Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

Summary: First the XOOM and the PlayBook, and now the TouchPad have gotten poor receptions that show it is hard to build a good tablet. Why is it so hard? Everyone is trying to do too much with their tablets.


The HP TouchPad launch into the marketplace has turned into an all too familiar scene. Months of hype after an official press event kicks things off, followed by a rash of critical product reviews detailing how the tablet falls shorts of consumer expectations. We saw the same cycle recently with the BlackBerry PlayBook launch, and earlier this year the same play was performed for the first Android Honeycomb tablet, the Motorola XOOM. All of these tablet launches demonstrate how hard it is for a company to build a good tablet ready for mainstream consumers. Why is it so hard? Everyone besides Apple is trying to do too much with their tablets.

I understand there are a lot of factors in determining if a new product is good at launch or not. I realize that price plays a big role in the success of any new product, tech-related or not. While it seems very simplistic, I believe that all of the tablets to hit the market so far, iPad excepted, are trying to do too much to bring value to the consumer. The opposite is actually the result as these tablets fail to deliver on the user experience that consumers demand. Good intentions deserve no accolades when execution fails in the tablet space.

Whether you like Apple and the iPad or not, there is no denying that a primary reason this tablet has been welcomed by consumers is the simplicity of the device. The iPad isn't designed to run lots of apps at the same time, with a handful of exceptions it only runs one at a time. This makes it possible for Apple to control the load on the device at any given time, and make sure that nothing runs amok in the background. This is in large part why the iPad operates as smooth as butter, and onscreen activity is as fluid as can be. Apple's tight control may be losing functionality due to the lack of extra activity in the background, but it is guaranteeing that the performance of the iPad is as good as can be. This is more important to consumers than the loss of multitasking as found on other platforms.

This multitasking may not be the only reason that competing tablets don't run as smoothly nor as uniformly as the iPad, but it is a big part of those problems. Every single tablet I have used, and that includes Honeycomb tablets and the PlayBook running QNX, suffer from stuttering performance, sporadic lags and generally rough operations. Something as simple as dragging an icon around the screen can often be an operation executed in fits and starts as the system slows down sporadically. It's frustrating, and surely multitasking plays a big part in that unevenness.

The early reviews of the HP TouchPad indicate almost across the board that this new tablet suffers from the same choppy performance as the other platforms. While the clever multitasking is cool to behold, it is likely the reason behind the poor performance of the TouchPad. It is another example of a tablet trying to do too much, and delivering an unpleasant user experience in the process. Kind of the "jack of all trades and master of none" approach.

If you doubt that these OSes do a lot of multitasking boot a tablet up cold and don't run anything at all. Check the amount of memory in use by the OS and I guarantee you the dozens of background processes running all the time are using a lot of memory. This method of operation has more in common with the big desktop OSes than mobile OSes.

So what is a tablet maker to do if all of these platforms are designed to rely on a tremendous amount of background multitasking? Sadly there is not much, if anything they can do. HP was in a position to control webOS since it owns it, but has evidently chosen to make it do so much that it is hard to control the system performance. Android Honeycomb hasn't shown it can handle multitasking any better as every system I have tried has inherent lagginess. The PlayBook seems to handle the multitasking better than the others, but it slows down randomly too.

The philosophy baked into the iPad of one app at a time might be viewed as a shortfall in some folk's eyes, but it results in a smooth, consistent user experience for all of the millions of owners. Do one thing and do it well was advice from my Dad growing up, and it has served me well. It is serving Apple well too.

See also on ZDNet:

Chrome makes gains in browser race; tablets jockey behind iPad

HP TouchPad reviews are in: Released too early

Review: HP TouchPad is the productivity tablet

HP TouchPad WebOS tour (screenshots)

HP TouchPad reviews: It's no iPad contender

Elsewhere on the network:

TechRepublic: Cracking Open the HP TouchPad

Teardown of HP TouchPad: Made like a PC and straightforward to repair

CNET: HP: Number of mobile apps doesn’t matter

Topics: Hardware, Hewlett-Packard, Laptops, Mobility, Tablets

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • I think you reached a bit too far

    It's all very well to point out that Apple's implementation of multitasking is likely one (of many) reasons iOS performs so well.

    However, to essentially characterize it as "one app at a time" minimizes the excellent job they did there. And it's not true. There are allowances for being in the background going on when it matters for any decent app. In fact, Apple's own apps have had it since 2007.

    The vast majority of users do not recognize the difference between Apple's implementation and, say, Android's, in terms of using the device. They *would* notice (and did in some circumstances) when third parties could not participate, but that's long past.

    My point is it's not a question of traditional multitasking vs. one app at a time. The choice Apple made was to provide the overall benefits of traditional multitasking with almost none of the many drawbacks. It required re-thinking, extra work and, yes, innovation, but that's why Apple leads.
    • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

      @treestman I definitely simplified the multitasking as you've noted. I do think that the iPad operation is almost totally devoted to the one app in the foreground and that's what makes the operation so smooth, even though some tasks may be running in a limited fashion in the background. It's a good choice by Apple here, and what I am saying in the article. Thanks for chiming in.
      • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

        Here is an additional point. What if iOS brings "true" multitasking into the fold at some point? When iPhoneOS first introduced notifications as a substitute for some kinds of background processing, I wondered at the time "Why bother?" Why devote so much time and effort into something that will be obsolete when background processing rears its head? Well, they kept both:Classic bottom up programming. Let's fast forward to a time when iOS had true multitasking and say all you want to do is let the user know when they should call their kid. Do you have your program run in the background, or do you use the local notification(which doesn't even require the Apple notification server)? You'll probably pick the lightest weight option available. What about music in the background? Full on process or audio service? You'll pick the audio service. By having these lighter weight options available, you can achieve your goals, yet the device will run better for it.

        But if they had started with full multitasking, the nerds would be happy and you'll get the problems about which you write. Heck, look at the background services: They solve 95% of the complaints that everyone had. Perhaps more. All that's left is for nerds to say: "Well, but it isn't *true* multitasking." Who cares? Who wants to run a full video in a 1.5" thumbnail while swiping to email? That's somekind of bragging bullet point, not a user facing feature.
      • Agreed with both, but I would take the argument a full loop forward...

        @JamesKendrick and @dhmccoy: One of the reasons the iPad is so successful has precisely to do with the fact that Jobs initially rejected the iPad when it was first presented to him.

        The engineers were too "PC oriented" and am sure the original iPad (let call it the 0.5, which predated the iPhone) was not that much different to the HP Slate 500). It probably used a Low Voltage Core Duo or something and used full Mac OS X.

        Jobs probably "played with this iBook" (pun definitely intended) and promptly said "it's not right... the interface is not complete and the hardware lags..." Instead of taking the team back to the drawing board, he was wiser and asked to, not to remake this "PC-ish" beast, but rather, think "outside the box" and create a <b>TRUE</b> touch-centric (not touch first) OS and API. He then instructed them to think small, and try with a smaller device, most surely the iPod Touch. In the interim, I guess he saw more market for a Phone and just added the needed modems and such.

        So that's precisely the difference and, ironically, it's one of the reasons the first Win 8 tablets will surely fail. They are too much "chopped" PCs both inside and out.

        Android, webOS and QNX people need to shed their PC clothes and start thinking on what Jobs' calls the Post PC. Call it what you want, but devices need to cross the chasm and be less PC, more tablet/slate/Pad.
      • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

        @JamesKendrick I disagree. My DroidX will run for several days if I don't use it much. But I'm using JuiceDefender to cut off everything unnecessary and it drops the CPU using SetCPU to the bare minimum when off. That's all these companies are dropping the ball on as far as battery and performance. I multitask with my phone constantly. No problems at all. Android is a very good OS but Google makes money on those background processes, many of which suck data as well as battery. App makers make money this way too. Ok so I block most ads using AdFree, and no I don't feel guilty in the least using free apps with it. That's the free market. If they stop turning a profit they'll stop offering it for free and I'll buy it if I want it. My point is I'm not suffering using Android because of background processes. It HAS the capability to turn them down or off. Apple's whole method to make a profit is just built differently. They make good devices and they charge good money for them because they can. So they have the ability to run less and still make money. Google gave the OS away for free to create ad revenue from some of those processes. It is what it is. And I won't even discuss HP or RIMM here, because until they're proprietary systems are open, I really have no interest. It appears I'm not alone in that regard. If they have unnecessary background processes it's just poor design. There's no other excuse IMHO. In that regard I agree with you somewhat.
      • To be correct, iOS offers unlimited multitasking on row of key services, ..

