Tablets are stupid. There is nothing that a tablet can do that a phone or laptop can’t.
This has been my stance for over a decade. Obviously, this is a brazen exaggeration — tablets are not entirely without merit. Their size makes them easier and more convenient to carry around as opposed to laptops, and their large screen size is easier on the eyes compared to phones. However, the compromises of tablets far outweigh the benefits they provide:
- it (essentially) runs the same OS as a phone,
- it uses the same class of low-power chips as a phone,
- it’s restricted to (basically) the same set of apps as a phone, and
- it’s got limited expansion (like a phone).
These points present a tablet’s shortcomings compared to a laptop. Notice how they all revolve around a tablet’s phone-like features. This alludes to the way a tablet was conceived — starting with a phone and enlarging it. Perhaps the conclusion here is that a tablet is a glorified phone? It could very well be, apart from the gaping issue that it’s too large to use as a phone (unless you want to look like a grade A prick).
As jaded as I am about the practicality of tablets, lately I’ve been wanting to buy one. I love technology, and I saw tablets as an overpriced novelty. I didn’t see any real value in them, but I wanted one to toy around with. I never could understand people who were so serious about them.
That changed last week. But first, some history.
The Tablets of Yesteryear
The tablet as a concept has existed in some form or another for the better half of a century. The first commercially available tablet was the Linus Write-Top, released in 1987. It had handwriting recognition, which was probably mindblowing for the era. It was also a whopping 9 pounds and was meant for use as a pen input to an actual computer, a far cry from modern-day self-contained tablets.
In the few years following, a few other companies envisioned and produced their own rendition of the tablet: GRiD Systems’s GRiDPad in 1989, Samsung’s PenMaster in 1992, Apple’s Apple Newton in 1993, and Palm’s PalmPilot in 1996. Microsoft entered the fray in 2000 with the Pocket PC, one of the last PDA-type tablets, and subsequently came up with Microsoft Tablet PCs. These were more akin to modern-day tablets, with Microsoft licensing Windows XP Tablet PC Edition to manufacturers who built the hardware to Microsoft’s specifications. These devices had a multitude of issues, due largely to the technical limitations of the time: the devices were big and bulky, the battery life sucked, and touch and pen input weren’t responsive or smooth. The user interface was also not cohesively designed with touch/pen input in mind, with sometimes frustrating user experiences.
Although some of these devices saw some commercial success, they weren’t compelling enough to bring the tablet into the spotlight. That is, until 2010.
Everything changed for the tablet when Apple released the iPad, a device that rode on the success of the iPhone. At just a pound and a half, it was genuinely ultraportable, unlike its cumbersome spiritual predecessors. It came with a familiar user interface to consumers since it shared the same operating system as its older cousin; it also shared the same App Store, so applications that people were using on their phones could also run on the iPad. The clunky experience that tablets of yesteryear provided were long gone. Just as Apple redefined the smartphone with the iPhone, it did the same for tablets with the iPad, spawning the current era of tablets.
Apple’s Vision for the iPad
Since the iPad’s introduction in 2010, Apple has continued to improve the tablet experience. In 2012, Apple released a custom SoC for the iPad instead of reusing the chips from the iPhone. More and more iPad-exclusive apps were being developed and released, differentiating the app landscape between iPhones and iPads. Furthermore, in 2019 Apple released iPadOS, a spinoff of iOS that is optimized for the iPad family and includes a slew of useful features such as multitasking, drag-and-drop, and better keyboard integration. Apple was on a mission.
Your next computer is not a computer.
It’s the new iPad Pro.
— iPad Pro product page, March 2020
In 2020, Apple announced the new iPad Pro. With it came the story that it can do everything your computer can do and more. Even “pros” were using it, so why weren’t you?
Indeed, Apple packed the wicked powerful A12Z Bionic SoC into the 2020 iPad Pro. The Apple-designed silicon could hold its own against even middleweights like the 10th Gen. Intel Core i5 mobile processors (based off Geekbench 5 scores), which were used in mid-tier laptops.
Now the iPad Pro had the processing chops of a laptop, a whole suite of iPad-exclusive and -optimized creativity and productivity apps, and even fancy computer-like features like mouse support, multitasking, and drag-and-drop. For a lot of people — those who only use their laptops for mundane tasks like browsing the web, watching videos, and occasionally work with documents and spreadsheets — the iPad could 100% replace their computer. For me though? Not so much. You might be wondering “what more do you want?” A whole lot more, actually.
