Your next computer could well be a tablet

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

Like it or not — and I know that some of you don’t — tablets are changing the way the world works and plays.

Whether it’s an iPad, Kindle, Nook, or a tablet based on Google’s Android OS, mobile devices are swirling across the computing landscape. Here’s how to pick the right one.

Don’t believe that mobile devices are taking over? Consider these eye-popping numbers.

Based on numbers published by Gartner, the estimated total units of Windows PCs sold in the U.S. (desktops, laptops, Ultrabooks, netbooks — everything except Apple computers) dropped by 8.6 percent from Q4 2010 to Q4 2011. (The number of Macs sold rose by 26 percent, according to the company’s earnings report.)

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During approximately that same time period, the number of iPads sold rose by 111 percent — to over 15 million in Apple’s fiscal Q1 2012, according to the earnings report. (Apple’s fiscal year ends in September.) If you combine tablets with more traditional computers, Apple might be the largest computer manufacturer on earth. (Combining tablets with traditional computers to tally sales numbers will become more common when Windows 8 ships on tablets.)

And where is Microsoft? Well behind the curve, at this point. Any significant rival to the iPad is tied to the launch of Windows 8. We probably won’t see low-powered Win8 tablets until early 2013 — an eternity in a market that’s already exploding. About the time Microsoft gets a true iPad competitor out the door, Apple will be rolling out its fourth-generation iPad 4. And tablets based on Google Android 4 — or version 5 or 6 — will be commonplace.

Microsoft may be behind in its tablet technology, but it obviously knows that a sea change is under way. As it focuses on Win8 and the Metro user interface, the company is starting to refer to traditional Windows applications as legacy apps and the Windows desktop as the legacy desktop.

That’s not to say we’re approaching the post-PC era just yet — no more than we’re into the post-combustion engine era. PCs will have a place for a long time to come. But that place is no longer the undisputed center of the computing universe. And PCs are certainly not the center of computing innovation.

Just as many of us moved from DOS to Windows, from desktops to portables, and from printed and faxed documents to the Internet, tablets are becoming an important addition to our digital life. So let me step you through the current options, from the point of view of a long-in-the-tooth Windows veteran.

From e-readers to personal-computer substitutes

Let’s start with a given. A tablet is not a PC. I can draw a thousand analogies — a motorcycle isn’t a car, a dome tent isn’t a house, a golden retriever isn’t a quarter horse. Tablets and PCs have different capabilities and limitations. There are tasks performed routinely on PCs that are, at least for now, nearly impossible to accomplish on a tablet. Tablets are lighter and more mobile, and they typically have excellent battery life (eight hours or more, unlike most full-sized, Windows-based notebooks.)

Tablets are great for many computing tasks we do obsessively every day — such as reading e-mail, searching the Web, checking Facebook, watching YouTube videos, and (when we’re feeling really decadent) watching Netflix movies in bed. With their relatively small size and light weight, they fit nicely between a full-sized notebook and our smartphones.

There are undoubtedly uses for a tablet that haven’t even occurred to us yet. For example, I’ve recently discovered that tablets are excellent for keeping children amused when your attention must be elsewhere.

So while I’m not going to tell you to toss out your PC just yet, I will suggest you seriously consider a tablet — especially if you’re in the market for a netbook or second PC. I did, and it was the right choice.

Right now, there are four basic tablet options, discussed below, plus hundreds of variations. They start as low as U.S. $79 for a simple e-reader and go up to just over $800 for the state-of-the-art tablet technology. They all include built-in Wi-Fi, so you can go to the Internet, download media and e-mail, and purchase apps without connecting them to a PC. Some also include 3G connectivity for times when Wi-Fi is unavailable.

Apple iPad: Whether you like Apple or not, the iPad is the standard by which all other tablets are measured — and is likely to remain so for some time to come. It’s expensive and big, compared to the other options in this review, but it offers just about everything you could want in a tablet. The iPad 2 runs from $499 for a 16GB model with no 3G to $829 for 64GB and 3G connectivity.

