What Android/Windows tablet should I buy for academic use?
January 20, 2014 10:32 PM   Subscribe

What Android or Windows 8 pen-equipped tablet should I buy for reading scientific papers, writing scientific papers, and taking notes? (Or is the app selection for the iPad sufficiently amazing that I should let it override my distaste for Apple's walled garden and the iPad's lack of an active digitizer stylus?)

I've decided that it's high time I got a tablet to supplement my not-all-that-portable Windows 7 laptop. I'd be using it for reading academic papers, taking notes, writing, and maybe interfacing remotely with Matlab on my office machine. I want something with an active digitizer stylus (e.g. Wacom or its brethren) because I enjoy writing/drawing/doodling on paper and I like the idea of just transferring those habits to digital form rather than having to deal with the clunkiness of a capacitive stylus.

Budget is flexible, anywhere from $200 on up to the $900 range--I'm more concerned about value for money than about any particular number. Lightweight would be good, obviously, and having a good keyboard included or easily available is a bonus. High pixel density is a plus.

Everyone says (e.g., here) that the iPad is The Best Tablet, especially for academics, but I'm not a fan of iOS because it seems so locked-down and tries to make all your decisions for you. I like to tinker with my computers a bit--for instance, currently I'm figuring out how to install a modified version of the Android OS on my phone. I'm no expert by any means, but I like having options and I hate running into arbitrary limitations on what I can do with my device. On the other hand, tinkering is not a huge part of my day-to-day computer use, so maybe I overestimate how much I would miss it?

Anyway, given all that, what stylus-equipped Android or Windows 8 tablet should I buy? Or would the wonders of the iPad make me forget all about my inability to tinker with its basic workings?
posted by fermion to Technology (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I would urge a netbook. They are very small (tablet-sized) laptops with real keyboards and they open like a laptop for easy reading. I've generally found tablets awkward to view, even with cases that prop them up. Plus, netbooks can be very cheap and do everything a computer can.

However, if you really want a tablet and a touchscreen, then you may want a tablet because touchscreen laptops are still a little expensive. I'm with you on iPads being too restrictive, but I'd look into Amazon's restrictions with their Kindle Fire line too. If you're used to Android, you may be surprised at how different Amazon's version is. I don't own one myself, but I know you must use Amazon's store and not the Google Play store and their version of Android is designed to be very simple to use. The Kindle Fire seems to be otherwise a great tablet, but you may want to see how the OS differs from the Android you may have on your phone. (You could always root it, depending if a root is available for the version you have.)

You could just get an Asus Transformer -- it's an Android tablet that snaps onto a keyboard easily. I've tried the Windows Surface keyboards at stores and it feels very nice, IMO. I would go to Best Buy and just look at some if you can. I think tablet keyboards are awful, so I'd go with a hybrid combo if you're doing typing. I have a tablet I use for games because I think it's slow and hard to type on (it's a crappy brand called Pan and I don't recommend it!).
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:46 PM on January 20, 2014

The Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 is amazing. I use it heavily for taking notes, reading, etc. I don't write papers on it, and it doesn't come with a keyboard but there are many available. There's a newer version that has a higher resolution screen, but I'm happy with last year's 1280 x 800 model.
posted by katyggls at 11:11 PM on January 20, 2014

Mendeley and Papers are two of the better and more broadly-used academic journal article management and annotation apps, but are iOS-only.

iPads are also generally better at rendering more complex PDF journal articles than equivalently-priced Android devices. This is testable by putting PDFs of interest on the web and viewing them on store models at an Apple Store and an Android- or Microsoft-equivalent (Microsoft store, campus bookstore, etc.).

Do not buy an Android device cheaper than $300 unless you are prepared to cut corners. Amazon's Kindle Fire is an egregious offender, even after replacing the stock OS with something newer. But whatever you buy, there is so much variability in performance with third-party devices that it is probably worth the effort to get your hands on a few test models and work with the documents you'll be reading.

