Is a tablet a computer?

April 20, 2018
Written by:  Emmanuel G Escobar

What's a computer? Perhaps you have come across this question. It originates from an Apple ad showing a young girl working on an iPad with a Smart Keyboard and at the end she is prompted with the question: "whatcha doing on your computer?".  She replies, “what’s a computer?”. I personally don’t like the ad, since it exaggerates the places where you can take and work on an iPad, but it is Apple’s way of stirring up discussion and debate. It is a statement that could be perceived as ignorant, because it is very unlikely that an adolescent does not know what a computer is in this day and age. Or perhaps it’s just a question; a direct and open-ended question asking to the philosophical level. I would accept the latter, hadn’t it been the way the girl said it, being that she ignored the question she was being asked. 

It is clear by now that Apple wants you ditch your clunky, old laptops for something portable and simple. The idea of this isn’t new; Microsoft released the Surface RT in 2012 with the promise of having a dedicated operating system for a lightweight device that you could carry on-the-go. And it wouldn’t be a traditional laptop, so you could use it in more versatile ways. Like propping it up to play a video or show a presentation. Seems like a good idea, be it not for its two main faults, ironically being both of its main selling points. Firstly, while the built-in stand was a great design choice to stand the tablet upright, having no physical keyboard, it limits the angle at which the screen is looked at, thus making it rather uncomfortable to type unless it laid on a hard surface, such as a table. Granted, this was later improved by the company in Surface Pro models, but a laptop hinge would always feel superior to a flap at the back of the device, simply because of multiple angles of adjustment, meaning working on a laptop is easier if moving from couch, to bed or to desk. Bear in mind that current Surface Pro models are not lap-compatible. Secondly, the Surface RT was limited by its stripped down operating system, that made Windows Vista seem like a well executed product. Having owned a Surface RT, I found it difficult to understand how the Microsoft Store worked and it took a while to adjust my computing demands to having a very limited amount of software. Personally, I don’t think it was a fail product, as it helped Microsoft to understand what its customers wanted and what they thought a computer should be in 2012 onwards. Microsoft's drastic change from Windows 7 to Windows 8 showed me that they wanted to drive their mobile systems forward, having a 'visually stunning' and interactive interface. I, however, did not buy it. Although I could see its potential on a touchscreen tablet, the Windows 8 interface was not ideal on a laptop in 2013. Windows 8 felt like Microsoft's attempt to make everyone use their new mobile-focused operating system, while having no practical sense on a non-touchscreen device. The Windows 8 replacement to the start menu I knew had too much information that I did not need and it felt like a barrier between me and my computer.

Bear in mind that I had never used a tablet before the Surface RT or any mobile operating system, and I was coming as a longtime Windows XP and Windows 7 user, so I expected the fluidity of the Windows operating system. I also didn't use my Android phone to its full potential, but I was pleased with the Android experience. Funny thing, I bought the Surface RT because of my disappointment with an Android tablet. Even though the Play Store wasn’t as stocked in apps like today, Android seemed like a good and solid operating system to run simple and productive apps, which seemed logical to use on a tablet. But the experience wasn’t great with a £400 tablet. It was slow to load apps, the screen size was small and with not physical keyboard, it just wasn’t the same. Sadly, the experience now-a-days with Android tablets hasn't much changed, and their sales cannot compete with iPads. And here is the issue. Back when the Surface RT was out, tablets were being told as a complementary devices for PC or laptops. So the question is, what has changed now, that we see tablets as potential laptop replacements? The simple answer is that a lot has changed. From the operating system side of things, there are three acceptable tablet operating systems: iOS, Windows or Android. No more Windows RT, but if you are running iOS or Android on a tablet, you are limited to apps from their respective app stores. Granted, they offer very good apps, but nothing would compare to a desktop version of the programme running on operating systems like Windows 10 or macOS. And this is where Surface Pro models, well, surface. They are far more powerful that their tablet competitors and are not restricted to app versions of software. This allows the user to run desktop apps on a mobile device, maintaining the experience of using a desktop PC. So not longer is the age where computers remained indoors always connected to a power supply; users can use powerful computers to work anywhere without having to rely on mobile versions of a software. 