More than any other tablet currently sold, the iPad nicely handles many of those basic computing tasks we face every day — e-mail (unless your needs are excessive), Web browsing, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, instant messaging, and text messaging. As a mark of its success, the iPad is finding its way into a plethora of business applications.

The iPad 2 also goes well beyond computing tasks. Its 9.7-inch screen makes it an excellent Web-research and entertainment device. Use it to search Google Earth, catch up on the news (including Flipboard), check the stock market and weather, and stream audio and video (via Hulu, Netflix, TiVo, and many more). You can watch most YouTube videos, except for the few that are available only in the Flash format. (In a controversial move, Apple kept support for Adobe Flash out of the iPad and iPhone.) It offers more games and apps than you could shake two sticks at. Apple’s world-leading app store has a larger collection of games and apps than any other tablet format.

The iPad’s internal touch-screen keyboard is relatively easy to use, but if you’re doing a fair amount of typing, you can attach a Bluetooth external keyboard. Even with the external keyboard, however, the iPad won’t replace your PC for answering piles of e-mail, writing long reports, or cranking through massive spreadsheets. You’d also be hard-pressed to create high-end graphics on an iPad.

Overall, the iPad is a pleasure to use. If you want to work in a Windows/iPad world, check out these two Top Stories, “Top iPad apps for Windows users:” Part 1 and Part 2.

Thinking of buying an iPad 2 soon? I suggest waiting a couple of months — rumor has it that the iPad 3 will be announced in February. That usually drops the price of the current model by $100 or so, plus the next iPad might have new features you’ll want.

Bottom line: Consider the iPad if you’re looking for a smaller and lighter occasional substitute for your full-sized PC.

Kindle: Amazon’s Kindle readers range from a simple U.S. $79 model with a six-inch, grayscale screen to a $379.00 version with a 9.7-inch grayscale screen, built-in physical keyboard, and free 3G communications.

I own the Kindle Fire — the only Kindle with a color screen — and I use it often. Smaller, lighter, and at $199 roughly one-third the price of an analogous iPad, the Kindle Fire has a gorgeous screen; simple controls based on a bookshelf metaphor; and access to Amazon’s huge library of books, other types of media, and an expanding library of games. Currently, the Kindle’s application offerings are far fewer than what’s offered for the iPad, but there are apps for Facebook and Twitter; Netflix, Hulu and Pandora; and many other popular online activities.

Although its seven-inch touch screen is significantly smaller than the iPad’s, it’s better-looking — making it ideal for reading books, playing videos up-close, and sneaking in an occasional game of Angry Birds. It just doesn’t match the iPad for tasks that need larger screens and on-screen keyboards, such as managing e-mail and — with my vision — browsing the Internet. That said, my brother likes his Kindle Fire because its e-mail app automatically syncs with Microsoft’s Exchange Server. He says it works like a champ.

My toddler son likes the Kindle Fire every bit as much as the iPad because it’s easy to use and he doesn’t mind watching videos and playing with interactive books on the smaller screen — those short arms naturally keep the Kindle up close. Although the iPad has a larger kids’ library, Amazon offers enough Kindle media to keep any kid going for years.

Bottom line: If you’re willing to live with fewer features and capabilities, the Kindle is a bargain compared to the iPad — and it gives you a better screen for reading books.

Nook: I’ll confess I don’t own a Nook, but I know people who do and they love it — primarily for its simplicity. Models range from the basic $99 e-reader with a six-inch, grayscale touch-screen to the $249 tablet that comes with a seven-inch, color touch-screen.

The Nook’s forte is as an e-reader. After playing with the color version for a while, I liked it better than the Kindle Fire when reading digital books and magazines: the scrolling works more naturally and more quickly, and in bright light the screen is a bit easier to read. I also preferred the Nook’s microphone, home key, and hardware volume control. The Nook also has a microSD card slot, a feature missing on the Kindle Fire.

