Tablet PCs 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 tablet PCs 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.
The most obvious difference between a tablet PC and a laptop is the lack of a keyboard. Tablet's rely solely on a touch interface on the screen 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 when 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.
This is probably the biggest reason to go with a tablet PC 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 2. 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.
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 three to four 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.
In order to keep their size and costs down, tablet PCs 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. Extremely affordable netbooks still have 160 gigabytes of storage which allows for ten times the amount of data as the most affordable tablets. 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.
Since most tablet PCs 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 neither 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...
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 7 such as the HP Slate or ASUS Eee Slate it can theoretically run the same software as a laptop but will likely be slower. 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.
Tablets are relatively new to the market and as a result, they tend to carry a fairly high price premium for the new technologies they have installed in them. The average starting price for a tablet PC seems to have settled around $499. By comparison, there are laptop computers that can be found for as little as $300 to $400. Of course, most people are probably not going to be looking at the least expensive laptop. The average price of the laptop is more around $650 which is slightly more expensive than the mid range tablet PC cost. Laptops still have the advantage over tablets though if you look at equivalent performance and features. After all, netbooks start below $300 but can generally handle all the same tasks as a tablet, just in a not as easy to carry or use format.
Stand Alone Device
This category is describing a situation where a tablet PC 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 tablet PCs actually require an additional computer system beyond the tablet for backing up the device or even activating it. The iPad 2 is a good example of this as the first thing a user is required to do is hook it up to a PC to activate it. Now, one could do this on another person's computer but you still have the problem of backing up data especially if you want to temporarily remove an application if you have limited space.
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 PC 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.