But isn’t that why there are laptops? Yes, but even laptops have their limits and we have become very sensitive to carrying around devices with built-in keyboards for some reason. A laptop is useful if you need a full version of an operating system to run dedicated software with demanding requirements, so the laptops do not need to be limited by size. Although, Acer and HP seem to be battling for the smallest form factor, each claiming to have the smallest laptop on the market running Intel Core CPUs, after Apple introduced its 2015 MacBook. Deceitful marketing strategy however, since sometimes when they refer to Intel Core i5 or i7, they actually mean the Y-series chips (previously m-chips and bear in mind Apple does this too), which are far more energy efficient, requiring less energy to operate, but are less powerful than U-series Intel chips, for instance. Then some companies do it right, like the LG Gram for instance; they aren't going for the thinnest laptop, but lightest with descent specs. From any of these options we accept the average battery life lasting about 7-8 hours, and carrying a charger is the norm for most people. But if portability is more important to you, even the lightest 15 inch laptop can sound like too much to carry and the smallest 12 inch laptop is more for style than performance, not to mention carrying the price tag of a desktop PC. And yes, I am a PC gamer, so for that much money I prefer a top spec NVIDIA gaming machine. But hang on, I wouldn't be paying for portability. Using a laptop is like carrying around a workstation with you, and while it is portable, the workspace is not so different to a desktop PC, and the experience is even more similar if you rely on the use of a mouse. Having a tablet, which you practically never need to switch off, is so portable and small (in most cases) that moving it around on a table isn’t going to take a lot of effort. The tablet is therefore for the person who needs to do work on-the-go and doesn’t want to be physically tied to a desk by having a laptop or a desktop. It’s the psychology of doing work without feeling that work is being done. A tablet is the ‘cool’ laptop alternative, that is versatile and yet capable of handling most productivity tasks. Interestingly, Razer Blade Stealth, or the portable gaming laptop in disguise powered by top of the line specs delivers a lot of both worlds. A workhorse by day in the office and a gaming rig by night, with the help of the Razer Core of course. 

So what is a computer?

A computer is a device that allows you to do your normal work and run several programmes in parallel without it slowing you down. That is why you can pick or spec out your device and choose it for your needs. To some people, that may mean having the latest Core i7 with 128 GB of ram, running dual GTX 1080s and Windows Professional. To others, an iPad Pro is the best to writing emails; it really depends on your workflow and needs. But I don’t think that tablets are laptop replacements; they are more like showing us what the next generation of laptops are going to look like. For instance, Apple is moving, albeit cautiously, towards fully integrating iOS and macOS. If you’ve noticed, iOS11 for iPads has some similar features to macOS, like a new file management system and an always present dock for easy access to most used apps. Apple finally accepts that the average person uses more than six apps, so the new dock style is much appreciated. That is Apple switching from seeing an iPad as a different device. Instead they are narrowing the gap between iPad and MacBook, so you expect the same experience no matter which device you are using.  Sounds very similar to Microsoft's approach, but the difference being that Apple's mobile platform, in some aspects, particularly with app development and availability of apps in the App Store, has been more successful than its desktop counterpart and definately more successful than its competition. Microsoft introduced a mobile version of Windows, but instead of keeping it, they improved it and use it for all devices. Apple started with a good desktop operating system (Mac OS X) and implemented a mobile version when going into the mobile device market (notably switching from Apple Computer, Inc. to simply Apple Inc. in 2007) and now they want to bring that success to computers. Fluidity and cross-compatibility of operating systems seems like a great move for the tablet user but a blow to power users, which now need to wait to see whether these new versions of macOS can handle power intensive tasks of 'pro' users. 

For me at least, a tablet cannot be a laptop replacement. I find the interaction with a tablet exhausting after lifting my hand from a Bluetooth keyboard and tapping on the screen to move the cursor or select something. I prefer the convenience of a trackpad and while keyboard shortcuts are implemented, you need well, a physical keyboard. Will a tablet ever be a computer? To understand what a computer really is, you mustn’t compare it to something that already exists. So a tablet and even a smartphone are computers, but whether you think you can solely live and work with just one, is a different question. It's also great to see competing brands working with one another. Apple, sorry to say, but Pages is not where near as comparable to Office Word, not mention Numbers compared to Excel. And while Apple and Microsoft will compete with each other for mobile platforms, as much as ChromeOS (Google) is competing with Microsoft, support for Microsoft apps to work on iOS devices is a step forward to realising the full potential of iPads. Interesting note, even the girl in the aforementioned Apple ad is seen using Word on her iPad Pro.