On the other hand, browsing around the Web is easier on the Kindle; the built-in Web browser simply works better. The Kindle Fire is also cheaper, it has more cloud services, you can download videos to the Fire for later playback — and I just plain prefer the Kindle’s interface.

There are rumors that Barnes&Noble might spin off its Nook division, possibly selling it to some company that can afford to keep the format competitive. But given the number of Nooks in the hands of avid e-book readers, the Nook should be around for years to come.

Bottom line: Although the color Nook has tablet-like capabilities, it’s best as a light, compact, inexpensive device for reading digital books and magazines. If in doubt, try both the Kindle Fire and the Nook Color, and decide which interface you prefer.

Android: This group is the least polished and most confusing of all tablet categories. Currently, there isn’t one common “Android” interface, and even the operating system has been modified and hacked to the point where making blanket statements about all Android tablets is nearly impossible. There are literally dozens of different flavors. (The Kindle and the Nook also run Android — somewhere deep down inside.)

That said, after a rough start, Android tablets are starting to come into their own. They could soon flood the tablet market, pushing down prices and raising user expectations. But here’s my advice: If you’re going to buy an Android tablet, wait for one that runs Android 4.0 — the so-called Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) version of the operating system. To my knowledge, there aren’t any currently shipping tablets that run ICS yet. ASUS has, however, released an ICS upgrade for its existing Eee Pad Transformer Prime, a hybrid notebook/tablet. (CNET has a good overview of the improvements on its product reviews site.)

The main draw of ICS isn’t a bucketload of new features. Rather, ICS should help reduce the explosion of tailored code in Android devices. (The operative word here is “should.”)

One way around the many OEM mods is to root the devices. For example, you can root an Android-based phone and install a generic version of the OS. Rooting will sometimes give you more features than the locked-down OEM software. But rooting carries risks such as a failed phone or broken warranty. (Although the new rooting tools are fairly well automated, always back up your original factory setup.)

For more info on rooting Android phones and other devices such as Kindles and Nooks, enter rooting {device} into your favorite search engine.

Bottom line: As the owner of an Android phone, I’ll consider getting an Android tablet when ICS has been out a few months. I suggest you do likewise. If it lives up to expectations, it will give the iPad its first real competition.

Coming to a tablet near you — Windows 8

You know Windows. You feel comfortable with Windows and you don’t particularly want to learn a new operating system. So should you wait for a Windows 8 tablet?

That depends on why you’re willing to wait for a Win8 tablet and for how long.

If you want a Win8-based tablet because it’ll feel more like Windows than an iPad or Kindle, you’re almost assuredly waiting for something you don’t really want. Yes, the first crop of Windows 8 tablets will most likely offer the legacy Windows 7-style desktop, but do you really want to run the Windows 7 desktop on a tablet? Probably not.

Windows 8 tablets will also have the new Metro interface — the one that looks a lot like Windows Phone. Most likely, you’ll end up running the tablet on the Metro side and rarely, if ever, go to the legacy desktop. (Conversely, if you buy a new Windows 8 desktop, laptop, or maybe even an Ultrabook, you probably won’t bother with Metro. It all comes down to form factor and use.)

Moreover, unless something magical happens in the land of Intel hardware over the next few months, those first Win8 tablets will be heavy and expensive — even when compared to an iPad. But they’ll still be “compatible” in that they’ll run all those Windows 7 apps you currently have on your desktop.

Further down the road — probably well into 2013 — Microsoft says it will have Windows 8 tablets that run on ARM hardware (more info), now found in the sleeker and less power-hungry mobile devices you’re used to (iPad, Kindle, Nook, and many smartphones). But unless Microsoft can pull a huge rabbit out of its hat, those ARM-based, iPad-competitive tablets will be incompatible with Win7 apps.

If that’s the case, why wait? You can have an incompatible iPad now or wait a year for a mostly incompatible Windows 8 tablet.

Perhaps that explains why even many Windows users have succumbed to the iPad.

Feedback welcome: Have a question or comment about this story? Post your thoughts, praise, or constructive criticisms in the WS Columns forum.

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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.