Google’s Nexus 7: A Viable Tablet For IBM i Users
September 10, 2012 Nick Hampson
The mobile revolution is starting to have real impact within the IBM i community. In addition to smartphones gaining access to core applications, we are starting to see tablets being utilized to benefit users by freeing them from their desks. Apple‘s iPad has been the poster-child for tablet computing, but is getting some competition. In particular, the Nexus 7 is considered a serious contender.
The Nexus 7 is Google‘s first venture into the tablet space, and it serves the dual purpose of benchmarking the design for the Android operating system, a variant of Linux controlled by Google that is intended for mobile devices such as smartphones and slabs. Google also wants to create a new standard in cost versus quality. The Nexus 7 is not the first 7-inch Android tablet, however its predecessors have either been as expensive as a 10-inch tablet or lacking in quality and power. The Nexus 7 boasts the processing power, screen quality, and optimized OS expected of any quality tablet, but at just $200, it is priced significantly below the alternatives. This combination of quality and affordability should ensure that it is considered as a genuine tablet alternative for many businesses.
In Everyday Use
The Nexus 7 is designed to be used in portrait mode, essentially like a big smartphone, and the home screen does not dynamically orient itself when you hold it in landscape orientation. You’ll also need to dig into the settings to get any of the apps to work in landscape mode, the main reason being that with a 16×10 screen, toolbars and soft navigation bars take up much more real estate in landscape than in portrait. Navigation and interaction is both slick and simple thanks to Google’s latest flavor of Android 4.1, Jelly Bean, along with the quad-core Tegra 3 CPU. For anyone who has not used Jelly Bean, it is much cleaner and more intuitive than some of the older Android versions, while as a “pure Google” device, the Nexus 7 remains free from those annoying manufacturer skins and bloat-ware. Another feature of Android 4.1 is the introduction of “Project Butter” to improve UI responsiveness.
As mentioned previously, the device uses a quad-core ARM processor, one designed by Nvidia and fabricated by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. Most apps in normal use will be snappy, but you will notice a slight deterioration of performance with multimedia. This should not present a significant issue for business users.
The 7-inch form factor is ideal to hold in one hand much as you would a large smartphone, and it will also fit without issue into most jacket pockets–although unlike a smartphone you will certainly know it’s there. The screen sits behind Corning Gorilla Glass, and is easily robust enough for the most leaden-fingered business user. The display itself is a 1280×800 IPS format, and while the resolution will not enable you to see significantly more data, the text and visuals will be crisp and the viewing angles are very good. This allows two people to see the detail of the display clearly; something I consider critical for a business device. The color quality and contrast suffer in comparison with Apple devices, which may be enough to rule out the Nexus 7 for the more artistically minded, but for business application use it is more than adequate.
The device is not as thin as some 7-inch alternatives. However, it does have a large battery (4325mAh) that will give you nine to 10 hours of use on a single charge, and is fairly light at 340 grams or 12 ounces. It has a 1.2 megapixel user-facing camera, which will allow video-conferencing and Skype, whilst the lack of rear-facing camera should not prove problematic for business users. It is, however a WiFi only device with no 3G, so it’s not going to be a road warrior or laptop replacement. It does have GPS, so it can be used with location-aware applications and mapping (within WiFi range). NFC is also a useful addition, and unlike QR and barcodes, there’s no requirement to launch the app in order to get the data from the NFC tag or device. Rounding off the major hardware features is Bluetooth, which will help with headphone use of VOIP apps in noisy environments.
In Business Use
Where several small tablets have previously managed to meet the $200 price point, they have typically been sub-standard by today’s expectations: cheap displays that can only be seen when viewed head on, meager processing power, low memory, poor battery life, and almost always running Android 2.3 (which was not built or optimized for tablet use). The Nexus 7 addresses all these issues and is finally a good quality tablet with enough power to be of practical use in business. Running your IBM i and other business applications on this device for staff in the workplace environment or any mobile scenario with Wi-Fi access is ideal.
Whether running corporate mail, intranet web apps, or native apps, the Nexus 7 gives staff a mobile solution that is unmatched at this quality/price point. It is only a matter of weeks before there will be rugged cases available to enclose the device to withstand the rigors of the workplace environment or out in the field.
While the lack of a rear-facing camera will stop some from using it to scan barcodes, it should be noted that while scanning barcodes with a camera is a neat trick, it’s not something you should consider as a primary business use. Experience has shown this to be slow and frustrating in the real world where lighting and angles cause issues. When barcodes need to be scanned as part of the primary role, either dedicated devices or a jacket such as the excellent Linea Pro 4 are the recommended methods to consider.
