ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Why I’m Getting a Tablet (by an anti-tablet guy)

As you can probably imagine, I’ve had some experience with tablets as they’ve boomed over the last couple of years. But what might surprise you is that a tech guy like me has not ever personally owned a tablet of his own. If you ask me, a smartphone and a laptop completely cover the functionality a tablet offers. What’s the point of a tablet? And yet, despite wondering about the answer to this question, I’ve made the decision: I’m getting into the tablet universe. Why?

(+) A Consuming Device

I’ve always been more of a content creator than a content consumer. In the past I couldn’t even sit down and play a video game without noticing things that could stand to be improved or simply altered to make the experience more interesting, and usually I was able to implement my ideas by modding the game. I loved the process and challenge of creation so much (and not just in games) that any media consuming device had no appeal to me.

It’s this purpose that has caused a significant amount of controversy over whether or not tablets are computers. I say that’s like debating over whether motorcycles are cars. Both have the same basic goal and function, but one is a multi-purpose workhorse while the other is more for enjoyment.

However, I’m also coming to realize that it isn’t so much that one is better than the other as much as it is that each one serves a different purpose the other cannot hope to fill. While the motorcycle may not be able to move a family of five, you wouldn’t go for a joyride in your minivan. There’s an appropriate use for both, but let’s be honest: the more pleasant experience is going to be what you take out for a joyride.

(-) An Unnecessary Device

Even so, it’s tough to say that a tablet is a truly necessary form of computing device. It may have a specific role in your daily life, but technically you can run the same apps on a smartphone, and you can have a larger screen experience on your laptop. By definition that makes tablets unnecessary.

This is only becoming more true with time. x86-64 based tablet computers like the Microsoft Surface Pro which released in February blur the line between consuming and creating devices. Eventually, what we will probably see is that every computer is a laptop and every laptop is simply detachable from its keyboard by default. In other words, the tablets of today form the awkward adolescent stage of a new type of computer on its way to maturity. If you are the buyer of a tablet today, anticipate it being left behind tomorrow.

(+) A Convenient Device

While tablets as we know them may not be essential products for everyone to own because of seriously overlapping functionality and a doomed future, the functionality they do offer right here and now is more convenient than competing devices because of their size and form factor. Can you read a book on your PC or smartphone? Absolutely. But they cannot do so in a way that compares to reading on a tablet. Can you play games on a PC or a smartphone? Definitely. But PC gaming experiences are mostly too large and in-depth to take on the road, and the small screen of a phone is not nearly so pleasant to use as something 7-10 inches across. And let’s not even get started on web browsing. The PC may be the undisputed king here, but smartphones are also the undisputed losers. Tablets fit right in the middle to provide a highly accessible web, if still scaled back a bit.

Tablets are better for watching video than smartphones, but smartphones are better for listening to music (due to being pocketable). Tablets are better than PCs at providing a simple, attractive user interface, but PCs have higher utility value for their less pretty, utilitarian UIs. The list goes on.

(+) An Android Device (in my case)

If the iPad was the only tablet on the market, I still would be staying far away from them. But the Android experience is different–it feels like it was made for tablets. In a way, in fact, it was. Android, as most people know, runs on a Linux kernel–the same Linux that powers dozens of desktop operating systems such as the ever-popular Ubuntu. So basically we started with a desktop that was scaled down to a smartphone that was scaled back up to be somewhere in between. As such Android is currently the best way to get in on the mobile software arena without sacrificing the freedom of a desktop OS. The experience is small enough to work on a portable device, but big enough to be really useful. Android is definitely a companion OS and not something you’d want to rely on exclusively for all your computing needs, but with hardware prices coming down to the $200 mark (thanks to its openness) the right balance has finally been struck to make a tablet a solid buy over a laptop.

(+/-) A Fitting Device

The bottom line is, while other devices may do exactly what a tablet will, they won’t do it in the same way. Tablets are not a cut above smartphones or PCs, they are parallel products serving to fill the gap between the other two. While certainly not required, those who can afford the luxury of a tablet can get a lot of great use from one as their middle device in the Small, Medium, Large paradigm.

When I bought my first Apple product a few years ago, I was already no Apple fan. In fact, I was very vocal about my distaste for the company. But I reached a point where I had a tech need and at the time an Apple device looked capable of fulfilling that need. In the end, I only discovered that my reasons for disliking the company and their products were entirely founded, and indeed worse than I had previously known.

Will the same thing happen again now that I’m giving tablets a shot? Only time will tell.