Tablet Advisor

Last updated on 01/18/2013

We take a look at the latest big trend in personal computing.
By Liam McCabe

One trend gives way to another. The netbook fad appears to be dying down while tablet computers are on the up-and-up. The tablet era began in April with the release of the Apple iPad. Now that a handful of worthy competitors have hit the market (or will soon), it’s high time to start looking more closely at this exciting new trend in personal computing.

What Is Different About Tablets?

Most obviously, they’re physically different from traditional computers. A tablet is usually about a half-inch thick and weighs around one pound. It has no keyboard and no mouse input, since it’s a touchscreen device. It has few, if any moving parts. It might have a few ports -- for a USB cable, perhaps an HDMI output and an SD or microSD card input -- but it’s intended to work as a stand-alone device.

Since a tablet’s processor is less powerful than a personal computer’s, a tablet needs to run a lighter, more nimble operating system. So they typically run on operating systems that, up until now, have only been found in smartphones. The iPad runs iOS, which is also found on the iPhone, while tablets like the Galaxy Tab run on Android. A handful of tablets run on Windows 7, as that OS was designed with touchscreen capability in mind.

Also like smartphones, tablets run small programs called apps. They can be anything from games to word processors to photo-editing software to a Facebook or Twitter client -- basically a streamlined, single-purpose piece of software. A few apps come pre-loaded, and most tablets have access to a marketplace can download these apps for a small cost (or often for free, though a few are in the $100+ range). The largest marketplace, Apple’s App Store, has more than 250,000 apps for download. Some tablets don’t have access to an app store, so they rely pretty much entirely on a browser-based experience.

Why Tablets?

For some uses, tablets are more convenient than either PCs or smartphones. Notebooks are portable, but they’re heavier, more cumbersome, have a larger physical footprint, and a much shorter battery life than tablets. Then there’s the debate over whether or not it’s a good idea to keep a hot gadget, with all sorts of electro-magnetic waves coming and going, planted on your lap near some crucial body parts.

Smartphones, on the other hand, are infinitely portable and have longer battery lives, but staring at the small screen for more than a few minutes at a time can causes eye and neck strain. The small screens also can’t accommodate traditional layouts that some readers or viewers find desirable, like broadsheet newspaper layouts, for example.

In short, tablets are a comfortable middle-ground between laptops and smartphones. Some situations where you might prefer a tablet include sitting on the couch or in bed, or while travelling or commuting on a bus, train, or plane.

Tablets might also prove to be easier to use than computers, at least for some casual users. Tablets are meant to handle straightforward tasks like e-mailing, web browsing, simple video streaming, and the like, so some folks might find that a tablet covers 95 percent of their computing needs.

Downsides?

Tablets are closed systems. On a laptop or desktop, you can download whatever programs you want, at your own risk. Tablets only let you download programs that have been approved by an administrator at an app store. Tablet users trade freedom for safety and ease of use. Users who want a highly customized experience might find tablets too restricted.

Power users -- gamers, photographers, videographers, musicians, or frankly speaking, content pirates -- won’t get what they need from a tablet.

What Should We Expect From Tablets In The Future?

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the first generation, and we’re still not sure just how well they’ll catch on. Sales are brisk so far. Some estimates place iPad sales at over 8 million. That figure seems high, but we’re still talking about millions of units of a first generation product. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, which has only been available since October, has already sold more than 1 million units. Not all tablets will be so successful, but the market looks like it will grow quickly in coming years. (If it really takes off, expect to see a Tablet Advisor spin-off site).

Tech-wise, the next logical step for tablets -- and all mobile computing, really -- is moving storage to “the cloud,” or Internet-based storage. We already see this with streaming video and photo storage, but it seems that music services are heading that direction as well.

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