This holiday shopping season, Apple, Microsoft and others are all selling a similar idea: A tablet that can replace your laptop.
It’s an attractive sales pitch.
The simple, lightweight and touch-friendly experience we’ve come to love on our smartphones and tablets seems like it could do wonders for the old-fashioned computers that we use everyday to get work done with.
But the advent of this new class of hybrid PC-tablet devices means that buying a computer can be pretty tricky these days.
The obvious question that arises: What’s the difference between a tablet with a keyboard and a laptop with a detachable tablet?
The answer is that the line between the two is blurring, and getting smaller every day. But there still are some important distinctions to keep in mind.
To make the right choice, don’t ask if a tablet can “kill” your laptop, but rather, “Does this thing do what I need it to do?”
Over the last month or two, I’ve used a variety of computers to get work done, including an Apple MacBook Air, Dell XPS 13, Lenovo Yoga Pro 2, the Apple iPad Pro, and the Microsoft Surface Pro 4.
(Despite getting two defective units in a row, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 remains my favorite. I’m on the third now, and hoping it’s the charm.)
Despite all of them being sold as laptops, or at least, laptop-grade tablets, they are very different devices.
On one end of the spectrum, representing the old school, you have the Apple MacBook Air.
It’s kind of funny, given Apple’s whole “Think Different” shtick, but the MacBook line are actually some of the most traditional computers you can buy today, with a general concept of what a laptop should be that hasn’t changed much in nine years.
On the other end is the Apple iPad Pro — a gigantic tablet that Tim Cook says can replace your laptop, but that’s held back by the fact that it can only run iOS apps. It’s a sign that Apple is at least thinking about how our use of computers is changing.
In between the two extremes, you have the Dell XPS 13, a lightweight laptop with a touchscreen. And the Lenovo Yoga Pro 2, which is a laptop that folds backwards into a tablet. And the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, which is a big-screen tablet that runs a full version of Windows 10.
Meanwhile, Microsoft recently introduced its first laptop, the high-end Microsoft Surface Book, which actually sports a detachable screen that’s a tablet on its own.
Right now, the app development world is in a painful, in-between state.
Apple and Google are both trying to encourage mobile developers to make their iOS and Android apps better suited for users on big-screen, keyboard-toting devices.
At the same time, Microsoft is trying (and, so far, mostly failing) to get its Windows Store app market off the ground. The promise is that the Windows Store would provide apps that work the exact same way across Windows 10 desktop PCs, tablets, and Windows 10 Mobile smartphones.
Matt Weinberger/Business Insider
The end result, at least the one that these tech titans are shooting for, is software that works the same way, to the same level of functionality, no matter what type of device you’re using.
And just as the lines between tablet and desktop computers are blurring, so too are the divisions between mobile apps and desktop software. This shift is happening slowly, not least because app developers are still in search of sustainable revenue models in this new world. But it’s happening.
What to buy
We’re hearing anecdotally that some Apple Store employees are steering would-be MacBook buyers towards the iPad Pro tablet instead.
And why not? For lots of people, especially casual computer users, the $799 iPad Pro is more than enough computer. Add in the optional Smart Keyboard, which costs $169, and it’s probably all the laptop they’ll ever need. If you can do everything you need to do in an app, an iPad Pro is a fine choice.
Matt Weinberger/Business Insider
But some people still need the full Microsoft Office suite, a desktop version of the Google Chrome (or similar) browser, and the ability to play PC games. For these buyers, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 or one of its many imitators is just dandy.
Just keep in mind that these tablet/laptop hybrids have their own drawbacks. Hardcore PC gamers or super-serious video editors are still better off with the greater performance offered by a high-end Windows PC or MacBook, respectively.
People with lots of peripherals might find the Surface Pro 4’s single built-in USB port (plus an extra one on the charger) is a real drag. Others might find that the iPad Pro’s two-screen multitasking is insufficient, compared to what they can do with a MacBook or a Surface Pro 4.
Then again, many people will most value the fact that the iPad Pro or the Surface Pro 4’s tablet form factor and lighter weight makes it easier to lug around. The nice thing is that these are all perfectly valid, useful choices, that go well beyond “desktop” vs. “laptop” vs. “tablet.”
The main question to ask when buying your next device is no longer “is this a laptop” or “is this a tablet?” The important thing is simply, “Can I use this for what I need to do?”
Other than that, don’t stress, and don’t worry about the marketing hype.