The Tablet Form-Factor And The Future Of Personal Computing

For a long time, tablet computers were regarded as a decidedly niche platform. Too big to compete with personal digital assistants, and too limited in their appeal to compete with full-sized laptops and desktops, they never seemed to threaten long-term sales success. The devices looked like something from some sort of fantastic science-fiction show, and yet, the hardware never seemed to be quite adequate for intensive computing. The form-factor looked to be Microsoft’s folly, given their role in trying to promote the hardware layout from 2001 onwards, and it certainly must have rankled to see their stalwart rivals, Apple Computer, starting to succeed where others have failed.

Apple seems to have recently acquired an ability to take daring risks and come out not only unscathed, but victorious on the other end. The iPod was designed at a time when portable digital music players were ludicrously expensive for limited capacity, and with its sleek industrial design and simple user interface, it became a by-word for personal MP3 players. The iPhone, despite being technically inadequate during most of its life, along with a perpetually restrictive, repressive and underperforming operating system, has also acquired the status of a household name, and carved out a decent amount of market share. Now, it seems, it’s the turn of the iPad, a tablet conforming to a different standard to the Tablet PCs that Microsoft had promoted.

If we look at Apple’s history, this isn’t the first time that they have tried to develop a device with a tablet form-factor. Early devices built on the Apple Newton platform were known for their size, which far exceeded later PDAs, and came closer to the large screens of modern attempts at the tablet form-factor. The devices never achieved the sales success that their groundbreaking status in the PDA market perhaps dictated that they deserved, although the limited accuracy of the handwriting recognition system goes a long way in explaining why. In any circumstance, Apple’s endeavour was ultimately a failure, and the Newton platform was displaced in the PDA market by the early PalmPilot PDAs, which went on to be market leaders in the PDA segment.

This time, Apple’s taking a different approach. The iPad is less PDA and more… Actually, I can’t work out exactly what it’s supposed to be. It’s competing in the same price segment as netbooks and low-end laptops, and yet, it doesn’t have the application environment or hardware to compete with either directly. Instead, it uses the same sort of power-frugal ARM processors and custom-built mobile graphics processing units as smartphones, but with a decidedly bigger form-factor. Perhaps it’s my fault for trying to compare it directly to existing devices, but its unique selling points seem to be more related to smartphones than to larger devices.

Also perplexing is exactly what you’re supposed to be doing on an iPad. Internet browsing would arguably be better served on a netbook, where the lack of screen space is offset by the presence of Flash and the subsequent greater compliance with the standards of the internet. Word processing and other text-heavy applications would also be better served by a netbook, as even the smallest and most awkward of netbook keyboards is better in my eyes than the touchscreen keyboard of an iPad, which offers almost no tactile feedback and not even haptic feedback to compensate. OK, word processing would obviously be better served by a desktop with a damned good keyboard – something with mechanical switches and a sculpted key layout – but I digress.

Music playing is better served by a smartphone or a discrete MP3 player, which can fit far more easily into a pocket and aren’t as heavy to carry about. Video playing, to be fair, would be more of an advantage for the iPad, with its large screen and lack of extraneous input peripherals, but if you’re spending several hundred euro on a device for video playing alone when there are decent portable DVD players for €100, you’ve got too much money to be sensible.

Most perplexing of all is the iPad’s ostensible pretensions towards being a portable games platform. Given that I’ve been playing handheld consoles since the Game Boy Color, I have noticed that Nintendo do seem to put a decent amount of work into making their portable gaming devices ergonomically sensible. There is little ergonomic sensibility about a heavy 10” tablet. The thing’s too heavy to take in one hand, too large to properly play it in two, and there’s not much appeal to playing the thing on your lap.

This could perhaps be forgiven if there were any decent games to play on the thing, but I can’t really see any games on the platform which even begin to compete with some of the titles on the Nintendo DS, let alone the upcoming Nintendo 3DS. The big sellers on the iPad are likely the same applications that have achieved prominence on smartphones, and aside from being simplistic games without a proper central narrative, it appears to me that these games would be better served on a more comfortable form-factor, like a smartphone. I’m hardly a fan of smartphone gaming, but that’s a story for another day.

The sole advantage of the iPad (and, for that matter, smartphones) in the gaming market is the potential for superior graphics, but somehow, I can’t think of many people playing smartphone games for which graphics are a key factor in deciding their choice of platform. The graphics connoisseurs tend to be too busy playing games like Crysis or Metro 2033 on their super-powerful desktops. As long as there aren’t any games that I can plunge into for hours at a time on the iPad, like I can and have done on the Nintendo handhelds, I’m going to continue to fail to see the appeal.

