Tablets, Laptops, Oranges, and Apples

The generally argumentative Internet has, of late, turned its bickering sights from name-calling about PCs vs Macs (my least favorite argument, since Macs ARE PCs, but I digress) or iPhone vs Android (how is this even a fight? I love Android, but for an end-user, it’s a ridiculous choice still) to an even more apples and oranges comparison. We are currently arguing about whether tablets or laptops are better.

(Spoiler alert: the answer is “if you’re asking this question, you don’t understand computing enough to participate in the discussion that follows,” but it’s plausible I’ve just become cynical in my old age.)

Let me being by saying, I used to carry a laptop, and it was annoying.

If I was going anywhere outside of my home, before I walked out the door I had a decision to make: do I take the laptop or do I leave it behind. This was a non-trivial decision with a lot behind it: do I spend 5 minutes breaking down my system wherever it is set up and throw it into the laptop bag? Am I going to have a place to keep it where I’m going, or is its not-inconsiderable bulk going to be hanging from my shoulder all day? Is it going to sit in my car waiting for a break-in? Am I even liable to use it? Am I going to have time? Is it worth bringing the laptop at all?

In the face of these questions I often chose not to bring it. A flash drive with important programs and a Dropbox full of important files often served as a replacement for lugging 5 to 15 pounds of laptop, bag, peripherals, and accoutrements.

When I did bother to even bring it, I just didn’t bother to use it in most cases. Oftener than not if I wasn’t leaving to go to work, the time and space required was greater than I was willing to invest. After setting up camp, I needed to extract my laptop from my bag (and depending on the state of my power and my plans, my power brick and mouse), power it up (and hope that it suspended reliably last time…a crap-shoot on Windows and Ubuntu), open the files that I am planning to work on, and get to work. If everything went optimally (a rarity that involved a confluence of events including a full battery, a reliably suspended operating system, work spaces already configured for how I was planning on working at the moment, files already opened, the Internet already configured, the sacrifice of a lamb to our dark lord, three cups of coffee, and a partridge in a pear tree), I was out 5 minutes of setup. In the mundane version of events referred to as ‘reality’ I was generally out closer to 10 or 15 minutes and a few ounces of frustration and annoyance.

Compare that to my new work flow. I have doubled the size of my laptop with a ruggedized case and it still fits comfortably in a small bag that I carry with me always1 roughly the size of a smallish purse. No decision needs be made; it is just going with me. If I am going to work, I’ll grab my briefcase too which—even with keyboard, peripherals for presentations, a mouse, and all of the paperwork I might need—is still lighter than my laptop was alone.

If I decide to do some work, I can pull out my tablet and work without even setting down my murse2. If I need to type a LOT, I can do so by pulling out the keyboard too, which still all requires approximately the same amount of space as my laptop. Getting to work is nearly instantaneous. I can go from thinking about what I’d like to work on to actually working on it in under a minute. In a WORST case situations (wherein the things with which I want to work are on the cloud but haven’t been synced to my system, I’m not connected to the Internet, I need both keyboard and mouse, my battery is low, and I have to reboot my tablet), I still am working in under 5 minutes. That is pretty damned handy; so handy, in fact, that I find myself working to fill small breaks in my day far more routinely than ever before with a laptop.

“But Jer,” I hear you saying, “I am a(n) $x!” where $x is some nominal job description that conveys an inherent inability to use tablets. “Tablets are useless to me for my job!” To that I respond with the following:

  1. Depending on what your value of $x was, you might be right. It is also not an airplane, so if your $x was ‘pilot,’ you will find that the tablet will certainly fail to fly us to far away lands. It is also not a large truck, so it will not transport merchandise from warehouse to store. It is not even (despite obvious similarities) a spatula, so it will not help you flip burgers at the place of employment wherein you first learned your rhetorical and debate skills. It happens to be a tablet. It is best used for tablety things.

  2. You also might be surprised about what a tablet can actually help you do. If your concern is that it won’t run the software you need, that is often easily worked around. For example, I am a software developer: it has taken me a trivial amount of time to push my C, C++, or Python development to remote systems that I connect to through SSH and VIM.

    When developing in PHP, Perl, Javascript, or other web languages, I SFTP files to and fro. When developing in .Net or Java, I VNC to my desktop. True, if I were principally a Java or .Net developer, I would probably carry my laptop far more often…VNS is a stopgap, not a real solution. If you are a developer that requires a specific, GUI development environment, you might need to read response #1.

  3. If your big problem is input speed, I have found that with or without a keyboard, inputting isn’t a considerable problem for me. Using Swift Key or Swype, I can generally program at pretty close to my standard speed—most of the time I spend coding is burst typing while thinking…even an on-screen keyboard handles that well. When I am grading papers or corresponding, the on screen keyboard or voice recognition tends to work very well for me.

    When writing long-form (as in blog entries, term papers, etc), the external keyboard becomes necessary. It, unfortunately, slows my 110+ word per minute typing speed considerably: I type at a mere 60-80 WPM on my external keyboard. Amusingly, 60-80 WPM is closer to my long-term sustainable typing rate anyway.

    Often, I have to do finish work on a desktop; this is true whether I began the coding/writing/correspondence/grading on a tablet or a full system. I need editing, that is a given. If you have read this far, you already know that.

    If your needs cannot be served by any of the above, you might need to re-read point number 1

Regardless of how well it works for me, the tablet doesn’t fix everything. It is not a gaming rig…my occasional forays into gaming will not be satisfied without my laptop. It’s also not a power house; if I’m going to really dive into work, I want multiple monitors—each with more real estate than my paltry mobile screen provides. In either of those cases, desktops are ubiquitous enough at this point, though, that I can almost always find one where I’m going to be working if I need to…and I rarely need to.

Are tablets for everybody? No, don’t be stupid. Neither are shoes, cars, glasses, or pine nuts. Are they sufficient for most people? I’ve found that to be true (of tablets…but also of shoes, cars, glasses, and pine nuts). Most people’s needs can be boiled down to consumption, correspondence, and creation—in descending order…on a STEEP curve. A tablet works well if your needs fall into that pattern; hell, it could work if your needs do not, but can be made to emulate that pattern. If your creation, however, is of a sort that does not lend itself well to low-power, low-end devices (media creation, .Net programming, etc), then you might want to give tablets a miss for a while.

All I know is that the power supply on my laptop fried half a year ago, and I still haven’t bothered to get it repaired. I’ve missed having the laptop about twice since the beginning of the summer. I should probably get on that. Your mileage, as they say, may vary (but what they don’t tell you is…that’s because you’re doing it wrong!)

1 A side benefit of carrying a tablet, I now carry a purse…women have this SO DAMNED RIGHT. I don’t know how I survived without it in the past. I now have pens, sharpies, membership cards, headphones, etc with me at all times

2 M(an) (p)urse. Also referred to as “manbag”, “why I’m not masculine”, and “chuck”