Open Question: What needs to happen for tablets to replace laptops?

Moving from "tablet-plus-laptop" to "tablet-only."

Open QuestionI’ve owned an iPad since you could own an iPad. I upgraded from iPad 1 to iPad 2 because the thinner form factor, faster response and Smart Cover were too hard to resist. So, I suppose you could say I’m a fan — both of the iPad itself and the overall tablet experience it provides.

But here’s the thing: I now often carry a tablet and a laptop and a smartphone. The dream of one device to rule them all has morphed into a hazy vision of three devices that are all somehow necessary (tablet for browsing/consuming, laptop for real work, phone for on-the-go updates/camera — how did it come to this?).

Now, I know there are people out there who can bend a tablet to their will. I don’t have that super power. “Inputting” on my tablet is an exercise in hunt-and-peck futility. More often than not I delay long email responses and other typing-intensive work until I’m stationed in front of a proper computer. This is why my tablet experience, in its current form, can never replace my laptop experience.

I bring all this up because participants in a recent back-channel email thread did something really interesting: They ignored the question of where tablets fit in now and instead examined the specific features they would need before tablets could replace their laptops. The focus was shifted from how tablets currently work to how they should work.

Here’s a few tablet wish lists from the email thread (republished with permission; names withheld).

Participant 1:

I want a laptop with a removable screen that acts like a tablet — in other words, a dockable tablet. I want it to have great voice recognition. I want it to have Swype, so I can input text without having to “poke type” at a virtual keyboard with fingers or thumbs — and so I can input text one-handed quickly and easily. I want it to have great battery life in tablet mode, augmented by a second battery in the dock. I also want it to have a stylus, but the stylus should slide into the tablet, like my old Windows phone (v 6.5), so it doesn’t get lost easily.

The dock would have a touchpad, the large battery as mentioned earlier, and would have extra USB ports so I can hook up other peripherals. The dock should obviously have a built-in keyboard and a reasonably large hard drive (250 GB or so). The total weight should not be much greater than existing lightweight laptops (a little heavier because of the extra battery). The tablet should be chargeable from the dock battery, so that if I run out of tablet power and place it in the dock, the tablet recharges from the dock battery. I want it to have a decent rear-facing camera (I don’t care much about a front-facing one), Wi-Fi, GPS, NFC, Bluetooth, ambient light sensor, accelerometer, speakers, and (optionally) 4G cell radio capability.

Participant 2:

I find it hard to fault my Lenovo S12 — 3 pounds, 6 hrs of battery, great keyboard, 250 GB hard drive (no CD drive), HDMI output, 3 USB ports, Wi-Fi, ethernet, Windows 7, Office 2010. It makes tablets seem like Vespas (not to denigrate Vespas — just being realistic).

I’ve tried to take my iPad to meetings, and I’ve seen people with that toy keyboard Apple offered initially (though I like the looks of some of the new case/keyboard combos), and I’ve seen people do great presentations with an iPad. But input is the barrier. I’ve never had an opportunity to use Swype, but it’s an intriguing solution. Voice recognition also seems plausible if you’re not in a public setting.

I think what I really want at this point is a 1-pound S12. Lenovo has an interesting Android tablet, but it all comes back to the keyboard and input, doesn’t it? If Windows 8 can deliver both the traditional desktop experience and a tablet experience that builds on WinPhone7, that gets closer to what I want. If I can get to three screens (TV-Tablet-Phone) instead of a dozen or whatever it is, that would be good.

Your take?

As you can see, people on the thread indulged their specificity. I’d like to invite Radar readers to do the same thing by addressing these open questions:

  • Do you use multiple devices throughout the day? If so, which ones?
  • How about when you travel — which devices do you pack?
  • Have you tried going tablet-only? What worked? What didn’t?
  • And finally: What improvements do you need to see before you go tablet-only?

Please weigh in through the comments or Google+.

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  • Canuck

    The laptop is a good design for active content production, while the tablet is a good design for passive consumption. Android tablets with keyboard docks already exist, but they haven’t really taken off yet – perhaps there’s just not enough crossover between the two uses.

  • My own wish list revolves around a scenario rather than specific technologies.

    I want to be able to toss a tablet, a mouse and a keyboard into my backpack. I’ll use the tablet in its default state as a standalone device for consuming content.

    When I need to get work done, I’ll tell the tablet to connect to the keyboard and mouse. The tablet will automatically know this is “work” mode, so it’ll allow for key-command program switching and mouse-based input/editing. In essence, it’ll become a mini-laptop.

    When I unlink the keyboard and mouse, it goes back to its normal tablet state.

    I’ve toyed with the idea of traveling with my iPad and a bluetooth keyboard, but I know that’s not going to cut it. And it’s pretty easy to toss my travel machine (MacBook Air) into a backpack.