Where this device is ideal is enabling core IBM i applications into the hands of users who can benefit from mobile access. For example, viewing, entering, and updating info in stores, checking stock levels, and ordering with the customer in a retail environment. There will be many great business cases that support better customer experience, reducing lost sales where you would have to go to a terminal or phone up the warehouse. Those are specific situations, for your business it is not difficult to find instances where staff and/or customers could be better supported. The technology to get your IBM i apps onto these devices has been around for many years, the main thing holding companies back is understanding what can be achieved and just how valuable this can be for a fairly small cost.
Nexus 7 Versus The Rest
While the quality and price point put the Nexus 7 in a unique position at this point in time, it’s not the only choice and will not be ideal for every company or situation.
A note about size; devices are measured diagonally across the screen and the aspect ratio of the screen also counts here. Android devices tend to go for 16:9 or 16:10, whereas the iPad sports a 4:3 ratio form factor. This is where the numbers can confuse. One would think that Apple’s 9.7-inch iPad versus Google’s Nexus 7-inch is only 2.7 inches bigger. The iPad is actually almost exactly twice as large in display area as the Nexus 7. See the screenshot and diagram to compare the actual devices. When you add the soft key area on Android that is not required on an iPad, the difference in usable area is even larger.
Just to give you an idea of how the Nexus 7 stacks up, here are some key form factor stats relative to other devices:
Smaller Device Considerations
A smaller device will obviously be easier to carry as it will fit easily into a pocket, which may suit some end-users when compared with Android smartphones/iPhone/iPod touch devices. These devices generally range from about 3.5 to 4.6 inches, which is great for viewing of information and simple editing/entry, but less than ideal due to their size if a lot of data has to be entered or laptop replacement is being considered. The Nexus 7 fills this gap nicely.
Larger Device Considerations
Full-sized tablets like the iPad or Galaxy Tab 10.1 or similar give much larger screen and for many users can even be a complete replacement of a laptop, since these specific devices offer 3G/4G cellular support built-in, which is useful in the field where Wi-Fi access is not available. Many companies have rolled out full-sized tablets to staff to replace laptops and give access/remote to their IBM i systems at the same time. These devices are generally more powerful and can serve to enter as well as view data. Almost all devices can use a keyboard for extended data entry if required making them idea to replace both laptops and terminals while still be able to be portable using the onscreen keyboard.
The Operating System
So far I have focused on the device size and form-factor as major considerations. However, operating system choice is another major factor. I just heard an argument a few weeks ago for why a company would only buy Android devices. As technicians we understand and like or dislike technology but purchase choices must also be a business decision. Bias, hearsay, and fan-boy rhetoric must be removed. In many cases we see a dislike for Apple devices not based on features, value, or capabilities but feelings and other ethereal motives. If you can make a decision, make it based on the needs of your users, the capabilities and performance of the devices the apps you need, compatibility, integration, and your ability to control this environment. Your users will thank you. With real world use, we have found even simple items such as reliable VPN access can make all the difference. Many OSes have built-in VPN support but the reliability is key when used in real-world scenarios.
I recommend taking an hour to talk to people who have the devices, use them every day, and are in a position to offer a considered opinion based on their experience. Also, talk with the retailer or manufacturer of the devices about features and capabilities. Android is open, free, not locked to a specific device, and tweakable in any way you can dream of. It is also fragmented and it is not easy or often possible to keep devices up to date, as well as not easy to control from an IT management point of view. The Android App store is open to abuse and most apps are not yet really optimized for tablets. Much of the issue for Android developers is the huge amount of differing sizes of devices and specifications over multiple OS releases, which makes it challenging to keep up to date and support every device.
Apple is closed, locked to specific devices, with finicky app store approval practices, and limited device choices. It’s also safe, easily deployed and managed by IT, secure, provides the best app integration and the most intuitive and consistent user experience with a huge variety of apps truly optimized for tablet use.
Microsoft, as of the writing of this article, is behind, but early release previews of Windows 8 and the Surface tablet show a very bright future. It’s slick, very fast to use and is likely to come with a very strong suite of apps built in, along with the world’s largest developer community. Some of the architecture features allowing development of apps using HTML5 technologies should see very quick expansion of its own app store along with strong deployment and management technologies leveraging already proven windows desktop technologies. The fact it can run a full Windows desktop may also be valuable to many (on Intel processors, not the ARM variant).
The possibilities for your business include what mobile devices can do for your bottom line and to assist your staff or operations. The Nexus 7 is not a new class of device, but its combination of quality and price provide some new areas where mobile could be affordable and useful to businesses.
Nick Hampson has been involved in the IBM i community for 15 years, having worked with a large UK-based RPG software supplier prior to joining looksoftware in 2001. His key skills are in the user experience, user interface, interaction, and design areas. Nick has a passion for showing people just what their IBM i applications can be. He presents worldwide on modernization and UX for looksoftware, and also manages the product evaluation and interface design functions in EMEA and the U.S.