Tablets running mobile operating systems have revolutionized the way millions of people interact with technology. Instead of the cumbersome tablets of a decade past that were essentially just laptops with their keyboards ripped off, running standard PC platforms, we had sleek, beautiful, fun to use slates with software that right out of the gate was designed with touch interaction in mind.
And unsurprisingly, we’ve seen users flock to these devices. My sister, for instance, has long ditched her laptop in favor of an iPad. Facebook, YouTube, fantasy football: it does what she needs it to do. Me, I simply can’t get in the same boat, because tablets just aren’t flexible enough, just aren’t powerful enough, and just don’t let me get as much done as I can working with a proper computer.
This is far from the first time the team here at Pocketnow has broached a subject along these lines, but tablets are getting better every month; surely, there must be some point where we can put any last reservations behind us and dub the tablet the new PC replacement, right? I wouldn’t count on it.
I’ll get back to it in a moment, after looking at some technical and operational differences between tablets and PCs, but I think at its heart this is an issue about users, and what they want from their machines. While individuals run the whole spectrum, at each end we’ve got a certain type of user.
Do you develop software? Edit video? Use words like “batch jobs” or “threading?” Heck, do you just need to burn a CD now and then?
Or do you mostly just browse websites that other people put up? Download music? Poke people on Facebook? Play Candy Crush Saga?
There’s nothing wrong with the latter – and certainly there are a LOT more people somewhere in the middle of these two than on one of the extremes – but that sort of person is demanding a whole lot less from his or her machine. In such cases, a tablet sounds like it could easily suffice.
But for members of that other group, the ones that really appreciate the distinction between these types of hardware, a tablet’s only going to let them down.
Let’s take a look at just what PCs do so much better than tablets:
Easily the first thing that popped into my head was the way we interact with these devices. Touchscreens are OK for some very specific tasks, but they’re just so much less versatile than the stalwart keyboard + mouse combo. And yeah – I still like to use a mouse whenever possible, even with a laptop.
It’s just so hard to get pixel-accurate precision with anything other than a mouse. More than that, having those dozens of keyboard hardware buttons at your disposal easily lets you change the behavior of that simple mouse click into something far more powerful. Control + click, shift + click, or clicks mediated by any number of other key sequences are at your disposal.
On a tablet, these kinds of complex interactions become far more… well, complicated. Thanks to the reduced set of input modifiers (regular touch, long touch, multi-finger touch), certain tasks (selection of elements from a list, et al) can become more arduous than they need be.
Connectivity-wise, PCs still have a leg up, though the gap has been closing in recent years. I blame that mainly on PCs getting more simplified (losing legacy ports) than tablets maturing, but if you’re even the slightest bit interested in expansion, PCs are the only way to go.
You know what would be awesome? A tablet with a built-in ATSC tuner. Why pay two bucks an ep to download Parks and Rec from the Play Store when you could legally watch it on your tablet, live as it airs? Sure, ATSC reception ain’t that hot when you’re moving around, but propped up on a stand, that sounds super nice: free, beautiful-quality HD programming.
But with a tablet you can’t just pop in a PCI-E tuner card and get watching – heck, on the vast majority you couldn’t even attach an external USB tuner, and that’s ignoring the lack of software support.
Storage is also a big problem for tablets, and it’s just not getting better nearly as fast as it needs to. Right now, you’re still lucky to find a tablet with a 64GB option, and if you want more than that your chances get even slimmer. Is that enough for many tasks? Sure, but it’s not going to cut it for a really invested computer user.
Could I get away with a 64GB drive for my OS and software? Absolutely, but it’s the data that kills you. Right now, I’m only using 22GB of the 120GB SSD that’s my PC’s primary drive, but I wouldn’t get by for a day without that multi-terabyte HDD puppy I use for all my data (not to mention the numerous other drives I don’t attach locally but keep network-accessible).
Whether you need a 107GB rainbow table in order to break a stubborn hash or a huge temp directory while you master a Blu-ray, a hard disk drive is your best friend. For all the benefits solid state storage offers, you simply can’t beat spinning platters when it comes to getting the most value for your storage dollar. Power consumption and reliability issues make HDDs a non-starter for tablets, and capacity just isn’t to the point yet where solid state options can fulfill everyone’s data needs.
For all these problems I have with tablets, though, I’m fully aware that many of these objections don’t even enter into realm of consideration for many shoppers. That’s what I was getting to earlier about those differences in users. If you’re more about using your computer to DO things, rather than just experience things, a tablet could very well fail to meet your needs.
Again, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with those of you who have made the switch full-on to tablets. In fact, you’re lucky, as you have access to some of the most impressive hardware around – I wouldn’t write about this stuff if I didn’t think it was awesome. But I’m also acutely aware of the limitations, and a part of me believes that no matter how advanced tablets become, there’s always going to be a place for proper general-purpose computers.