  • menevets

    I want a Macbook air whose screen is an iPad 2 which you can detach.

  • Mac Slocum

    @menevets: EXACTLY (and well put!)

  • blob

    Macbook Air is near perfect. Only if it had a touchscreen that would open all the way back …

  • – Need an extensible peripheral model (both hardware and at the OS level) for different kinds of peripherals for sensing, data input (e.g. RFID/barcode), and so on

    – Need lighter weight and some type of more ergonomic mechanism to allow holding the tablet for extended periods (e.g. warehouse workers)

    – Need battery that actually lasts for 8 working hours and MUST support easy replaceable batteries on the fly for extended usage scenarios (public safety, industrial, military)

    – Must be able to handle spills and brief water immersion

    – Docking station system a must to allow full keyboard/mouse + large display

  • monopole

    “I want a laptop with a removable screen that acts like a tablet”

    Um, it already exists, it’s called an Asus Transformer TF101. I have one and carry it with me everywhere. Very well integrated and well suited for both light laptop duties and tablet use.

    In addition the keyboard module packs a second battery and 2 USB ports. It also serves as a stand and a screen protector for the tablet element.

    The crucial bit about the laptop form factor is that it is unitary, everything you need on a basic level is contained in a single package which can be flipped open and used immediately. In comparison using a tablet as a laptop requires that you wrangle a keyboard, mouse, and dock. If you have to move, all the parts have to be grabbed and moved as well.

    The constant drumbeat announcing that the tablet is going to kill the laptop and the laptop is going to kill the desktop comes from a false reading of history in which the mini killed the mainfraime and the PC killed the mini. In addition, this is used to justify the huge price and feature creep of “SUV” tablets.

    These days form factors proliferate rather than kill each other off. In some cases old form factors such as the portable desktop (mac mini) and the tablet (tablets have existed for over 20 years) have been resurrected.

    Tablets are excellent for media consumption, laptops provide the best form factor for mobile media creation, Desktops with huge screens, and ergonomic layouts are best for in place heavy lifting. All of these forms will evolve within their niches and to some extent merge in a ubiquitous soup in time, but they are unlikely to kill each other off.

  • For real work, I need a physical keyboard. For convenience, I want a touchscreen and portability. Two years ago, I got what seemed the ideal solution: a Lenovo X200 tablet. Expensive and underwhelming. That was before the iPad, my first and only Apple product.

    Now, I see a tablet as supplementing a notebook but not replacing it. I carry my iPad 1 with me, often with a wireless keyboard. That’s generally sufficient, when coupled with my Droid 3.

    For serious work, I use a powerful notebook (ThinkPad W workstation with 15.6″ screen etc). Since this device stays at my desk most of the time, there was no need to compromise for portability.

    You’ll find my additional thoughts on the three gadgets that get things done at

  • PDA may role all of the tablets(devices) due to fact that PDA are more useful and portable compared to laptops that is not portable also it operating system is microsoft windows compared to smartphone that support symbian,iuq,java and android,also i+pad they are looking to use Mac operating system,which is not common so that users may face problem of getting softwares for their tablets..but PDA is the popular and known device all of the world so tha it may replace other tablets

  • To #1: I use an iPad 16GB WiFi and Nokia N8
    To #2: Same devices to work with as I do to travel
    To #3: Nope; but I use the tablet as an email triage device; its not profitable to use it for voice/Skype/SMS communications, nor for my alarm clock-early AM newspaper
    To #4: You can argue that I am – if I were replacing this tablet with a notebook, which to some degree I have.

    The key is context. Tablets work best for specific contexts, and some of these just aren’t the same as what a laptop has traditionally been used for. In other cases, laptops -at last their lack of development (faster, smaller, thinner, etc.) -have been exposed for being more than what many need.

    I purchased my tablet because I read so much that being mobile-only wasn’t helping my eyes. I’ve expanded to using my iPad for a project folder (Evernote, Tactilis, Dropbox) and digital drawing canvas (Tactilis, Adove Ideas, Procreate). That kind of approach is what’s needed for anyone to be effective and efficient with any technology, not just tablets.

  • In general, I would say that people need to shift their focus from productivity to information. I have tried many platforms and approaches to productivity, but have yet to find one that can properly leverage a users greatest strength – namely the ability to use our dextrous digits. If I am a consumer of information only, then I can see a tablet competing with a portable pc. But if I am responsible for producing, or even simply re-purposing information, not so much.

    Do you use multiple devices throughout the day? If so, which ones?
    Yes, laptop, desktop, iphone, occasionally ipad.
    How about when you travel — which devices do you pack?
    iphone, ipad, laptop.
    Have you tried going tablet-only? What worked? What didn’t?
    Yes, for about a day. The list of things that don’t work, or don’t work as efficiently as I need, is long. What does work is easy – access to information. This is the one place where tablets, especially with the low ‘time to display’ capabilities, excel. The ease of access to information, whether via browser or email or app, is sublime. Doing things with that information in a robust, efficient fashion, not so much.
    And finally: What improvements do you need to see before you go tablet-only?
    I am a technology worker. I work on a 30 inch monitor. I type up to 76 wpm. What improvements do I need to replace my productivity in that environment and go tablet only? Independent wealth and retirement I suppose.

