By Stephen Schenck | October 19, 2012 3:32 PM
Microsoft’s Surface tablets are nearly here, and their arrival, along with that of Windows 8, will continue to blur the line between tablets and fully-functional computers. Besides the available keyboard covers, part of what’s making both the Surface RT and Surface Pro models appear so much more full-featured than your run-of-the-mill Android or iOS tablet is the inclusion of a standard USB port for connecting peripherals. Is that something worth getting excited about?
We’ve seen full-sized USB ports on tablets before, with models like the Acer Iconia Tab A500 (above) supporting the attachment of regular USB accessories without the need for any sort of adapter. Still, the presence of such ports on tablets as a whole has been the exception, rather than the rule. With Surface, we could be seeing a much larger emphasis placed on such connectivity options, especially if Windows 8 gets users to abandon their desktop or laptop PCs in favor of a tablet as their primary computer.
Are these kind of USB ports all they’re cracked up to be? Do we really need such things on our tablets, or are they ultimately just too big and of limited use to demand widespread deployment? The editorial team at Pocketnow put together our own thoughts on the issue. After reading what we’ve got say, weigh-in down in the comments with your own take on the value of USB for tablets.
Tablets are about intimacy. Just you, and a screen. If you wanted printers and USB drives and mice, your laptop or desktop is just a few paces away. But to put USB on a tablet is like having to charge your phone in the middle of the day. It misses the point.
Anton D. Nagy
Full sized USB ports are thick and they add bulk to a slate in a world where (even though not all customers want it but) the OEMs strive for thinner and thinner. You’re giving up something and you’re hoping to get something in return, like functionality. But will it improve your life? USB support on a tablet doesn’t really make sense for me; where’s the thin line between tablets and notebooks/ultrabooks?
A tablet should be a bridge between a smartphone and a portable computer, not a notebook replacement (or at least not now, today). I don’t expect to plug my USB dongle in my tablet; give me fast internet to access my data in the Cloud (WiFi and/or SIM slot) and/or microSD card support. USB keyboards and mice are not an option for me if we talk tablets. So why should I be excited about full-size USB ports on a tablet? Maybe a USB CD/DVD writer? Not with a tablet. I can’t think of any usage scenario which would justify my need for USB support on a touchscreen slate, knowing my utilization habits. Hell, I barely use the USB ports on my laptop computer (or desktop for that matter).
At first, I’ll admit I wasn’t so fond of the iPad’s lack of a USB port, but after three years and five tablets later, I don’t miss it any more. A couple of years ago I would’ve been annoyed, but since tablets are wireless devices by design, we now find tons of alternatives that are even better than using USB ports in certain cases. If I want to transfer music to my tablet, there’s Wi-Fi sync or services like Pandora, Spotify or iTunes Match. If I want movies, there’s Wi-Fi sync or Netflix. If I want photos, Google+, Dropbox and Google Drive now do this instantaneously. I can’t remember the last time I printed something, but if I need to, my printer has wireless solutions. Services like iCloud now sync your photos, documents, music and books everywhere without your need to physically do anything, so even if I had the option to buy a USB adaptor for the iPad, I seriously feel it’s a waste of money when each tablet manufacturer is slowly moving away from giving you access to the file system.
Now there’s no denying that USB is something nice to have. For one, you have universal access to storage and peripherals, but on the other, you’ve got mobility limitations. 90% of the USB dongles are large and I just find the experience cumbersome to carry a tablet with a separate device that sticks out. I love the approach that Asus and others are bringing to the table with docking keyboards that give tablets a laptop feel, extra battery and USB connectivity. I think this is the future, though as technology evolves, USB will soon become the next floppy disk. Yeah, don’t worry, I haven’t seen one of those in almost 15 years either.
USB. Love it or hate it, until we shed all our wires it’s the ubiquitous data-transfer and charging port on the majority of our devices. Sure, I’d love to live in a world where charging was inductive and data was transferred over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, but until then, we’re stuck with USB, so let’s make the best of it!
Most modern smartphones and tablets have a microUSB port. Many Androids have a special variety of USB called “USB Host” that lets users plug in “the other way”. Rather than your Android being the device that’s being plugged into (and a computer on the other end being the “host”), through a special adaptor your Android can be the host and you can plug devices into it.
