Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Computer Conundrum: Desktop, Laptop or Tablet?

When personal computers came out, there weren't too many choices. It would sit on a desk. Then came the portability of laptop computers, which gave people additional choices, albeit typically with less horsepower than a desktop computer.

Most recently, we've seen the advent of tablets, primarily in the form of the Apple iPad, although there are quite a few contenders.

I'm frequently asked: "What should I buy? A desktop, laptop or tablet computer?"

As with most difficult choices, there are no simple answers.

First, I use all three and typically carry both a laptop computer and a tablet with me when I am out of my office.

The quantity of desktop computers I use has diminished greatly over the years. But I find I still use them for functions that require significant amounts of CPU and disk space. For me, this means video editing. For others, this may be database work, large spreadsheets or other computationally intensive tasks.

Other functions of desktop computers include situations where you want to add multiple monitors, although most laptop computers nowadays come capable of supporting two monitors without adding anything other than a second monitor. Desktop computers also have more expansion slots in case you want to add additional ports, such as USB, FireWire, video or other components.

Furthermore, desktop computers still give you the most "bang for your buck" than laptop or tablet computers, meaning that if you don't need mobility, a desktop computer is your best value for your money.

Second, I think all three — and more — types of computers will continue to be prevalent. I've already mentioned how desktop computers are great for cost-effective computational power. Laptop computers provide great mobility with good horsepower. Tablets provide a very portable device, but are not yet ready for everyday use, especially in the area of content creation, such as reports and spreadsheets.

Third, there are even more platforms coming out. Smartphones are up-and-comers, and with a new category called "phablets" —   combination phone and tablet that is really a phone with a really big screen, especially those from Samsung —  he distinction between each type is blurring. And remember Dick Tracy's wrist radio that included a two-way video-calling feature? We're not far away from that.

The biggest challenge I see with the tablets, phablets and other similar devices is their lack of input device, aka a keyboard. And voice recognition is still a few years away. Almost all tablets allow the addition of a keyboard, but then the weight and size end up being close to that of a laptop computer.

But tablets have done an excellent job of making touchscreen interfaces real. We're also starting to see much of this touchscreen work its way back into systems such as Windows, with its Windows 8 operating system. Because Windows 8 is trying to help Windows compete with tablets, we're starting to see a number of laptop and desktop computers that have touch-sensitive screens and applications.

So, one day, I hope that when I travel, I will have fewer digital devices in my bag, but right now, I travel with a laptop computer, tablet and "phablet." The combined total weighs less than some of the early "portable" computers I had, so I'm glad for that, but my dream for a single, lightweight device continues to be a dream.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 1 May 2013.

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