        @JamesKendrick: ... and "Task Completion" API which allows to execute *arbitrary* code in the background.

        With this, multitask limitations there are almost only theoretical. Applications basically do everything they possibly would ever want with this scheme -- except for 24/7 calculating form like PCs can participating in SETI or genome search programs.
      • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much


        James, I believe that you missed a very important fact. Once people grow up with the so-called single-tasking, many of them would want more. Any one with reasonable systm knowledge knows that it only takes more memories and more cores to make each of the tasks, whether at foreground and at background, running smoothly. What you have described are what's true today, not what'll be truly good next year and after. In fact, the biggest shortcoming of your article is the failure to point out that all the competiting vendors fail to think ahead, instead they are also only trying to catch up with what Apple has achieved. Since day one I started to get involved with marketing, I was told that only those who try to "intercept" what its competitors will try to to in the future and be able to come up with a better solution ahead of the compeititors will win.
      • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

        @JamesKendrick <br>[i]I definitely simplified the multitasking as you've noted. I do think that the iPad operation is almost totally devoted to the one app in the foreground and that's what makes the operation so smooth...[/i]<br>Can't agree.<br>One of the things that reallt irritates me about my iPad is having to "clean out" the task bar because it holds and keeps available memory. Bad on the iPad 2, critical one the iPad. You launch an app and have it fail or mysteriously close - no alerts / messages / etc.... Clean the task bar and your app now runs (usually).<br>On the other hand, I have far fewer issues with the Android method of control.<br>iOS would benefit from a "close all" taskbar option. and yes, Cydia has a couple <img border="0" src="http://www.cnet.com/i/mb/emoticons/happy.gif" alt="happy">
    • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

      I've owned three Android tablets and one iPad. In all honesty, the Android devices don't even come close to the smoothness of the iPad. I had narrowed the problem to capacitive screens that weren't near as accurate or velvety, and too much phone junk running within the system, but Kendrick's assessment that there's power lost to other background tasks makes perfect sense. I occasionally wish the iPad could multitask better, but not at the expense of it's stellar performance.
      • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

        @camcost@... I don't think you understand Android good enough if you're saying this. (I don't care how many tablets or Android devices you've purchased) The fluidity of Android is entirely up to the user. ENTIRELY My Android phone is smooth as silk and never locks up, never drags or delays or has screen rewrite issues like I see so many people say they have. Apple RESTRICTS you to what works best. Android let's you do whatever pleases you. If you use it like you should it will never fail to work. There are so MANY good programs to improve the OS to even better battery, and performance as well.
      • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

        The reason people can't make a tablet? EASY No one wants another OS that's proprietary. Android isn't proprietary, and it just works. SO when HP and RIM get off of that we're gonna force them to use OUR OS garbage (and I honestly could care less what HP paid to get that OS or how good it performs now that there is an established standard as long as the two aren't compatible with each other). <br><br>IF a company were to PRODUCE a cheap fast tablet using Honeycomb, it will sell. The ONLY formidable player out there right now is the Iconia A500 which isn't impressive for two reasons: 1. You originally had to order it and you could ONLY order it from BestBuy (sorry not happening) Even now to get it reasonable, you have to buy it from places that aren't big names to get it reasonable. 2. The shape is a tiny bit clunky - I mean why round one edge and make the other square??? Odd looking.<br><br>@JamesKendrick The iPad is successful for a number of reasons: 1. It was first and it was a pretty fair product. I still hate it but it worked well. I hate it because without ports it may as well have been a brick with a screen on it for me. 2. It is still the only real tablet out there besides the XOOM, but the XOOM shipped with an incomplete OS and it cost a bit too much comparitively. I wouldn't have thought the least of the OS "possible issues", but the price coupled with that stopped me and other people I know from buying one. <br><br>So what is there to choose from other than those three??? Nothing, unless you want to hack a nook color. Normal people don't want to hack anything to use it. I wouldn't think twice of it but I'm not the run of the mill buyer. Normal people want what Apple is selling. They want something that just works. I'm sorry but proprietary OS's can't compete with that, especially when Apple has a plethora of devices that will play nice with theirs, and Google has found/made a way around every problem presented to a user that uses a linux based device with Windows. Android works so fluidly that most users don't even realize they are two different OS's. And because it's open source, what Google hasn't fixed, there's an app for it if you look. So I ask rather pointedly...WHO has made anything other than Motorola at this point? I see no one outside of Acer and they seriously dropped the ball marketing the Iconia in a HUGE way.
      • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

