Easy

I won’t spend much time on the background to this (get Part 1 here), but the premise of this series is simple:

  • Share apps and processes I’ve come across recently that have helped me get things done easily
  • Point out apps that work especially well when I’m on the move (which for me tends to be a lot of the time)

But First: Hardware

Although this series is primarily about apps, I’ll use this post to touch on my hardware choices. It’s worth giving this some thought as the kit you’ll use – or are using – will have an impact on how you do what you do.

I’ll then finish this section of the series off by making a few recommendations.

By the way: shout out to Waiki Harnais who reminded me about the need for this to cover the widest range of mobile platforms possible by asking about apps for Blackberry.

Now, on with the show…

Options

Broadly speaking most developers build apps for Apple‘s iOS operating system first (i.e. iPhone/iPad). I’m guessing it’s because conventional wisdom suggests that’s where the most money can be made.

The apps are then adapted (or ‘ported’, in the tech parlance) to other platforms like Google‘s Android and RIM‘s Blackberry operating systems, before filtering down to everyone else (most notably Microsoft’s Windows Phone).

This of course suggests that if you’re already within the Apple ecosystem with an ‘iThing’ of some flavour, you’ve potentially got the broadest (and arguably best) pick of apps in terms of choice, look and functionality.

Favourite Phone

I’m also going to assume you’ve already decided – by accident or by design – on your favourite phone and/or platform. I’ve no intention of suggesting any one as superior. The way I see it, if it works for you then that’s what’s best for you.

Having said that, if you’re just starting out (or you’ve got the cash to spare), you should seriously consider an Apple iThing.

Weapon of Choice

At the moment my weapon of choice is a standard-sized 3.5 inch smartphone you’ve probably never heard of: a ZTE Blade (left).

It’s branded in the UK as Orange network’s ‘San Francisco’ (don’t ask. I didn’t), and – assuming it’s still available – is around £99.

It was a great introduction to my first 100% touchscreen use, as my previous phone was a (mainly stylus-based) Windows Mobile HD2 mini.  The San Fran was also my first and rather pleasant introduction to Google’s Android.

I also have another standard phone I’d never heard of before I got it: an unlocked, SIM-free Jil Sander Windows Phone, running WindowsPhone 7 operating system (for the geeks: the Jil Sander is actually a rebranded LG E906).

Until fairly recently I was a massive Windows Mobile fan, but when Microsoft relaunched it as Windows Phone, the prices were ridiculous.

However at £150 I decided to explore the Windows Phone experience with the Jil Sander.

I’ll leave what I think of it to another post…

Restrictive

In the last 2 – 3 months I’ve found the screen on the San Fran quite restrictive, such that I’m seriously considering upgrading to a 5-inch phone of some description (perhaps a Samsung Galaxy Note), as more screen real estate = more comfortable writing/swiping/typing.

The need for more screen space came about as a direct result of my recent acquisition of a 7-inch Android tablet. Speaking of which…

The Tablet

Up until a few months ago I did pretty much all of my mobile writing on the San Fran.

My daily commute rarely affords me sitting space, and the phone’s small size was ideal for jotting down ideas on cramped train journeys, doing some light editing of documents and (over) indulging in social media.

Then Apple blew the tablet market wide open with the iPad. The attendant hype meant that I – like many other people – seriously considered getting one.

However I couldn’t justify the expense (interestingly, spell-check suggested ‘exorbitant’ as I was typing this :-)).  My primary requirement was for something portable and light. And – brilliant as it is – that wasn’t the iPad.

Price

These days I’m quite price-sensitive and not particularly brand-loyal, a combination which means I rarely have the latest brand-name phones, especially as some generic job will do most of the things I need it to with pretty much the same results as much more expensive kit.

I was still quite keen to dip my toe in tablet waters, though. At the time the Android-based alternatives were also outside of my price range, as it seemed other manufacturers were trying to do an Apple and charge premium prices.

Then something happened sometime in 2011, and a whole slew of Android tablets from unknown Chinese manufacturers started to appear around the sub £200 mark.

After a significant amount of research (it can take me anything up to a year to decide to buy a device) I went for the NATPC M009S (yes, another manufacturer I’d never heard of).

It had the perfect price for me to try tablet computing without incurring a massive (not to mention expensive) piece of tech regret if I ended up not liking the experience.

It runs the ‘Ice Cream Sandwich‘ version of Android which gives it a very polished look.

Its midsize 7-inch form is perfect for me: portable, great for reading (blogs, websites and magazines now have what I imagine is a very Kindle-like experience) and it’s also great for writing (a very pleasant pastime on those occasions when I actually get a seat on the train).

However, like they say: you get what you pay for…

I’m unsure about the technical reasons behind this but the NATPC occasionally runs very slowly indeed.  For that price the manufacturer obviously had to make some compromises on the innards of the thing, and I’m guessing one of those is its under-powered processor.

To use a car metaphor – it sometimes feels like driving a burly 4×4 powered by a motorbike engine: it gets there in the end, but you get the feeling the vehicle should have had a bit more grunt under the hood (or – seeing as I’m writing in the queen’s English – the bonnet :-)).

Still, I’m not complaining. It was a fantastic introduction to using tablets, and I now know I definitely want one. Not at all bad for a £99 gamble.

Allegiance

Last week Apple announced the iPad Mini. I was seriously tempted to get one, but the £269 price tag for the entry-level version is still too rich for my blood.

Besides, it’s time to declare my allegiance: I use Google. A whole lot. As in I’ve wholeheartedly embraced a veritable plethora of its services: mail, document and file sharing, collaboration, chat, analytics and more.

