As one new tablet PC announcement after another surfaces these days, you may be asking yourself, "What does a tablet give me that I don't already get out of my computer or smartphone?"
At first, I didn't see why I would need a tablet. But after observing quite a few PCWorld editors using them around the office, I relented and picked up an iPad last summer. Initially I had purchased the device to browse my massive library of digital comic books, but soon I found it useful for other, more-practical tasks. I started taking the iPad to meetings and using it to do quick Web searches, and it became my preferred way to read and respond to e-mail.
With the Motorola Xoom and other Honeycomb-powered tablets in the works, and with HP announcing its WebOS-based TouchPad, consumers will have a much bigger pool of devices to choose from. Although a tablet may not totally replace your PC anytime soon, using one has its benefits. Here are my top five.
Next to ordinary computers, tablets by design are comparatively lightweight and relatively easy to carry around. Many of them may still be too heavy to hold in one hand, but they're great in your lap or on a surface. Reaching for a tablet to browse the Web during TV commercials is much easier than getting up, going to your desk, and booting up your computer. Even laptops, which are supposed to be mobile devices, can take a while to start, and they often get uncomfortably hot after a short period of use.
As for using a smartphone, you do have easy access and instant-on, but it's nice to be able to view an entire Web page as opposed to the mobile site or an oddly rendered version on a smartphone's much smaller screen. Plus, there's something about being able to hold a Web page more naturally in your hand, as opposed to staring at it on a laptop screen or monitor. It makes you feel like the future is here.
I don't expect anyone to type out a proposal using a tablet's virtual keyboard. However, a tablet in the workplace can be quite helpful for handling basic tasks, like checking e-mail or managing schedules. Here at work, I use a stand to hold my iPad up next to my monitor so that I can use it as a second screen. I leave the Mail app open, which lets me quickly see if I have new messages. For meetings you can jot down notes and download any relevant documents you may need to reference, into the tablet. That way, you won't have to shuffle through a pile of papers searching for a specific chart or diagram.
Students may also find the iPad useful, particularly if you have to carry several books on a day-to-day basis. If those books are offered digitally, you may save some money (and possibly your back) just by packing them into a tablet that also can double as a laptop.
Tablets are great for entertainment. Since a tablet is basically just a large screen, it's a stellar device for watching movies and TV shows. When you're trying to watch an epic movie like Inception, a 3.5-inch screen just doesn't cut it. With services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, you don't even have to fill your tablet's internal memory with video files; instead, you can stream entire libraries of material directly to your device.
You can also find games to add to your fun. I think I've sunk more hours into Angry Birds than I have into any other game I currently own. Having touch-based controls on a tablet forces developers to get creative, leading to truly unusual gaming.
Games are not the only thing you can download into your tablet. One of the beautiful things about tablets is that most of them -- the ones worth the money you've paid, at least -- have some sort of marketplace where you can purchase additional apps to give your device a whole new level of functionality. Love to read the news and stay on top of current events? Download a few news apps. Love to tweet and spend all day on Facebook? Grab some social networking apps to stay in contact with friends.
Although it's true that you can customize your computer as well, installing apps on a tablet is a much cleaner and simpler process. You don't have to deal with product keys or registration codes, and most apps download and install in seconds. Tablets also are a good tool for road warriors who need the functionality that their phone lacks but who don't want the size and weight of a laptop or netbook to slow them down.
One of the reasons I prefer carrying around a tablet as opposed to a laptop is the superior battery life you get from a tablet. My laptop can go for only about 2.5 hours before I have to plug it in, whereas I can get almost a full day's use out of a Samsung Galaxy Tab or an iPad. Even my HTC Droid Incredible smartphone needs to be plugged in at least twice a day, more if I've been browsing the Web with it. Having to carry a charger as well as a laptop (not to mention trying to find an available electrical socket) gets to be inconvenient.