What kind of devices? You can plug a keyboard, mouse, or even a mass storage device into your Android. It’s the latter that means the most to me. My primary devices are on the Nexus variety. I run a Galaxy Nexus and a Nexus 7 as my daily drivers. Both of them are fairly limited on internal storage, and neither of them has an SD card slot to let me expand that storage. The thought, I assume, is that I should be at all times connected to the web and all my content should “live in the cloud” and be streamed. That’s great — as long as you have a fast, reliable Internet connection and an unlimited and unthrottled data plan. For the other 99% of the time, it doesn’t cut it.
Using my Nexus’ USB Host capabilities I can carry around a thumb drive loaded with music and movies, and easily plug it into my phone or tablet via a relatively small, relatively inexpensive dongle. It’s not perfect, but we’re not after “perfect” (if we were, streaming would be it, right?). Instead, we’re looking for a solution that “just works”, and USB Host support is it.
To me, the whole concept of full-size USB ports on tablets would have been a value-add in years past, when tablet manufacturers were still looking for a meaningful way to differentiate themselves from the iPad. They’re still doing that, of course, but they’ve managed it pretty well in terms of software -Jelly Bean running on the Nexus 7 is a dream for a Google-centric mobile user- and hardware -look no further than the forthcoming HP Envy x2 or the Toshiba AT270 for some really awesome build quality.
In the midst of those more compelling differentiators, full-size USB is kind of ho-hum. It would have been very useful on products that OEMs hoped users would buy to replace computers, but aside from niche applications requiring carrying portable storage to accommodate large raw file sizes, like photography and audio recording, who really needs full-size USB support anymore? Cloud-based offerings and removable microSD cards are filling the gap, and doing it quite well for the average user. Why would I want to sacrifice that kind of convenience in exchange for a storage medium that’s physically much larger than any SD solution, requiring devices supporting it to be correspondingly larger?
Like wired charging, wired syncing, and physical home keys, full-size USB support seems, to me, just another tie to yesterday’s mobile landscape that should be cut.
Adam Z. Lein
I’ve been using Windows based tablets since 2002 instead of carrying a laptop, and since when I’m on the go I’m also very often taking photographs or recording video, having a USB port is very important for me to be able to transfer that content to my tablet in order to do my editing and reviewing. Yes, I know some people actually use a tablet with a camera on the back to take photos and video, but that’s about the equivalent of wearing sweatpants to church. You don’t want to be seen doing that. I’ve only used the USB port for an external CD/DVD drive when installing older software that I still have on DVD disks, but mostly I’ll use network shares to install other programs.
A couple times, it’s been very handy to be able to copy content to a USB memory stick for example when a friend or client would like a copy of something. The sneakernet is still often faster when it comes to transferring large files. Lastly, the USB port on my tablet also comes in handy for keeping the smartphone charged up without needing to take up more electrical outlets.
The more a mobile device can do, the more useful it is. The vast, vast majority of computer accessories connect over USB, and adding one little USB port opens the door to start letting tablets take advantage of those untold mountains of hardware. Sure, there would still be driver issues to worry about, and then the need for developers to release apps that know how to use all this hardware, but I can’t understand why you wouldn’t at least want that option available. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had a USB port on a tablet so I could hook up an external DVD drive.
What about space issues? USB, even full-sized, is already pretty darn small. There’s little issue with cramming a port into a tablet that’s still around 10 millimeters thick. If you’re concerned with sleekness and simplicity above all else, that’s fine, but anyone willing to compromise while balancing size and functionality is going to be hard-pressed to argue that a USB port is too thick to be worthwhile.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, our opinions are pretty mixed. Some of us think USB on tablets is an absolutely wrong-minded idea, some think that micro USB in host mode is a good enough compromise, and some of us are proponents of full-sized USB ports.
Ultimately, this may come down to consumer demand. If users get used to USB on their Surface tablets, they might start asking why iOS and Android don’t have more of it. If they fail to embrace and take full advantage of the ports, USB might prove itself to be a non-issue.
Where do you stand? Maybe you’ve got some strong opinions like us, or maybe you really couldn’t care about USB at all. Either way, let us know in the comments.