And with Google’s 7-inch Nexus tablet now out, and prices starting at (a significantly un-Apple-esque) £169, it’s almost a no-brainer for me.

I’ll probably check out a few more generic options before I finally decide, though 🙂

So: I promised you some recommendation/suggestions, so here goes:

What You Need to Consider When Choosing Your Hardware

Before I actually get into things you need to consider, a word about using products from smaller/unknown manufacturers:

If you want HD resolution, an incredible camera and/or pictures, or a retina display (for example), then you’ll definitely need to choose something from Samsung or Apple or a brand of that ilk.

If on the other hand your key requirement is function over form (or hype), then some of the smaller manufacturers provide some brilliant alternatives.

Firstly and most importantly (and no, it’s not ‘how much do you want to spend?’):

Make a list of what you need.

I take a great deal of time compiling my list, usually about a month or more. Over the period I make a highly detailed note of every single thing that:

  • I currently use my phone/tablet/whatever for
  • my kit does well – and also what it does badly
  • I’d like the new model to do better than the current one.

Secondly: where will you be using your hardware the most?

  • Where you intend to use your kit will go quite a way in determining what you need
  • Will you use it most when you’re mobile? Or at home? At work? Sitting down comfortably somewhere or on a cattle-class commute…?

Third: how will you use it?

  • Are you going to be reading and writing in short bursts (status updates, texting, short emails) or in longer form (blogs, articles, features, etc)?

Fourth: spend as much as you can afford

  • You might find this somewhat ironic: even though I’m not shelling out that much money (relatively speaking), I look to spend the most I can for the class of kit I’m buying.
  • A cash-based example: say I’ve whittled down my choices to two very similar items between £70 – £90.  I’ll always go for the higher-priced one.  In my experience, the difference in performance of the kit at this price point is significant enough to make it worth stumping up the extra.

Size Matters

Hardware options have settled into three broad categories

  • the ubiquitous 3 – 5 inch phones (most of the phones you see around)
  • the relatively new 5 – 7 inch phone or tablet class (e.g. iPad Mini, Galaxy Note and Galaxy Nexus 7), and
  • the 10-inch version (e.g. iPad and Galaxy 2 Tab 10.1).

It’s also worth mentioning that you can also get 8 – 9 inch laptops these days if the traditional format (or a keyboard) is important to you (though you can always find a keyboard peripheral for most tablets).

Weight Matters

One of the things that put me off the original iPad (apart from its price) was its weight.

If you’re working at home or sat in some comfy coffee shop, chances are you’re not likely to notice how unwieldy a 10-inch tablet can be but it certainly doesn’t lend itself to small-space manoeuvring (the sort you’re likely to get standing on a packed train, for example).

That’s not necessarily a weakness. It just wasn’t designed to be used that way.

iArgue…

There are as many rabid fans as there are options (and opinions) on what’s the best system to use or get.

The war of words between Apple/iOS versus Google/Android versus Microsoft/Windows versus RIM/Blackberry fanboys and girls is a never-ending one.

My recommendation? Pop down to your local store and do a hands-on examination for yourself.

Then speak to as many different fans of each system as you can find.  In the unlikely event that you don’t have any geeky friends, look on the web. Between that and your list, you’ll come away with a fairly good idea of what works for you…

Sharing: Media Matters

This is an important one. If things like taking and sharing photos and even doing some basic work with audio and video is important to you, I think Apple’s hardware series have an edge.

There are great alternatives in the Android universe but this is definitely Apple’s territory.

App Availability

Again, Apple takes this for the reason I mentioned about developers releasing apps initially for iOS. You have excellent choice when it comes to Android too – almost as much as iOS – but it’s still an Apple world, I think.

Windows has a growing number of original and ported apps, but – on this point at least – I think it’s pretty much a 2-horse race.

Connectivity

If you’re on the move a lot then this is absolutely crucial.

Your hardware needs 3G (and soon, 4G) and/or WiFi, Bluetooth and – while not essential – infra-red is good to have as an option if it’s available.

NFC (Near-Field Communication, the wireless standard that powers your train and travel card) is being touted as the next big thing so if you’re buying a new piece of kit that offers it, you might want to check it out.  If the promo is to be believed, you might very well be using it to pay for your cup of latte next time you’re in one of those fancy coffee shops you hang out at…

You also need to seriously investigate how easy (or otherwise) it is for your device to connect both to other devices as well as signals. My tablet recognises and connects to my home router (and my phone’s WiFi when activated) without me having to do anything other than press the ‘On’ switch.

If WiFi is already switched on it automatically logs itself on to my phone or router.  That’s got to be a minimum requirement in any kit you’re investing in.

And don’t forget your connecting cable. You need something that’s at least USB 2, possibly even USB 3.

Cables are obviously old school, but it’s very likely you’re gonna need it in play at some stage.  It’ll be a lifesaving, ‘get-out-of-jail free’ back-up option, trust me. 🙂

Peripherals

Can you connect to – or plug-in to your device – a range of memory sticks, external USB peripherals, etc? If the answer is no, my recommendation is to walk away.

Cross-Connection

We live in the real world. There’s a chance your phone and tablet will be different brands.

If that’s the case – can they ‘talk’ to one another? If they can, how easy is it? Is it something you’ll have to do wirelessly? Or via cables?

At this stage in the development of all modern hardware, the seamless,  wireless option should be the least you expect from your kit at pretty much every price point.

And Finally…

You’ve thought long and hard. You’ve made the list, done the research, asked the fans, weathered the diverse opinons, prioritised the checklist and stumped up the cash.

You’ve got the kit. Now: what apps to put on it…?

Like they say in radio: ‘that’s coming up next’…

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