Guide: Should You Take a Tablet?

May 2, 2010 by  
Filed under Features & Editorials

Originally published on the TalkTalkBlog. Reprinted with permission from TalkTalk.

Tablets are the talk of the technology sector, a seemingly exciting middle ground between smartphone and laptop. Apple, Dell, Toshiba, HP and Asus have all committed to the form factor and it is expected to challenge netbooks as the new must-have product of 2010. So with wave after wave of tablet marketing hype set to hit us between now and Christmas the big question is: should you buy one?

The Weight of History

I’d love to give you a one word answer, but the question is more complicated than thatUMPC. Why? Because until recently the tablet was a largely abandoned idea, a product type which had clocked up failure after failure. Most famously Apple had tried with the Newton in 1998 and Microsoft was foiled in 2006 with the UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC). In fact the closest any practical form of ‘tablet’ has come to success is as a laptop hybrid where their lids are modified to swivel 180 degrees and be folded back onto the keyboard screen size up. TheThinkPad X Series has long offered this, but its appeal is decidedly niche. The pure form of tablet was dismissed long ago as ‘cool but impractical’ and that was that.

The iPad

So what changed? Apple changed. After years of speculation the company finally announced itsApple NewtonNewton avenger in January, the ‘iPad’. For all intents and purposes it is little more than a 10in iPod touch with extra power and it was ridiculed by everyone from the technology press to mainstream comedians. The iPad even got its own Downfall parody. One group wasn’t laughing, however: PC makers.

What they realised was AiPadpple had managed to capitalise on the ease of use intrinsic to the iPod touch and iPhone and bring it to a sector capable of competing with cheap laptops. Never before had basic entry level computing (email, web browsing, media consumption) been made so simple and accessible to the general public at truly affordable prices. Forget having to learn Windows, Mac OS X or Linux, the iPad can be used by a two year old. PC makers realised if consumers around the world bite then Apple will have made the Nintendo Wii of computers.

The Reponse

The response from Apple’s rivals has been fierce. They are making tablets which capitalise on what the iPad lacks: a web camera, industry standard connections like USB and HDMI, expandable storage and multi-tasking (a major omission which will be addressed by the much publicised iPhone OS 4.0 software update due later this year). Billions of dollars are being poured into a market which just a few months ago barely existed, but the bigger question is: Should it?

The Pros and Cons

X-Series-TabletFor all intents and purposes, no. The primary reasons tablets failed so many times in the past are still painfully present. In fact they always will be. Most obvious is a tablet requires two hands to hold securely yet two hands to operate effectively and it cannot stand up on its own. Oh dear. Furthermore, while tablets are smaller than laptops and slightly lighter than netbooks, they can’t be carried in a pocket so require an additional bag anyway. As a form factor it actually appears to fall short of the convenience of smartphones and the practicality of netbooks. Argument over.

Or is it? You see the appeal of tablets goes beyond logic because they appeal to our inner child. They tie into that futuristic vision of a single sheet of glass delivering all the information and services we could ever need. As children we didn’t dream about bulky desktop computers or laptops with their physical keyboards, we dreamt about tablets. Captain James T Kirk would never be seen holding a imaginary laptop on the deck of the Starship Enterprise, he swiped at mocked up plastic tablets before passing them off dismissively to a subordinate nearby. Of course had to pass them off, tablets are unwieldy and impractical!

That said the failure of past tablets has just been their impractical form factor, but equally because they failed to live up to our futuristic visions for them. With modern technology and – most importantly – modern finger friendly interfaces, they now can.

The Bottom Line

I started out writing this post in order to tell you whether you should or shouldn’t buy a tablet, but I’ve come to realise this is an impossible task. I’m a professional technology journalist, a critic, an analyst who looks at things logically and weighs up the pros and cons. I’d argue tablets are pointless, ridiculous creations worthy of every parody thrown at them and you’d be better off sticking to a smartphone and a netbook or laptop. Yet the appeal of owning a tablet isn’t formed from such considered roots. For those feeling the innate urge to buy a tablet, whatever I say won’t stop you, it has been hardwired into your DNA for years now. For those who are flummoxed by them, I can understand why.

The bottom line is tablets are coming yet again and they will divide consumer opinion like never before. As for me, I’m sticking with my laptop until everything becomes holographic.

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