So, Why Get a Tablet?


Update 6/30/2011: I’ve been using a Honeycomb tablet of one kind (Motorola Xoom) or another (Asus Transformer) for a few months now, and I wouldn’t change anything that I wrote here. If anything, I’ll just say: take what I wrote in this post, and double it. The modern tablet is a surprising and wonderfully useful device. Toss in something like the Transformer’s integrated keyboard dock, and you have a truly productive device as well. Long story short: if you have the means to buy a tablet, then I highly recommend that you do so. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

I have to admit: a few months ago, I was as anti-tablet as anyone. Having used Windows Tablet PCs for years, I couldn’t see the sense in devices that had no good mechanism for entering information and creating content. Tablet PCs aren’t perfect—they don’t have the same battery life or instant-on capabilities as the Ipad-style tablet—but their active digitizers and pens and ability to convert to a standard notebook format meant that they can do everything a “real” PC can do, and then some.

What I’ll define as the “modern” tablet, but call simply “tablet” from here on out, is a category of devices that Apple created with the iPad and is primarily suited for consuming and accessing information and other content. I considered such a device to be incredibly limiting and, in all likelihood, a real waste of money. I knew the iPad would sell—Apple has their uncanny ability to predict and then meet market demand that nobody else quite perceives—but I didn’t think I’d ever spend my own hard-earned money on one.

Then I spent a little time with a Samsung Galaxy Tab at the office. I use the heck out of my Samsung Epic smartphone (and so really I should have known better), but at first the Tab seemed like just a larger, maybe too large, version of it. The more I used the Tab, however, and in particular when I opened an ebook and started reading, I got that warm fuzzy feeling that all geeks get when we experience something new and exciting. There was something there, I was discovering, and by the time I gave it back to its rightful owner, I was hooked.

It was the geeky warm and fuzzies, of course, that compelled me to spend just a little under $800 (plus tax) on a Motorola Xoom, and I have to say this: Apple deserves all the credit in the world for recognizing the potential value of the tablet. It’s one of those devices that you find new and different uses for the more you use it.

Here are what I see as a tablet’s key benefits:

  • Designed for capacitive multitouch: Windows Tablet PCs are fine with a pen, and of course most people are comfortable with a mouse or trackpad, but there’s something special about directly manipulating elements on a highly responsive touchscreen. It’s just more natural, and it’s also faster. You’ve likely experienced it on a smartphone; now imagine it on a larger screen with apps that are also optimized for it.
  • Mobile OS: Mobile operating systems are smaller and lighter, meaning they perform better (generally speaking) on slower processors than heavyweights like Windows and OS X. They’re also designed differently, with fewer but easier to access capabilities that tend to make them easier to master and less cumbersome to use. Android might not be as elegant or easy to use as iOS or webOS, but it’s far less complicated than any desktop OS. Being simpler in this case is better—the mobile OS does less, but it also takes less time and generally fewer taps to do what it does.
  • Mobile processor = incredible battery life: Mobile processors are misers, utilizing less power than any processor made to run a desktop OS. This equates to far better battery life, pound for pound, than most netbooks or notebooks. Exceptions exist, of course (HP recently introduced a notebook with something like 32 hours of battery life), but no matter what you won’t find a device that weighs around 1.5 pounds that’s capable of running for 10 hours or more on a single charge. Oh, and standby is amazing—if I’m not actively using my Xoom, it burns around 1% battery life per hour. Obviously, it’ll last quite awhile at that rate.
  • Instant-on: No matter what PC you’re using, coming out of sleep, resuming from hibernation, or booting takes some amount of time. A smartphone, however, responds instantly when you press the power button, every time. The reason is simple: mobile devices using mobile processors and mobile operating systems are made to be available on-demand—their sleep states are highly efficient and they’re designed to be immediately responsive. Tablets work the same way. Press the power button, and it comes alive. No muss, no fuss. It makes taking truly extemporaneous notes (short ones, granted), for example, not only possible but efficient.
  • Form factor: Tablets can’t be comfortably pocketed (or at all), but other than that they’re the perfect size. They’re lightweight, easy to carry, and easy to access. Netbooks can also be small and relatively light, but opening the lid and fumbling around with the physical keyboard doesn’t work in quite as many places. If a tablet is difficult to use standing up and lying down (and really, it’s not), a netbook or notebook is downright impossible. And a tablet doesn’t require a surface—a lap or, as with the typical notebook, something to protect from the heat—to work on.

So, with all this said, what’s a tablet good for, anyways? Well, for me at least, a tablet’s good (and in many cases simply best) for anything that doesn’t require desktop-level horsepower (e.g., advanced PC gaming or video editing) and that doesn’t involve heavy data entry. I won’t write a novel or any other long-form piece on a tablet, but I do use my Xoom for much of the research that goes into them. In fact, I’ve found the Xoom to be perfect for quickly locating and capturing research that I can then analyze in-depth on a PC.