The Ultimate Portable Computer
I’ll start off with the big one. I want the ability to run a full desktop OS on a tablet. Anything less than that is a crutch:
- limited multitasking and no free placement of windows mean reduced productivity
- limited filesystem browser means you can’t structure dev projects correctly or access system/config files
- limited selection of apps means you’re restricted in what you can do on the tablet to only the apps that are available
- no terminal means you can’t even write and build your own tools on the tablet
Sure, there are nearly 2 million apps in Apple’s App Store, so there’s bound to be an app for whatever I’m doing, right? Well, yes, but also no. Say you want to write some Python. There’s an app for that. Say you want to check something out in your AWS account. There’s an app for that too. But say you wanted to push an update to your Python Lambda function — tough luck, you can’t do that on a traditional tablet. The ability to do anything I want is important in a computer, and tablets just don’t cut it.
Having a terminal is also important for me as a developer. Yes, there are terminal apps out there, but those are just a spawned shell that don’t have access to your full filesystem. I recognize the dangers of opening the full filesystem up to a terminal application, but not having one is still a drawback.
Looking past the software issues, there are a bunch of hardware desires too. Tablets have limited expansion; most are limited to just a single port. I like working with big screens (I have a 27" monitor at home, and my work setup back in the office had dual 27" monitors and a 24"), and even though I’m one of the few people that actually enjoy the butterfly switches on the MacBooks, I strongly prefer using mechanical keyboards. In addition, I run my laptops in clamshell mode so they’re not needlessly driving an extra display — that means I’ll need to attach a mouse and webcam. I also do some hobbyist photography, so I need to have some dongle that allows me to pull photos from an SD card. If you assume the best case scenario where my mouse and keyboard are connected via Bluetooth, that’s still one display out port and one USB dongle which need to be connected, unless the tablet supports USB-C.
Going back to screen sizes, tablet screens are a bit on the small side for me. I strongly prefer 15" laptops, but I think I could settle for a 14" tablet. Anything smaller than that, and I’d have to strain my eyes or they’ll glaze over when working on anything text-heavy. I also just enjoy the extra screen real-estate.
Another glaring hardware fault is that tablets are passively cooled. Yes, that makes them slimmer, and yes, active cooling isn’t necessary for a typical tablet workload. But if I’m going to be replacing my computer with a tablet, I’m not going to be running a typical tablet workload; I’ll be running a desktop workload, which will need a powerful processor and active cooling to keep it from thermal throttling.
Now hold on just a gosh-darn minute, you might be thinking. These features are starting to sound familiar. Rightfully so.
Where the Microsoft Surface Fell Short
My laundry list of wants for a tablet seems to be wholly addressed by the (modern) Microsoft Surface. The Surface is what it looks like when you take the opposite approach to tablet-making: starting from a full-fledged computer and shrinking it to tablet size. As a result, it’s very nearly perfect.
Sure, it had a rocky start when it was launched in 2012, but as soon as Microsoft did away with that Windows RT nonsense, it became a strong contender in the tablet space. Up until recently, the Surface was probably the only tablet on the market that I would agree could replace your laptop — because essentially, it is a laptop.
For the first half of my undergrad career, I had a Sony VAIO E series laptop. The allure of a Surface was incredibly enticing — I wouldn’t need to haul a 6-pound behemoth around, I could handwrite all my notes on it, and it could run anything I needed: JMP, MATLAB, Mathematica, Photoshop, you name it. If I got the Surface Book, I could even play games on it with the dedicated GPU in the base. But I was also a broke college kid, so the VAIO stuck around until it failed. I suspect it was the hard drive, but I like blaming Windows because dealing with Windows Subsystem for Linux when it first came out in 2016 gave me a raging hard time.
That’s where the Surface starts to fall apart as the ideal tablet candidate. Consider what the Windows Subsystem for Linux is and what it represents. It’s a compatibility layer that allows Windows to run Linux programs and commands. Its very existence is significant; in a world that runs off UNIX and its derivatives, the juggernaut that conquered DOS and controls over 75% of the desktop OS market bowed its head.
Most projects that include instructions only do so for Unix-based systems, whose modi operandi were very similar to one another. On the other hand, trying to get something set up on Windows takes a not insignificant amount of effort. For example, the command to list files and folders in a given directory in Unix-like operating systems (read as: everything but Windows) is
ls; the equivalent Windows command is
dir. Way to be special, Windows. Taking this a bit further, I challenge you to search for the Windows command to download something from a URL without using OS-specific terms. I guarantee it won’t be in the top five results.
It’s evident that Microsoft was way out of tune with the broader development community (Steve Ballmer’s enigmatic rain dance certainly did not help), and WSL was its way of trying to bridge the gap. However, the first version was a train wreck. It didn’t include the Linux kernel, which meant that you were still limited to only the functionality that Microsoft decided to implement. Putting aside Windows’s historic dissonance with the greater development landscape, the Surface still two major flaws.
The first is Thunderbolt, or the lack thereof. Thunderbolt should be the gold standard for connectivity, with it supporting high throughput and daisy-chaining, among other features. Because Thunderbolt interfaces with PCIe, it allows for much broader expansion options than just USB allows, including external GPUs. It’s not that Microsoft can’t add Thunderbolt to the surface; they won’t, and their official reason is garbage (if you’re such a high profile target where security is a concern, you have bigger issues to worry about than potential direct memory access).
