USB OTG, Android OS Devices & The Future of Computing

Today I had a lengthy “talk” with an former friend about the future of computing as it relates to smart phones and tablets. Leaving out the contentious points his stance was that he’d rather have a laptop for a bit more than what he gets for his money out of a tablet – and that tablets have some major shortcomings. Which I can definitively say he has some points. The devices are totally different. IMHO, it’s an unfair comparison. Especially his  tone when it came to pointing out that a $200 tablet (the new Nexus 7 I assume) can’t run games like Rift, Crysis and the popular by a mile, and demanding Battlefield 3. That’s fine, but I’m concerned with what’s on the horizon, what’s the future of computing looking like.

However a laptop that runs Battlefield 3 on “recommended” requirements – and is worth what you are putting into it – needs at least a GeForce GTX 560. The cheapest laptop I could find to run this with optimal settings would be something like the ASUS G53SX-NH71The current Newegg price is running at $1,179.99 plus shipping. And it’s a powerhouse machine, i7 CPU (mobile edition!), 8 gigs of RAM and other goodies except a kinda small hard drive at only 500MB. Still, a decent machine. If you don’t have $1,179 laying around TigerDirect has you covered with a refurbished machine for $1,039.99.

So if you want a hardcore gaming rig you are looking to spend over $1,000. That’s five times the price of a tablet that can do 99% of what that laptop can do – except play “hardcore” games. [Note: the Samsung line of gaming PC’s being pushed at Newegg? $1,829 + shipping – that’s 3.8 times the price of the Asus Transformer Prime with the highest end mobile CPU on the market, the Tegra3]

And since “there is an app for that” – and almost an app for everything, especially on Android, there is no reason to be limited to just e-mailing, chatting, taking snapshots, checking Facebook/Google+ and using it as a phone. For the rest of the discussion here we’ll assume iOS devices don’t exist. Because they are not going to compare to either a laptop or an Android device of any type. Apple, we love you, but you are ages behind today. And Google is killing you in development and ideas. Daily. iOS is largely becoming irrelevant. Much like Steve Jobs (too soon? The guy was kinda a zuckerberg to say the least).

Getting back to the bigger point of the discussion was that he can do more on the laptop than on an Android phone or tablet. But I disagree – if rooted you can hack it just as much as anything. I personally run a custom ROM and a custom kernel on my phone. And since it’s rooted I can change any setting imaginable. Add in the run-of-the-mill apps (and specialized ones that pair up with hardware extensions) and the possibilities are endless really.

His Point Where He Was 100% + 2% Correct: Upgradability.

You can upgrade your laptop – mostly. Most of the time you are stuck with the video card you bought with it, but you can upgrade drives, RAM and even pop in a newer CPU if you are so inclined. You can add a ton of peripherals with USB ports, etc.

But you can also add peripherals to Android phones and tablets with USB OTG (On-The-Go) as well (turning the device into a USB host as opposed to just being a dumb USB Peripherals). The Android team added this in 3.1, Honeycomb, for their tablets – as Honeycomb is not part of the AOSP project and targeted towards tablets only. It is further supported in Android OS 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) and 4.1 (Jelly Bean). Support varies by manufacturer – so if you are interested it seems Samsung is the best in terms of supporting USB OTG devices.

From the previous link as far as keyboards and mice are concerned;

Desktop keyboard: If you need to do long-form writing, you can use a standard computer keyboard (wired or wireless) to type on your Android phone or tablet. Even shortcuts like Ctrl-A and Ctrl-X will work.

Mouse: This was pretty surprising — when you connect a mouse (wired or wireless), a pointer will appear on your Android’s screen. With that, you can use the mouse just as you would your finger.

Though USB OTG is not required to use a keyboard and a mouse with most Android devices as they are standard HID (Human Interface Devices) and are supported by Bluetooth protocols.

As of the time of writing of the aforementioned article the beloved Samsung Galaxy S III supports the PS3 controller out of the box;

PS3 controller: Now, this is pretty crazy. The Samsung Galaxy S III is stock-compatible with the PS3 controller. As soon as you connect it, you can navigate the interface using the analog (thumb) stick. Most importantly, the controller is compatible with some Android games. So far, the inventory of PS3 controller-ready games has been hit or miss, but [ED: Ironically?] Sega games (like Sonic) definitely work.

An article published today (7/23/2012) on phones review states there is even more compatibility for the PS3 controller:

The following devices have been found to support the accessory and include the Samsung Galaxy S3, Galaxy S2, Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 7, Galaxy Tab, Motorola Xoom, Sony Tablet S, Droid RAZR, Acer Iconia Tab A200, Acer Iconia Tab A500, Toshiba Excite 10, and the Archos G9.

Where he was wrong: Tablets are a poor platform for games.