An iPad Air with a ClamCase keyboard would be a nice complement to either of the aforementioned reader apps. If you want lighter weight, go with an iPad mini Retina with the smaller ClamCase keyboard equivalent. Wacom makes a stylus called "Bamboo". It is not active, but it still works well for its intended purpose. Cregle makes something called "iPen 2", which is active, but requires an attachment to the iPad Air. It does not look like they have a stylus out yet for the iPad mini.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:19 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I bought an Xperia Z a month or so ago for the same purpose, and bought it mostly on weight — all other tablets of the same size are too heavy to hold comfortably for long. Not that the Xperia is comfortable for extended periods, but easier on the hands than all others I tried.

Still evaluating which apps to use for the academic papers. I used Mendelay on OSX/iOS previously, but haven't really tried out the third party apps which tie in with Mendelay (there not being an official version). For books I use Calibre on an OSX machine and use Calibre Companion to sync, which works beautifully over LAN. Not decided on which PDF viewer / annotator to go with…

As you, I opted for Android because I understood it to be more open to tinkering than iOS, but have found that I don't do all that much of it — mostly because I haven't found a good primer on how to tinker with what, where and why. I've changed themes and input keyboards, but — for example — the lack of permission setting on an application level is appalling, so the tinkering options are mostly cosmetic… (More here)

Once I have a weekend to dedicate to learning the ins and outs I'll be more comfortable with the system, and the specs (microSD, waterproof, weight) are good.
posted by monocultured at 11:57 PM on January 20, 2014

I jumped from an iPad (I also found iOS a bit restrictive after a while) to a Nexus 7 and I love love love it. I'm a graduate student so I do a ton of PDF reading on it. The screen is really beautiful and RepliGo is quite a nice PDF app.

I don't have any experience using a stylus with it, though. A quick Google search suggests you might be able to use a digitizer stylus. There are also some keyboards/keyboard cases available for the Nexus 7.

And if it's a little on the small side, the Nexus 10 seems to be a good choice (but a new version should be coming out sometime this year so you may want to wait on it!)
posted by thebots at 12:54 AM on January 21, 2014

There was a similar question that you might find useful.
posted by biffa at 1:34 AM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Folks, please address OP's specific requirements and intended use cases, don't just post your general opinions on various tablets or operating systems.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 2:21 AM on January 21, 2014

Mendley isn't iOS only.
posted by k8t at 2:25 AM on January 21, 2014

I don't know what your academic discipline is, but beware: in my experience, Android can be a bit shit when it comes to displaying special characters. Specifically, there is no support for polytonic (ie, accented) Greek characters - so it's piss-poor for classicists. For this reason you might like to get your hands on such a device and make sure it's capable of displaying all the special characters you'll need before you make a commitment.
posted by Ted Maul at 2:41 AM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

iOS has had support for automatic web proxy detection on wifi networks since iOS 6; Android still doesn't have that, though you can set a web proxy manually per wifi connection if you know the proxy name and port. Worth noting if you're going to be spending a lot of time on school networks.
posted by flabdablet at 4:51 AM on January 21, 2014

I got an iPad for academic papers due to the Retina screen. It displays papers beautifully. Very easy on the eyes, and the difference is noticable. Otherwise, I would have gone with a Nexus. I have a Nexus 4 phone and it is lovely - just obviously not a tablet.

So as far as screens go - go to a store like Staples and check for readability.
posted by aggyface at 5:27 AM on January 21, 2014

Best answer: I use a Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 with Dropbox and Zotero. I read and annotate PDFs with this setup, synced to my main work laptop. It is cross-platform to collaborate, or for quick reference from my phone. This tablet has a uSD port too. The uSD card is a nice way to transfer large volumes of files.

I have a Logitech bluetooth keyboard for the tablet. It does everything I need it to do with the exception of finished-document production (.docx, .xlsx). Office document production is really hit-or-miss, especially if it's going to get edited subsequently on a traditional computer. It handles LaTeX and HTML pretty well. To get around the office document limitation, I only use my tablet for writing plain text, and I save formatting, equations and inserting plots for my laptop. Swiftkey's new tablet has a nice "split keyboard" that makes typing on the tablet easier. I have a stylus that works for annotation and mark-up, which works well.

