Low-cost tablets for academics
December 30, 2013 1:16 PM   Subscribe

I would like a low-cost tablet for academic work. Mainly reading and annotating PDFs and scientific papers, note-taking, and brainstorming/checklist-type activities. I have a Nook and barely use it because it's terrible with PDFs and can't do graphics and figures at all, even in the ePub format. I don't know anything about tablets--I don't even own a smartphone--so I have no idea where to start looking, what's appropriate, or what's a reasonable budget to expect.

As far as bells-and-whistles, I would like to be able to use a stylus and attach a keyboard. I don't need anything fancy media-wise. It would be nice if it wasn't too tiny (like maybe the size of a sheet of paper or slightly smaller?). Unless I can get a lot more functionality with a smaller one and an academic can chime in and say the size isn't a problem.

Most of the things I'm reading say get a Surface or an iPad, and I'm hoping it is possible to find something functional for less than eleventy-billion dollars. Even under $200? Is under $100 a pipe dream? What is a poor to-be-grad-student to do?
posted by anonymous to Technology (25 answers total)
Honestly, you're not going to find much worthwhile at that price point except the Nexus 7. It's got a 7-inch screen and you'd need to find a bluetooth keyboard to mate with it, but it works well and it's going to be a better value than anything else in that price range, Google is selling it at cost.

You're looking at about $300 for an Ipad 3 (the oldest one that's still worth buying) and ~500 for a first-gen Surface Pro (which does come with a pressure-sensitive stylus). Google did make a larger, 10-inch tablet for $400 (the Nexus 10), but it's about to be refreshed, so don't buy one of those new.
posted by Oktober at 1:33 PM on December 30, 2013

For me (former grad student) the answer is a used iPad2 or no tablet at all, because you want Papers and that's only available for iOs for now. The real problem with academic lit review is getting and wrangling PDFs. Sure, you might find some other reasonable apps for either iOs or Windows for PDF markup and file management, but they will all completely suck compared to Papers, which costs alot for just an app but will save you SO MUCH TIME because it streamlines everything for you, from importing the PDFs to automatically organizing them, tagging them in a way that's useful, and making automatically exportable citations and syncing with all your other computers. If you can't afford both a used iPad2 and Papers (will cost you probably $300 for both), you're better off with just Papers, no tablet, and making do with whatever other computer you have, because you won't get anything useful done on another tablet without wasting time on all the organizing things Papers does for you. Really, I tried with my iPad before they released the Papers app for iPad, and at best I got a little reading done here and there, and then when it came time to write, all my notes and citations on the tablet were sitting there with no instantaneous way of exporting them to the laptop I was writing on.

It's also worth asking the postdocs and more tech savvy profs in your department what their workflow is like, and if they use a tablet at all.
posted by slow graffiti at 1:54 PM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: slow graffiti, how does Papers compare to Mendeley or other Windows-based applications? Or are those not available to tablets (I seriously do not know anything about tablets)?

I would be OK with going higher than $200 if there really wasn't anything better.
posted by Anonymous at 2:32 PM on December 30, 2013

I started with Mendeley and got frustrated with how bad it is at catching citation metadata for the journals I was going to most often (J Neurosci, etc.) Maybe it's way better since the last time I tried it 2+ years ago. I put down the money for Papers and didn't look back. Papers does a few things that Mendeley doesn't, like syncing across devices and interfacing with MS Word for citation export.
posted by slow graffiti at 2:36 PM on December 30, 2013

I don't have that much experience with wrangling tons of pdfs, but I feel I should strike a blow for BibTeX here. Google scholar and a lot of other places have nice export buttons for the format, and there are a variety of frontends available to manage your BibTeX database.
posted by zscore at 2:47 PM on December 30, 2013

Mendeley is a pain in the neck and I'm really irritated with it. I'm looking for a new reference manager that's cross-platform (since I use iOS, Android, Windows, and Linux.)

But if you need to annotate with a pen (I write a lot of equations and draw pictures, so I really need the pen), then the Galaxy Note can't be beat. I have the 7", and I use ezPDF on it constantly. The writing is just so so so much better than iPad because it's got an intrinsic stylus that is pressure sensitive and fantastic.
posted by nat at 2:58 PM on December 30, 2013

Oh, if you're insistent on Mendeley, btw, it does *not* have annotation support on mobile devices. They have an iOS app, but it won't take annotations you make on the iOS device and put them in the cloud so you can pull them down on your laptop.

And for Android, Mendeley doesn't have an app; they expect third party people to write things, and none of the things are very good, and Mendeley doesn't allow them to provide support for annotation upload either. Ugh.

And zscore-- is there a bibtex front end you're familiar with that will also link to the pdf associated with a particular entry? Bonus points if it's cross-platform.
posted by nat at 3:18 PM on December 30, 2013

Gah. I forgot to ask: OP, could you tell us a little more info? e.g. do you write papers in LaTex, or Word? Do you need to interface with arXiv or PubMed or which online journals or paper databases?

