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Tablets vs. Laptops

Should You Buy A Tablet Instead Of A Laptop?

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Father and looking at tablet toghether laughing
Klaus Vedfelt/Iconica/Getty Images
ASUS X552EA

ASUS X552EA

©ASUSTeK
Apple iPad Air

Apple iPad Air

©Apple

Tablets have become quite popular thanks to their extreme portability, easy to use interfaces and the wide range of ways they can be used. In many ways, they can almost replace a laptop for someone on the go. But is a tablet really a better choice for someone over a more traditional laptop? After all, laptops can also be extremely portable and have a much wider range of tasks they can be used for.

In this article, I'm going to take a look at the various differences between tablets and laptops to see how they compare to one another and which of the two may be better. By examining these in more detail, one can then have a clearer understanding of which of these two types of mobile computing platforms would serve them better.

Input Method

The most obvious difference between a tablet and a laptop is the lack of a keyboard. Tablets rely solely on a touchscreen interface for all input. This is fine when it involves mainly pointing, dragging or tapping to navigate around a program. The problems come in when you have to input text into a program such as an email or document. Since they have no keyboard, users are required to type on virtual keyboards that have varying layouts and designs. Most people cannot type type as quickly or as accurately on a virtual keyboard. Users do have the option of adding an external Bluetooth keyboard to most tablets to make this more like a laptop but it adds costs and peripherals that must be taken with the tablet.

Result: Laptops for those that write a lot, tablets for those that do more point interaction.

Size

This is probably the biggest reason to go with a tablet compared to a laptop. Tablets have the size roughly of a small pad of paper and a weight that is under two pounds. Most laptops are far larger and heavier. Even one of the smallest ultraportables, the Apple MacBook Air 11 weighs just over two pounds and has a profile that is larger than an iPad Air. The main reason for this is the keyboard and trackpad which require it to be larger. Add in more powerful components that require additional cooling and power and they get even larger. Because of this, it is much easier to carry around a tablet than a laptop especially if you happen to be traveling.

Result: Tablets

Battery Life

Tablets are design for efficiency because of the low power requirements of their hardware components. In fact, the majority of the interior of a tablet is taken up by the battery. In comparison, laptops use more powerful hardware. The battery component of the laptop is a far smaller percentage of the laptops internal components. Thus, even with the higher capacity battery of laptops, they do not run as long as a tablet. Many of the tablets right now can run up to ten hours of web usage before require a charge. The average laptop would only run for roughly four to five hours with a few systems able to stretch it out to eight hours but that still less than a tablet. This means that tablets can achieve all day usage which few laptops can achieve.

Result: Tablets

Storage Capacity

In order to keep their size and costs down, tablets have had to rely on new solid state storage memory as a means to store programs and data. While these have the potential for faster access and low power usage, they have one major disadvantage in the amount of files they can store. Most tablets come with configurations that allow between 16 and 64 gigabytes of storage. By comparison, most laptops still use traditional hard drives that hold far much more. The average budget laptop comes with a 500GB hard drive. This won't always be the case though as some laptops have moved to solid state drives as well and may have as little as 64GB of space.

Result: Laptops

Performance

Since most tablets are based on extremely low powered processors, they will generally fall behind a laptop when it comes to computing tasks. Of course, a lot of this will depend on how the tablet or laptop is being used. For tasks like email, web browsing, playing video or audio, both platforms will typically work just as well as none requires much performance. Things get more complicated once you start doing more demanding tasks. For the most part, multitasking or graphics performance it typically better suited with a laptop but not always. Take for instance video editing. One would assume that this would always be in the laptops favor but a recent test of video editing on the iPad 2 with iMovie found its specialized video hardware actually provided higher performance than doing the same task with iMovie on a MacBook Pro. The difference is the laptop version has more capabilities which brings us to the next item to consider...

Result: Laptops

Software

The software that runs on a laptop or tablet can be vastly different in terms of capabilities. Now if the tablet PC is running Windows it can theoretically run the same software as a laptop but will likely be slower. There are some exceptions to this such as the Microsoft Surface Pro. This can make it easy to use it as a primary laptop using the same software used in a work environment. The two other major tablet platforms right now are Android and iOS. Both of these require applications specific to their operating systems. There are tons of programs available for each of these and many will do most of the basic tasks that a laptop can do. The problem is the lack of the input devices and hardware performance limitations mean that some more advanced features supplied by corresponding laptop class programs may have to be dropped in order to fit into the tablet environment.

Result: Laptops

Cost

The are really two tiers of tablets on the market. The majority of the tablets cost around $200 to $300 and do most tasks just fine. This places them several hundred less than a budget class laptop that is priced around $500. Then you have the premium tablets such as the iPad Air that start around $500 and up and the Microsoft Surface Pro that is $900 and up. So, this really depends upon the type of tablet and computer that you are going to be comparing. On the low end, the advantage is clearly for tablets but at hte higher end, laptops because much more competitive when it comes to cost.

Result: Tie

Stand Alone Device

This category is describing a situation where a tablet would be your only computer system. It isn't something that many people would necessarily think about when looking at the devices but it is pretty critical. A laptop is a fully self contained system that one can use fully as a computer system in terms of loading data and programs onto and backing up. Many tablets actually require an additional computer system beyond the tablet for backing up the device or even activating it. This is gradually changing with the rise of cloud storage but when it comes right down to it, the laptop still holds the advantage as tablets are still treated like secondary devices even when it comes to their apps and data.

Result: Laptop

Conclusion

As it stands, laptops still offer a greater level of flexibility when it comes to mobile computing. They may not have the same level of portability, running times or ease of use of a tablet but there are still a number of issues that tablets need to resolve before they become the main means of mobile computing. Over time, many of these issues will likely be resolved. If you already have a desktop computer, than a tablet may be an option if you use it mainly for entertainment and web usage. If it is going to be your primary computer, than a laptop is definitely the way to go.

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