Best tablet (or something else?) for academia, 2014 edition
September 3, 2014 8:53 AM   Subscribe

You're given a $1000 technology grant for grad school. It must be spent on technology. You don't need a laptop. You're thinking a tablet, but what kind and what else? Now what? Mefites, what's your dream setup for annotating pdfs, note taking, and general productivity?

This would be used primarily for taking notes and extensive pdf annotation. Don't care about games, videos, etc. When reading papers I have to take notes on the paper itself, so I want something that reproduces the experience.

I like a bigger screen (10" or bigger). I like battery life. I absolutely want capability for external storage. I'm looking at the Galaxy Note 10.1, solely because that's what I know about and I understand iPads aren't great for fine annotations. But unless I get a Surface, even the fanciest tablet will leave me with money left over. So what else? (What about a Surface? Is a Surface a good idea?) Maybe a nice stylus? But which one?

As said, I have a good laptop so that's not needed. I need to spend this all at once. I have a new 2TB external hard drive so I don't need that either. My smartphone is a $30 model from Wal-Mart, but I've never owned one before so right now it seems OK to me. But I guess that's something else I could buy?

(I know there are other questions, but new models have come out so I was hoping for fresh perspective)
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (24 answers total)
Personally I like working with a big second monitor. They've gotten pretty cheap: a decent 20"+ 1080p display is probably $150 or so. It helps me tremendously with productivity.
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:04 AM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you can slam in some of your own money the Surface Pros are nice. I think the top-of-the-line ones are going for around $1,200 with warranty and academic pricing.

This would be a nice rival for your laptop and you might find you prefer it in most situations. Make sure you get the "type" keyboard and not the "touch."
posted by cjorgensen at 9:16 AM on September 3, 2014

I have never used this, but as far as neat technology things that relate to notetaking: there's a pen that records audio and also (through the use of special paper and other technology magic) links what you were writing to the audio that was recorded at the moment you were writing a particular word, so you can go back and listen to what was being said. It's called a Smartpen. (Apparently there are others, too, but I guess they don't all record audio.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:17 AM on September 3, 2014

In my last years of college I lived off the Surface Pro 1. After class I plugged it into a USB keyboard/mouse setup in my dorm room. I wasn't expecting it to be my primary computer, but about a month in my laptop started collecting dust. The battery life was pretty bad, but with proper planning it always lasted through back to back classes. Many lecture halls even have outlets for in-class charging, but I didn't really need it. The Surface Pro also has the advantage of running pretty much every application you might need for school, like desktop Kindle for textbooks or Notepad++.

The Windows 8 built-in PDF reader is ok for annotating with the surface pen, but I always preferred Onenote for taking notes in class. It has very good writing-to-text recognition built in to the OS, which helps sloppy notes look neat. Swapping between applications is near instant once you turn off the Windows 8 animations, which is a must during fast paced lectures.

About two years later it's still my go to device, and I'm thinking of upgrading to the Surface 2 Pro, mostly because I'm a big fan of the 16:9 aspect ratio on the older models.
posted by LiteS at 9:21 AM on September 3, 2014

One thing which really helped me when I was a PhD student was a good printer with lots of ink. Being able to print out and write on stuff at home without having to go to work was so useful. I travelled a lot and being able to print boarding passes etc was also great. I don't have a printer now (I'm a postdoc) and I definitely miss it. I also bought a huge, good quality monitor and a new keyboard, both of which made writing papers at home much more pleasant. All these things helped my productivity a lot more than having a tablet or smart phone has done, particularly as I had a laptop to lug around the place anyway.

The other somewhat technology-ish thing I found really useful for burning stress and getting around cheaply was my bicycle. But you might have trouble spinning something like that as being suitable.
posted by shelleycat at 10:36 AM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

How about spending some of the money on a backup drive?
posted by Thorzdad at 10:39 AM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

External monitor, keyboard and mouse for your office. Your productivity will double. This can be done from $250 dollar easy. A docking station is you're spoiled and have money to burn.

I have an old b&w laser printer + scanner at home, this is a lifesaver. Mind you, mine is six year printer which I "inherited", toner is like $20 a pop for 1-2K pages.

Also, Android smartphones (Google Nexus, etc) are cheap and make travelling easier. You can download maps on the go, look stuff up online, don't need to print boarding passes or directions (printing when travelling is the worst).
posted by sockpuppetdirect at 10:45 AM on September 3, 2014

If you get a surface, don't get the pro 1 even though it's super cheap as a refurb with a fresh battery. The comments you'll see about the battery life are not exaggerated. You have to do all kinds of tweaks and set stuff to sleep quickly and keep the screen super dim to even get more than 5 hours out of it.