But whatever, right? I’m just another anonymous tech-blogger, and as much as we’d like to admit that we have our ears close to the ground, we’re often hardly representative of the target market or of the mainstream audience. What interests me more than the iPad are the new series of Android tablets being designed, even with their current lack of refinement, lack of applications and even with the Samsung Galaxy Tab losing ground even to the iPad.

Android is, in my eyes, a far superior operating system to Apple’s iOS. With greater flexibility, greater room for customisation, proper multitasking and room for applications on a far greater range of devices than iOS, it’s the perfect antithesis to Apple’s philosophy of closed devices. With the OS soon touted to take top place from Symbian in the smartphone operating system market, it seems that Android is the platform to back for future success. To be honest, there doesn’t seem to be much to recommend Android in the tablet stakes as of present over iOS, but as technology progresses and a proper use is found for the tablet computer, Android would appear to have the features which Apple lacks.

Android seems to be the only current operating system filling the niches below 10” screens, such as the 5” Dell Streak or 7” Galaxy Tab. I wouldn’t buy either device at present, and yet, I can actually see an advantage for this sort of screen size over the iPad. Netbooks with 7” screens have come with almost entirely inadequate keyboards, which renders one of the advantages of the netbook almost pointless. What’s more, a 7” device is perhaps just within the range of pocketability, and comes with distinct ergonomic advantages, such as being able to hold the device with one hand.

As such, I can see these devices becoming a competitor to all-singing, all-dancing smartphones. Yet, at the same time, perhaps customers will see them as being an awkward hybrid between the smartphone and larger tablets and netbooks. Just as Apple’s Newton failed to meet much market success, Nokia’s series of Internet Tablets failed to come into the public eye until Nokia released the N900 smartphone. Will the 7” tablet represent one of the possible futures of mobile computing, or will it collapse in on itself without an audience to sustain it? Let’s watch and see, shall we?

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Ground Control – A Retrospective Review

“Project Garm will succeed at any cost! I will not have it fumbled away through the incompetence of the Pax Dei! We will complete Project Garm and I will be the fist of God!” – Cardinal Aegeri of the Order of the New Dawn, Ground Control.

Ground Control is a 2000 PC-format real-time tactics game, developed by Massive Entertainment, more recently known for the game, World in Conflict, and produced by Sierra Entertainment. One of the first three-dimensional strategy games on the market, Ground Control was a technically-advanced game with exceptional gameplay, but didn’t succeed on the market.

The year is 2419, and mankind has finally begun to reach for the stars. After the devastation wrought by the Third World War, humanity has rebuilt civilisation, and this time, it is controlled by gigantic mega-corporations who rule over the Earth. The largest of these is the Crayven Corporation, a massive terraforming company which controls its own security forces, large enough to be considered an army, and certainly large enough to give the corporation major leverage.

Opposing them are the Order of the New Dawn, the largest religious group on Earth, and possessing their own military forces which have remained since before the Third World War, their technology is unrivalled. While the Crayven Corporation possesses mass drivers and missile launchers, the Order of the New Dawn have developed beam weapons and lightning generators with which they rule the battlefield.

The source of the conflict is the rights for a planet named Krig-7B, a planet which the Order believes is imperative to their religious beliefs. As Crayven and Order starships jockey for position above Krig-7B, commanders on the ground pick off enemy installations and engage their forces in combat.

Over the course of the game, the player will take the role of Major Sarah Parker of the Crayven Corporation and Deacon Jarred Stone of the Order of the New Dawn as the balance of power shifts from one side to another. However, there are questions to be answered as the battle rages on. What exactly is the Order’s purpose on Krig-7B? What purpose do the enigmatic Xenofact relics have? Is there an ulterior motive to the Crayven Corporation’s presence on Krig-7B?

The plot in Ground Control is one of the many strengths of this game. Excellently told, with enough twists and turns in it to keep it exciting throughout, the plot is adept at keeping the player interested in continuing through the game. Every protagonist is sympathetic, and every antagonist is well-motivated. It is one of the best video game plots that I’ve ever seen, and I could have played the game for it alone.

But that would be ignoring the fantastic gameplay. Being of the real-time tactics genre, it takes a different approach to combat than most real-time strategies. Instead of constructing bases or training reinforcements, you have a limited number of troops who are deployed in through dropships, and without any reinforcements heading your way, you have to make the best uses of the resources you are granted.

In order to do this effectively, you have to make the best use of tactics possible. Using terrain to your advantage, taking advantage of suppressive fire, and flanking your enemy are some of the ways in which you can do this, as well as using appropriate forces for the mission given. Knowledge of tactics from real life will help, as this game is a relatively realistic look at military combat, from the realistic tactics already discussed to the small, elite units that you command and also to the greater effectiveness of smaller, faster-firing weapons on smaller targets. The game goes as far as to map out friendly fire, which will further make the player inclined towards proper tactics.