        @camcost@... There are dozens of Android tablets. Your comments would be a lot more useful if you tell us which ones you're talking about. <br><br>For example, my Samsung Tab and HTC Flyer tablets are as smooth as my iPad. My Nook and Archos 101 are far less so, especially the latter. <br><br>A really cheap tablet is bound to be even worse.
      • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

        @kevindarling Agree, my Tab, and Flyer are just as smooth as the iPad, and do many more of the tasks I need than the iPad.
      • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

        @camcost@... spot on mate. They've nailed the user experience by prioritising the aspects that people really notice. I use MS flight simulator and despite the massive improvement in hardware since the 10th edition came out, it continues to stutter and lag. MS never understood (and still don't, from what I've seen of it's successor) that the better approach was to set a smoothness benchmark and then, depending on the user's hardware, only allow eye-candy improvements up to the highest level that didn't impede visual performance. It is the difference between nerds and the rest.
        John in Brisbane
      • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

        @John in Brisbane<br><br>Precisely. Nerds look at tablets and they see specs, the rest of the world look at tablets like the iPad and they see eye-candy, the smoothness of the UI, how easy it is to use, cool bundled apps and the likable hardware. Witness the reaction of someone using an iPad for the first time, they generally have a big smile on their faces. Now look at the reaction of someone using another tablet. It's that first impression that grabs their attention and gets them to buy. If the first impression they're getting from the competitors tablets is stuttery / choppy and complexity, it's no wonder they're not buying. They have no idea why it's stuttery and choppy, they just know it doesn't feel as good as the iPad. It just shows competitors don't understand the market yet, and why many are buying-up the iPad. Specs was never an issue.
    • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

      @treestman are you speaking of the same thing? Is multitasking merely listening to music while surfing or is it typing a document while surfing and also accessing a database? All modern OSes have multitasking of background processes but it is the user-experience that matters to the consumer
      • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

        @marcusantoniouslee1@... test
    • Not quite

      @treestman You give Apple too much credit - their 'multi-tasking" is so scaled down and primative it probably shouldn't really be called multi-tasking

      The performance problems in Android derive from a lack of proper bifurcation of kernel scheduling - they fail to properly prioritize and event-based schedule UI related activity. Not sure if this is a result of being Linux derived or a fault introduced by Google.
      • RE: Why is it so hard to build a good tablet? Trying to do too much

        @archangel9999 This 'multi-tasking' is not primitive. Thinking about how much time before M$ put similar mechanism into WP7. Actually from under hood, Android is using same mechanism. Maybe contradict to your knowledge, IOS, WP7, android, all support both traditional multitask and 'primitive multi-tasking' (I would like to call this advanced pseudo multi-tasking, which is not present on old OS). The only difference is on IOS, traditional multitask is not open for thirdparty developer. By jailbreaking IOS, traditional multitask can be enabled for thirdparth app. After I use Android phone for a while, I realized how right it is for apple's decision on not allowing thirdparty app to access traditional multitask on IOS, for the sake of battery usage, performance, and bad programming skills from some inexperienced programmers.

        But most importantly, IOS is a very well designed and optimized system for graphic interactive experience. In fact, much of the iOS user interface are hardware-accelerated, whereas this is only starting to happen in Honeycomb for Android (http://forum.cyanogenmod.com/topic/17797-javascript-performance/). This is why even iphone 1G is smoother than android phone with 800mhz cpu, and in my opinion, this is the most important factor that contribute to overall smoothy of IOS.
      • Too much technospeak... too little truth...

        @archangel9999 : first and foremost, iOS offers full preemptive multitasking as it is derived from Carnegie Mellon's Mach. Any NextStep enthusiast can tell you that during the OpenStep days, drives could spun endlessly and the UI would suffer no degradation. The reason was that they built in "real-time" extensions to the kernel so job priority will be enforced.

        Second, the Linux kernel does not offer "real-time" support built in (aside from the MontVista's extensions). So I think one error was the fact that Honeycomb used Google's garden variety Linux version and they didn't let Motorola use MontVista or any other real-time version. That prevented fast response and resulted in a lack of performance.