Laptop vs Tablet: A Personal Take on the Great Debate

I’ve been trying to lose weight…about six pounds around my shoulders and in the overhead bin. So after years of dragging my laptop through airports, I bought an iPad, installed a few apps and ventured out into a lighter world.

But lightening my load also raised some heavy questions: how does going mobile affect work productivity? Would I be able to get all of the same things done? Where does the tablet fall short? What can be done better away from my laptop and what can’t be done at all?

And furthermore: How does support change when users are ditching their desktops and laptops for smartphones and tablets? Will we eventually leave the PC behind, or will we live permanently with the mating dance of the desktop and the iTook-It-With-Me?

A few weeks with an iPad hasn’t given me clear answers…but for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve learned:

A Tablet is Not a Phone
iOS is iOS is iOS, right? Wrong. The guts of the iPhone and iPad are the same, of course. You change settings in the same way; the interface is familiar; you add apps the same way; you pinch, and swipe, and tap the same way…But. I’ve had an iPhone for a couple of years now and never felt the urge to draw a picture or edit a document or watch a full-length movie or even access my work files. Even if I got to the PowerPoint I’m working on via my iPhone, what would I do with it? My finger would cover half the page.
Because of the bigger screen, interaction with my iPad is a whole new ball game. It’s not just the approach to authoring and editing that changes; consumption habits change too. I’ve read an eBook or two on my phone, but it’s not pleasant. On a tablet, it feels open and natural. On my phone, the web may be the real web, but it’s wearing a tight suit. On a tablet, it’s easier than on a desktop (except for those really little links). I’ve watched YouTube videos on my phone, but who would want to spend four bucks to watch a movie on a three and half inch screen?
So my verdict is that even though the operating system is the same, the usability of a tablet is far different because of the added screen real estate. The screen size suggests to the user added capabilities, both for consuming and creating content.
Touch is not a Big Mouse - and I like my Keyboard
I'm typing this post on a keyboard...but not the on-screen tablet keyboard. That would take forever. I think that the screen-based keyboard is great for most tasks like browsing and…well...browsing – or things that only require a line or two of text. For anything more than that, it starts to feel cumbersome. The hard part of this evaluation is that I've grown up using a physical keyboard whereas my kids are going to grow up using software keyboards. There's no way I'm going to get as fast on a software keyboard as I am on a "real" one, but let's not underestimate the youngsters.
However, although I’m not using an on-screen keyboard right now, I am writing this post on my iPad --I just paired it with a bluetooth keyboard and it works great. Some would claim that this defeats the purpose of a tablet, but I beg to differ. There are certain tasks that are better done with a keyboard. There are also certain tasks that are better done without a keyboard (such as reading an eBook or drawing a picture). A built-in physical keyboard (like a laptop) would make the tablet unusable for some tasks. An optional physical keyboard allows you to use it when it makes sense and put it away when it doesn't.
So with the keyboard issue settled in favor of the physical keyboard (at least for my generation), that leaves the fingertip pitted against the mouse. In this contest, I think that the fingertip wins. The mouse is more precise in certain applications, but it's not nearly as fast or as versatile. I can navigate through menu options with my fingers much faster than with a mouse, and that's with 15 years of training using a mouse. In fairness, I've been using my fingers a lot longer than that, so it didn't require least not in the same way.
Files, Files Everywhere and Not a Way to Save
Probably the hardest transition for me has been figuring out how to manage my work files. It's not like I file for a living, but most of my work involves creating, editing, sharing, and presenting documents. Maybe Android has more answers, but I haven’t found a perfect solution on the iPad. I use Dropbox to sync files across my laptop and other devices, but having access to the files is only half of a solution. I want to be able to open the file, make edits, and then save it back to a standard location (like Dropbox) where it will be synced across my devices in an updated form. A few document editing apps will do this, but not many and not the best ones.
Also, doing simple things like moving a file from folder to folder (which would be brainless on the desktop) require workarounds on the iPad. I sometimes find myself performing mental gymnastics just figuring out how to open a document in the right app, edit it, and then get it back into my file structure without creating duplicates or losing fidelity. Part of the problem seems to be that iOS doesn't spend a lot of mental energy on file system structure, but for most types of knowledge work, some framework for working with files is essential...and lacking.
Aside from my frustrations with the file system, I've found editing files on a tablet to be a surprisingly positive experience. Word processing is about the same experience (with an external keyboard) as on the desktop. Spreadsheets take a little getting used to. I think for simple spreadsheets, touch input works fine, but I can see how larger, more complex spreadsheets would benefit from the precision of a mouse and keyboard shortcuts (which you don't get on a tablet even with an external keyboard). For me, presentations are much more important than spreadsheets or documents, and I've found that building presentations on a tablet works fine with a few exceptions. On one hand, because presentations are more visual, touch input is a very intuitive way to lay out the slide contents. On the other hand, touch is not quite as precise, so I sometimes find my presentation edits on my tablet feeling rather clumsy. It's also harder to make global edits across multiple slides. The biggest pain, though, is that in importing the presentation for the purposes of editing, there is a minor loss of fidelity (missing fonts, changed formatting, etc.) that requires me to do a lot of little edits to get the presentation back to a presentable level. It's a little more work, but sort of fun too to learn a new style of input. I recently used my tablet to present to the Atlanta HDI chapter (just to see if it would work), and it worked like a champ with an iPad to VGA adapter.
In summary, I find editing and working with files much easier on the desktop than on a tablet, even though I really want to like working with files on my tablet, but three quarters of the issue is just figuring out the best way to save files.
What This Means for Support
In about two months of using my iPad alongside my laptop in the office and exclusively during travel, I've concluded that I can do pretty much everything I can do with my laptop on my tablet. It's better for many tasks (reading, annotating documents, etc.), but as soon as you get into the heavy lifting, it's at least a little slower. This means that support can breathe a preliminary sigh of relief. If the heavy lifting is done at the desktop, then most of the support incidents will happen at the desktop (and we're already pros at fixing PCs).

That said, structurally, there is not any reason that the heavy lifting of creative knowledge work can't be done on a tablet. The limitations of a touch interface are an obstacle, but as touch screens improve, and as the younger generation who is more used to swiping than typing enters the workforce, this boundary could disappear. It's really the software itself that forms the most imposing boundary to work shifting to mobile, and software, as we know, has a way of shifting itself. Yes, today most of the real work gets done on the desktop or laptop. Maybe things will stay that way...but it's probably good to be prepared.

Nathan McNeill is the at Bomgar

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