Tablets vs Laptops

By | October 23, 2012

Tablet or laptop? This is the new million dollar question on our customers’ minds, and I hear it a few times a month now. While technicians such as ourselves can easily decipher which is best for our own needs, the clients we service don’t always have the same easy ability to do so. There is a lot of hype and distortion out in the media about what tablets can do and where PCs are being phased out. Some of the information is accurate, while a good portion of it is wishful (and inaccurate) thinking.

The newest issue of InformationWeek did a great side-by-side comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of each respective device in relation to the Enterprise. While our roles as consultants may serve a different community, the considerations at the heart of this decision are very similar at face value. Customers are looking to see if tablets can either replace their current laptops, or if they can supplement their primary PC with a tablet for mobile purposes.
Tablets may be the flashy, sexy newcomers to the computing arena, but their best aspects are only useful to end users who have certain needs to fill. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution to the tablet vs laptop debate, and I won’t make such claims in either direction. What I hope to do is provide the groundwork for how you can advise customers that are turning to you in their device purchasing quest.
Below are the most pertinent questions that need to be answered before deciding on a device, and represent the same items I ask my own FireLogic customers when they look to me for my opinion.
Are they looking to replace or compliment their existing technology?
This is probably the most important questions of all, and is the biggest influence on the direction I recommend for a client. If they are looking to merely extend their mobile capability while on the road, a tablet is a clear choice for light web browsing, light email, and some media consumption on the go. But for a heavy user that depends on email for their work, or someone that clearly has a usage-scenario that benefits from the tactile aspects of a traditional laptop, I’d steer them clear of replacing a laptop entirely with a tablet. As they say, a microwave is a great device for the kitchen, but you’d never dump your stove in place of one.
How important is size/weight of the device they are looking for?
The laptop is a clear loser here, as even the smallest Ultrabooks out there cannot compete with a fully decked tablet in this area. But each customer’s needs vary, and a requirement of “small and light” can be a meandering target at times. Some people require that the device weigh in at a pound or less even at the expense of functionality. But some are comfortable with the size of a 12-13? laptop and need the extra versatility. Ensure that your customers know they are making a sacrifice in either direction: small size for reduced capability.
How much of a concern is battery life?
In general, tablets have the clear advantage here. An Android tablet or newer iPad can get by without a recharge for a good 8-11 hours usually, while the average 14? laptop is lucky to get past 5 hours. Sensitivity to power consumption is relative however; someone that is close to power outlets most of the day may not care that they have to recharge once or twice to keep going. Some users may need a full day of usage without thinking about a power outlet. There are extreme options for laptop users who need excellent battery life, though, that sway the field a bit. Lenovo for example has the 25hr capable Thinkpad X230 which runs on a regular plus slice battery combo (for a cost of $700+ however.)
What kind of application needs does the customer have?
Let’s face it: tablets are nice, but their usage of Android and iOS limits compatibility of traditional LOB (Line of Business) apps. This is becoming less of a problem these days as much of what we took for granted on the desktop is now being thrown into the cloud. But applications like Photoshop, Quickbooks, Peachtree, ACT, and other important business suites are only fully functional on a Windows-based system. The advent of the sleek Microsoft Surface tablet coming this holiday season may blend these two realms together, but for now, application needs are fairly split across OS lines.
How important is GPS functionality and mobile (4G/LTE) access?
Tablets come out in this area by far. A clear majority of them have integrated LTE or 4G chips for mobile broadband access and are supplemented by nearly-standard GPS chips for location awareness functionality. This may be key for some customers’ line of work or personal needs and should be accounted for. While laptops can add such functionality pretty easily, it’s another added expense, item of upkeep, and device that needs to be worried about (some laptops can integrate these items internally, but not many.)
How important is a traditional keyboard (tactile input) for the customer?
This is probably one of the gotcha questions that catches most customers of mine off guard. It seems many of them believe that tablets either come with keyboards in the box or can have them installed relatively easily. While I won’t say it “can’t be done,” it’s not a pretty setup to have one of the myriad of keyboard devices attached to a tablet. And anyway – doesn’t this defeat the purpose of the size/mobility aspects of a tablet device? The best hybrid to this dilemma is likely the forthcoming Microsoft Surface, but likely at the price of a well equipped laptop anyway. Ensure your customers are aware of the touch-only nature of tablets and that their typing needs will be a big factor into what device suits them best.
What peripherals/accessories does a customer rely on?
This factor could also have a large bearing on a decision either way. Tablets by nature don’t have a lot of traditional ports, and worse, have even slimmer driver support. Printing, one of the biggest complaints with tablets, has been mildly appeased through Google Cloud Print-enabled and AirPrint-ready printers, but the number of models available is relatively slim. Furthermore, other various devices may be compatible (especially on the Android front) but usually require dongles for most items that don’t run on USB. If a customer doesn’t have external peripheral needs, this point is moot. But it’s best not to be surprised about lack of compatibility after a purchase.
What kind of comfort does the customer have with the potential new OS?
Even a small child can pickup and learn to use an iPad in short order. It’s not a question of how usable an OS is. The biggest issue at hand is the comfort level of someone learning a new platform, and likewise, how willing are they to make this transition. If a longtime Windows laptop user (who travels for business) asks me whether they should dump their laptop for an Android tablet, I’d put up the red flags right away. Not only do new platforms present a learning curve for end users, but this translates directly into downtime and potential reduced productivity. While all new products present some sort of first time experience issues, jumping OS platforms is much more risky for some users as opposed to others. Be sure they understand what you are getting into before they purchase.
As you can see from the above, this decision is not as straightforward as the hype may make it. Personally, I don’t use a tablet on a regular basis as I have no needs to fill with such a device. The only thing close to a tablet which I love is my Kindle Keyboard for reading my ebooks. That’s about it. My notebook handles everything else I need in a computing device: email, research, VoIP communication, writing, music, and web browsing.

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