Tablets for Photographers

Road Warrior Tools- can you take it all with you?

By cjfeola in Columns on Jul 25, 2014
Tablets for Photographers

When you're a foreign correspondent, packing becomes a science. For years I lived out of a duffel that went over one shoulder and a Domke bag that went over the other. It got so that I could land in Tokyo, develop film and print while doing laundry, hand load more film canisters, replace batteries, repack and be on a plane headed out in 24 hours.

When you pack like that you become fairly particular, about size and weight and speed, and the little things that make travel work. I developed a habit of carrying every type of money in different pockets. That way when I woke up in the morning and couldn’t remember what hotel, city or even country I was in, I could head down to the lobby, follow my nose to the coffee, and keep pulling things out of my pockets until they gave me several cups.

When digital cameras replaced film, I started thinking about a digital road warrior kit: a single bag with cameras, lens, and some way to process the files and then upload them for safe keeping.

I started with laptops, and while they worked, they were always too big, too clunky and took too long to boot up for my tastes. Also, my family never seemed to believe that I would be “just a few minutes” when I dragged a laptop out on vacation…

Tablets would seem to be the perfect answer, so of course I’ve tried. Several. For the last two years I’ve carried an iPad Mini, which I’ve now replaced with the Asus T100.

I’ll start with the Asus, since most are familiar with iPads big and small. In a nutshell: the Asus T100 is the Pentax K-01 of tablets.

By the by, I've often imagined that the K-01 design process went a little like this:

  • Fish K-mount out of parts bin
  • Hang parts on it until you have a mirror-less camera
  • Show result to Mark Newson with a note saying “Make this pretty”
  • Get a note back from Newson saying “Dude-serious?”
  • Tell Newson “Forgot to show you this big giant check”
  • And Newson says “Oh yeah, I'm seeing it now…”

The (in)famous blue Smurf Pentax K01
The (in)famous blue Smurf Pentax K-01

Sorry. Anyway, that's what the T100 feels like. First, all the good news: this is actually a computer in tablet form. It runs full Windows 8.1, not RT. So the same software that runs on your regular computer runs on it just fine. It has a quad-core processor, so it's fast enough to run Photoshop and Lightroom. In fact, I have full Creative Cloud installed on it.  (For my nerdy brethren, the Atom Bay Trail in this thing is roughly equivalent to an i3.) Yet unlike your computer, it's a tablet, which means it turns on instantly and runs for about a dozen hours on a single charge.

Size comparisonSide-by-side size comparison: Asus T100 and iPad Mini

The T100 is the latest in Asus' successful line of Transformer tablets. The Transformers are tablets – Android until now – that snap into a hinged keyboard base that turns the tablet into a laptop. The 10.1 inch tablet is light at 1.2 pounds; snapped into the dock it's a light but solid laptop at 2.4 pounds. The base also adds a USB 3.0 port; handy for adding high-speed hard drives, card readers and the like. And the Windows version is currently ridiculously cheap – under $400 for a package of the tablet running Windows 8.1, the keyboard, Microsoft Office, and a terabyte of web storage.

But this isn't a computer review; this is a “Does this work in my Road Warrior Bag” review. Yes it does! Peeking inside my road warrior bag shows why.

I was in a store one day and ran across the Tamrac Zuma 2 bag, which is built to hold an iPad, a compact camera, and a ZipShot 2 tripod. I thought it might be the basis for my dream road warrior kit: a bag light enough to take everywhere that would allow me to shoot, process and upload or back up quickly and easily.

My bag holds a white Pentax Q with the 01, 03 and 06 lenses, spare batteries and enough SD cards to back up the Hal 9000, plus a German Leica hot-shoe mounted multi-finder. Because Leica. On the digital side, there's the tablet du jour, chargers, styli, ear buds and a very tiny but bangin' Bluetooth speaker.

A Tamrac Zuma 2 and it's contentsMy Tamrac Zuma 2 open for inspection: 03 and 06 lenses; Leica multifinder; Q with 01 lens; Klipsch earbuds, Asus T100 and Bluetooth speaker. In the pockets: Extra SD cards and four batteries. 

For the last two years I carried an iPad Mini (original) the Apple Camera Kit, and a variety of keyboards, finally settling on the Brookstone leather case and Bluetooth keyboard. The Mini is a sweet piece of tech, and in many ways it remains my favorite for reading and such. As the photo processing center piece of ultra-light road warrior kit, however…not so much. It was never the hardware, though I could have done without the Apple “We change from one proprietary charging port to another one every five years so we can sell you all new stuff” stuff.