 

As we can see above there is native support for the PS3 controller for a variety of phones and tablets. The Acer Iconia Tab A200 can be had as low as $299 on Newegg (and for a limited time with a power inverter?). Though it is a solid machine and gets average user ratings (per CNET) it’s missing HDMI out. So let’s go up a notch and find HDMI out where we can use a controller?

The Motorola Xoom support the PS3 controller out of the box, supports USB OTG, has Bluetooth profiles for HID compliant hardware and most importantly has HDMI out. So this is practically a portable gaming console. And just a few years newer than the Xbox and PS3. So why not use this tablet as a tablet and when you get home enjoy some gaming with a large screen and an actual gamepad? Pricing on the Xoom is still too high in my opinion and it does reach the point of laptops that can run modern games on the lowest settings – if you put it on a service plan or want 4g/LTE support. The cheapest I see the Wi-Fi only version is $362 on Amazon. Going full 4G or LTE you are going to pay about $500 so it’s getting into crappy laptop territory.

At the Wi-Fi only price it seems I’d rather get the tablet. Laptops for $360 are pure crap. In fact, the CPU in the Xoom, which is a year old is an NVIDIA Tegra 2. Benchmarks get the Tegra 2 close to a dual core Intel CPU (and the Tegra 3 beats it handily while having 12 cores dedicated to GPU workload) – and has multiple 1GHZ cores while using only a fraction of power. And CNET gives it a decent review too – and I’ve long suspected you have to pay CNET to get more than a 3 star rating. Basically with the RAM it has, the CPU/GPU system on a chip (SoC) it has multitasking is as good as your $360 laptop. And one Amazon reviewer said it’s a 4-star device compared to a 2 or 3-star iPad (that can’t do anything this can).

So there you have a portable console – that yes, might not be an Xbox or PS3 in terms of GPU performance, but people not paying attention don’t know what is in store with Tegra 3

… functionally a SoC with a quad-core CPU, but includes a fifth “companion” core. While all cores are Cortex-A9s, the companion core is manufactured with a special low power silicon process that uses less power at low clock rate but does not scale well to high clock rates; hence it is limited to 500 MHz. There is also special logic to allow running state to be quickly and transparently transferred between the companion core and one of the normal cores. The goal is for a mobile phone or tablet to be able to power down all the normal cores and run on only the companion core, using comparatively little power, during standby mode or when otherwise underutilizing the CPU. According to Nvidia, this includes playing music or even video content. Compared to Tegra 2, the ARM Cortex-A9s in Tegra 3 now supports ARM’s SIMD extension—NEON. The GPU in Tegra 3 is an evolution of the Tegra 2 GPU, with twice the number of pixel shader units (8 compared to 4) and higher clock frequency. It can also output video up to 2560×1600 resolution and supports 1080p MPEG-4 AVC/h.264 40 Mbit/s High-Profile, VC1-AP, and DivX 5/6 video decode.

Now look at that chip in the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime. It’s a bit pricey at $479 on NewEgg but still has better features and performance than a $479 laptop (repeated benchmark link). Using NewEgg as the reference here let’s see – you can find 48 laptops between $450 and $499. The top (most) reviewed unit is the HP ProBook 4530s (@ $474.99 because it’s on sale from $549!) that gets 4 out of 5 eggs in it’s reviews. It has a nice Core i3 CPU, 4 GB of RAM… but is using the on-board video? I’d like to see the Crysis 2 benchmarks on this one. And one reviewer said this about the battery life: “Cons: Battery only lasts 3 hrs”. So you are getting a decent laptop for the money, but your electric bill will show the difference. The wattage draw is multiples of these tablets – and for what? It’s hardly mobile with 3 hours of battery where the Transformer Prime claims it can be up-to 18 hours without a charge.

By comparison, you aren’t going to get the same value for the same money – unless you want to spend more (like on the Samsung laptop linked above at 3 times the price) – but then you aren’t getting the same value.

Just look at gaming on a Tegra 3 processor (from the official NVIDIA YouTube channel):

Some of the games are lame, but some are blowing me away for being a mobile chip that when coupled with a complete case and screen to make a tablet it’s priced the same as some of the top of the line video cards out today!

Here is another example of gameplay;

Oh – the tablet or phone doesn’t have a gamepad/controller?

You don’t want to play on a small screen? (Note: the original Gameboy is the top selling consumer electronics device of all time!)

And why not bring it all together – a tablet hooked up via HDMI, with gamepad/controller support and even keyboard and mouse connections!

Now tell me a tablet can’t be a portable console/gaming rig!

You could even keyboard turn in MMO’s

Smiley Face LEGO dude - Creative Commons Public Domain 1.0

The real reason we don’t have Rift, Diablo III, League of Legends and SWTOR on tablets is because no one has ported the code yet.