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    Tested In-Depth: Dell Venue 8 7000 Android Tablet

    Dell's new tablet isn't just one of the best-designed tablets we've used, it's our new favorite Android tablet. We discuss how the thin bezel and high-resolution OLED display affects content consumption, the differences between ARM and x86 on Android, and expected battery life for today's tablets.

    In Brief: Tactus’ Shapeshifting Keys for Your Tablet

    Touchscreen keyboards on our smartphones and tablets are totally serviceable, but there are still people who prefer the tactile response of physical keys. For example, if you have long nails, it's still easier to type on a Blackberry than it is on a small touchscreen. One technology that may give users the best of both worlds is transforming screens, which spring pronounced keys on command for typing, but can lay flush when not in use. Tactus Technology has the first consumer product using this kind of technology, in an iPad mini case called Phorm. As Wired explains, Phorm's pop-up keys are like small bubbles embedded in a thin transparent panel (akin to a screen protector). Switching it on pumps microfluids into those bubbles, propping them up for tactile typing. The whole process is hydraulic--it doesn't require batteries because the switch to activate these buttons is basically a pump on the back of the iPad case. And while Tactus' products will initially be tablet and smartphone cases, they're also experimenting with making their own tablets with integrated transforming screens for more than just key typing.

    Norman
    Testing: Dell Venue 8 7000 Tablet

    Last week, I wrote about some of the products that we missed seeing at CES, but would get hands-on time with to test soon. One of them was Dell's new Venue 8 7000 tablet (terrible name, agreed), which attracted a lot of attention for its thin-bezel design and use of Intel's latest Atom processor to run Android. This tablet was actually released alongside CES, and I received mine late last week. While I'll be using and testing it for several more weeks before we shoot a video review, I wanted to share some initial thoughts, as well as get some feedback from you guys who also use Android tablets.

    So first, the design of this tablet. Ever since the very first iPhone was released in 2007, users and device designers have been trying to figure out what to make about the bezel around a touchscreen. It's generally considered that the narrower the bezel around a screen the better, though the absence of a sizeable bezel changes the way you can hold a phone or tablet. Case in point, the slimmer bezels on the iPad Mini change the practical ways to comfortably orient and grip that tablet as compared to the full-sized iPad. With the Venue 8 7000, Dell's designers have decided that an 8-inch tablet can work best without much bezel on three of its sizes, and an extended "chin" to pack hardware at the bottom. It's a striking design for sure.

    Compared to the iPad Mini, the Venue 8 7000 looks futuristic. The 8.4-inch 2560x1600 screen has a 16:10 aspect ratio, so it's actually less wide than the Mini's. Even including its left and right bezel, Dell's tablet almost fits within the confines of the Mini's screen. The "forehead" bezel of the Venue is the same width as the sides', and the uniformity of bezel space around the top of the tablet is very visually pleasing. While reading a Kindle book, flipping through photos, and browsing webpages, I felt a little more connected to the content on the Venue than on the iPad--the tablet feels more like a window for digital content than any other smartphone or tablet I've previously used. It's a peculiar distinction, but that's the psychological power of thin bezels.

    Ergonomically, the Venue 8 7000 is comfortable to use, too. I was afraid that the thick "chin" at the bottom would limit how I could hold this tablet--and it does, in that it's best used in portrait orientation with the fat bezel at the bottom. But its size and weight made holding the tablet with one hand or gripping with two at the bottom very usable. At 6mm thick and .66 pounds, it's very comparable to the iPad Mini--the slight thickness advantage isn't all that noticeable. The only complaint I have so far is that gripping the bottom of the tablet, as when for thumb typing, can obscure part of the speakers--which aren't great to begin with. The headphone jack is on the bottom left, which is what I used for most of my time with the tablet so far.

    12 Days of Tested Christmas: Anker 5-Port USB Charger

    For the fifth day of Tested Christmas, Will shares his solution for charging all his mobile devices at his desk and nightstand. Instead of using multiple wall warts and chargers, he uses a single 5-port USB charger that can power phones tablets, and other USB devices at their fastest charging speeds.