The resources you can call upon differ for every mission, but will always include the Command APC, containing the commander that you are playing, and also include a variety of infantry and vehicles of both the land-based and air-based types. The Command APC not only has the ability to carry infantry with it, it can also repair your damaged units, keeping them in the fight for longer, but critically cannot repair itself, and is vital to your success in the mission – if it is destroyed, your commander dies and you instantly fail the mission. Therefore, its inclusion brings up the question: Do you repair your units and risk damaging your APC, or do you use the other units to shield it?

The other units that you can call upon are all sorted into types of units. The four types of units are infantry, land-based combat units, air-based combat units and land-based support units. Within these four types of units are sub-categories, such as the terradynes of the Crayven Corporation, which are separated into scout cars, light combat vehicles armed with auto-cannons, main battle tanks and heavy tanks. While you have a limited number of each type of unit, you can set up the sub-categories as you like, and while it is usually a good idea to set up an even amount of lighter and heavier units, it is certainly possible to put all of your vehicles as tanks, or all of your aerodynes as fighters, or so on.

Once you have decided on your unit layouts, the game allows you to customise your units further, by giving you a selection of finite special weapons, which will increase unit flexibilities, and special equipment, which ranges from medical kits and repair kits, to mobile radar stations and light emplacements. Some of this equipment can be incredibly useful, like the standard infantry’s anti-tank weapons, and can really increase the power which a squad can project on the battlefield.

The system’s not perfect, though. Some units feel distinctly useless when compared to others in the game, particularly the scout units. Any use that you may have for the scout units is made redundant by their low strength, uncompetitive unit sizes and the abilities of certain other units on the field. To the game’s credit, though, it is never necessary to use the scout units for any purposes.

Some units also feel overpowered, the most obvious case of this being the artillery unit. Although billed as a support unit, it is so powerful and can fire from such long ranges with its suppressive fire mode that once you obtain one, it can feel like the rest of your units are there to support it. While I’m glad that they made an artillery unit in a strategy game that isn’t underpowered, like the ones in Command & Conquer, the fact remains that once you obtain even one in the campaign mode, it is possible to go through the rest of the game by simply shelling any areas that you consider to be suspicious and keeping the rest of your forces near to act as a shield for the artillery units.

The sort of firepower that most real-time strategy games could only dream about.

Another problem is the similarity of the two factions’ units. And when I say “similarity”, I mean that I haven’t seen two factions so much the same since the original Command & Conquer. The main differences between the two groups are that the Crayven forces have superior armour, while the Order forces have less armour, but more speed and firepower. There are a few units which are unique to either side; the advanced infantry units on either side are very different, and the Crayven forces possess the ultra-powerful but very slow Bomber Aerodyne, while the Order forces have the powerful anti-vehicle Drone Carrier. However, both sides still have the artillery unit, so it’s tempting to simply have a lot of these and use the rest of your forces to defend the artillery from close attacks and air assaults.

Despite these unit imbalances, Ground Control is a delight to play. Because there is no necessity to build up forces through training reinforcements or building bases, the combat can begin right away, making this a very exciting game and a supreme test of your tactical skills.

There are a number of other very strong elements of the game as well. The visual and sonic parts of the game are fantastically well-done. The three-dimensional camera gives the player the sort of flexibility of movement that could only be dreamt about until then. And then there’s the graphical detail. For a game from the year 2000, the graphics have stood the test of time. Not only is there a great amount of detail, and not only are the graphics gorgeous, from the deserts to the jungles of Krig-7B, but they are also highly technically advanced, with substantial draw distances and fantastic particle effects.

Burning buildings and laser fire – proving the excellent graphical capabilities of the game engine.

The sound effects are superb, also. Not only are they excellently put together, they also show off the realism factor present in this game by sounding different from each angle that you listen to them. Up close to a unit, it’s possible to hear the rumble of the engine or the rattle of their guns; from far away, you may hear the rounds blasting off the sides of units, or ending up hitting the sides of mountains. Not only that, but if you position the camera in the path of an artillery shell, you can hear the rounds whooshing past you. It is this sort of detail that just adds to the mirror shine to which Ground Control is polished.

There is, however, just one thing that I’d like to criticise about the game apart from the already-mentioned unit imbalance. Ground Control no longer has any online multiplayer. It had been serviced by the WON network, but when that was taken offline, the multiplayer was restricted to LAN games. It’s a pity, because it would have made a great online multiplayer game for those that want a modern style of real-time tactics game.

Ground Control deserves a lot more attention than it got at the time. It is quite simply one of the best strategy games that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing, and one that’s an all-round success. There’s one more good point to this game that I haven’t discussed yet: It’s free, released as freeware to promote the release of its sequel. While it does require a GameSpy ID, it’s worth it to get your hands on this game.

I can’t help it – it’s just so fantastic.

(The download address is: