Laptop Versus Tablet: Which One Should You Buy?

Laptop Vs. Tablet Scratch

Last month I explained how to turn a tablet into the perfect PC for seniors, but guess what? You’re not a senior. (Well, unless you’re in high school or college, in which case I hate you.) Even so, I’ll wager you’ve wondered whether or not a tablet should be your next PC.

Indeed, here’s a common scenario: Your old laptop is on its last legs. It takes forever to boot, runs at a glacial pace, coughs up regular error messages (or, worse, Blue Screens of Death), and probably weighs a lot more than you’d like it to. Also, the “W” key has fallen off, a tough blow for anyone who still types “www” before a Web address. (Handy tip: not necessary!)

No doubt your first instinct is to replace it with a new laptop. That’s definitely one option, but here in mid-2014, the time has come to consider another: a tablet. With the right apps and accessories and a few changes to how you work, you can enjoy the benefits of a thin, light, instant-on workstation with an all-day battery, freedom from viruses, and a rock- solid operating system.

Granted, making this kind of change can involve a few compromises, not the least of which is that whole keyboard thing: to get any serious typing done, you’ll need to add one, which adds a bit of cost and hassle.

Still, the benefits might outweigh the downsides. Let’s take a look at how laptops and tablets compare across the categories that matter most to everyday users. (Note that I’m focusing primarily on Android and iPad tablets. Microsoft’s Surface line offers Windows in a tablet form-factor, but they’re heavier and more expensive than most other models, and saddle you with many of the same Windows-oriented hassles.)

Tablets are lighter than any laptop, with most 10-inch models weighing anywhere from 1.0-1.5 pounds. They’re thinner, too, usually measuring less than half an inch thick. All told, they’re much nicer to tote around all day.

However, they’re not always as comfortable for all-day computing. That’s because they have smaller screens–again, around 10 inches–and lack physical keyboards. Companies like Logitech and Kensington make some great keyboard/case accessories for iPads, but the keys are necessarily smaller and closer together. For overall computing comfort, especially when there’s typing involved, it’s hard to beat the trappings of a laptop.
Winner: Laptop

All laptops and tablets have Wi-Fi for keeping you connected to the Internet, but very few of the former offer any kind of built-in 3G or 4G wireless capabilities. Granted, you can pair them with a mobile hotspot or even your smartphone, but that’s not always the most practical solution.

All iPad models, on the other hand, offer optional built-in 4G LTE, effectively giving you high-speed Internet access anywhere you go. Same goes for the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, the latest Google Nexus tablets, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, and a handful of others. If you want full-time connectivity, a tablet is typically your best bet.
Winner: Tablet

Battery life
Most laptops will send you searching for an electrical outlet after 4-5 hours–if you’re lucky. There are some Ultrabooks that can last longer, but tablets will almost always win the battery-life war: most can run 8-10 hours at a minimum. If you’re on the road a lot and need an all-day device to go with you, this is an easy choice.
Winner: Tablet

A laptop that takes several minutes to boot up is not exactly an asset–especially if you need to check your e-mail or view a document in a hurry.

Tablets wake and sleep in an instant. Press a button, it’s on. Press again, it’s off. No booting, no shutdown, no waiting. What’s more, apps tend to load in just a second or two, whereas Windows or Mac software may make you wait. Not long, in most cases, but overall a tablet will just feel faster.
Winner: Tablet

Here’s where the tablet decision gets tricky. Although there are app equivalents for most popular desktop programs–Adobe Reader, Evernote, Microsoft Office, Photoshop, etc.– there are some areas where your productivity can take a hit.

Specifically, working with–and especially creating–documents and spreadsheets can be awkward on a tablet. With no mouse and only a small keyboard, it doesn’t matter if the apps are there; the work just gets more complicated. You also have to consider where your data is going to reside. A cloud service like Dropbox or Google Drive can get the job done, but again it’s not quite as seamless as your Documents folder on a laptop.

This is where you really need to do some research, to see if apps can fill in for all the software you’re accustomed to on your laptop. For some users, it’ll be an easy transition. For others, it might be too great an obstacle.
Winner: Laptop

You can spend $300 on a laptop and $800 on a tablet–and vice-versa. It all depends on the features (and brand) you choose. A decked-out iPad Air, for example, runs as high as $829, about what you’d pay for a nicely equipped Ultrabook. But you can also buy a Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 for as low as $379 — about what you’d pay for an entry-level laptop at Best Buy.

In other words, there’s no clear winner in this category, but there are plenty of options to meet all budgets. That’s good news.
Winner: Tie

So, what’s the final score? Tablets 3.5, Laptops 2.5 (the half-points accounting for the one tie). Obviously different users have different needs when it comes to mobile computing, but there’s little question that tablets are now a very viable alternative to laptops–and for some users, a better one.

Veteran technology writer Rick Broida is the author of numerous books, blogs, and features. He lends his money-saving expertise to CNET and, and also writes for PC World and Wired.


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