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.

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19 replies on “Tablets are awesome devices… but that doesn’t make them laptop replacements (yet)”

  1. Hi everyone,

    what is the most interesting advise? How do you think about it ?

    we must buy a laptop + pda + and a tab?

    it feels like crazy…because IT’S CRAZY

    We customers really want a all in one solution!!
    one for using at home! maybe a SUPER all in one fast TAB
    and one using outside! maybe a super all in one small dual book PDA/gsm

    now i have;
    HTC desire HD as pda/ gsm
    entourage pocket edge
    a laptop
    over a few weeks i will buy: samsung p 7100 galaxy tab 10

    greetings from Holland/ The Netherlands
    spontaanfris@hotmail.com

  2. I also doubt that it will replace the laptop. It will replace it for regular browsing, yes but not in other areas. I use my laptop more than internet browsing. I use it for video editing, encoding, etc. and a tablet can’t do that.

  3. I love the new tablets, but I doubt they will ever truly replace my laptop. Call me sentimental or whatever, but I love the feel of the keyboard beneath my fingers. Sometimes, touchscreens just can’t compare. Silly reasoning, I know.

  4. It’s an evolutionary process. PCs didn’t replace minicomputers and mainframes. Instead, they changed how we use computing devices. It’s the same with tablets. They expand the way we use, and particularly where we can access, data-based services.

    (Sent from my iPad while commuting.)

  5. I think tablets are great for those who don’t really need a computer but a bigger version of a cell phone for things that the screen of a cell phone is too small for. I agree that the tablet pc is more of a supplement to a notebook/laptop computer than a replacement for it.

    1. Yes and no. I was onboard with the whole tablets-are-for-content-consumption thing at first, but people have surprised us with innovative ways to use these little guys to create music, edit videos, and do all sort of other things.

      You can create with a tablet — you just can’t necessarily pull it off using tools designed for a mouse and keyboard.

  6. I’ve been waiting a long time for you to write an editorial like this, and it was well worth the wait. Obviously, I don’t agree with many of your conclusions, but I think you come to your opinions with a refreshingly level head. More than that, you can actually write well (unlike most of your tech blogging peers). Oh, and just so that this doesn’t come off as a total “love fest”, I have to agree that tablets ARE awesome, but the touchscreen slates that you call “tablets” in this article…not so much.

  7. If tablets continue to catch on with the general, they be the next evolution in communication. Most of what the general public requires from a digital device can accomplished on a tablet. The hardcore computer users are still going to need a desktop for full blown word processing, spreadsheet number crunching and graphic design.
    The hidden keyboard concept of Samsung’s Slider 7 line of tablets could be all that’s needed to complete the demise of netbooks and maybe even laptops.
    Microsoft is going to have to reinvent Windows if it is to continue its dominance is the computer arena. At the least Windows 8 would need to have an interface which will be practical on both desktops and touch machines.

    1. As I read back my post, I can see my skills with a touch keyboard need much improvement. I would be the perfect candidate for that Samsung tablet.

  8. You can go to m.xkcd.com to read the alt text alongside the comic without installing an xkcd-specific app.

    1. I missed that, thanks! But while there may be a mobile version of that one particular web site, there are still plenty of others which aren’t yet designed for touch which is the larger problem.

  9. Interesting read Brad. You bring up a few points that have never crossed my mind. I think for the most part I agree.

    The reality is how practical is a tablet? I get ereaders and their growth and demand. I think the tablet is getting confused.

    I laugh because I saw someone in a cafe with a bluetooth keyboard and a tablet sitting on a stand. I ask myself why. I have a great solution, a laptop/netbook. Benefits? The keyboard is fitted right onto the screen! The screen can be tilted to different degrees easily and no case required.

    I had the kids out the other day in the car. I have a portable dvd player. I has? A screen that tilts! So that tablet needs a special case so I can hang it on a seat or the kids have to sit their holding it up at the right angle for an hour. Not likely.

    How practical is the tablet experience? It did and still does strike me as completely backassward. I’m not saying they aren’t cool, but I’m saying who out there has cash sitting around to buy another device when you have a smartphone and a laptop/netbook already? Is the tablet that compelling? Seriously?

    I think everyone is confusing tablet with ereader. I really do. The iPad is brilliant and the sales back that up. The iPod had great number too and I don’t see 10 other mp3 players on the shelf. The iPad is the Apple’s Kindle. That’s the point most people are missing in my humble opinion.

  10. The “post-PC” doctrine seems to be focused on a zero sum game, in which every new form factor drives the last one to extinction. The PC supposedly drove the Mainframe to extinction, and the laptop drove the desktop to extinction. Thus the tablet must drive the laptop to extinction.
    A more nuanced view is that each new form factor stole away the functionality that it was best suited, while the old form factor was transfigured to better meet its new role. While I love my tablets, I still carry a netbook around as well, and at home and work my desktop provides the huge screen real estate and processing muscle necessary for complex heavy lifting.
    I always fall back to the late Mark Wexler’s insight, that we have gone from one computer serving many people, to one computer serving one person and are entering the era where many computers serve one person. It’s no longer a question desktop or laptop or tablet, but instead a spectrum of devices ranging from big televisions and smartboards, down to multiple tablets of differing size.
    Increasingly these computers will bleed into each other. Rather than deciding between a tablet and a laptop, it will be a question of mixing and matching displays, storage and input devices. Consider a EEE transformer like device, with an autonomous keyboard element which pairs with your home server and the monitor/TVs at home or at a hotel, but can then be paired with a tablet or tablets for travel. When at home the tablets become adjunct displays and controls for the server/desktop/entrainment system.
    In this vision, rather than becoming more and more intricate monolithic do everything systems, they become light and simple displays and interfaces that serve as part of a dense cloud we nest within the overall cloud of the net.

  11. And how difficult is going to be, to use a laptop in one of those apps built for touch?
    Bottom line, if you are in for a computing device, don´t rule out laptops| netbooks

  12. I could write a 400-page footnoted book manuscript on an ancient Kaypro 2, running CP/M and Perfect Writer. On a tablet, no. Since I am still in the business of writing scholarly books, tablets are useless and netbooks nearly so.

    1. I agree with you about tablets/slates, but I disagree with you about netbooks. I did the bulk of a 100 page master’s thesis on a first generation ASUS eeepc, using LyX and Mathematica. It was a pleasant enough experience.

  13. “It’s because most existing software includes desktop computer apps and web apps simply weren’t designed to be used with a touchscreen.”

    Very much agreed, but it is more than just the interface, it is also that lack of IO and performance that allows genuine productivity computing.

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