    Testing: Google Nexus 9 Android Tablet

    Google's Nexus 9 is a big departure from past Android tablets in several ways, not least of which that it has a 4:3 aspect ratio. It's also a 64-bit tablet with a more premium price point. There's no followup to the 2013 Nexus 7 with its low price. A lot of the early reviews were mixed, but does the N9 seem better after a few updates? I've been living with the Nexus 9 as my main tablet for the last few weeks, so let's figure it out.

    Design and Build Quality

    You've probably heard it said many times that the Nexus 9 bears a striking resemblance to a scaled up Nexus 5. Well, that's definitely true. The back is made of the same soft touch plastic as Google's 2013 flagship phone. The rim around the edge is made of aluminum, though. It seems like there's some variation in how that plastic back sits. Some units have a little bit off give as the plastic pops out from the frame in the middle. This isn't an issue in my unit, and I suspect it won't happen on newly manufactured tablets. Even in the worst cases, it doesn't seem like a structural issue, just annoying.

    The buttons are positioned on the right side (in portrait mode) and they aren't awesome. I'm not sure why so many OEMs have trouble getting buttons right, but it happens all the time. The N9's buttons are mushy and have low travel. On some units, they are almost flush with the side of the tablet. Mine isn't that bad, all things considered. It could be better, though. It's sounding like newer tablets aren't suffering from this particular defect.

    The question you have to ask is, does the Nexus 9 feel premium? The unsatisfying answer is "kind of." The device itself is solid and doesn't flex. It feels dense, but not too heavy. The buttons are definitely a sticking point and the back will be divisive. I really like soft touch surfaces, myself. I'll take a soft touch plastic device over metal any day--they're just easier to hold. It does get fingerprint-y, but that's the price you pay.

    Google says the nexus 9 is 7.95mm thick, but I feel like that might be a tiny bit generous. It's still definitely under 10mm and it seems better balanced than most tablets. Overall, the Nexus 9 doesn't quite feel like a $399 tablet. That's not to say it feels lousy, or anything.

    Tested In-Depth: Apple iPad Air 2

    Apple has two new iPads out this year, but only one of them is a significant update to the last generation. Surprisingly, it's the iPad Air 2, which improves on last year's model in both size, weight, and performance. We sit down to discuss in-depth the differences between the current slate of iPads, and show you where GPU improvements are most noticeable.

    Tested In-Depth: Amazon Kindle Voyage

    How much more improvement do current ebook readers need? We sit down to show off all the new features in Amazon's latest Kindle, the $200 Voyage, and compare it with the Paperwhite model. We discuss whether the high-DPI screen makes a difference for reading books, and if exisiting Kindle owners should upgrade.

    In Brief: iPad Air 2 Has Tri-Core CPU, 2GB of RAM

    The first reviews of Apple's new iPad Air 2 and iPad Mini 3 went online yesterday, and they're looking mostly positive. The consensus on the Mini seems to be that it's not worth the $100 premium over the now-$400 Mini 2, just for TouchID and the gold color option. But the improvements made to the iPad Air line is pretty significant. iPad Air 2 is Apple's first tablet with a tri-core SoC, the A8X. It's not just a clock speed bump over the iPhone 6's A8, and synthetic benchmarks peg performance far above the latest iPhones in both single-core and multi-core usage. iPad Air 2 is also Apple's first iOS device with 2GB of RAM. According to some reviewers, it's as fast an old MacBook Air (at least for web browsing). Those devices aren't really comparable, since their core users buy them for very different reasons and usage scenarios. While I'm not excited for the new Mini, nor am in the market for a new full-size iPad, I think it looks promising as an upgrade for my parents' 3rd-generation iPad (the heavy one that got the Retina display). They can't stand the small screen of the Mini, and will appreciate the sub-1 pound weight of the new Air 2. But the best thing for them is that they will be able to get 128GB of storage at the previous 64GB price--essential for photos. They're the kind of people who use their iPads as their sole computers, and never delete or move photos off of them. My guess is that there are a lot of iPad users who fall into that category too.

