Tablet or netbook? Which is best? Fight!

Since I’ve been going on about my new toy (a Sony Tablet) recently, several of my computer support clients have asked me whether they should buy a tablet or a netbook to take away with them on holiday.

It seems that we’ve now reached the position where even comparatively “casual” computer users want and expect to be connected when they are away from their static computer.

I’ve found that – even when taking into account what I know of the client’s habits, preferences, and wants – it’s often not clear which is the better option. So, I thought it might be useful to list what I see as the salient features, and try to give some idea of how the different formats compare:

Table of comparisons between tablets and netbooks

My own personal experience

Whenever I go to visit a computer client, I find that I am now making a conscious decision as to whether I will be likely to need my netbook (which is more powerful and gives me pretty well everything I have on my static computers), or can I get away with taking just the Tablet (much lighter, and more convenient for short sessions – such as checking emails or catching up with news or blogs). Certainly I would now take the tablet in preference to the netbook if going away for days, unless I expected to have a work-related reason for taking the netbook.

Conclusion

There’s a great deal of overlap between netbooks and tablets. If I needed to bring it down to a simple formula for deciding which I’d recommend, I’d say:

  • Consider whether you have an overwhelming reason for buying a netbook (probably to do with the keyboard or needing Windows software).
  • Tend towards a tablet for fun and leisure purposes.
  • Tend towards a netbook if you just think of the thing as a “tool” and want the minimum “involvement” coupled with the maximum “functionality”.

Policeman's helemts and tablets - visual punA few weeks ago, I bought a Sony tablet, wondering how useful it would be. Click here for my initial thoughts.

So, was it worth it? Yes. Other people will undoubtedly have different uses and priorities, and other tablets may have different strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless I thought it might be useful for any of my computer support clients who are thinking of buying a tablet computer to hear an evaluation from my few weeks of use.

As a Worktool

Plus

  • Much easier to dig out of a backpack and start using than a netbook. Very useful on longer tube journeys to catch up with reading technology blogs and news feeds. These are automatically updated when connected to a wifi or 3g network so are ready and waiting even on the tube. The e-reader is also good for these times as well, of course.
  • Emails and web browsing are much better tackled on a tablet than on a smartphone. I’m now on my third smartphone and have never yet managed to overcome the limitations of web browsing on such a small device.
  • Thanks to “Dropbox” I can easily access most of my important office files – including Word, Excel, pdf, jpg files. It took a bit of working out how to manage OneNote on the tablet (using the same data files as on the laptop at home), but I think I’m there now and just have to train myself to use it properly.This means that I have most of what I need on the Tablet when I’m onsite, providing computer support.

Minus

  • I haven’t yet found a perfect solution for a password manager that has a Windows application (for the laptop) and an Android app (for the Tablet) and that shares the same data file.
  • File encryption and password-protection don’t seem to be very advanced in the Android environment. It’s true that you can set up the Tablet to require a password to access it initially but I like to have another layer of security for sensitive files.
  • I haven’t found a way of reading Access data files on the Tablet. This is no surprise. Databases are very complicated and I imagine it would take a great deal of work to create something useful. My guess is that this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future as it seems that everyone expects to get their programs (“apps”) for free on Android or to pay no more than a pound or two. I think it would be pushing expectations too far to think that a Tablet could cope with Access applications or that anyone would invest a lot of time and brainpower in creating something that the market would only be prepared to pay a fiver for. My own compromise (when I get round to it) will be to define more reports in my Access database that print to pdf files in my Dropbox folder. Those reports will be immediately available on the Tablet and updating the pdf versions won’t be too onerous.

Sony Tablet S

Sony Tablet S

As a Plaything

Plus

  • Photos look great on the Sony Tablet.
  • Beyond Pod” is a great program that downloads the latest blog postings, news items, podcasts for offline reading/listening.
  • BBC iplayer works fine in “normal” mode. It does stutter a little bit if played full screen.
  • Playback quality of videos is excellent if the video itself is recorded at a good quality.
  • All the little apps are great. Some that I happen to like include live bus/tube/train information, live Google Analytics, BBC newsreader, weather, the online versions of the Grauniad and Indy, documents scanner, pinball games, and loads more.

Minus

  • The screen doesn’t go quite bright enough in strong light.
  • The speakers are very tinny (but you can connect headphones or external speakers – as I do when watching BBC iPlayer in the kitchen).
  • I’m not sure that the battery life is good enough to be able to expect a whole day’s use and, unfortunately, the Sony Tablet doesn’t re-charge via a USB connection. Instead, it has its own proprietory charger and connection (that you wouldn’t want to carry around with you).
  • The onboard data storage is a bit limited. I made a wrong assumption that I could have as much storage as I liked because there is a slot for a 32gb SD card. This is true, but you can’t install programs onto that card and most programs won’t access data from this external card.

    In practice, this is not as bad as it sounds because you can launch video files directly from the external SD card, view photographs, and listen to music (although I’ve only got it to play music tracks on at a time so far). Since video, music, and picture files are by far the largest types of files you would want on a Tablet, this means that the restrictions that apply to the external SD card are not as bad as they first seem. Nevertheless, whether buying a Sony or any other type of Tablet, I would now recommend looking carefully into the storage situation and how you can connect external storage. Another mistaken assumption I made was to think that because the Sony has a USB interface I could connect an external hard drive – not so. It will recognise a “flash drive” (ie a pen drive) but not a hard drive. This is probably due to power restrictions. Again, this may be different with other types of Tablet, so I would recommend investigating carefully when buying a Tablet if these aspects are important to you.

