Notebooks, Tablets and other portable computers

[sc:hardware-category ]Over the years I have had many portable computers that I’ve used for both business and personal, from some of the first laptops (that would have crushed your lap) to more recent netbooks, each has served a purpose.

I’m going to start at what I call generation one of the modern age of my portable computing life.  Everything before a few years ago was really too long ago to worry about and in general doesn’t reflect the reality that we now have in portable devices.

Generation One

A few years ago, netbooks took the world by storm (yes, it’s been that long already), starting with ASUS and Acer, these Intel Atom based systems, were woefully underpowered, but they showed us what portable computers might become with they’re long battery life, small displays and alternative operating systems (many based on Linux).

However they also showed us what kind of limitations might also crop up.

At the time of my first netbook (an Acer Aspire One [AAO]), I was using a 15 inch laptop I’d had for a few years for my personal use, a PlayStation Portable for my portable entertainment device and a Windows Mobile 5 personal phone.  At work, the only portable device I had was Blackberry.

The AAO replaced the laptop for 99% of my daily portable computing needs, with it’s tiny 8.9 inch display running Windows XP, it was fine for some quick note taking, e-mail and web browsing.  For anything more, it was a nightmare.  The keyboard was too small, the display was too small, the RAM was too small and the processor was too small.  It was just too small.

In contrast, the PSP was too big and too small.  As an MP3 player it was awkward and overkill, sure it played movies, but the display was too small.  I will say though that it was a perfect game system, I just didn’t really use it as that.

And finally the Windows Mobile 5 phone, an HTC 6800, was just too small period, but it was all that was out there at the time.

This first generation had quite a bit of overlap between the devices and none of them really did a good job for me.  But this is just the first generation

Generation Two

If the netbook showed us the limitations of size, then the Acer Aspire 751 showed me the importance of getting it the right size.

The 751 was not a netbook by the traditional definition, it had an 11.6 inch display but still packed the same old Intel Atom.  While still extremely handicapped by the Atom, it did support a much better video chip and was good enough that I managed to run Windows 7 on it for a while, before eventually reverting back to XP.  The 751 showed me how just a few extra inches could elevate the netbook to being something truly useful.

The 751 replaced my old 15 inch notebook completely, I haven’t ever gone back to it since.  However the 751 itself was a very short lived solution as within a few months Acer released the Timeline 1810, which while sharing the same form factor, replaced the Atom with a ULV 7100 series dual core processor.  This firmly moved my notebook away from the netbook roots and in to the ultra portable range of systems.

The PSP on the other had been replaced by a Zune HD, again, size proved to be the defining characteristic that brought my media player from being wrong at everything, to being just so right.  The Zune HD had a small display but provided more storage, better battery life and more features than the PSP could hope to support.

At this point I also upgraded to a Windows Mobile 6.5 device.  Like the others, size does matter.  The 6800 had a tiny display and was pretty bulky.  The Samsung Omnia II on the other hand had a larger display and was a much sleeker design.  This combination made it a very good choice.

This second generation of portable systems proved that getting the size right for each category of device was the key to making them work on a daily basis.

Generation Three

You may have noticed that each of the previous generations above have had three categories of devices in them:

  1. A creation/editing device (the notebooks)
  2. A consumption device (the media player)
  3. A communications device (the phone)

Too me, this is pretty much the holy trinity of portable devices, each one could have overlap (the phone can play music, the notebook could play music and video, etc.), but their primary functions define they’re size and shape.  Yes there are other portable devices, GPS, cameras, etc.  But these are dedicated devices that really only have one role.

The third generation of portable devices is where things start to diverge from the trinity.  The reality is that the consumption and communications devices are very close to the same form factor, and with smart phones becoming the norm, convergence of these devices makes a lot of sense.  There will still always be demand for separate devices as sometimes you just want an MP3 player, but these will become more and more of niche (which is not news to anyone).

Currently I am using my Timeline 1810 as my notebook, however a new generation of ultraportable notebooks is just starting to show up, with more power and better graphics cards this group of notebooks seems to be a growing choice for many people.

My “convergence” device is of course my HTC HD7, which has replaced my old Omnia II as well as my Zune HD.

And so we come to the dilemma, what do we fill in the missing spot with?  Or do we?

Tablets

Most people will tell you that the tablet will become the third pillar of portable computing (or the only one depending upon how zealous they are Winking smile), but I’m not so sure.  The previous pillars provided some overlap in functionality, but their form factors or cost clearly delineated them, it was only when the cost and functionality of the smart phones caught up to the media players did it become practical for them to converge.

