Magazine Article | May 24, 2012

Will The Tablet Replace The Laptop?

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Cindy Dubin, Field Technologies magazine

The choice between laptop or tablet is not a simple one. Here are some facts to consider when making your decision.

Could laptops slowly disappear, just as the typewriter did? According to a new report from Forrester Research, tablets are set to become the “preferred, primary device” by 2016. Tablet use will continue to grow in the next few years, with at least 760 million in use by 2016.

Tablet growth in the mobile space is being spurred by features such as convenience, long battery life, and ease of group sharing without the hindrance of keyboards or weight typically associated with laptops. But some people argue that tablets will not replace laptops as the computing device of choice because they lack the processing speed and memory of laptops. And, laptops have improved their form factor to compete with their tablet counterparts. “Tablets have made an impact on the design and form factor of rugged laptops,” says Paul Kim, VP of sales and marketing, GammaTech Computer Corp. “Due to the tablet influence, laptops are slimmer, lighter, and have higher performance to compete with tablets in the computing market.”

Laptops Have Peripherals, Tablets Have Touch
While tablets are best for on-the-move niche applications like data collection, meter reading, and signature capture, laptops do have their place within the mobile technology market. “Laptops are ideal when there is a need to create a mobile office desk and extend the office to a vehicle,” says Chris Wright, VP, InfoMobility, DRS Technologies.

Additionally, laptops offer more input/ output ports than tablets for wired applications. For example, technicians may require a hard connection for machinery and automotive diagnostics equipment as these are not typically wireless.

And, applications that require graphic-intensive programs, such as construction schematics, may be better suited for a laptop. “Most tablet form factors are too compact to incorporate the hardware components required to accommodate graphic-intensive software,” says Justin Harry, eastern U.S. director of sales, Group Mobile.

There is also the debate over input methods: the laptop’s keyboard and the tablet’s touch screen. Most users still find typing on a keyboard to be the most efficient for responding to email or working on lengthy documents. Many tablet users still purchase a keyboard for when they are working at a desk, and software developers are predominantly writing applications for keyboard-based platforms. “Those who have tried doing extensive typing on a glass surface know that it is not a great alternative to a keyboard,” says Kyp Walls, director of product management, Panasonic Solutions for Business. “While an on-screen keyboard can be convenient, a full keyboard gives workers the ability to comfortably input substantial amounts of data while on the job.”

However, some pros say there is no denying that a touch screen-enabled device can provide benefits that other input devices cannot. For example, when it comes to clipboard-type applications, such as inventory management, it is easier to input simple data or navigate the page with the touch of the screen. Signature capture is a key feature for some field service operations that becomes available with a touch screen. And, a multitouch screen with scrolling and zooming capabilities provides ease of use for applications like mapping and navigation.

As the younger generation continues to impact the market, keyboard input is likely to decline. “Touch capability certainly has the potential to replace keyboards as it is one of the most basic human elements,” says Wright. “Watch a toddler use a tablet for the first time, and it becomes quite obvious that we naturally expect to interact through touch. However, to truly replace a keyboard, innovation is needed. Consider voice recognition as the likely keyboard replacement as it is equally adept at short requests and heavy data entry.”

Tablets And Midrange Laptops Are Cost-Comparable
How adept a tablet or laptop will be in a mobile environment is critical to selection criteria. Consider the level of mobility required to be effective on the job. Those workers who spend a significant amount of time walking or even climbing while on the job will benefit more from a smaller device such as a tablet, with its light weight and ease of use. This form factor also could be ideal for those who work in tight spaces.

Another important feature to consider is the amount and type of data a workforce needs to input while using the device. If the users of the device will be required to input substantial amounts of information or provide detailed reports while on the road, a standard laptop can make this process easier. If, however, the device is being used for clipboard-style applications on the move, a lightweight touch screen tablet is suitable.

Also consider processor speed and memory requirements; tablets do not house as much memory as a laptop. "The compact form factors of many tablets don't allow for the latest processor technology because there isn't enough room for fans and other cooling devices," says Harry. "Moreover, traditional tablet applications are not very memory-intensive, which does help to keep down their costs."

According to the website, a tablet costs about the same as a low- to mid-range laptop. But, add in the price of an extra battery and software for the laptop, and the cost goes up. The experts warn that the hardware decision ultimately must be based on the ability to deliver a return on investment, not simply securing the lowest purchase price.

Lastly, the choice of form factor should incorporate features that a worker needs in a device to efficiently complete the job. Screen size is one such feature, as standard laptops typically offer a larger screen than tablets. For example, the utility industry's use of global information systems (GIS) software to access geographical data will benefit from the larger screen of a full laptop. For devices used outside, it's crucial that employees can read data on a screen regardless of weather conditions, so consider a daylight-viewable screen. "Regardless of the desired form factor, enterprise users must look for mobile devices that are purpose-built to withstand their users' work environments and that improve business processes," says Walls.

What About The Convertible Notebook?
Although laptops will continue to be a tried-and-true solution, many manufacturers are starting to add new tablet solutions to their lineups, such as convertible solutions. The 2012 Consumer Electronics Show reintroduced attendees to these new devices. A convertible notebook offers a combination of the features found in both laptop and tablet form factors. Users can switch from a laptop with full keyboard to tablet mode just by rotating the screen, depending on which style best suits the job at hand.

Having the best of both worlds in one device is attractive to some, but others opt to use tablets as an extension of their mobile computing portfolio, not a replacement for the laptop. As a matter of fact, Forrester Research expects two billion PCs to be in use in 2016, despite growing tablet sales.

"I don't believe tablets will ever completely take over the laptop market," says Walls. The best mobile device form factor for a workforce depends on the application. For instance, on-site content creation and document viewing are done more easily with a full laptop keyboard. But even in those situations, tablets can be a complementary device, particularly as companies vie for smaller, compact devices to enhance mobility.

So, while Forrester's research states that "tablets could potentially kill the laptop industry," industry insiders say that a few things would have to happen first. "While we may be witnessing the start of a ‘tablet revolution,' the laptop is not going away anytime soon," says Harry. "When companies consider making a substantial investment in rugged hardware, they want to invest in a product that they know will be successful for several years to come. An upsurge in the popularity of consumer tablets certainly can't be viewed as evidence of long-term success in the rugged space."

And, until the bulk of software is written with tablets in mind, tablets will continue to exist predominantly to complement primary, keyboard-based platforms. "The tablet will take a large share of the market; however, it will not be a laptop killer," says Kim. "While the tablet market will continue to grow, there will always be a place and demand for laptops."