    Norman
    Amazon Announces Kindle Voyage, Updates to Kindle Family

    Well these new Kindles arrived much sooner than expected. Fresh on the heels of the Kindle Voyage leaks on Amazon Germany and Japan--which indicated a Nov 4th release date--Amazon has announced the new generation of Kindle e-book readers. A whole lot of them. On the e-ink side, there's a new entry-level touch model that starts at $80 (with no paperwhite, but a new processor), an updated Paperwhite with double the storage starting at $120, and of course the leaked Kindle Voyage, which starts at $200.

    Voyage has a Paperwhite lit screen, with a high-resolution 300ppi display that's flush to the bezel. Early hands-on reports indicate that text does indeed look much sharper on the Voyage than the 212ppi Kindles. Of course, resolution is only part of the story--readability has a lot to do with typography chose and font rendering techniques. Voyage's front-lighting is also now adaptive based on ambient light (as well as being 40% brighter), and the reader comes with a free 3G connection for downloading books.

    On the Kindle Fire Android-based tablet side, Amazon has again lowered the floor for pricing with a $100 6-inch model, a $140 7-inch model, and kid-friendly models starting at $150. A new high-end HDX model starts at $380, but has a 2560x1600 8.9-inch display that's lighter than the iPad Air and adaptive backlighting to better simulate the effect of reading on paper. These Kindle Fires run a new version of Fire OS, dubbed Sangria, based on Android KitKat.

    We've pre-ordered the new Kindle Voyage and Paperwhite models and will be testing and reviewing them when they arrive in late October.

    In Brief: Amazon May Launch New Kindles on Nov 4th

    For the past six years, Amazon has followed a pretty regular annual schedule of updating its popular Kindle e-book reader. The past few updates, including two generations of Paperwhite, have brought relatively minor improvements--faster processors for page turning, higher contrast in its e-ink display, and lighter formfactors. We've been waiting for a big leap in Kindle, and that may not come this year. The Verge is reporting that Amazon has accidentally listed this year's Kindle refresh on its German site. Dubbed the Kindle Voyage, it would still be a 6-inch black and white e-ink reader, but with a higher resolution display reaching 300 ppi (up from 212 ppi). A leaked page on Amazon Japan shows the new reader's dimensions and weight to be smaller and lighter than the Paperwhite 2 as well. Still no color display.

    Norman
    Testing: Surface Pro 3 and Shield Tablet's Styli

    Two things struck me while testing the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and Nvidia's Shield Tablet, devices I ended up really liking. Both are ostensibly tablets, but the way I used each of them differed from how I used my iPad Mini. First, I rarely used held either of them like a notepad, with one or two hands gripping the sides. Most of the time, I had the Surface propped up in its "canvas" position using its kickstand on a flat surface, and kept the Shield Tablet propped up on a small makeshift kickstand as well. They were tabletop computers, not handheld ones. Second, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed using the stylus on each of these devices, and not necessarily as writing instruments. For both the Surface and the Shield Tablet, the stylus actually became a second navigational tool, used to swipe through the home screen and browse the web. These use cases became as intuitive as touch pointing and gestures--still the primary physical for iPads. And it made me think about how much Apple is limiting the potential of its iPads by staunchly sticking to touch.

    Let's start with the Surface Pro 3, which has an active stylus. As I said in our video, my limited digital drawing abilities don't allow me to discern the difference between the Wacom-based digitizer used in the last Surface Pro and the N-Trig one used here. What matters to me isn't degrees of pressure sensitivity, it's accuracy and latency. And the Surface Pro 3's stylus was completely sufficient for note-taking in OneNote--my chicken scratch handwriting looked on-screen like they would have on paper. The ability to manipulate those scribbles as vectors and use the stylus to crop/copy/paste images with annotations made those notes more useful than the ones in my paper notebook after having made my jots.

