Tablet PCs are the in thing right now. In fact, you'd be hard put to walk into any sort of electronics store today and not be bombarded with displays for the latest and greatest tablet. But are tablets all they're cracked up to be? Or has Apple and its uber popular iPad duped consumers into tablet envy, and its competitors into a mad scramble to develop their own "iPad rivals?"
I've spent my fair share of time with many of the most popular tablets on the market today, including the iPad, BlackBerry PlayBook, Samsung Galaxy Tab, Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Motorola's Xoom, and I've come to a clear conclusion: The hype exceeds the reality.
I'm not saying that tablets aren't well suited for some select industry segments or specific types of user. They are. Nor am I trying to imply that tablets will never evolve into truly valuable business tools. In some cases, I think they will.
For an "average" tablet user that has no specific business-related purpose for employing such a device, the sheen on the popular form factor is rapidly wearing thin. When that happens, all you're left with beneath that shiny exterior is just another boring old piece of hardware. Here's why.
1) Tablets Really Aren't Particularly Portable
My number one issue with tablet PCs: They really aren't as portable as we're led to believe. In other words, I need to carry some sort of awkward case or bag to carry my tablet; I can't just put it in my pocket and forget it, like a smartphone. Sure, I could tote my tablet in hand, like a book, but that's even more awkward, and it makes me more likely to forget the thing somewhere after I set it down. Or even worse, accidentally drop and/or break it. The way I see it, if I have to carry a bag, I may as well just take my laptop with me, since it's not all that much bigger than the average tablet, and it has significantly fewer usage constraints.
Smaller, 7-inch tablets are much more portable than the iPad or other popular tablets like the Motorola Xoom or Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. For example, I can fit my BlackBerry PlayBook in my back pocket--yes, my jeans have big pockets--and this alone makes it one of my favorite tablets. But I still can't sit down somewhere with a seven-inch tablet like the PlayBook or the smaller Galaxy Tab without pulling the thing out and resting it somewhere for all to see.
I've been using various tablets for quite some time now, and at first I would grab one as I headed out to the bar or to dinner, simply because I wanted to spend more time with it, show it to interested friends or read on a large display. But now that the novelty has worn off, I rarely reach for my tablets when going out, because the value I get from my smartphone's portability simply outweighs any advantages of having a better browser and larger screen size. In fact, I carry at least two smartphones in a pocket at a time, and I never have to remove them if I don't want to.
2) Tablet is Just One More Piece of Hardware to Carry
I've mostly come to think of my tablet PC as just an extra piece of hardware I have to lug along with me; the tablet has not replaced any single gadget for me; I still use my laptop and desktop PCs as often as I did before I started using tablets, and the same thing applies to my various smartphones.
That's not to say that tablets don't do some things better than laptops, desktop computers and smartphones. For example, the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is great to use while lounging on the couch and surfing the Web, while listening to some music; it's much more flexible than a laptop in that you can hold it pretty much anyway you want while hopping from website to website. And that larger display makes surfing on a tablet a much more positive experience than surfing on a smartphone's tiny display.
But if I had to pick one device to use while on the go, it would still be my smartphone, because it's so much more portable, and in addition to being able to comfortably place phone calls it does just about everything else that a tablet can do, just with a smaller display.
If I had to select just one gadget to work on while seated somewhere for an extended period of time, I'd pick my laptop because of the larger, easier-to-use keyboard, bigger display and better selection of applications.
That largely leaves my tablet in the lurch...outside of Web surfing on the couch. But, after spending time with a variety of tablets, it's clear to me that I don't really NEED another piece or hardware that makes browsing on my couch more comfortable. The laptop works just fine for me. Again, I know tablets can be particularly well suited for some specific work environments, but not so much for the average user over time.
