iPads and other Tablet PCs – what are these things?

By now, most of you will have at least heard of the Apple iPad and the global excitement around it. News stations showed people queuing all night around the Apple stores when both the iPad 1 and now, iPad2 were launched. People are intrigued by this new type of computer but many have no idea what it’s all about or whether they should get one.

So this post will hopefully clear up a few things around the iPad and other so-called Tablet PCs (or just Tablets) – and who might benefit from getting one.

Tablet PCs are not new. The concept has been around for several years but the early efforts by companies like Fujitsu were rather bulky and cumbersome to use. As usual, it took Apple to make Tablet PCs into a practical and highly desirable device. Tablets are essentially full computers without a physical keyboard and where the screen makes up the full length of the device. It’s like having only the screen part of a laptop, but all the processing parts, connection ports and networking (like Wi-fi and 3G) are built into that screen unit.


Currently two of the leading Tablets on the market are the Apple iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab. The iPad has a 9.7 inch screen while the first Samsung Galaxy Tab has a 7 inch screen. But there is a wave of Tablets set to join these in the next few months.

To do things on the Tablet PC, you prod and drag your fingers on or across the screen, which is touch-sensitive. So if you need to type something, a keyboard graphic appears on the screen, you simply tap the keys you want and the text appears in the appropriate place.


Some say that both the iPad and Galaxy Tab are simply bigger versions of their smaller mobile phone equivalents (the iPhone and Galaxy S). These people are correct. Both the Tablets shown above use almost exactly the same operating system their mobile phone counterparts. So why not just use the mobile phones instead?

In a word, it’s “convenience”. Tablets solve the problem of laptops where they are too bulky to schlep around (even the small ones), but also the problem of mobile phones where their screen size limits what you can practically do (including the fancier one like the iPhone). Mobile phones have made massive strides in allowing one to navigate around web sites with zoom and pan movements. But nothing can really substitute for a larger screen, which is what Tablets bring to the party.

Within months of the iPad launch, this convenience became evident in a variety of places. Doctors started carrying them in hospitals so they could view their patient’s vital signs and test results as they did their rounds. Salespeople could now instantly show their customers images and videos of their products on their Tablet, while checking inventories and placing orders at the same time, and marketers could wander around crowds and events, collecting survey information on their Tablets quickly and easily.


Of course, all of this was always possible on laptops as well, but by the time the laptop was taken out, started up and the right info found, the potential customer had lost interest, the surveyable crowds had thinned and the doctor’s patient may have died. Tablets changed all this because they are always on, easy to carry and simple to control with a few finger strokes.

Convenience – it is one of the defining parameters of game-changing technology. That’s what Tablets bring in a way unseen previously.

All this is wonderful but it doesn’t really help one decide whether to get one. So let’s look at the type of things you can do on the tablets. There are several categories of applications that run on Tablets. In broad terms these are:

  • Web browsing
  • eMail
  • Entertainment – music, videos, games etc.
  • Personal use – fitness/heart monitors, task managers, photo albums, messenger applications, weather etc
  • Business use – word processing/note taking, appointment calendars, presentations (like Powerpoint) etc.
  • Utilities – GPS, Alarm clock/timers, eReaders etc.

This list can go on forever. So you can see that Tablets can do pretty much anything that a laptop can do, with the bonus that it can be carried around far more easily. But Tablets are not perfect for everything. The key for me is whether the application suits the screen-only format. Many applications do, but I find that several do not. For example, word processing is a pain on that virtual keyboard. Trying to type quickly on the screen is frustrating – although it improves (a bit) with time. I also feel that creating presentations on a Tablet is hard work when compared with using a PC with a mouse handy.

And, in a final attempt to confuse you even further, there is the matter of screen sizes and operating systems for the different Tablets. As mentioned above, the iPad (both version 1 and 2) have a 9.7-inch screen and they run the Apple iOS operating system. The original Samsung Galaxy Tab has a 7-inch screen, but Samsung are about to launch two new models with screen sizes of 8.9-inches and 10.1 inches. All the Samsung Tablets run the Android operating system. But there is also a flood of new Tablets on the way with models from Motorola (the Xoom, running Android with a screen of 10.1 inches), Blackberry (the PlayBook, running the Blackberry operating system with a 7-inch screen), HTC (the Flyer, also with Android and a 7 inch screen), Hewlett-Packard (the Slate, running Windows 7 and with a 8.9-inch screen) and many others.

Cliff’s Take on Tablets

Tablets are going to change the world. Their convenience and growing computer power are going to allow uses of computers either never-before considered, or that were not appropriate for either laptop or mobile phone. Currently, developers are trying to find the best way to take advantage of the larger screen sizes to produce killer applications. Around the world, graphic designers will produce layouts that make Tablets ‘sing’ and then they will be irresistible.

For now, most people should not rush to get a Tablet unless you are a person who loves gadgets (like me!), or who has a real requirement to carry your email, but even more, your web browser around with you in the easiest manner. Email is very usable on mobile phone these days but web browsing is still far from ideal. Tablets will also give you much better ability to capture notes on the move, and do certain other functions like act as an eReader – although I much prefer the Kindle for this purpose (see my post about eReaders at http://cliffstechthoughts.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/ebook-readers/) .

If you do decide to get one, your main choices (currently in South Africa) are the Apple iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab. The iPad is gorgeous – there is no other way to put it. The large screen and elegance of its operation makes is a joy to use. What doesn’t make it a joy to use is it’s weight and relatively bulky size. The iPad 2 solved some of this problem compared to the iPad 1 by lowering the weight by just over 100 grams. But carry it in your hand or on your forearm for more than 20 minutes and you will start feeling it. Because of the slightly uncomfortable issue of carrying the iPad around, an after-market of products has developed to provide ingenious ways of carrying it around (see the example below).


The Samsung Galaxy Tab is a lot lighter – another 220 grams lighter than the iPad 2 – and also fits comfortably in most people’s palm. So it’s far more practical to move around with the Galaxy Tab – but – you lose the benefit of the larger iPad screen.

So my final call on this is – if you’re wanting a Tablet more for entertainment, personal use (e.g. web browsing in the lounge), or need a large screen for impressive-looking images or videos, get the iPad. If you need true portability where you’re carrying the Tablet for extended periods or you’re needing to capture data while on the move (e.g. standing around taking survey info), then I’d get the Samsung Galaxy Tab.

Of course, in a matter of months, you’ll have a whole bunch more Tablets to choose from, of all different sizes. It will be harder to choose then, but hopefully now you at least have a slightly better idea of what Tablet PCs are.

January 17th, 2012|