    Still, I hope more and more people do convert. Even if better apps, better tablet operating systems, etc, are able to close the gap so I only have a 5% advantage remaining over folks on a tablet, I will take that edge any day. Don’t get me wrong, I love tablets. 3+ years ago, pre ipad, I made a bet with a colleague that tablets would outsell laptops within 24 months. I was pretty close. But my ipad actually belongs to my 5 year old. It is not a toy, but it is still far from a business machine. I eagerly await low cost laser keyboards, but even then, I will still be at least 10% slower, maybe 20%, and that is an edge I will not give up anytime soon.

    The signature of every message sent from a tablet kind of says it all, doesn’t it? ‘This message sent from a device where I cannot properly express myself, nor easily address grammatical errors, fact check, etc…’

  • Sarah Keeling

    I’m so glad it’s not just me that really doesn’t “get” the whole tablet thing!

    We’ve been having a debate ever since the first iPad appeared about why we needed one. Of course, we all WANTED one (that’s Apple for you) but just couldn’t figure out why we NEEDED it. Even friends who have given in and purchased one just because they wanted it, can’t give a straight answer to what it does that their laptop does not. They are all still using their computers/laptops for anything work-related and all still travel with the usual laptop/iPad/smartphone combo.

    My husband has an Android tablet which at least enables him to actually attach peripherals to it (imagine the thrill!) but he still goes back to his laptop for anything more than a quick check on Facebook. I can do that on my iPod touch AND it fits in my pocket/handbag.

    No doubt tablets will evolve, and quickly, but I think that laptops stand as much chance as evolving themselves. Basically they need to morph into each other, but for business purposes the laptop already has the edge (speed, decent keyboard etc) – all they really need to work on is size/weight for business travellers.

  • Gregor

    Do you use multiple devices throughout the day? If so, which ones?
    I use iPhone, iPad and desktop/laptop
    iPhone is great for reading feeds, checking email, quick notes and pim. iPad is great for longer form reading and notetaking in meetings.

    How about when you travel — which devices do you pack?
    Recently for conferences I’ve found an iPad works really well– for notetaking, following and contributing to the backchannel, checking web references, and keeping up with email. It’s also great after the workday for reading.
    iPad task switching makes notetaking ok, and embracing the cloud is essential. Input isn’t great sitting in lecture theatre chairs– but I star the points other people make on twitter for most of my notes, so I don’t need to write as much as I used to.

    Have you tried going tablet-only? What worked? What didn’t?
    Tablet only on conferences is fine, as long as the Internet connection is good.
    For work, programming on the iPad is hopeless– special keys aren’t easily accessible, and touching the screen to edit is hopeless– bring back vi.
    At home, I find I no longer spend much time on my laptop– all the lightweight stuff is handled by the iPad.

    And finally: What improvements do you need to see before you go tablet-only?

    Many more onscreen keyboard options, and much better support for editing.

  • For me it is 100% about ergonomics. I need to feel comfortable and relaxed when working at a computer for long periods of time and, at present, tablet computers don’t offer this. I like the idea of the Asus Transformer TF101 but for people who are looking for a tablet that can seriously replace a PC with a large screen I still think this would fall short.

  • The number one drawback of tablets (at least the ones I’ve had the opportunity to play with) is the difficulty with changing the battery. With my laptop, I like to swap out battery packs so I can get lots of use out of it when I’m not near a source of electricy for charging. But with the iPad or the new Kindle Fire (for instance), that’s impossible. So, without easy access to charging, the tablet is never going to replace my laptop, even when it has the potential to be of more use to me.

  • Dean

    Imagine a computer made to get things done. A keyboard for typists that doesn’t get in the way. Big enough.
    ( Imagine if Beethoven had a piano 12 inches wide with little colored gadgets everywhere, not good.)
    A computer that’s modular. Upgradeable. Accepting different hardware as innovations arrive. A computer that is as compatible as any. A computer that lasts years!

    It exists today. With no dumbed-down simplistic touch screen do- dah.

    The desktop PC. But Unity and Windows 8 aim to put an end to this kind of falderal.

  • James

    I feel that someone should make a tablet with at least 120 gigs of memory vs the standard 64 gig limit. THEN, use the dock idea with the usb and hdmi ports. Nokia could make that for the Windows 8 OS.

  • For me this won’t happen because I am not comfortable tying on the tablets. For a short amount of time or to play around of facebook yes. But to actually do work…not so much! for me I need a better key pad.