Blog

Tablet Wars Round 2: iPads vs Android Tablets

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

A recent post in this blog proclaimed that the iPad2 is a clear winner over the Kindle Fire in regards to their usefulness as e-readers in education because of the iPad’s ability to not only view media but also create it. I received some responses to that post clambering for a consideration of other Android-based tablet computers which more closely rival the iPad’s technical capabilities. This seems like a completely valid discussion to have, as the previous post looked primarily at the two devices as a comparison of rival e-readers. Looking at tablet computers is a different exercise, but one well-worth undertaking to determine which is the best fit for education.

Technical Specifications
The tablet market is expanding so rapidly that comparing the iPad2 to any one specific tablet is an injustice. A general comparison to devices running the Android operating system seems more prudent, so a specific examination of specs is largely irrelevant. However, here is a general look at some of the key components and which platform has the advantage in each:

  • Size: Even – Android tablets tend to be slightly smaller and lighter than the iPad, though some are larger and heavier.
  • Processor: Even – Though there is wide variability, in-general the processors in Android-based tablets and the iPad2 are comparable.
  • RAM: Undecided– This is one aspect in which the iPad seems to come up short, weighing in at only 512MB of Ram. A majority of Android tablets have 1GB of Ram. However, reports do indicate that this does not equate to a performance difference between the two devices.
  • Expandability: Even – Many, though not all, Android tablets have the capability to add more storage capacity through removable micro-SD cards. In answer to this, the new iOS5 from Apple includes free iCloud access with 5GB of free online storage.
  • Resolution: Even – Also extremely variable, the Galaxy Tab, for example, has a moderately higher resolution and better viewing angle than the iPad. It is, however, in the minority of devices which do (TopTenReviews.com).
  • Camera: Advantage Android – The iPad packs a surprisingly poor punch in regard to its two onboard cameras. The rear-facing one is a scant .7 megapixels, which contrasts sharply with the 3 megapixel or greater cameras included in many other tablets. Other tablets may also have an integrated flash, which the iPad lacks. Video resolution at 720p HD is standard across both platforms.
  • Touch screen capabilities: Advantage iPad2 – The iPad has a proven concept in its multitouch capabilities. Other tablets vary greatly, ranging from very good to extremely poor touch screens (All Touch Tablets.com).

Though a bit biased, this chart from the Android blog, Androinica.com examines the technical specifications of the iPad2 in comparison to several different Android tablets.

OS Features
One area in which a more consistent comparison is possible is in the operating systems of these two groups. For simplicity sake, I will consider the Android Honeycomb OS, which is the most prevalent on current Android tablets. One sign that the Honeycomb OS was pushing Apple was the recent release of the new iOS5 for the iPad, which incorporates 200 new features.
Here are features overview videos for both platforms:

Android Honeycomb

iOS5

  • Multitasking: Advantage Android – One area in which Android Honeycomb has a significant advantage is in its widgets-based browsing feature. The ability to truly use processing power in multiple applications sets the Android tablets apart from the iPod’s clunky multitasking feature, which does not truly use the processor for multiple tasks.
  • Notifications: Even – Initially, this was a significant advantage for the Android tablets, however, iOS5 has caught Apple up to Android and potentially even surpassed it.
  • Voice control: Advantage Android (for the moment) – Android has full voice control integration already in place. You can perform almost all functions in an Android device just by talking to it. Apple is behind in this area, though the recent unveiling of Siri for the latest iPhone may eventually level the playing field when it moves to the iPad.
  • Social media integration: Advantage iPad2 – The iOS5 release fully integrates Twitter and iMessage throughout the operating system. You can now tweet or send a message containing text, links, pictures, or video from anywhere within the iPad. There is currently no full integration for Android tablets. Any social media applications would need to be downloaded as 3rd part add-ons.
  • Connectivity: Even – Everyone hates iTunes, it’s slow, crashes a lot (at least in my experience) and is completely inflexible. Android does away with the need to use iTunes specifically, and the need to use any device management software in general. Simply connect your Android to your computer and drag and drop files between the two. In answer to this, Apple has included “wifi sync” with the latest update which eliminates the need to connect to a computer at all. If your device and computer are on the same network, they will automatically sync (using iTunes).
  • Customization vs. simplicity: Even – Android is more like Windows in that it allows you great flexibility in customizing the look, feel, and functionality of your device. Apple represents the Russian Gulag of technology. Complete lockdown and an inability to escape the rigid constraints imposed from above. I will examine this difference in more detail later in the post.
  • Usability vs. “unintuitiveness”: Advantage iPad2 – The entire family of iDevices are known for their elegance and extreme idiot-proof ease-of-use. One review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 called the Android OS “unintuitive.” (Deccan Chronicle, Nov. 8, 2011). For those who want more control, the Android interface is clearly superior. For those, like school administrators, who need to manage dozens or even hundreds of devices and keep them all in-sync and working, the iOS presents a clear advantage.
  • App Store vs Marketplace and Flash Content: TBD – This debate is worthy of its own dedicated post, so I will abstain from a full review at this moment. Let’s leave it at this: the App Store is better than the Android market (currently), but the ability to view Flash-based content on Android devices more than makes up for that difference. However, the easy ability to perform an automated sync of devices using a cart for iPads will save a school IT person many headaches.

And the Winner is?
While the locked-down nature of the Apple iOS is a distinct advantage for school administrators, and provides a more reliable technology experience, the fact that the Android operating system is open should not be undervalued. What does this mean? The Android open API (application programming interface) allows users (even students) to potentially write their own apps for Android-based tablets. This has the potential, in the right context, to allow for unprecedented educational innovation in the classroom far, far beyond what is (and will ever be?) possible with an Apple device, as long as they continue to follow their current application development model. In order to do something similar on an iPad would require a significant investment and wading through Apple’s red tape to become a registered member of the Developer Program (Popular Science).

As with most things technological, there is a great deal of personal choice involved in this decision.  Budget, availability, intended use, and other devices already in an educational environment will all contribute to this decision. In my previous post on this subject, I declared the iPad2 a clear winner over the Kindle Fire because it provides an ability to create as well as view content. That distinction does not hold true between the iPad2 and a majority of Android tablets. Both will allow the user to create rich media and share it with the world.

With a focus on the ideal future of education, I would have to say that my recommendation would be for Android-based tablets. The open nature of the OS has the potential, in an ideal world in which teachers have the ability to engage students in creating their own applications, to be a superior tool for learning. However, in the world in which we actually live, the iPad2 provides a more realistic and reliable tool for educators to use on an everyday basis. While Android tablets have more pie-in-the-sky potential, the Apple iPad2 is the device that most educators and their students will benefit from in real classroom and fieldwork settings.