Point/Counterpoint - Tablets

Who wants one?

Bill: Hey, Kyle, what do you think of tablets?

Kyle: Well, I think they are fine for storing commandments, but for computing, I think they are a bit limiting. I take it you probably think they are great.

Bill: I don't think they're great, but they certainly have come a long way. In the right setting, I can see how they'd be very useful. I'm thinking about getting one myself.

Kyle: See, when I use a computer, I tend to type a lot. I'm pretty particular about getting tactile feedback in my keyboards whether it's for a desktop (Model M thank you) or a laptop. Typing on a flat surface with no feedback just seems like a step backward.

Bill: I remember, you're all about the battleship keyboard. I know that having your keyboard survive a zombie insurrection is a major selling point for you. However, there's more to a tablet than just typing. Having an instant-on Web browser and mail client just kicking around would be very handy.

Kyle: You mean like a laptop that can suspend to RAM? Or a Netbook?

Bill: I have yet to see any laptop that's truly instant-on, even when suspended to RAM. They always take a few seconds to get on their feet. And even then, the form factor is different. A laptop or Netbook is the tool of choice for content creation, but for content consumption, I think a tablet might be the way to go. I know more often than not I'll reach for my iPhone if I need to check mail real quick. It's just faster and more convenient.

Kyle: See, that's just the point, I think the tablet has long been a solution in search of a problem. Now it has to compete with a smartphone for portable, underpowered computing, a Netbook for inexpensive portable computing, and a laptop or desktop for full-featured computing. Having a large fruit-named company create one (and new companies throw cell-phone software on their tablets) doesn't change that. I had a hybrid laptop that could rotate into tablet mode, and I think I used it maybe a handful of times, and even then, it was just as a novelty e-book reader.

Bill: I remember, but that laptop wasn't exactly a powerhouse either. And if I recall, it was running stock Ubuntu, which is not a portable-optimized OS like Android or iOS. I think your definition of computing is different from that of a lot of folks, Kyle. As a system administrator and writer, your use case depends on having multiple windows, a full-size keyboard, and the storage and horsepower of a conventional laptop. However, as iPad sales prove, there's a huge segment of the population who just wants to surf using tablets and play Angry Birds.

Kyle: Unless you are wearing some interesting jeans, a tablet isn't going to be any more portable than any other similarly underpowered Netbook, but you'll pay a premium for the fingerprint-smeared touchscreen and the lack of a keyboard. I think even surfing suffers on a tablet. However hyperlinked the Web might be, these days, people keep talking about everyone “contributing to the conversation” and other Web 2.0 terms. It's hard to do that just by touching and dragging on a screen.

Bill: Actually, SCOTTEVEST makes a vest that can hold an iPad in an internal pocket like a holster, but that's a little much even for me. Considering how I'd use a tablet, I wouldn't miss the keyboard. It wouldn't be my primary computing device, nor would it be what I reached for if I needed to do heavy work.

Kyle: And no matter how sophisticated your touchscreen keyboard is, it's still a keyboard on a flat surface with no tactile feedback. Plus, you lose a good portion of that tablet screen for it. I'd still love to see a picture of all of your active computing gear stacked on top of each other in size order. I think your iPad would fit somewhere on top of your small laptop but underneath your Netbook, Nokia pocket tablets and smartphones.

Bill: I think you can do more on a tablet than you realize. I've taken two trips with nothing but my iPhone and I actually survived just fine. A tablet would be nice to take on those trips for the great battery life and larger screen. For me, I think it fits between a laptop and iPhone nicely. You keep asking for pics of my computers. It's like you're just interested in me for my system porn. I HAVE A MIND TOO.

Kyle: I've taken a number of trips myself with just an N900, and the only things I've missed were a full-size keyboard and larger screen. Anything much larger than that, and you lose the real benefit of a portable smartphone. Basically, to me, anywhere you can take a tablet, you can take either a Netbook or a laptop. Although touchscreen interfaces are all the rage now, I still think they are really limited compared to a lot of the traditional input methods. In my mind, if you truly do want a tablet, the smart move is to invest in a convertible model, so you at least can get a proper hardware keyboard when you need one.

Bill: That's where a tablet fits in. I bring my Nook now on trips as a book, and it works great. If that device had a faster CPU, faster screen refresh and the ability to do a little more, I would carry it around constantly. I don't need it to do everything; I just need it to do 90% of everything. You can pair a Bluetooth keyboard to a tablet, and then you've got your proper hardware keyboard.

Kyle: For three hours until the battery dies, at least....

Bill: Three hours? Now you're resorting to hyperbole. The Galaxy Tab is good for seven, and the iPad is good for ten, according to specs and reviews I've seen. I know my Bluetooth keyboard batteries last a lot longer than either of those.

Kyle: The bottom line for me is that for completely portable (and touchscreen) computing, I have an N900 with a physical keyboard. For full-featured computing, I have a rather portable laptop. To me, and I imagine to most of the population, a tablet is nothing more than the third computer no one really needs.

Bill: I think the market proves your opinion to be wrong, Kyle. Apple sold 4.2 million iPads in the last quarter—4.2 million. There's a market for tablets and a use case for them. It may not be something you want, but the public's definitely interested, and so am I. I'm going to see what the next generation of iPad and Android tablets brings to the table before I pull the trigger on a purchase, but I definitely can see myself using one for light-duty computing.

Kyle Rankin is a Systems Architect in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of a number of books, including The Official Ubuntu Server Book, Knoppix Hacks and Ubuntu Hacks. He is currently the president of the North Bay Linux Users' Group.

Bill Childers is an IT Manager in Silicon Valley, where he lives with his wife and two children. He enjoys Linux far too much, and he probably should get more sun from time to time. In his spare time, he does work with the Gilroy Garlic Festival, but he does not smell like garlic.


Kyle Rankin is a director of engineering operations in the San Francisco Bay Area, the author of a number of books including DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu Server Book, and is a columnist for Linux Journal.