Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tablet PCs

We know what desktops are for, we know what laptops are for, we know what smartphones are for. All-purpose tablet PCs, though, have never really taken off, namely because ... well, save for niche uses (like in hospitals, hard-hat job sites, or as e-readers), it's not all that obvious how they might fit into our day-to-day lives. That's the problem Apple hopes to solve this coming Wednesday. Now, you'll have to indulge me here, because I've taken quite the roundabout way to framing Apple's all-but-certain announcement Wednesday of an all-purpose, $1,000-ish touchscreen tablet that (if the Wall Street Journal's reporting is correct) is intended to be shared by the entire family. Here's the plan: I'm going to go through each of the main PC categories and tick off their key characteristics, advantages and disadvantages (as I see them, anyway), finishing up with tablet PCs. The grades I've assigned are relative to the respective categories, and of course, broad generalizations are the name of the game here. Most of the pros and cons I've listed below will be obvious, but something interesting starts to happen when we get to tablet PCs: the advantage and disadvantages begin to get pretty nebulous, and that's the challenge and/or opportunity that Apple will face in a few days. All set? Then here we go ... Desktop Portability: None, zero, nada; it sits on your desk, and that's about it. Grade: F Display: As big as you can stand, and you could even add a second (or a third) display if you like. Grade: A+ Input: Again, you can get as big and roomy of a keyboard as you wish, complete with dedicated function keys and a numeric keypad, plus your favorite ergonomic mouse. Grade: A+ Performance: Bleeding edge, provided you can afford it. Grade: A+ Best for: Heavy-duty number crunchers. Hard-core gamers who crave cranking up their graphics settings to the max. Music and video editors dealing with gargantuan files. Laptop Portability: Your average 4- to 5-pound laptop will fit nicely in a small backpack, perfect for toting to the office or surfing on the sofa. But take it on, say, a three-hour hike, and your 5-pound notebook will feel more like 15 at the end; also, using a 15-inch laptop in coach on an airplane could be an awkward proposition. Grade C+ Display: A 13- to 14-inch laptop display will do the job just fine nine times out of 10, but starts to feel cramped once you've opened more than a couple of windows; you could always add a second display, but if you do, there goes the portability factor. Grade: B Input: Laptop keyboards are, for the most part, nearly as comfortable and roomy as desktop keyboards, but typically the function keys must buddy-up with the numeric keys, and unless you're prepared to bring along (and have the space for) an external mouse, you'll have to make do with a touch-sensitive trackpad or those little, eraser-sized nubs in the center of the keyboard (ugh). Grade: B Performance: The smaller the size, the more compromised the performance: that's the inherent trade-off when it comes to tech. Don't get me wrong; there are some wicked-fast laptops out there (although you may have to pay more or prepare to lug around more weight to get one), and if you're simply surfing, watching a streaming Netflix movie, or working on your Master's thesis, a laptop will meet your needs with speed to spare. That said, a desktop PC will almost always be more powerful than a similarly priced laptop, and if you're editing a three-hour HD movie, you're gonna want a desktop to do it. Grade: B+ Best for: Almost anyone performing day-to-day surfing, multimedia, and/or Office duties, from executives and corporate road warriors to students and casual, lounging-on-the-couch home users. In short: they're great, all-purpose devices, which is why almost every home has one. Netbook PC Portability: There's a world of difference between carrying around a 5-pound, 13-inch laptop and a 10-inch, 2.5-pound netbook, believe me. No, you can't fit a netbook in your pocket, but the smaller and thinner ones will fit in a (largish) purse, no problem, and they're also perfect for use on the seat-back tray table on a jetliner. Grade: B- Display: While a 13-inch laptop screen feels pretty much like a desktop display, a 10-inch netbook screen looks like, well ... half of one. For on-the-go info snacking or checking e-mail, netbook displays will do the job, but you'll have to do a lot more scrolling on your Web browser, and working on a big Excel spreadsheet would be a royal pain. Grade: C Input: You'll still get a full QWERTY keyboard on a netbook PC, but they're typically slightly smaller than a full-sized laptop keyboard, and they take getting used to. Again, a netbook QWERTY is fine for tapping out a quick e-mail or updating your Facebook status, but I wouldn't want to write a novel on one. Grade: C Performance: Once again, the size-to-performance ratio comes into play. Yes, there are some impossibly-small netbooks out there, but