Hardware vendors at last week's Consumer Electronics Show showed off numerous new tablet and notebook designs. Some offerings, including the Lenovo Skylight Smartbook, earned cheers. Others -- yeah, we're looking at you, Microsoft-HP tablet -- heard mostly jeers. Apple wasn't at CES, of course, but the neverending rumor mill assures us that Steve Jobs's bound-to-be-cool tablet will debut by the end of this month.
All the CES hardware chatter led me to wonder if a tablet/slate would work as a suitable notebook replacement. For many consumers, particularly those who use a standard laptop -- or maybe a netbook -- primarily for e-mail and Web browsing, the answer may be yes.
This depends, of course, on the capabilities of said tablet. As last week's CES announcements indicate, the tablet remains a nebulous category. The Lenovo Ideapad U1 hybrid, with its removable display, is both tablet and notebook, as is the not-quite-ready Freescale Semiconductors tablet. And Asus displayed a two-screen tablet prototype that unfolds into one large OLED display.
Notebooks? Well, we know one when we see one -- unless, of course, you're referring to the Lenovo and Freescale hybrids, in which case things are a little less clear. But for sake of argument, let's define the laptop/notebook device as one with a physical (QWERTY) keyboard attached to a flat-panel display. Yes, I'm including netbooks, which are really just tiny notebooks, in this genre too.
Could You Go Tablet?
Many people hate the QWERTY keyboard, a 19th-century relic that somehow survived the transition to the digital age. After decades of use, I'm a decent touch typist, but millions of computer users -- the two-fingered tappers -- yearn for something better.
If you use a physical keyboard only to tap out short e-mail messages, Twitter or Facebook posts, and other quick text blurbs, you may be ready to deep-six QWERTY. But what should take its place?
Ideally, tablets need excellent handwriting or voice recognition to garner mainstream acceptance, but we're years away from data input that mirrors Star Trek-style simplicity. That said, a mobile professional may prefer today's tablets to complete online forms, browse the Web, and send quick messages.
Students? There's a market segment that could really benefit from fast, accurate handwriting recognition. Voice input wouldn't work in the classroom. For now, a laptop is the better choice. Plus, students tend to write a lot of papers, and the QWERTY keyboard is the best choice for long-form writing. (Sure, cut-and-paste plagiarism works well too, but that's another story.)
A tablet may have ergonomic drawbacks, too. When you're sitting at a desk, a notebook is more ergonomic than a slate-like device that must be held or cradled. And touch input can be tiring when you're holding your arm in an elevated position for hours at a time.
It's doubtful that tablets will replace laptops anytime soon. They likely replace standalone e-readers, however, as tablet prices start to fall.