark there Apple. If we want the students to purchase these devices, it means letting them loose with their parents’ credit card. I’ll touch more on this later, when looking at Apps.
The Archos sucks right of the box. Despite the specs on the website, ours came preloaded with Android 1.6. The OS equivalent of a Vuvuzala. I know, how many operating systems have I written?
The Archos can be “used” immediately, but the controls were unresponsive. The setup didn’t include accelerometer calibration (that was hidden in the Settings menu). The device had to be hit on the side to get it to turn the screen round – who knew Al from Quantum Leap was using Android 1.6!
After about 30 minutes, the Archos detected that a new version of Android was available. It downloaded 2.2 (Froyo), but truly annoyingly, after downloading it had to be plugged into a PC before installing. Not being next to my laptop at the time meant cancelling the installation, returning to my desk and starting again.
Once Froyo was installed, the difference was night-and-day. The responsiveness was vastly improved.
Two things that the Archos had that were better than the iPod. OS Password boxes carry an option to unhide the result as you type, and the keyboard contains a Caps Lock option. C’mon Apple, 4 generations in, and you still have to press shift each time you want a capital letter???
Again, out of the box, the Archos isn’t very impressive when it comes to Apps. The device comes with a limited AppsLib, instead of the full Android Market. It’s preloaded with some decent enough stuff, the music and video players are good enough as is the file manager and the dedicated Uninstall App, but Flash isn’t there by default. That can be downloaded from AppsLib, unlike Adobe Air (the easy way to make Apps).
It is possible to get the full market however. Which is exactly what we did. After about 30 minutes research, we found ArcTools, which once installed, installs the Market. But here’s the thing. You don’t actually need a Market App for Android devices. You can download an .apk file from anywhere on the internet, unlike the iPod.
Once the Market, and Adobe Air was installed, the Archos began to feel a bit more useful. And I was able to start comparing the devices properly.
For comparison, I went looking for an education App, specifically a Periodic Table. From the Android Market, I installed the free Periodic Table, which had quizzes, flash cards and pronunciation audios (very nice touch). Looking in Apple’s App Store was a huge disappointment. I only found 1 free App. If we’re going to want kids to download specific Apps, we can’t expect them to purchase them. The App, iTeachU Free, was next to useless.
Android’s Apps seem to be of the free, ad-sponsored variety and Apple’s are of the cheap kind (the pay Apps were generally only 59p).
The bigger issue with Apple is the credit card. Even for a free App, you have to enter your iTunes password in order to install it. This means the students will have access to their parents’ credit cards. We may have to operate with a delay, wherein we ask the kids to ask their parents to install Apps for them.
Here there is a big difference. The Archos uses screen technology that can only handle 1 finger. So no pinch-and-zoom. This is a major problem for the native browser when looking at non-mobile websites. The view constantly zoomed in and out when I tried scrolling as the browser couldn’t decide which function I was trying to do. Eventually, I gave up and installed Dolphin HD, which gave me better options, including using the volume buttons to scroll the page. Browsing still isn’t as slick as on the iPod though.
Complaining that a handheld computer can only handle one touch at a time should be like complaining my car doesn’t have a flying mode. But the truth is Apple have been showing everyone two fingers for years now. I own a Gen 1 iPod Touch, that has pinch-and-zoom. I know Archos were probably able to keep the costs down by not including the same type of touchscreen as Apple, but it really hurts browsing.
Don’t be downhearted Android fans, as Apple sucks in its own way when browsing. The “walled garden” of iOS prevents uploading images from the iPod to a website. This is a major flaw (especially as it is designed in). This is why you need an App to engage with most Web 2.0 sites. Their own web browser isn’t allowed to interact with their device!?!
I’m not a photographer. When I take photos I don’t spend too much time worrying about light conditions or focal length. I just want to point and shoot.
Below are comparisons trying to replicate the sort of photos the kids might take. I’ve deliberately avoided optimal conditions.
The Archos 43 comes with a 2 Mb camera. The image has a little bit of noise to it and is appears a little bit darker than reality.
The iPod Touch offers a resolution of less than 1 Mb. Given that the iPhone comes with a reported 5 Mb camera, putting the equivalent of a web cam in this device is pretty inexcusable. The image is full of noise and really quite small. It was rumoured that the iPod camera has a fixed focus, but this is untrue. The iPod comes with a touch screen interface to control focus. Tapping any part of the screen creates a focus box which the device then uses focus. There appears to be no focus control with the Archos.
Moving the camera closer to the objects, you can see what the handhelds are like picking up detail.
The iPod appears to produce a richer colour, though the red felt tip was bright red, which I don’t think the iPod picks up. The iPod’s image is also pretty noisy, though there is some blurring with the Archos.
Moving outdoors and taking a photo of some flowers in the garden (don’t email me to tell me what they are – I don’t care. 🙂 ). The colours from the iPod are much more vibrant (but if I’m honest, the colours are more accurately reproduced in the Archos).
The additional light available makes both pictures less noisy.
I find that the iPod Touch is lacking in the terms of its specifications. When I imagine guiding students through finding specific Apps and working out how to pay for them and how to build and distribute them, coupled with the woefully poor camera I find I cannot recommend iPods.
I should point out that there is another method for distributing iPods, which is that we could buy 30 devices and use a syncing device to control them. This takes the self-financing out of the situation, but adds its own problems of the school having to buy and maintain them.
Distributing Apps to students using the Archos is child’s play. Once they are set up correctly, we can simply make a page on our VLE with a list of Apps linked in. Building and distribution is also simple.
So on paper the Archos 43 is a superior device. But here’s the problem; while watching TV, I’ll often reach for a device to look something up on the internet. I find myself reaching for the iPod instead of the Archos.
The Archos just isn’t as responsive. The auto-correct keyboard on both my HTC Desire and the iPod Touch makes typing on such small screens as not only possible but quick. I cannot get the auto-correct to kick in on the Archos.
There are moments on the Archos when you click on an App or link and nothing appears to happen for a moment. Even taking photos appears to do nothing at first.
So in conclusion, like I said I cannot recommend the iPod Touch, but I’m not yet sure if I can recommend the Archos. It’s a good device with plenty of storage space, better camera, easy to use (once set up right) but it’s touch screen just isn’t as good.