And what devices do you want to use your setup with? As in, what other machines do you use? Some things are great if you use all Mac all the time but will be obnoxious if you have a windows machine..
posted by nat at 3:23 PM on December 30, 2013

Naww, nat, I realized after I posted I wasn't being all that helpful/didn't really know what I was talking about. Maybe this http://bibdesk.sourceforge.net/ or this http://www.zotero.org/ ? I'll be looking at this thread to get ideas for when I get overwhelmed with pdfs later :)
posted by zscore at 3:50 PM on December 30, 2013

Ok, so first: if you're looking into Papers, see if you can still get a copy of the iOS app that works with Papers 2, because I hear a lot has changed with the new Papers 3 and corresponding iPad app, and the new syncing system has a lot of bugs. I personally have never been a big fan of the iOS Papers app (I use Papers 2 on my laptop and sync with Dropbox & Goodreader), but the old sync worked well.

I am going to second spitbull: if you're serious about incorporating the tablet into your workflow, don't skimp on this. I am a graduate student too! I am super poor! But my iPad has done so much for my workflow and has saved me so, so much time and mental agony that it's well worth the cost. Under normal circumstances, it's nice to have all your reference papers in one nice (& easily backed up location) rather than flapping around your bag or having to deal with library textbooks and whatnot, so for that alone it's worth it to me. But when you actually need to read/reference papers (ie, dissertation time, paper/grant writing, quals, etc) and you're completely stressed because OMG DEADLINE, it's invaluable to not have to go fumbling about for an hour trying to remember what paper or journal you saw X in.

The other thing is that this will only work if it's a device you use. I paid way more money for my iPad than my labmate did for his Nexus tablet. This is not a knock against Nexuses, because they work well for a lot of people, but the important thing is that they didn't work for my labmate, so he used the tablet halfheartedly for a few months and now it's a paperweight.
posted by angst at 3:55 PM on December 30, 2013

Response by poster: I still haven't found a good workflow for reading papers yet--that's one of the reasons I'm considering this option. My laptop is an older Compaq with Windows 7 that's overdue for an update. Right now I write in Word or LibreOffice, but am planning on transitioning to LaTeX.

I have no ties to Mendeley--that just happens to be the reference program I know most about.

I haven't even thought about interfacing with PubMed because I didn't know such things were options. I'm years behind the curve in terms of mobile devices and pretty new to academia itself. All I know is the stack-of-papers method isn't working for keeping my head straight with what I'm trying to read and organize.
posted by Anonymous at 4:07 PM on December 30, 2013

I got a 1st gen nexus 7 specifically to review academic papers on the way to work. I use ezpdf to read and add post it notes then write up comments in ak notepad or straight to my office machine. It's a bit fiddly but OK. I use it a lot for other stuff too, the lack of bulk relative to my SOs iPad also seems a distinct advantage to me.

I also use ak notepad for notes at meetings. It's fine.
posted by biffa at 4:49 PM on December 30, 2013

Mendeley has started to really lag on keeping up with the new mobile platforms. I haven't tried the iOS version, but even if you get a Surface Pro and use the native Windows application, it does a HORRIBLE job functioning with a touchscreen. Forget annotation. You can't even scroll using the touchscreen. I like Mendeley on my laptop/desktop and switched to it from Papers for multi-platform support, but this has been my biggest hurdle to using a tablet: standalone, cloud-free functional MS Office is lacking on the iPad, a decent pdf annotator/organizer is lacking on Windows tablets, and both are lacking for Android. I have looked at lots of workarounds and they all stink. Bah humbug.
posted by drpynchon at 5:41 PM on December 30, 2013

I love my Nexus 7, but a 7" tablet is not going to be big enough for PDFs. You need a 10" or above. An iPad is completely unnecessary.

If screen resolution is somewhat important, I'd recommend the ASUS MeMO Pad FHD 10 for $269. I don't know about the stylus, but you can setup a Bluetooth keyboard and performance and battery life will be fine.

If screen resolution isn't as important, consider the Asus Transformer Book T100, which is a Windows tablet and laptop in one. $350 to $400.
posted by cnc at 5:58 PM on December 30, 2013

You mention that you have a nook. Depending on which version, you may be able to install cyanogen mod and have a full android device without spending any additional money.
posted by Morydd at 7:51 PM on December 30, 2013

Response by poster: The Nook is black-and-white, so it's not useable for many of the graphics in the papers I read. I also don't know if it's possible to use a stylus with it, and that's a crucial requirement.
posted by Anonymous at 7:59 PM on December 30, 2013

As far as reference managers, the problem is there are too many.. the listing here at wikipedia is pretty extensive. But it kind of incorrectly says Mendeley works with Android, so I'm not sure how much I trust the info. (I haven't tried zotero or bibdesk yet, but might. I just need to get a little more irritated at Mendeley first.)