3) Tablet Browser Limitations
Despite many tablet-makers' claims to the contrary, the current array of modern tablet PCs still do not offer true desktop-PC-like Web browsing, and as such, I'd rather use my laptop computer for leisurely Web surfing. If I need to look something up or check out a Website while on the go, it makes more sense to use one of my many smartphones for the task, again, they're much more portable and the majority of them offer a similar mobile Web browsing experience to tablets.
Everyone knows the iPad doesn't do Flash. The lack of Flash support alone makes the iPad a less suitable browsing alternative to my laptop, especially when you consider the fact that comparable tablets, including the Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and the BlackBerry PlayBook, offer full Flash support.
But even tablets that support Flash still have limitations since many popular sites identify their browsers as mobile browsers or don't fully support the specific mobile operating systems. For example, even though both the BlackBerry Tablet OS's Webkit browser and the Android 3.1 Chrome browser fully support Flash and they should be able to seamlessly play Hulu.com videos, that site has blocked playback on BlackBerry and Android tablets.
So while I can watch Hulu.com videos on my laptop to my heart's content, I cannot watch the movies or clips on any of my tablets. The same thing goes for Netflix.com streaming media. And without Hulu or Netflix, my online media experience is vastly diminished. Sure, there are Netflix apps for the iPad and some Android devices that enable Netflix streaming--though they don't appear to be compatible with any of my Android devices, tablets and smartphones, or at least it's not available via the Android Market. And such an app could be in the works for the PlayBook and/or other tablets. But these are just two examples of how tablet browsers simply do not currently offer the same browser experience as a laptop or desktop PC.
4) Tablets (Mostly) Aren't Built to Last
M experience with tablets tells me that they're not particularly durable, and they could break during everyday use. Apple's iPad, the epitome of the modern tablet, is practically a work of art; it's shiny, sleek and stunning, and that's just the hardware. The iPad's software is even better looking.
But the iPad is very fragile.
I can practically feel all of you iPad lovers rolling your eyes right now as you read this, but it's true. Your precious iPad's display will shatter if you drop it on its edge just right, just once. The same can be said about many of the most popular tablets right now; it's not just an iPad thing. Even the BlackBerry PlayBook, certainly one of the more durable tablets on the market right now, has a display that will shatter if dropped a couple of times.
The reason for this: All tablets, practically by definition, are partially composed of a thin slab of glass or delicate glass-like substance. And glass breaks easily. Sure, smartphones and laptops can break, too. But the average laptop is built to take some degree of abuse--and it closes when not in use, to protect that display--as is the average smartphone, except perhaps, for handhelds that were built to look good first and foremost, and for which function is a secondary concern--again, I'm looking at you, Apple.
Every tablet has a different build quality, and a number of well-built cases exist to help protect your tablet, whatever the make and model. But the fact is that modern tablets are extremely susceptible to damage, and that doesn't really make them worthy tools for on the go work or play.
Slideshow: Drop-Proof Your iPad 2
Why Tablets Aren't for Everyone: Conclusions
Bottom line: Though unquestionably fun to use and valuable in some specific situations and environments, tablets are still just a luxury item for most people; nobody really needs them, because they don't truly offer anything that some form of smartphone/laptop combination doesn't offer.
In the future, I believe tablets will definitely find a home in some industries, such as healthcare, field-service work and for general on-the-go inventory management, etc. But I really don't see your average field-service worker toting an iPad or PlayBook around, as much as they might like to. Tablets are just too unwieldy for folks who aren't already toting a bag or other carrying solution. And they aren't as cheap as smartphones, which can offer much of the same functionality.
Tablet PCs, and the iPad in particular, are getting so much hype on TV, in your favorite magazines and in films, etc., right now, it's easy to forget that though they aren't new, they've certainly become newly popular. Apple seems to have successfully convinced the masses that iPads are near-necessities, but I'm still skeptical.
As the tablet market matures, some of the concerns mentioned in this post will no doubt be addressed to some degree. But I honestly don't see tablets "replacing" laptops or smartphones in the foreseeable future. And that's just fine with me.