    But my favorite way to use the Surface Pro 3's stylus was actually as an extension of my fingers on the touchscreen. On the Windows desktop, the stylus became a proxy for my mouse cursor. Even with Windows' improved touch tracking for tapping small buttons, the one thing that touch can't facilitate is a cursor hover. With the active stylus, I could hover the tip over the screen and see where the cursor is before making a pinpointed tap. Even when I had I mouse connected to the Surface, I would use the Stylus in combination with my fingers to browse the web--tapping Chrome's UI and scrolling with the pen and easily still pinching to zoom on pages with my fingers. That complementary use of fingers and stylus felt completely natural. Much like how I've found touchscreens to be a delightful complement to the primary keyboard and mouse interface on a laptop, I've found the stylus to be an intuitive complementary input method to finger touch on tablets. You can have the cake and eat it too.

    The only thing I wish is that Microsoft could have found a better way to store the stylus to the Surface Pro 3. In past versions of the Surface Pro, the stylus stuck magnetically to the side of the device, attached to its charging port, actually. It wasn't particularly secure, and meant that you had to remove the stylus to charge the Surface. On the Surface Pro 3, the stylus has no docking port--only a sleeve on the type keyboard accessory to slip into. I realize that given the thickness of the stylus and the densely packed design of the tablet's guts, there's no space for a recessed stylus dock. It's the problem that Steve Jobs bemoaned when mandating a touch-only interface on the iPad, but not an impossible task. Lenovo's ThinkPad 2, for example, is a hybrid device with a built-in stylus dock.

    Tested In-Depth: Nvidia Shield Tablet and Wireless Controller

    Nvidia's first Shield device was a good showcase of the Tegra 4 processor, but was limited as a dedicated gaming device. We test the new Shield Tablet and wireless controller, and show off its gaming and productivity features. We also evaluate the stylus, Nvidia's new Grid Beta, and Shield's built-in Twitch streaming capabilities. This ends up being one of our favorite Android tablets, with few compromises for all of its features.

    Tested In-Depth: Microsoft Surface Pro 3

    Will and Norm sit down to discuss the new Microsoft Surface Pro 3. We compare it to previous Surface Pro devices and how it fares as both a laptop and tablet alternative. The one thing we like the most about it: note-taking with the pen digitizer is a lovely experience.

    Hands-On with Nvidia's Shield Tablet

    Nvidia's first Shield was a dedicated gaming handheld, but its new model is a high-end tablet with gaming accessories. We spend a little time with Nvidia's new Android gaming tablet, compare it to the original Shield portable, and give our thoughts on this device's appeal to PC and mobile gamers.

    Tested In-Depth: Adobe Ink and Slide Review

    Has anyone ever used a good stylus for the iPad? We sit down to discuss the fundamental problems with writing with a stylus on the iPad, and what tricks hardware companies use to make writing and drawing on the tablet feel as natural as possible. Plus, we test Adobe's new Ink and Slide hardware tools, as well as their new drawing apps.

    Why Are Apple's USB Chargers Are So Expensive?

    You probably don't think too much about power bricks, but you probably should. After digging deep into a wide variety of power bricks, Ken Shirriff wanted to see why Apple's 10W iPad charger costs $20 when there are counterfeits that are widely available for around $3. The result is worth reading, but Ken's evidence indicates that not only will the official brick charge your devices faster, the counterfeit he opened up is downright dangerous. (Thanks to @SolrFlare for the tip.)