I have it set up for remote desktop, VPN for my campus (to access library services) and it has my certificates on it.

It was ~$300 when I bought it, plus a $50 for the case and keyboard. I'm happy with this setup and I would do it the same over again.

My fiancee has a Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 edition. It is much faster than mine, has a great stylus and a nice high res screen. It was around $500, and seems like a good value so far.

I'm happy to answer more questions if you have them.
posted by KevCed at 5:34 AM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Depending on whether you're going to spend more time grading/reading/reviewing (iPad iPad iPad) or actively doodling/writing papers (Surface Pro 2) makes a big difference. The sheer quality of the screen on the iPad Air combined with iOS exclusive apps (Papers and Mendeley) makes it the top choice if you're going to be primarily reading (with some markup) but the Surface Pro 2 is a full Windows 8 machine in a tablet with an active digitizer, and you can click on the keyboard cover when you really need to write. The original Surface Pro is $300 less, but if you've got the budget, get the newer model, it's a bit zippier and has better battery life.
posted by Oktober at 7:43 AM on January 21, 2014

I have a Nexus 10, which I would not recommend buying right now---it's likely going to be refreshed shortly. I've been very satisfied with the device, but I can't recommend something that's getting toward the end of its product cycle.

I bought it for the large, hi-res screen, which is very, very nice. This (and the speed of the device) was the primary consideration, for me. It is at least as good as the iPads, which, IMO, are still playing catch up in this area. The pixel density is still a bit higher (~260 for the current iPad air, 300 for the N10). I would look for at least a 250 ppi+ screen. In practice, however, I think most mid- to high-end 3rd or 4th generation devices are all sufficiently good that screen quality isn't going to be a huge issue.

I would recommend looking at the larger 10" tablets. I find the 7" ones too small for a full journal page.

A little surprisingly to me, I don't find the lack of a built-in SD reader that bothersome. Dropbox + wifi is actually more convenient. In any case, you can buy a usb reader for a few bucks, if you need one. You can also mount an external hard drive on any Android device without issues.

I'm not sold on a stylus, but I can see how some might like them. My wife has one on her Note 2, but she doesn't use it a lot.

I use ezPDF as my reader on Android, which is a bit old school, but gets the job done for me. I organize my papers by hand anyway.
posted by bonehead at 7:58 AM on January 21, 2014

I have a Nexus 7, which I love, but would warn you that I have never found a sylus that works well with it. You definitely want to check those out before making a decision.

Zotero and its addin zotfile make a very civilised way to handle PDFs on an android device.
posted by alloneword at 9:16 AM on January 21, 2014

Best answer: Hand down the answer is last year's Surface Pro with this year's clicky keyboard cover, not the old clicky one or the touch cover.

Total cost: $600 + $120 = awesome

Key features:

Full productivity software
Windows 8 is actually a good tablet OS
Pressure sensitive pen, not capacitive (1024 levels of pressure)
Great handwriting recognition
Can emulate Android if you really want to
Now with backlit keys!
Good for probably the next one or two versions of windows, at least

Lame things:

It's last year's version
Slightly heavy (still really light, though!)
You may realize you're not a good digital artist even if you have all the right tools, and grow despondent
posted by jsturgill at 9:56 AM on January 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was really happy with the original asus transformer (android) and keyboard dock.
The dock was also an extended battery and sd card dock.

Main drawback was how bulky it was.
The newer models (TF300 or TF700) are much thinner, but still have killer battery life.

Highly recommended.
posted by exparrot at 10:24 AM on January 21, 2014

Best answer: You have lots of decent options in this thread, and I don't have any specifics to add. I'll just address this one thing:

I like having options and I hate running into arbitrary limitations on what I can do with my device. On the other hand, tinkering is not a huge part of my day-to-day computer use, so maybe I overestimate how much I would miss it?