The 2 however, is awesome. I wouldn't get the 3 yet because I think it honestly isn't worth the retail price, but hunt down a clearance or refurb 2 if you want one of those.

Honestly though, id recommend an iPad unless you search around and absolutely cannot find the functionality you need. The quality of keyboard cases available specifically for them(Logitech, zagg, a couple other very nice ones) simply cannot be matched, and the battery life is pretty much second to none. I've gone on full week long trips where I was using CPU intensive apps in bright places with the backlight cranked and only charged mine once... And it's 3 years old. It's also light, while being very sturdy compared to a lot of the plastic-cases tablets like the samsungs.

I also can't in good conscience recommend an android tablet. There just still arent as many good apps, even for this kind of thing as there are on iOS. I haven't tried to do exactly this in a while, but I'd be in disbelief that there weren't something like 10 solid options to try out for doing what you want.

You'll also have money left over. Use that to buy either whatever new low cost iPhone comes out next Tuesday, or something like the revised moto X. I have a nice laptop, a decent tablet, and a decent smartphone. They all get plenty of use, even for work. Hell, I wrote this post on my phone.

If you have money left over, I'd get two other things. One is a nice big portable power bank. Like 10,000mah minimum. Preferably more. The other is to prepay a couple years of backblaze or a large Dropbox account to back up everything you're working on.
posted by emptythought at 11:10 AM on September 3, 2014

I am not sure what you mean by "fine annotations" but I know many academics who use their iPad over their desktop for annotating PDFs. PDF Expert is a great app.

Overall, I much prefer Apple devices. That being said, my college has one of the edge cases in which Surface Pros make sense. I have a Pro 1, 2, and 3 sitting within a few feet of me. I wouldn't recommend a gen 1 at all. I think the extra screen real-estate of the gen 3 would be nice if it were going to be one of my primary machines, but if the cost is prohibitive the gen 2 are an okay machine. If you have specific questions, please ask.

I wouldn't recommend any of the Android tablets. Even given my Apple preference some Android phones impress me. None of the tablets have.
posted by Silvertree at 12:11 PM on September 3, 2014

grad /school for what?

I mean, I'm really boring, but my dream setup for the things you describe is:

(1) Annotating pdfs: a printout I didn't pay money for, a pen, and a clipboard.
(2) Taking notes: a clipboard, pad, and pen.
(3) General productivity: a $1000 desktop, which will probably still be a decent desktop in four years. You have a good laptop. Will it still be good and smooth to use in four years? Will the battery not be fucked in four years? Will the power jack work in four years?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:17 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Surface Pro 3 is $150 off for students until today. That pays for the keyboard cover (which is itself 10% off). If I was still a student (and had the cash for it) I would get one in a heartbeat.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:25 PM on September 3, 2014

I would get an iPad and one of these incredible Airbender cases. (And I love this stylus.) Really, I have to say that for me, that is a very satisfying laptop substitute. And it is very easy to use the iPad in the Airbender as a tablet with one of the note-taking apps.
posted by bearwife at 12:58 PM on September 3, 2014

Response by poster: I'll be going in biochem/biophysics. I guess by "fine annotations" what I mean is I want to be able to take a lot of tiny little notes in the margins of PDFs in my chicken scratch. I read that on iPads you're reduced to the legibility of a two-year-old and there's some lag between what you're writing and the screen. So I guess I want something close to a "true" writing experience.

I don't have a home office and I won't have a long-term work office until I pick a lab next fall, so the separate monitor will have to wait (also there are free ones lying around all over the place here).
posted by Anonymous at 12:59 PM on September 3, 2014

No strong opinions on your question, but:

I read that on iPads you're reduced to the legibility of a two-year-old and there's some lag between what you're writing and the screen.

This is just flat-out incorrect, and if you think iPads have lag, you're going to be astonishingly disappointed by junky Android tablets that are not on 4.x+. I think you should try out a few options in store before buying something for a lot of money. My campus store has a long row of tablets on one side and four iPads on the other side, and the iPads are just miles better. Thanks to carrier subsidies and other interesting market dynamics, the smartphone competition is a lot closer than the tablet situation.

My smartphone is a $30 model from Wal-Mart, but I've never owned one before so right now it seems OK to me. But I guess that's something else I could buy?

