For all the criticism the iPad and other tablets get for being "just toys", they actually have a lot of qualities that make them excellent productivity tools — at times better than laptops or netbooks. Here's why.
Photo by thms.nl.
Lots of folks (including some of us at Lifehacker) have dismissed tablets as useless unless you're playing games or reading articles. They've been declared content consumption devices, not content creation devices. Most folks say they can't use a tablet for "real work", that only a real laptop or netbook will suffice. I've long used my netbook as my main on-the-go computer, but I'm starting to realise that often, my iPad is actually a better choice. Here's why picking up that new iPad 2 or Motorola Xoom could actually be one of the most convenient productivity tools you've purchased.
When the Tablet Wins Over Laptops and Netbooks
At its most basic level, your tablet already has a ton of advantages over your typical computing device — especially for working on the go.
It's really instant-on: I don't care if you're using an SSD in your laptop, hibernating it instead of powering it off, or using any of the other "fast-booting" tricks — there's no way you can turn it on, connect to the internet, and get to work faster than you can on a tablet. With the press of a button and a tap of your finger you can be in a word processor or other productivity app in seconds. If you're near a network you've used before or you've got a 3G-capable tablet, you're also already connected to the internet — no waiting for your Wi-Fi to turn back on and re-connect.
It has insane battery life: The iPad's battery life is absurdly long, clocking in at more than 10 hours, with the Xoom and Galaxy Tab not far behind. Most netbooks are lucky to get half the battery life tablets do. Heck, even the new MacBooks (which have some of the best battery life I've seen on a laptop) can't compete with an iPad. If you want to go out without worrying about a device dying (and carrying around a bulky charger), tablets are a great choice.
It's smaller and more portable: Even netbooks, with their small screen size, can be bulky monsters — especially with the giant batteries some of them come with (which again, can't hold up to tablet standards and require you to carry an even bulkier charger). If you're rocking a 13 or 15 inch laptop, forget about it. Your tablet is lighter, thinner, and about a million times easier to carry around without moaning about the bulk.
Another advantage in this area: It's easier to work with other people when you have a tablet around. It's much easier to pass around, to demonstrate stuff, and even see the screen from different angles (thanks to IPS display technology). Reader Jesse notes on Facebook that it's great for sharing material during meetings, whether with your co-workers or with clients. Photo by Henri Bergius.
It's faster: Despite having nearly a third of the processing power of the average netbook, the iPad's lightweight OS means everything is super fast. When I started using my iPad as a netbook replacement, I was surprised to find that apps take a lot less time to load. Plus, you don't have to worry about multiple apps bogging down your system. The lack of multitasking on the iPad can be a pain, but in this case it actually helps keep the device running smoothly.
It's easy to annotate documents: Both @FollowerDrone on Twitter and Sara on Facebook noted that the the iPad is great for taking notes and anontating PDFs in ways that, until now, you could only really do on paper. Sure, there are a bunch of ways to annotate documents on a laptop, but none of them are quite as simple, intuitive, or flexible as they are on a tablet, which much better mimics the pen-and-paper experience — and experience that can be very useful when you don't have to transfer it back into a digital form.
It's safer: Reader @snorkel42 made a great point on Twitter: with a tablet, you're far less susceptible to bringing back malware from sketchy, open coffee shop networks. You'll still want to make sure you use HTTPS and SSL whenever possible, of course, but if the alternative is a Windows-based laptop, a tablet will rid you of the malware annoyance when you need to actually get things done. Granted, Lifehacker readers aren't normally ones to jump into a coffee shop Wi-Fi network unprotected or download malware-ridden software, but you get the idea.
Your work is completely distraction-free: Another situation in which the lack of true multitasking is actually good: You're always focused on the one thing you're doing right then. When it's time to go get some serious writing done (or whatever you're doing), you can just pair a bluetooth keyboard and write without anything on the screen distracting you (a trait of which we've sung the praises once before). Flip one switch in your tablet's settings and you can turn off all notifications too, letting you further immerse yourself in your work.
Overcoming Its Biggest Weaknesses
Obviously, your tablet isn't without its weaknesses. However, some of these can be remedied with just a few tweaks or extra pieces of hardware.
Lack of a hardware keyboard: While typing a few notes on the software keyboard isn't awful, you're certainly not going to be doing any real work with it. However, most modern tablets can pair with any Bluetooth keyboard, meaning you can pick one up (or use the one you're already using on your desktop), bring it with you, and add a super cheap stand to form your own mobile workstation—and still with some space savings over a full laptop. (Most tablet cases double as stands, too.) Photo by Jelle Vandebeeck.
Lack of local storage and USB support: Most tablets don't have USB ports for thumb drives, and the iPad doesn't even let you browse the file system. As a result, many people complain that you can't easily access documents created on your tablet on other computers. The fact of the matter, though, is that most services (whether it's the amazing Simplenote or the cloud-based Google Docs) already sync your stuff to other computers, and you can easily use Dropbox for most everything else — including iWork.
Where Tablets Still Lose
All that said, tablets obviously aren't the perfect productivity tool. There are still a few areas in which laptops and netbooks win out:
Browsing: While many argue that browsing on a tablet is a great experience, I seriously disagree. Clicking links, using Flash, and dealing with sites not optimised for tablets is a huge pain. If you need to do any of these things for work, tablets will make your life more difficult.
Advanced Document Editing Features: If you do a lot of writing, the distraction-free environment of a tablet can be great. As soon as you need to do more advanced things, though — the kind of things that require accessing a lot of menus, for example — you'll need a real computer with a mouse and a full version of your office suite of choice to get things done.
Other examples of this include utilities like like text expanders, which just don't work the same on tablets. iOS has TextExpander, but since it can't multitask it requires the app you're using to support it—meaning it works well when supported, but doesn't work everywhere. Similarly, I haven't seen any useful text expansion apps come out for Android. Macro functions in Office are in the same boat — sadly, there's just no real replacement on a tablet.
Running Specialised Software: While many of you noted on Facebook and Twitter that your company or field had tablet-optimised versions of their software, the majority of people aren't so lucky. If there's a specific piece of software you need to use for a project, chances are you'll need a Windows-based laptop for it.
Price: There's no getting around this one. You can get a decent netbook for as low as $250, but you'll be shelling out at least $500 for an iPad, and even more for the Xoom. If you can't justify slapping down that much cash, buying a tablet just isn't a good idea.
The Key to It All: Making an Effort to Include It in Your Workflow
Reader Bryan put it best on Facebook, so I'll let him explain:
[The iPad]can be very productive; the key is working it into your routine and rethinking your workflow. I initially had to force myself to take it to meetings; now it has become a useful tool after about a month. . . Like anything it's all in how it is used or how it uses you.
With that, I recommend that if you have a tablet, give it a shot. You may have written it off as "just a toy" before, but if you actually give yourself a chance to get used to the idea, you might be surprised at what you can get done on it.
In the end, it all comes down to the type of work you need to do — but many of you may be surprised how far you can actually get with a tablet (and how much more convenient it can be). All of this is my opinion, of course, and I know many of you don't share my outlook. So, agree or disagree, let's discuss this issue (politely, please) in the comments.