As a hardcore Linux nerd once upon a time, this was my exact worry about switching to OS X a decade ago (gah, really? a decade??). I found that I valued the saved time and reduced headaches more than the loss of freedom, and as time went on, that became more and more of a valuable trade-off. Not having to worry about ALSA Sound or my wireless card driver for every point update to the kernel (Debian, of course - this was before Gentoo) trumped my concerns about non-Free Software. It helped that all my professional software was still hand-compiled with gcc on my laptop - but these days, I get a sinking feeling every time I have to update packages on my Linux workstation (CentOS, now) and I would not trade in my shiny MacBook Air for the world (or until OS XI moves to iOS, or something equally egregious).

For my phones and tablets, not only do I want it to work, I want it to work smoothly and seamlessly and delightfully, with zero friction. I pick up my phone to sneak in a minute of activity at a time, and I never want to encounter a rough edge that breaks the flow. I don't really miss tinkering with my operating system, I've never jailbroken iOS, and while I'm very happy that Android exists and I'm cheering it on (competition is the only thing keeping Apple honest, and having a viable fallback option is important), based on my small tastes so far, I have no interest in switching to it [*].

So what I'm saying, I guess, is that you should think about whether you will value your tablet primarily as a development / hobbyist platform, or as a tool to get other stuff done, and how that value to you will evolve over time.

There's no wrong answer, just different trade-offs.

[*] As a total aside, I'm creeped out a bit more every day by the all-seeing Eye, but that's a different digression.
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:27 AM on January 21, 2014

Best answer: I like my Galaxy Note 8, the SPen really is pretty awesome. I have a 5 year old Lenovo PC that you could write on, but it's much heavier and nobody else knows how to use it (this is suprisingly annoying).

For references, I used to use Mendeley but it doens't have a good Android app (they're all 3rd party and their interface doesn't allow third party apps to e.g. sync annotations). I'm in the process of switching to JabRef which interfaces well with the bibtex I use for writing papers, but I haven't found a favorite android app for it yet.

So right now I'm using drobox and ezPDF for annotating and reading on the tablet. It's smooth, fast, and just right for me. I like the 8" size for portability; I have a big screen at home and at work, and travel with a laptop for actually typing papers. The tablet comes with me to meetings and talks so I don't constantly run back to my office to get a copy of that one paper I need right now. I don't use it for *writing* though, just for annotating papers and maybe looking up things while I am writing on another machine.

I have had no issues displaying any equation I've needed (I'm a physicist who also has to read math papers, and is currently learning some Danish; all of those render just fine for me).
posted by nat at 1:59 PM on January 21, 2014

Response by poster: I got a chance to go to a big-box office store today and try out a few tablets--unfortunately their wifi was spotty, so I didn't get to check pdf rendering on all of the different options. They didn't have the Galaxy Note 10.1, but I did try out the stylus on the Note 8, which further convinced me that I want something with good stylus support. I'm also pretty sold on the necessity of high pixel density. I didn't much like the interface on the Windows 8 tablets, but that's probably just unfamiliarity talking.

KevCed, I've read a few reviews that say the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 can be kind of laggy, especially for something that's supposed to be pretty high-end. Do you know if your fiancee has had any trouble with that?

RedOrGreen, I appreciate the perspective from someone who's had the same concerns about iOS. Maybe I should borrow someone's iPad and use it for a while just to see how it goes.

As far as non-iPads, sounds like I'm down to the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 or the Microsoft Surface, with the Galaxy Note having the edge on resolution, pen integration into the OS, and weight, while the Surface has more raw power.
posted by fermion at 6:31 PM on January 21, 2014

Fermion, I asked her and she hasn't had any kind of lag. She uses it for PDF markup for business school, so it's a comparable use case. The wi-fi seems faster on her tablet than mine too. Sorry for the delayed response.
posted by KevCed at 8:03 PM on February 26, 2014

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