If you're allowed to get a smartphone on your technology grant, a factory-unlocked 5.5-inch iPhone 6 will nicely eat your budget once it's available and then not cost you an arm and a leg in monthly fees on prepaid plans. It'll be announced in September but don't expect unlocked versions to ship for a month or two, I guess?
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:39 PM on September 3, 2014

Best answer: Surface Pro 3 - it's really remarkable and the perfect device for annotating pdfs (I really can't think of a better one. Heck if you click the stylus, the device comes on in seconds automatically set up to take OneNote notes.). And yeah, it does everything a laptop can do as well.

There should be a 100$ discount at the MS Store for educational customers. An i5 128GB and Type cover should be more than enough for your purposes. Final cost with tax and assuming you get the discount will be a bit over 1000, but only just a bit.

My only complaint is that the cameras are only good for video-conferencing (they're fixed focus). My SP3 would have been godly if I could only use it to scan documents and ocr them without a separate camera. As it is, it's simply great.
posted by longdaysjourney at 2:49 PM on September 3, 2014

Best answer: Review of the SP3 by a Comp Sci student

(I don't work for MS, I just really like my SP3 and I would have given my eye teeth to have had something like this available to me in college 20 years ago.)
posted by longdaysjourney at 3:00 PM on September 3, 2014

Don't forget software.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:52 PM on September 3, 2014

If you like taking paper notes, I will second the "smartpen" notion (the folks I know that have one have the Livescribe). Make sure to get the model that records audio. You'll be able to pretty much instantly export your written notes to PDF, and you can then flatten them into typed text if you want or leave them in your handwriting for drawings and such, and it'll match the recordings to your notes. Smartpens are pretty much literally changing the lives of students with disabilities that I know, and it's making grad school a ton easier for my best friend.
posted by joycehealy at 5:49 PM on September 3, 2014

Another Surface Pro 3 fan here -- I've had mine about a month now, and am really happy with it, though getting used to Windows 8.1 was a bit of a learning curve. In particular, I think the quality of the "inking experience" (oh god what a buzz phrase -- I just mean "what it's like using the stylus for writing stuff") is excellent--about the best I've tried, and I've been using tablets with styli for, god, ten years or so now.

The one thing that drives me batshit with the Surface is that there is no way to dock the stylus in the tablet; Microsoft supplies this utterly pathetic little fabric loop with an adhesive patch that supposedly sticks onto the side of the keyboard, which is ridiculous because (a) it will stay stuck to the keyboard for maybe 20 minutes tops before it falls off or gets knocked off, and (b) the time you want to have the stylus handy is when you're NOT using the keyboard and may not even have it handy.

So, you have to make sure you're always dragging the stylus along with you. And yeah, I wouldn't argue with anyone asserting that the Pro 3 is overpriced. But it's a really nice piece of tech, especially for the kinds of uses you describe.
posted by Kat Allison at 6:16 PM on September 3, 2014

I just bought a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 for grad school. It's the first week of grad school, so I don't have a whole lot of experience with it yet, but so far it is as good as I expected it to be. I can do almost everything with the s pen, and I love that about it. The handwriting recognition is truly excellent. Annotating papers is going to be a breeze. There are plenty of apps for anything I need so far.

Happy to answer specific questions by memail if you have any, but I've only had it for a couple of weeks.
posted by snorkmaiden at 6:46 PM on September 3, 2014

I am coveting the surface pro
That said, moleskin and livescribe have teamed up for digital recording of paper notes. Same with moleskin amd evernote.
posted by jander03 at 11:43 PM on September 3, 2014

If kicking in an additional $100 is possible, then if I were you, I'd definitely be looking at Sony Digital Paper.
posted by Zed at 10:09 AM on September 4, 2014

Do you have a time limit to buy these things? It sounds like you are just starting out and might not know what is available through your department or if you will need discipline-specific software.
posted by SandiBeech at 12:28 PM on September 4, 2014

Best answer: There isn't a time limit. From reading extensively on the Surface Pro 3 now I'm wondering if I shouldn't wait for a Surface Pro 4 with the anticipated Broadwell chip or whatever fancy doodaddy is going on. The sole benefit to sooner rather than later is it's less paper I have to print and presumably will make note-taking easier.

I'm leaning away from something like Digital Paper or the LiveScribe as it would be nice to be able to access email, search for papers, and do things like that on the device. Now that I'm faced with hauling my laptop back and forth I'm also considering the benefits of the tablet/laptop hybrid like the Surface Pro.

(Or perhaps I've delved too far into the tech-geek forums and it's making me lose perspective!)
posted by Anonymous at 9:14 AM on September 5, 2014

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