Conclusion: if you like electronic gadgets and/or would like something more sophisticated, versatile, and easier to use than a smartphone, or are considering buying a netbook, then you may be as pleased as I am with what tablets can do and how well they do it.

I wasn’t really expecting it, but I can honestly say that the Sony Tablet has put a lot of fun back into computing for me and it’s useful as well. It hasn’t yet completely replaced my netbook, but it may do so in the next few months. One caveat, though, is that I bought a Sony Tablet. These are good machines that I am sure compare well with the iPad (click here for a review of the iPad 3). I really don’t know if the cheaper tablets offer comparable functionality and value for money.

Tablet PCs are like smartphones in that the main method of input is via a touchscreen rather than a keyboard but the much larger screens make using them a lot easier. They are like netbooks computers (but even lighter) in that they make “mobile computing” easier than lugging around a laptop computer.

I like computer gadgets up to a point, but like to think that my purchasing decisions have some rational basis. So, I’ve been wondering whether tablet PCs are just the latest trendy/geeky toy, or would one really have a place in my own computing life and that of my average computer support client in London. I do have a perfectly rational (if insufficient) reason for buying a Tablet PC in that a lot of them run the Android operating system (as opposed to Windows or Mac OS-X, for instance) and I need to learn about Android so as to be able to offer informed advice to my computer clients. Here’s a quick intro to Android.

Sony Tablet S

Sony Tablet S

So, last weekend I bought a Sony Tablet S. The nerd in me will be happy for months. But would it have any appeal for my “average computer client” and does it serve any real purpose not covered by laptops, netbooks, and smartphones? Here are some of my first impressions:

  • They’re not cheap. I paid £449 – a typical price for a “good” Tablet PC. You can buy a perfectly serviceable laptop for that price and the lack of keyboard on Tablets means that I think most people would find it hard to completely replace a “proper” computer (although it’s possible to connect an external keyboard to some Tablets).
  • Android is easy. The Android operating system was specifically written for devices whose main method of input is via a touchscreen (rather than lots of fiddly little keys – how do people with grown up hands actually use Blackberrys?) Android also seems intuitive and easy to learn.
  • Android is fun. You have probably heard the term “apps”. These are small programs that perform just one function (eg display a clock, load the BBC news site, open your email program, connect to your LinkedIn account). They are very easy to find online and install. Most apps are free but have small embedded ads. There is often an ad-free version that costs all of a pound or two.

After only a few days, I am fairly sure that the Tablet will – for me – fulfil some definite purposes such as:

  • Browsing the internet when I’m away from a proper computer. I just can’t be bothered struggling with the mobile phone versions of web browsing.
  • Dealing with emails properly when away from a computer. My mobile phone includes a keyboard but it’s still not ideal for writing a long email. The touchscreen keyboard on the Sony Tablet is easy to use – a million times easier than the virtual keyboard on an iphone! You can whip a Tablet out of a briefcase and be working on it in seconds – much more convenient than getting out a netbook in a train, for instance.
  • Ebooks. I’ve already got a Sony e-reader but didn’t quite think it worth lugging the weight of it around with all the other stuff in my case. As far as the weight is concerned, I can think of having an e-reader with me as “free” if it’s installed on the Tablet. If your are thinking of buying an e-reader I would recommend thinking about whether a tablet would be a better buy for you.
  • I think I’ll be able to get things set up so that I have proper access to my most important documents when I’m out and about – thanks to Dropbox and its Android app.

There’s a chance that I may even be able to carry the Tablet around with me instead of the heavier netbook. The main problem might be the downloading and transferring of stuff to clients’ computers. Some tablets – such as the Sony – include support for SD cards for extra storage and for data transfer. This might be enough for most of my needs. I certainly wouldn’t have bought a tablet without such flexibility.

Apple iPad 2

Apple iPad 2

The tablet will also become something to keep to hand at home. It gives such easy and quick access to everything you can’t quite be bothered to check on your “proper computer” and which is just too tedious to do on a smartphone – things such as checking the outside temperature just before going out, seeing what’s on telly, checking travel news, and, if you’re that way inclined, checking into social networking sites. The Sony Tablet even has inbuilt infrared so you can program it to replace your TV and DVD remote controls.

I’ve had a few moments of delighted surprise playing with this thing – such as discovering the app that measures the severity of an ongoing earthquake. OK – that’s probably not funny if you live in Japan or California, but it seems so in SW4. The biggest surprise, though, was discovering the app that relays the current information on bus services. This, of course, is the data you now get on the dot matrix boards at some bus stops, but having it on a Tablet means you can leave home at just the right moment. As someone who gave up driving round London 20 years ago but who travels a lot to clients, this is one of those marvels of modern life – like GPS integrated with the A-Z on my smartphone.

This is a highly personal view of what a Tablet PC might do better than a smartphone or a netbook/laptop. There are plenty of other directions I could have explored so far – including watching movies and TV, playing games, twittering, music etc. So far, I’ve discovered that Tablet PCs do, indeed, fall somewhere between smartphones and netbooks but that doesn’t mean they have no real purpose. On the contrary, stuff that’s mildly interesting but too tedious to access in other ways is easily accessed via a Tablet.

I do acknowledge that the current popularity (but NOT the creation) of Tablet PCs began with the release of the iPad. Pretty well everything I’ve said about Android Tablets is probably true of iPads (but all the Apps are different versions and are only accessible via Apple).

Conclusion: Tablet PCs do fill a niche, and they’re fun. Your life probably won’t become empty and meaningless without one, but If you’re at all curious about them I recommend further investigation. And, so far at least, I thoroughly recommend the Sony Tablet S.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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