It’s no exaggeration to say that laptops have virtually killed off desktops. With significant price reductions and performance comparable to non-mobile computers, it makes more sense for most people to purchase these AiOs than a large, noisy desktop.
Ultrabooks are especially popular because they are small, lightweight, and generally quiet due to the lack of fans. They are also powerful enough to handle the job for most users.
On the other hand, on tablet computers, even the sleekest 13-inch ultrabooks look a little pathetic. A typical 13-inch ultrabook weighs about three pounds, while the 12.9-inch iPad Pro weighs less than half. Without a keyboard, of course.
Tablet computers are a very convenient form factor, but can they replace a desktop or laptop? Could you live with a only tablet as your primary device?
Comparison of Tablet PCs and Tablet PCs
Before embarking on a detailed comparison of these two popular types of computers, we need to clarify a few terms.
When people use the term tablet computer, they usually mean a device that uses mobile equipment designed for mobile phones. These tablet computers run iOS or Android most of the time and are essentially giant smartphones.
However, there are also tablet computers that use PC hardware and run PC operating systems. It should be obvious that these computers can actually replace the desktop or laptop since they are internally identical. They use the same software and work the same way. Everything will be fine if the minimum requirements for your applications are met.
A recent example of this type of tablet is the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 These tablets have pros and cons compared to tablets built with mobile hardware, but that’s a discussion in another article.
From now on, when we say “tablet,” we mean a tablet other than a PC!
Hardware in Perspective
It makes sense to start by comparing the raw hardware of traditional computers and tablet computers with each other.
A typical modern laptop computer is equipped with an “x86” processor. That is, a CPU that is a direct descendant of the Intel 8086 CPU released back in 1978. Regardless of who makes them, all x86 processors speak the same “language.” Most importantly, these are “CISC” processors, which is short for Instruction Set Complex Computing.
They are generally good for performing complex computational tasks efficiently. However, this processor design was mostly built without considering things like power consumption or size. X86 processors are generally large and power-hungry. This is the price you pay for performance.
Tablets using smartphone hardware are almost always based on the “ARM” design, which is the RISC architecture. It is short for Reduce Instruction Set Computing. These processors are much smaller and more energy efficient, but have been less powerful in the past.
Today’s ARM processors are as powerful as the chips you’d find in regular laptops and desktops, and are used for day-to-day computing. That is why we are leading this discussion in the first place.
It’s all about the operating system
After all, you can buy a tablet computer with hardware more than powerful enough for most needs. For the vast majority of users, this is no longer a problem. The real problem is the software that these tablet computers run.
Both Android and iOS were originally very limited operating systems compared to Windows or MacOS. However, this is changing. As for Apple, iPadOS brings core functionality to these computers that were previously owned by traditional computers.
Apple clearly sees the iPad as the future of computers, and even future Macs should be powered by ARM, which effectively means macOS and iOS merge.
In the case of an iPad running iPadOS, it is perfectly possible to use it as the primary and only computer. True multitasking, support for external storage and desktop rivals, is essential to make even an entry-level iPad a viable mainstream computer.
Android is more of a mixed bag. The latest version of Android is suitable for most common computing tasks, but since almost every tablet manufacturer implements their own interface, you will need to evaluate them separately for each product.
Realistic use cases
Whether a tablet can replace a laptop or desktop computer depends a lot on your specific use case. If you are a writer or write a lot, having a keyboard is very important. This means the tablet is only a viable replacement when combined with an external keyboard or keyboard case.
If you mainly use a computer to consume content, then a tablet is almost all you need.
What about “Super Users”?
While tablets are more than capable of performing common computing tasks for most users, including general performance, there is a class of laptop or desktop users who might not be making the transition.
High-end tablets like the new iPad Pro can handle heavy tasks like editing 4K video. If you need workstation-class power, you can now rely on cloud services too. Where your tablet is just a remote window for powerful data center systems.
Mobile Desktop Environments
While the underlying core of mobile operating systems is pretty solid these days, tablet interfaces are not optimized for use on desktop computers. So if you want a desktop, you have to do a little work.
iPadOS works reasonably well on the desktop when connected to a keyboard, but mouse support is currently an experimental accessibility feature, so don’t expect it to be similar to macOS.
Android has built-in support for mouse and keyboard with traditional mouse pointer. However, the capabilities of the Android desktop leave a lot to be desired. The Android Q desktop mode looks promising, and there are various third-party Android desktop apps that can help bridge that gap.
The most coherent desktop mode should be Samsung’s own Dex app. Some tablets, such as the Galaxy Tab S4, can switch to Dex mode with a single tap. Moving from a touch interface to a mouse-based interface. Whether any of these desktop solutions will help make it easier to replace a laptop or desktop with a tablet is subjective, but it’s important to know that the opportunity exists.
Can a tablet really replace your desktop or laptop computer?
You probably realized that the answer to this question is not a clear yes or no. Instead, it is more of a case of context. This means that the answer is actually the result of a series of conditions:
- Can the tablet hardware do the job you want?
- Can the operating system do what YOU need it to do?
- Are there any required apps for this tablet?
We suspect that for the vast majority of users who would have bought a regular laptop or desktop in the past, the answer to all three questions is likely to be yes. Others are better off sticking to the more traditional form factors for now, but this question is certainly worth returning from time to time as technology advances.
Remember that tablet computers today are faster than the supercomputers of the past, so don’t get too complacent with these biases.