Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tablets as roleplaying tools

My experimentation with an Android-based tablet as a reader for PDFs was intriguing. But I wonder if it could be the primary source for a roleplaying game or other book that is used as much for reference as for reading.

I need to try loading a more lightweight PDF onto it than the behemoth Dresden Files I tried it out on first. Dresden Files is probably as demanding as any PDF can be. First, the files are huge, since they're hundreds and hundreds of pages. Second, every single page is heavily graphical, with an incredibly overproduced and glossy layout, a fancy background that makes it look very slick (but not so readable), and tons of extras all over. These both make it take a lot of processing power which my cheapo Android Pad doesn't have, so page turns are slow, searching is awkward, and the experience is rife with the realization that one could do better with a physical book.

These things could be fixed, even for so challenging a PDF, by simply having a tablet with more processing power, if I felt like investing the money. However, the real issue with the PDF is that it's formatted for an 8½" × 11" page. Even an iPad or one of the high-end tablets coming out from other companies would render something like that in a less than ideal fashion. Sure, it could work, and it might even cross that vital "better than a physical book" threshold, but it'd still be a matter of compromises and I'm not ready to pour $600+ into a compromise.

I've seen some reviews for new tablets that hail the 7" and 8" models as an improvement because of greater portability, and I'm sure that's true for many applications. But as long as my primary application will be PDFs of roleplaying books, and as long as so much of the RPG market insists on making overproduced 8½" × 11" PDFs, what I really want to wait for is something like an iPad but bigger: I want one that is that size, so I'm seeing the full image, no scaling, same size. If I could do that, and get one that'd be fast enough at handling it, I'd be happy to pour some serious funds into it. But not if there are any compromises.

Once you get all that, I really don't need it to have 3G and a million apps. It just needs rock-solid PDF viewing, fast and with full support for everything, and then maybe a few other simple apps -- a note-taker, a dice-roller, stuff like that. I wouldn't need it to also try to be my Internet portal and a billion other things (and the lack of a keyboard would be too limiting for me on that, though at least there are solutions to that, unlike with the crippled iPhone). About the only completely unrelated application that I can think of where it would really make sense to put it on there is GPS, because the same factors (lightweight, huge, touchscreen) that make it a great PDF viewer would make it ideal for mapping.

Watching people at Carnage using iPads for this purpose has made me think about this again. I wish I had an opportunity to actually use an iPad for a solid half hour; watching other people use it is at most tantalizing, but never convincing. (And your typical iPad user won't let it out of his hands for more than five seconds at a time, so short of renting one, I don't know how that'll ever happen.) So I threw an iPad up on my Amazon wish list, but it's not like anyone's going to buy me one, not at those prices or at the priority I set it at (unless I win one of Amazon's wish list sweepstakes, I suppose). But I would really prefer to wait for a full-page one.

Of course, what would be far, far better is if we could dispense with the misbegotten notion that a PDF is an eBook in the first place. PDFs are by design terrible for eBooks because their entire purpose, their raison d'etre, is a format that doesn't adapt to a screen but only to paper. The sole reason that publishers are pushing PDFs on us as eBooks is because they don't want to invest time and money in making actual eBooks; they want to take something they already have and make more money without adding any investment. But we're stuck with it for a long time yet, even though it might kill eBooks (countless people are trying PDF-on-an-iPad and concluding from it that real-eBook-on-a-Kindle must also fail to live up to the convenience and nostalgia of a paperback).

So the next best thing to hope is that the 8½" × 11" format will start to fade away, and the overproduced, super-glossy books will start to shift back towards content-first, substance-over-style. But that's also probably not going to happen for a while yet. Though PDF pseudo-eBooks are taking off like crazy, they're still too small a market for anyone to prioritize. As long as the market values glitz, they'll make glitz, and its unsuitability for PDFs-as-eBook-substitutes is even less important than its unsuitability for ink-and-paper.

So clearly I just need to hope for a bigger form-factor tablet with enough processing power to handle Dresden, and pony up the dough. I wonder if Steve Jobs thinks a 12" iPad is a good idea or not.

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