No, the real problem was the Apple Camera kit, Photo and iCloud. The kit is basically a card reader that plugs into the Lightning Port; when you plug it in, that's pretty much what your iPad will be doing for a while. But the real problem is the Kit puts your images in Photo, which was…designed for the occasional snap shooter, to put it mildly. Just managing memory was a ridiculous chore; once the images were transferred there was no way to select all the images at once and delete them. It had to be done by hand. I spent some time Googling this when I got the Mini just after its release, and the best advice appeared to be “Get a Mac, plug the iPad in, and manage it as attached storage.” Which pretty much defeated the whole Replace the Laptop with a Tablet plan…

So I picked up the T100. One unexpected benefit: The T100, like almost all non-Apple portable electronics, charges over Micro-USB. So one charger and a spare handles my Galaxy Note 3 cell, the T100, the Bluetooth speaker and the Bluetooth headset. It's a MUCH lighter and easier situation than a laptop brick, or carrying a second set of cables just for the iPad.

So, is the T100 the perfect solution? Ummmm…no.  When I said the T100 is the Pentax K-01 of tablets, I meant that this is a tablet Pentaxians will get immediately. Like the K-01, the good news is that it's backwards compatible so everything you've already got works fine with it. The bad news is that being backward compatible means the thing is designed around a piece of tech designed in the latter part of the last century.

Compromises have been made.

I picked up the 32 gigabyte model; the T100 has a built in MicroSD slot, so why pay for extra storage? That was a really smart idea until I installed Office and the rest of my usual stuff and…got a warning that my C drive was running low on space.

MY C DRIVE!?!

Alas, yes. Despite the fact that the T100 contains exactly zero hard drives, backwards compatibility requires the Asus to look like it does. (For those of you who don't remember, the A drive and B drive slots were reserved for floppy drives, back when floppy drives were a thing.)

Anyway, this being Windows, every possible thing wants to be installed to the C drive. This apparently has become such a common problem for Windows 8 tablets that Microsoft has come up with a workaround that makes the MicroSD look like an internal drive so you can install software there.

At least this is understandable in the service of backwards compatibility. There are more incomprehensible design choices. Suffice to say that Windows 8.1 feels like there was Microsoft design team working to transform the old Windows desktop interface into the new Metro touch interface and about half-way through said “Screw it – Let's go play golf.” Here's one example: Microsoft says users mostly spend time on the desktop rather than Metro. I wonder why? Could it be, Microsoft, that you PUT ALL THE INDICATORS ON THE DESKTOP!?! Want to know how much battery is left or check the WiFi? It's on the desktop.

But those are small things, easy to live with.  Overall, this is a great machine, especially when you consider you can plug a mouse into one of the USB ports, which are much more precise for photo editing than fingers on a touch screen. Does it replace a desktop with matched 25 inch monitors, 16 gigs of RAM and a quad-core processor? No. But it's a great centerpiece for a road warrior kit.

 By the by, I'm extremely picky about keyboards, and I do like this one; I'm pounding out two Pentax forum columns this weekend on it by choice, despite the fact that there's a "regular" computer in the next room.

The Transformer snaps solidly into its keyboard dock; you'll think its a laptopThe Transformer snaps so solidly into its keyboard dock that you'll think its a laptop.

That said, the iPad was a great companion for most of two years, though the T100 is better for my purposes. I will admit to one compromise, though. I picked the T100 partly because it runs OG Microsoft Office, which is very useful for my day job. If that wasn't a consideration, I might have given a closer look to the Samsung Galaxy Note series.  Notes have Wacom digitizer technology built in, albeit a few generations old; that means you can do tight work with a fine stylus. I have the Galaxy Note 3 cell, which has a 5.5 inch HD screen; it's a bit small for photo editing. An interesting choice, though you'd give up Windows compatibility.

This leaves me with my T100. Like the K-01 – heck, like me – it's a bit odd, but it gets the job done, and it works with everything you already own. My road-warrior bag with the T100 goes everywhere with me, so I'm always ready to shoot. And when I do, I can edit the photos immediately if I like and have them backed up in the cloud and on USB sticks or portable hard drives.

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