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On the road with an Android tablet

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20131021-162046.jpg

Introduction

It was about time I did this. But so far, I have always been reluctant to go "cold turkey". Last week, however, I was on a mission (that's what business trips are called here in the EU institutions) to Switzerland and it seemed like the ideal opportunity to put my 7-inch Asus MemoPad through its paces during an actual interpreting job. The first thing I already noticed at home, and it delighted me: The MemoPad is actually small enough to fit right in the pocket of my favourite travel jacket. And the portability continued to delight me throughout the whole journey, from bus to plane. The MemoPad is much lighter than my (9.7-inch) iPad 2 and feels more like an e-reader. It certainly doesn't have the great finish of an Apple tablet, but it's solid and good enough. The MemoPad actually belongs to my wife, so I only use it occasionally - mainly for browsing the web or reading the articles I have saved to Pocket. Using it for work is a completely different game. I tried to prepare as best as possible by installing a bunch of apps before I leave. But let's go through this step by step.

Android vs iOS

There are a few things I really, really like about Android, some of which are rather subjective. It looks better than iOS - certainly better than iOS 6, but also better than iOS 7, which looks unfinished. Another big plus are widgets - little windows that give access to content or functionalities of apps. For example, it allows me to display a handy list of all the reminders I have buried in my thousands of Evernote notes. They can also display the time, your calendar, the weather or your email inbox. In a similar vein, Asus has equipped the MemoPad with mini-apps (browser, calculator, alarm clock etc.) that can float over the app you are currently using. So when you are creating a glossary (more on that later), you can use the floating browser to quickly look things up without having to switch to another app. A big plus of Android over iOS is that it's much more flexible and powerful when it comes to exchanging files or bits of information between apps - a process that's notoriously cumbersome on iOS, because you end up with several copies of one and the same object. Android tablets seem to work fine with accessories, too, such as the Apple Wireless Keyboard or the Cosmonaut Stylus.

Working with files

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20131021-162421.jpg

The first thing I usually do is gather meeting documents and other relevant material into a folder on my device. While I appreciate the portability that cloud services like Dropbox afford, I make it a point to keep work-related stuff offline. Most Android tablets already come with a file manager or at least a "Downloads" app pre-installed, but those apps are often confusing, too limited in their functionality or both. After some googling, I settled with Clean File Manager and have been quite happy so far. As you can see in the screenshot, you have access to files by file type. You can manage files, add folders, zip and unzip files, just to mention a few handy features. Folders you need often can be added to the "Bookmarks" section in the left navigation, which I find very useful. Unlike "Documents", my favourite file manager on the iPad, Clean File Manager does not actually let you view documents. That's alright, since your Android tablet probably came with some sort of document viewer or Office software like Polaris Office. If you want document annotation (and why wouldn't you?), you'll have to install another app. I went with the rather popular Adobe Reader which works fine, albeit not as smoothly as "Documents" on the iPad. For example, selecting text is sometimes a bit fiddly and not as easy as in other Android applications.

Terminology

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20131021-162531.jpg

Unfortunately, my favourite terminology software - Interplex - is not available on the Android platform (yet?). I am not a fan of using tables in Word or Excel spreadsheets for terminology, so I searched the Play Store for database apps. And I must say, I found a true gem called "Memento". This is a multi-purpose database app for managing all kinds of things from contacts to collector's items. But since it is so flexible it works great for terminology management. Just create a database for your topic and language combination and you're good to go. Great features of Memento include:

  • simplicity
  • starring entries to create a list of favourites (nice for listing terms that are very important or hard to memorize)
  • adding a direct link (shortcut) to any glossary in Memento to the Android home screen
  • synchronisation with Google Drive spreadsheets which allows for easy desktop entry, collaboration with colleagues and backup.

Reference apps

The only reference apps I tried during my test were dict.cc and Linguee. Dict.cc works great, allows you to download language packs for offline use and was reliable content-wise. Linguee, however, was completely unusable for me (and my colleague, too) as it kept crashing while I tried to look up words.

What about handwriting?

I don't know about you, but for me, a seven-inch tablet almost begs to be used as a digital notepad. And I have used the MemoPad as exactly that, in combination with my beloved Cosmonaut stylus - but not in an actual meeting (yet). For me to dare using it in a mission-critical situation, the note-taking apps and the tablet itself must be rock-solid. I am still afraid of hitting the wrong button in the heat of the action, inadvertently sending my valuable notes into digital nirvana. But that may just be a question of adaptation and practice on my part. After all, other interpreters have already proven that it's feasible. Also, Asus has added added a setting to its MemoPad that lets the user deactivate the "home bar" (back/home buttons, task manager) which should be very useful in this context. My iPad favourite for handwriting is Penultimate, which is part of the Evernote family, but not available on Android. From the apps I have tried, I liked Handwriting best, mainly because of the uncluttered and functional interface and because of how easy it is to add new pages and navigate between them. For reference, here are the other apps I played with:

Conclusion

All in all, this experiment was really fun. I will definitely do this again and put the Asus to the test during a week of meetings here in Brussels. Stay tuned!

Will you Capiche?

[Link] An interview with Holly Behl