I recently picked up a low end Android tablet to play with, like the first netbooks, it was slow and virtually useless, but it gave me a pretty good idea of what I might use a tablet for.

But first, I’ll tell what I won’t be using a tablet for:

  • Content editing, the virtual keyboard makes this practically impossible to do over any period of time, having to hold the device and thumb type or set it flat (or even on an angle) makes these devices incredibly tiresome to use.
  • Watching video,  the last thing I want to do is to have to hold my TV for two hours while I watch a movie.  A notebook or, you know, a TV is a much better solution for this.
  • Listening to music.  they’re just too darn big to carry around all the time.  You can’t put it in your pocket or clip it to your belt.
  • Taking photos.  Lets face it, even the cheapest digital camera beats all phones/tablets/computers/etc. for image quality.  There’s just no replacing a real lens on a camera and that takes too much space.
  • Reading books.  The displays on these systems have come quite a long way, but they just don’t compare to dedicated e-books or, your know, actual books on paper.  They’re also quite heavy and I found them to be uncomfortable over a few hours of reading.
  • Gaming.  Much has been made of gaming on phones and it makes quite a bit of sense for small, quick games to be the primary kind of game phone on these kinds of portable devices, however tablets tend to be overkill for those games and the more complex games will be virtually unplayable without dedicated controls.

So what can would I do with it?

  • Secondary web browsing.  The kind of browsing you do while doing something else, like watching a TV show and you see an actor/actress you can’t name for the life of you so you go to IMDB to look up who it is.  This kind of consumption can also be done on your phone, but the larger display on the tablet will make it a nicer experience.
  • Secondary E-Mail.  It’s never going to replace your real e-mail client, but just like your phone, it will be a useful tool for short messages and the larger display will make it easier to use than your phone.
  • Secondary social media.  Again, just like the above it just not good enough to replace your other systems for this either.
  • Reading books.  Ok, I know, I had this one on the list above as well.  While I might not use it to ready a whole book, cover to cover, I think it might be useful as a reference device, with technical material.

So what is a tablet but a glorified smart phone?  Not much, that’s what.  In fact it seems to be defined by secondary tasks instead of primary ones.

And this is where the tablets fall short.  There is no compelling reason for them to exist, no killer app that justifies them.  Much like netbooks seem to have been a fad that eventually provided the motivation to hardware manufactures to create reasonably priced ultraportable, I expect tablets to spur on the next evolution in portable computing, like the netbook, showing us the limitations and benefits of the technology.

I have two experiences with other people to share around tablets:

  • I had a conversation recently with a friend of mine who was thinking of buying an iPad. Their logic was that they spend a lot of time on public transit and they wanted to replace their e-reader with the iPad to expand their entertainment options and reduce the number of devices they carried around (at the time 2 Blackberries, an MP3 player and the e-book).  I pointed out in fact that while they could combine the MP3 and e-book in to the iPad, that in fact they would be carrying a much heavier/larger device around.  Instead I suggested upgrading her Blackberry to a phone that could replace the MP3 player, thus reducing the overall carry load.  The new cell phone would still expand their entertainment options, but be smaller and lighter than the tablet.
  • I read online a few weeks ago a story that talked about how the author had been on a plane and was seated beside a couple with an iPad.  The author noted that while the iPad seemed to be passed back and forth between the couple, neither seemed to be doing anything for more than a few minutes on it.  On a recent flight, I experienced the exact same thing.  A couple passing the iPad between them, doing a crossword, then a game, then reading.  But never for more than a few minutes each.  After half an hour or so, it was put away and I didn’t see it again.  I think the novelty wore off.

In the end…

I think portable computing is losing a pillar, that in fact we’re polarize back to two devices, the smartphone and the laptop.

The smartphone has moved up to take the functions of the media player and now I think we’ll see ultraportable move down to take the place of tablets.  This first and most obvious move will be to add touchscreens to the ultraportable, which has already started to happen, hang tight, the only think we know for sure is that it will all be different next year!

Greg

Greg is the head cat at JumbleCat, with over 20 years of experience in the computer field, he has done everything from programming to hardware solutions. You can contact Greg via the contact form on the main menu above.

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Greg

Greg is the head cat at JumbleCat, with over 20 years of experience in the computer field, he has done everything from programming to hardware solutions. You can contact Greg via the contact form on the main menu above.

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