Also migrating to a new service is obnoxious, so you should choose wisely the first time ;-)
Another thing to consider is asking advice from your advisor. If they're techonology-adept, they might know what works best in their field, which will be your field. Also it's useful to use similar referencing tech to what your collaborators use. Also who knows, maybe there's a tech budget for the lab you're in?
posted by nat at 8:11 PM on December 30, 2013

Low cost? Buy used.

But if you're not even in grad school yet, I would suggest saving the money until you are in grad school so that you can see how other folks deal with the need.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:59 PM on December 30, 2013

Go for an iPad for reading PDFs that are image or figure heavy. iOS devices have better GPUs and do a faster job rendering complex PDFs than Android devices, including the Nexus 7.

If you want to test this for yourself with the types of PDFs you read, put a few docs up on the web and open them up on iPads running in an Apple Store near you (their iPads are networked, so you can open up PDFs directly on the floor models). Then compare this with a demo Android unit where stores offer one to test out (campus bookstore, etc.). You'll then be able to see why iPads are better suited to this task.

Papers 2 is excellent for document management and markup. Papers 3 is new, has some serious synchronization bugs to work out and you'll need a Dropbox account, if you don't already have one. (I'm still trying to upgrade my laptop from 2 to 3 — a previous upgrade attempt wiped my library.)
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:54 AM on December 31, 2013

FYI, Apple offers an academic discount--it's not huge, but it's helpful.
posted by lovecrafty at 3:34 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would agree with Spitbull. Spend the extra money on something that could improve your life everyday.

If you are contemplating Papers then I would also suggest DevonThink though it is not as robust on the mobile front as I would like. Using either Papers or DevonThink requires a stronger move towards the Apple system of things.

If you want to do the Nexus then app that works very well on Android and OSX is iAnnotate. It is quite robust and works very well with cloud services like Dropbox and Google Drive. iAnnotate on Android is FREE so grab it, if you can.

The thing about being in a closed garden is that it is enticing, comfortable and pleasurable. This is a distrinct advantage for choosing the iPad over the Nexus. Nexus has price but it has less apps and sometimes it assumes that you will "fiddle" with things. I work in either environment but do the more serious work on the iPad.

Take the advice from above and play/use the devices before making a choice. Set up a consistent test for both product lines and really try them out. Another option is to talk to your colleagues in the department and see what seems to be the optimal workflow for your group. Good for you in thinking about your workflow and the tools that will make your life easier.
posted by jadepearl at 7:23 AM on December 31, 2013

Just wanted to chime back in that the ASUS MeMO Pad FHD 10 does support a stylus. This device is not as good as an iPad, but it's also half the price. Not everyone can afford to drive a BMW.
posted by cnc at 8:31 AM on December 31, 2013

In the vein above of "try it out"... I would strongly suggest you try out whatever stylus you're thinking of using with the iPad to see if it's adequate to your needs.

I didn't get an iPad because the styluses were all terrible (this was c. 8 months ago). Just completely and totally insufficient for my needs. I tried several, but that screen is just not built for fine work with a pressure sensitive stylus- and none of the ones I tried were good enough.

It can be a bit of a pain to try out an aftermarket stylus-- the floor models at an Apple store might not allow you to install necessary software. I had to borrow a colleague's iPad to try, as well as a couple different styli. But you really should try it; if they're adequate for you, and you're otherwise on a Mac ecosystem, then the iPad might be the right tool for you. (It was not the right tool for me).
posted by nat at 8:50 AM on January 1, 2014

What is a poor to-be-grad-student to do?

Congratulations on getting into grad school! (Or maybe, welcome to hell.)

First of all, wait. The most important thing you can do, before you lock yourself into something based on the wisdom of random internet strangers, is to see exactly what the other grad students and postdocs in your specific program are using.

In my area, for example, it was all Thinkpads or Vaios running Linux back in oh, 2000 or so. Then after OS X, the first Mac laptops started re-appearing, with the common thinking being "Powerpoint and command line Unix, without virtual machines? Sign me up." And now, a conference room is just a sea of identical shiny Macs, with the occasional Lenovo (fading) and the occasional iPad (rising). Is this a sign? Probably, but it'll be a long time before an iPad is my primary workflow machine.

For what you want to do, I agree with several of the people above - an iPad sounds right, and the price premium is trivial over three years of regular use, especially after an academic discount. But my advice is to either wait, or to talk to the people in your program-to-be now to find out what they are using. If you want to use something different, you should have very good reasons for your choice.
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:59 PM on January 1, 2014

While Pencil is pretty, it isn't pressure sensitive, so no, it's not what I want (I had really hoped the Pogo Connect would be, but nope). What I want is Samsung's SPen, conveniently included as part of my Galaxy Note, actually ;-)

For the OP-- you may or may not care about stylus pressure sensitivity. It seems like you don't know what you need yet, and since tools for academic use like this are very field specific, you'd be best off getting advice specifically from folk in your field.
posted by nat at 8:31 AM on January 4, 2014

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