The second flaw is that the Surface can only run Windows. Yes, it’s absolutely vital that a tablet can run a desktop OS when, say, docked at your home office or work desk. However, when on the go, such as in a subway or waiting in line at the coffee shot, a full-blown desktop OS is quite cumbersome to use. Microsoft tried to alleviate this with Windows 8, a “mobile-accessible” successor to Windows 7 released alongside the original Surface. The Metro design language and the controversial Start screen (yes, screen and not menu) was supposed to make operating the Surface in tablet mode easier, but the attempt was heavy-handed with a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s quite telling how badly an operating system was received when its predecessor, whose end-of-life surpassed its own, still has over 3.5x as much market share (according to StatCounter as of the writing of this article).
Microsoft backpedaled with Windows 10 in 2015, bringing back a more desktop-oriented operating system. With it they launched the Universal Windows Platform, meant to help developers write apps that can be run across all of Microsoft’s platforms, including Windows 10 Mobile. The idea of running the same app across multiple platforms should, in theory, ease the transition between desktop and mobile versions. However, more often than not these Universal apps were nothing more than just a fancy label slapped onto a desktop application with no consideration for the mobile user experience.
Microsoft had another experiment trying to meld together the mobile and desktop experiences, called Continuum. It was a feature where you could take a device running Windows 10 Mobile and, with the appropriate hardware, dock it with an attached monitor, keyboard, and mouse to use it in a desktop-esque experience. This was probably the closest I’ve ever seen to my mythical holy grail of tablet devices. The major issue with this implementation is that even when docked, the running app was still a stripped-down mobile version that didn’t have full desktop functionality. Part of the reason was probably due to the insufficiently powerful mobile chips of the time, and so such a small device couldn’t even handle the full desktop application. But, with all its flaws, Continuum represented a glimmer of hope.
A hope that was then shattered when Microsoft gave up on the mobile sector in 2017. Perhaps Microsoft wasn’t the best candidate to give this a shot. Perhaps a company with over a decade of experience in the mobile space should work on the ultimate tablet. Google, who acquired Android in 2015, was one of the two logical candidates to turn to. They had taken a crack at developing a desktop OS in the form of chromeOS, which has seen success clawing market share from Windows, but has otherwise left me uninpressed. Alternatively, Apple has been creating mobile operating systems for 14 years since the first iPhone launched in 2007, and has been writing desktop OSes for more than twice as long. Apple seems like the prime candidate then.
Spring Came Loaded
With 2021 came a one-two punch of pleasant surprises for the future of tablet computing from Cupertino. With an entertaining video of a disguised Tim Cook breaking into 1 Infinite Loop to steal the M1 chip from a MacBook, Apple announced to the world that Apple Silicon was indeed the future (or at least, their future).
Apple shoved the M1, their Mac SoC that destroyed Intel-based Macs in single-threaded performance, into the iPad Pro. This is a processor that can stand head-to-head in single-threaded performance against the best consumer-grade desktop CPUs that AMD or Intel have to offer. With the M1, the iPad Pro is now truly powerful enough to replace my computer.
Power isn’t everything though; expandability is another big necessity for personal computing. Enter surprise number two — Thunderbolt 4. This interface doubles the 20 Gbps bandwidth that was supported by the 2020 iPad Pro’s USB Type C port and allows you to do stuff like plug the iPad into a monitor with an integrated USB hub and actually be able to drive everything. This sounds like we’re getting even closer to the ideal tablet experience. Heck, if Apple was willing to provide graphics drivers, you could even hook up the iPad Pro to an eGPU.
While those two enhancements have certainly piqued my excitement, they aren’t enough to convince me that the iPad Pro is ready for prime time. Apple has addressed most of the hardware concerns I had about tablets, but the software issues remain. iPadOS is far from enough for me to use as my daily driver. I’d very much like to see macOS come to the iPad, but not in the same heavy-handed fashion that Microsoft attempted with Windows 8. I’d like the simple, easy mobile-first user experience of iPadOS when I’m on the go, but I also want the option to leverage the full power of macOS when I’m docked or even sitting down in a coffee shop somewhere. However, with their continuous, vehement refusal to bring touch screens to Macs, perhaps that future is not so certain. Only time will tell.
One thing is for certain, though: Apple is redefining the tablet. Even though they haven’t addressed all my desires for the tablet as a concept, they’ve taken two very large steps in the right direction and will hopefully continue to gain momentum. So, can the iPad Pro replace my computer? As it stands, no.
But boy, am I waiting.
Hey, Richard Shi here. I’m a software engineer that studied chemical engineering at Purdue. I love technology, and I write about interesting and exciting topics in that space. Sometimes I’ll write about some other stuff too. You can find my non-social-media-savvy self in the Twitterverse or you can check out some of my projects on GitHub.