they're often powered by smartphone-calibre processors that'll start wheezing the moment you tee up a YouTube video. That's the trade-off. Grade: C- Best for: Road warriors and tech fashionistas who want to surf, fire off a few e-mails, and perform some light Office chores on the go, all in a compact, 2- to 3-pound package. Smartphone Portability: Small enough to fit in a pocket; goes anywhere and everywhere (well, besides underwater). Grade: A+ Display: Even with the latest, high-resolution 3.5-inch displays on newer handsets, the screens on smartphones are—let's face it—awfully small. They work in a pinch for mobile-optimized apps and Web pages or the odd YouTube video, but watching a full-length movie or scrolling around a lengthy PDF can be pushing it. Grade: D Input: Those tiny BlackBerry keypads and virtual QWERTY keyboards come in handy for firing off text messages, updating Facebook, or tapping in a username and password, but if you need to compose a lengthy e-mail, well ... kill me now. Grade: D Performance: Smartphone processors have come a long way in the past few years; indeed, have you played one of those new 3D games on an iPhone 3GS lately? That said, it's not like the processors in laptops and desktops have been standing still, and the smaller you go with a gadget, the more you sacrifice in performance. Grade: D Best for: Almost anyone who wants to check e-mail, zap off some tweets, watch a quick video, or play a teeny, tiny game without having to lug a laptop around. (Oh, right—you can make voice calls on it, too.) Tablet PCs Portability: Most tablet-sized devices fall somewhere between laptops and netbooks in terms of size, with dedicated, single-purpose tablets (like the Kindle or the Sony E-Reader) considerably smaller and cheaper than all-purpose, full-power tablets (such as those made by the likes of HP). In general, though, tablets aren't as hefty as your average laptop, but they won't fit in your pocket, either; you've still got another gadget to carry around. Grade: B to B+ Display: Again, there's a wide range here, depending on whether you're talking about a single-purpose device or an all-purpose tablet. An e-reader tablet with a 5- to 10-inch display might be perfect for reading a book or flipping through a virtual magazine, but for all-pupose use, a 10- to 11-inch screen on a tablet can be as limiting as it is on a netbook. Grade: B to C Input: Well, once again ... it depends. If you're a doctor on your rounds and you've got the right interface software running, a touchscreen tablet PC might be even better than an actual keyboard. But for the average user trying to perform average, day-to-day desktop duties, tapping on a display with your fingertip or a stylus can't hold a candle to a tried-and-true keyboard-and-mouse combo ... that is, short of some kind of revolution in tablet interface design (which we may or may not see from Apple come Wednesday). Grade: A+ (for "vertical" applications in medicine, architecture, design, and so on) to D (for everyday use ... as of today, anyway). Performance: Sorry to repeat myself, but ... it depends. For single-purpose e-readers, tablet performance might be pretty limited, but that's perfectly fine when it comes to perusing a book. On the other hand, some all-purpose tablet PCs have the same power under the hood as a laptop ... but the same girth, as well. Grade: C- to B+ (but, depending on what you're using it for, C- -level performance might be all you need). Best for: Well, here's where things get interesting. Tablet PCs have never really taken off as a category, and it's easy to see why. For general, all-purpose use—and absent a truly remarkable touchscreen user interface—there's practically nothing a tablet can do that a laptop PC can't do better. But for specific, niche uses (or "vertical markets," as we call them in the biz), a tablet PC might be just the thing; say, for an architect that's making notes and sketching designs on a job site with a stylus, a doctor tapping checkboxes during rounds (as I mentioned above), an exec delivering an impromptu presentation at Starbucks, or a sunbather reading the latest John Grisham thriller poolside, well ... in those specific cases, it's hard to beat a tablet. And that's precisely the problem ... ... that Apple is facing on Wednesday morning. From what we've been reading (Apple iself, of course, has been mute up to this point), the big brains in Cupertino want to position the iSlate/iPad/iTablet (or whatever it'll be called) as a device for the entire family, to be shared in the living room, and apparently for all-purpose uses like flipping through virtual magazines, checking e-mail, surfing the Web, and watching videos—all of which you can do perfectly well on a garden-variety laptop (or on an iPhone, for that matter). So ... given that, why would anyone want to cough up $1,000 (if the speculation is right) for an all-purpose touchscreen tablet (rather than, say, a $250- to $500-ish, speci

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