    Will 10
    In Brief: Analyzing the Pixel Density Race

    Really love this piece of technical analysis by Anandtech's Joshua Ho regarding the technical merits of increasing pixel density on phone and tablet screens. Joshua dives deep not only on intrinsic manufacturing and energy costs of building increasingly high-resolution displays for phones (Samsung's next Galaxy smartphone is rumored to have a 5-inch 2560x1440 screen), but also the limits of human perception--which aren't as clearcut as they seem. Several things jumped out at me from reading the piece. First, that PPI as a standard for screen quality is relatively useless, as pixels per degree (PPD) and sub-pixels per inch (SPPI) are arguably better metrics that take into account qualitative use cases and screen manufacturing technologies. Second, that there is an important difference between the technical limitation of human eye acuity and a person's perceptual capabilities, because the brain does some interpolation in its processing of photons. And third, that this may be the beginning of a shift away from PPI (a concept Apple bought into the mainstream) as a talking point for consumers. It's really interesting to follow along as users (and reviewers) get more informed about the minute technical aspects of new devices, and to see the salient marketing points that manufacturers push to the public shift along with it. We've seen that in smartphone displays (a shift from screen size to pixel dimensions to pixel density) as well as consumer cameras (shifting from megapixels to sensor size to lens ecosystem). As users become more tech savvy, the marketers have to find new ways to spin their tech talk and try and pull wool over our eyes.

    Norman 1
    CES 2014 Impressions: Samsung's Pro Tablets

    This was bound to happen. With the very aggressive pricing on great Android tablets like the Nexus 7, manufacturers are looking for ways to sell tablets to consumers without sacrificing their profit margins. Apple has been able to use the strength of the iOS ecosystem and Apple fanbase to keep its full-size iPad line at above $500, but even they've admitted that they had to lower their typical margins for the iPad Mini--which still is $170 more expensive than the Nexus 7. On the Android side, Samsung needs to differentiate its Galaxy Tabs and Note tablets from the Nexus 7 and 10 (which they make), and they're doing it this year by introducing a Pro line. Bigger screen, high-resolution, and made with the latest tablet hardware. And even though pricing hasn't been announced, I'm willing to bet that it'll be on the high-end as well. It's what many people had speculated Apple would do with its iPad line, and I bet that's coming later this year.

    Of the Pro tablets in Samsung's lineup, the 12.2-inch Galaxy TabPro and Galaxy NotePro stand out. They're essentially the same models, but the NotePro includes Samsung's digitizer stylus--another premium product differentiator. 12.2-inches is massive, even with a 16:10 aspect ratio (2560x1600 resolution across the board). My initial impression was that this was finally a tablet that accurately display digital books and comic books at 1:1 scale, and could work as a large canvas for artists using the S-Pen. But when picking it up at Samsung's booth, all I could think about was how heavy it was. The 12.2-inch models weigh 750 grams, more than that of the original 2010 iPad (even with 3G!). After using the 2013 Nexus 7 and iPad Mini with Retina, my definition of premium prioritizes weight over screen size.

    The other thing that didn't feel right during my short time with the Galaxy NotePro was Samsung's new Android home screen replacement, called Magazine UX. The panes were packed with high-density information and live widgets, but was surprisingly sluggish for Android 4.4 running on a 2.3GHz quad-core SoC. I'm not talking about the original Galaxy Tab levels of sluggishness, but it definitely was less responsive and stuttered more than the smooth home screens of the Nexus 7 and 10. Running four apps in segmented panes noticeably affected responsiveness, and popping a Chrome "window" out onto the home screen made things worse. I'm just not sure Android and current ARM processors are meant to display so many apps at once.

    The smaller Galaxy TabPro 8.4 was much easier to hold and use with one hand, and its 2560x1600 screen looked fantastic. Other than the size of its screen, it's exactly the same as the 12.2-inch model--responsiveness on its Magazine UX home screen wasn't any better. And keeping with the premium spirit, all of Samsung's Pro tablets have faux leather backs. That's not suede, mind you--it's plastic formed to feel like leather, with fake stitching and all. And if pricing ends up being much higher than the Nexus series and other aggressively-priced competitors, Samsung's going to have to do a lot more to impress on the idea that its premium tablets are worth it.