Here are a few of the other things I would rather do on my Xoom than any other device I own:

  • Triaging email: I get lots of email, both to my personal and my work accounts. Some fair portion of it is obvious spam, some isn’t spam but it’s not terribly important, and some is really important and needs to be processed somehow. The Xoom is perfect for the task: the email client is paned, so it allows for easy selection and reading, and selecting emails to delete is far easier to do with a finger than with a mouse or trackpad. I can clean my inbox of junk faster on my Xoom, and it’s far more pleasant.
  • Catching up on newsgroups: I follow a number of RSS feeds for politics and technology, and do a fair bit of reading. Again, the form factor and touch interface is perfect for both casual and deep reading. It’s easy to scan a list, something the Google Reader client does well even if it’s not yet optimized for Honeycomb. Clicking through to the browser is fast, and Android does a great job of exposing other apps for saving information. I usually save material and links directly to Evernote, and Honeycomb’s outstanding copy and paste system makes doing so surprisingly easy.
  • Recreational browsing: When I’m browsing for fun, I don’t really want a laptop getting in my way. I’d just as soon relax on the couch and use a tablet. It’s easy, fast, and the combination of screen resolution and quality and distance from my eyes seems just about right for comfortable reading. Again, this is something that seems best on a tablet.
  • Ebook reading: I can read my Nookbooks in the Windows application on my PCs, but of course the experience is simply outstanding on the Xoom. The thing lasts forever, making battery life a non-issue for my longer reading sessions, and its instant-on nature means I can start reading immediately when I find a few free moments. Just like with browsing, the screen and distance are perfect. I do like my classic Nook with its e-Ink screen for when I’m reading in direct sunlight (such as on the beach or my back porch), but for everywhere else the Nook is my new favorite.
  • Twitter: Tablets are perfectly made for Twitter. When I’m writing a longer blog post (like this one), I use a PC. But for Twitter the on-screen keyboard (particularly using the outstanding Thumb Keyboard layout) is just find. And reading Twitter is as easy as reading anything else, and as efficient. Again, the Xoom is my favorite device for this task, although I’m looking forward to a Honeycomb-optimized Twitter client to take things to another level.
  • Notetaking: Nothing beats the Windows Tablet PC for extensive notetaking, by my needs are different nowadays. Where I once took complex notes many times a day, I now usually record fewer meetings and take shorthand notes to identify particularly important information. The Xoom is fine for what I need today, although the upcoming HTC Flyer with its active digitizer and pen combo does look excellent for anyone who needs to make diagrams and drawings and take more copious notes.
  • Casual gaming: Sometimes you want to take a quick break from work or fill a few minutes of idle time, and casual gaming has become a favorite for many. Tablets make for great casual gaming platforms, particularly newer models like the Xoom and iPad 2 with dual-core processors and relatively powerful graphics processing units (GPUs). Battery life takes a hit, of course, with intensive gaming sessions, but tablet batteries are so large to begin with that they tend to last longer for the purpose than the typical smartphone.
  • Videochatting: Not too many people are videochatting yet, but with more and more smartphones and tablets offering the capability, more people will be jumping on this particular bandwagon. Tablets make for good videoconferencing platforms simply because of their large screens, good performance, and great battery life.
  • Watching media: The Xoom doesn’t have as many options yet for watching media as the iPad 2, but from what I’ve seen so far, I can’t think of a better device for watching movies and viewing pictures. While it’s not as easily shared, for those times when I’m watching something by myself I can see a tablet being perfect for it. Certainly, watching YouTube is an enjoyable experience, and indeed the ability to watch Netflix and Hulu is one of the principal reasons why I envy iPad users.
  • Information portal: I usually keep the Xoom next to me as a second or third screen (depending on which PC I’m using) to have a quick portal into a variety of timely information. This is where Honeycomb shines compared to other tablet alternatives available or coming in the immediate future: the larger screen and truly functional widgets provide real, meaningful information such as unread emails, pending calendar items, weather updates, news blurbs, and more, all at a quick glance. My Epic also has this capability, but the smaller screen means the information snippets are smaller and fewer and thus not nearly so useful.

There are likely many other uses for a tablet that I’ve not covered here, but these are the ones I’ve identified for myself after about a week of using the Xoom. I’ve used my notebook far less in the same period, and find myself pulling it out or going to my desktop only when I have work requiring copious amounts of input or editing. And I’ve found the Xoom to be a lot more fun and less hassle, even with its first-generation Honeycomb bugs and limitations.

Some folks seem as anti-tablet as I was a few months ago. All I can say is this: get your hands on one for more than a few minutes before you make up your mind. Try out some of your most important tasks and see if the tablet form factor might make any of them easier or more functional for you. If you’re like me, you might surprise yourself at just how much you like the experience.

Let me know in the comments if you think tablets are the greatest things since since the graphical user interface, or complete wastes of money.


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