There’s something awe-inspiring about the latest crop of tablet computers. They’re like something out of a science fiction movie: Handheld screens with few or no buttons which run for hours even days on a charge, let you communicate with friends and colleagues around the world by text, voice, or video, and read a book, watch a movie, or play a game at a moment’s notice thanks to instant on capabilities.
So it’s no wonder that millions of Apple iPads have been sold in the last year, or that nearly every PC and phone maker is rushing to bring its own tablet to market. But as cool as tablets are, there are some things they’re just not very good at and that’s why I have a hard time imagining slates without keyboards or touchpads truly replacing laptop computers anytime soon — at least not without some major changes.
Computers are versatile devices that can perform a number of different tasks. As a guy who writes about computers every day, I’m not surprised that friends and family members ask me which computer they should buy on a fairly regular basis. The problem is there’s no one-size-fits all answer. What I value in a computer isn’t necessarily the same as what you value. Sure, everybody would like an ultralight laptop with excellent battery life, but a hardcore gamer is going to value bleeding edge graphics over battery life, while business travelers may need longer battery life and the assurance that a PC can run the office software used in their corporate environments.
A growing number of people are finding that tablets meet most of their mobile computing needs, allowing them to use a laptop or desktop computer less. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, I ran across several journalists who told me that they were using the Samsung Galaxy Tab or Apple iPad for much of their reporting from the show floor. This surprised me, since I find a physical keyboard essential for writing and editing articles, and since I find the full web interface for WordPress to be much easier to use than the WordPress apps for iOS and Android. To each their own, I guess.
I’m much less surprised to learn that people who are primarily interested in using mobile devices to read the news, respond to email, watch videos, and play games are attracted to tablets. They do many of those things just as well as a laptop computer, with the added benefits of running for 10 hours on a charge, weighing less than 2 pounds, and turning on the instant you press the power button.
So why am I claiming that slates like the Apple iPad and Motorola XOOM aren’t really replacements for laptop computers? It’s because most existing software includes desktop computer apps and web apps simply weren’t designed to be used with a touchscreen. That’s changing fast, as developers and web publishers move to push out tablet-friendly versions of their apps, and even of their operating systems. But if you pick up a tablet today and navigate to some web sites, try to play some games, or perform certain tasks, you’re in for a world of disappointment.
Surfing the web on a tablet is almost like experiencing the uncanny valley. You almost feel like you’re experiencing the real thing, but things are just different enough to be a little creepy… or at least annoying.
For instance, when you bring up a web site that normally reacts to a mouse-over or “hover” motion, nothing happens on a tablet because there’s no real way to hover your finger without tapping on the screen. So you miss half the jokes in the xkcd web comic unless you install a mobile app version of the site. And getting drop-down or pop-up menus to work in web apps such as WordPress can be a hit-or-miss prospect.
Most modern tablets are also designed to function like large smartphones. While multitasking is now common, that typically means running a music player or another app in the background while you’re using a calculator, web browser, or chat app in the foreground. Android, iOS, and other mobile platforms don’t make it easy to run two applications side-by-side which means that dragging and dropping, copying and pasting, and other tasks are much harder on this type of tablet than on an old-school PC.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn that typing on a good tablet isn’t nearly as difficult as I initially thought it would be. The Apple iPad has an excellent on-screen keyboard that’s almost as easy to type on as a physical keyboard, even if it doesn’t provide any tactile feedback. And the viewing angles on the tablet are good enough that you can place the device flat on a table and see what you’re typing without straining your neck too much.
Not all tablets are created equally in this respect. While the Google Android 3.0 Gingerbread keyboard on the Motorola XOOM is far easier to use on a 10 inch tablet than the Android 2.x keyboard which was really designed for 4 inch and smaller phones, I still find myself hitting the wrong key pretty frequently. I’m sure I could train myself to get used to the keyboard with time though, and the XOOM has excellent viewing angles. Many cheaper tablets, on the other hand, have awful viewing angles so that the screen washes out when you place the tablet on a tablet and sit down in a chair. That means you’re best off holding these cheaper tablets in one hand while poking at the screen with another, or holding them with two hands and using your thumbs to type.
I still type about twice as fast on a physical keyboard, and can’t really imagine writing a 1200 word article such as this one on a tablet, but others may beg to differ — and voice recognition apps are making keyboards even less necessary in some situations.
Some of the issues I’ve raised have a simple solution: use a tablet running Windows or Ubuntu or another desktop operating system instead of a mobile OS. Unfortunately the developers behind these operating systems still have a long way to go to make them as easy to use on a mobile device as iOS or Android.
When you take an operating system that was designed for a smatphone and scale it up to a larger display, you don’t have to design a totally new way to interact with existing apps. Touch is touch. But when you take an OS such as Windows which has been around for more than 20 years and try to retool it for touch, you end up creating odd workarounds for actions that are simple on a traditional PC.
For instance, it’s great that you can tap and hold the screen in Windows to emulate a right-click mouse action. But the action takes longer on a tablet, which sort of defeats the purpose of using a device that’s supposed to be more convenient.
Hovering, on the other hand, is difficult to accomplish without properly supported hardware such as a mouse, touchpad, or a tablet with an active digitizer and pen.
Ultimately, today’s tablets may allow some people to stop using laptop computers — but for many people they’re at best a supplemental device. But tomorrow’s tablets may arrive into a world where web sites and desktop apps are designed from the ground up for touch. And when I say tomorrow, I mean in 5 or 10 years, because let’s face it, it’s not like legacy apps are going to disappear overnight. But neither are tablets, so we’re likely to see more and more development aimed at producing apps and media that are just as easy to use on a tablet as on a laptop computer.