2019 EDITION: Laptop or Tablet?

Yep, this is an old photo. Today's Surface products don't look too different though.

Hey look, I’m as surprised about this as you are. If you’d asked me in 2012 what kind of devices we’d be using now I would probably have said phones, with some sort of display system that lets you see more without taking up space on the device. That would have been a projector or vapor system or something.

But here we are in 2019 and we’re still asking the question: what kind of device should you be using? Let’s take a look.

First, who are you and what do you need?

If you’re a regular person with good eyesight you probably don’t need much more than a phone. You can do all your basic work, look around on the internet, play games, watch and listen to media… all with a phone. That’s really no surprise when you realize today’s phones are more powerful than the computers that big universities used 20 years ago.

But let’s say you have other needs. Let’s say you need to write letters or do schoolwork. You might need to do some presentations or create videos with more than just a live stream. You might want to do your banking or interact with the resources your workplace provides.

Certainly there are the high-end professionals who need something special. But, I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about someone who needs more than a phone but less than a Mac Pro. I’m talking about most folks.

The case for having a tablet

It seems no one much cares about tablets much anymore. The iPad was launched with great fanfare in 2010. This was when phones had 4″ screens and watching movies on them was a chore. Other competitors came and went, but really when you say tablet today you probably mean iPad.

The iPad is everything a PC is not. It’s easy to manage. It’s simple to work with. It doesn’t crash and it lasts all day on a charge. That’s always been its big draw. It’s home to pretty much any form of entertainment you want and everything on its screen looks great. You can get one with a built in SIM so you can use it practically anywhere.

The case for having a laptop

First let’s define the term. I consider anything that runs Windows a laptop, even if it’s really a tablet. If you have a Surface Pro, I’m sorry that’s a laptop. No one really uses one without an external keyboard.

At several times in my life I tried to get away without a laptop. Yes I have an office PC but I tried traveling with just an iPad. I couldn’t do it. Even with an external keyboard it was impossible. The screen was too small for any real productivity. The apps aren’t as full-featured. As much fun as it is for games and movies, it’s a drag for business. A lot of software just plain doesn’t run on it. You can’t even connect to a shared network drive.

Most of the same entertainments you can find on an iPad are there on a touch-enabled laptop too. Depending on which one you buy, the video and sound can be just as good as a tablet and with the right rig you’ll get good battery life too. Not as good as an iPad most of the time but good. After all the laptop is working harder than the iPad to bring you real versions of the apps you want and need.

In 2019, it’s confusing

The next version of the iPad software, now called iPadOS, will support a mouse and multiple windows. It will make it a lot easier to be productive, and with a 12″ model, screen real estate isn’t really the issue it once was.

On the other side of the fence, Windows is a lot more stable than it was. I can go a month without a reboot if I want and I can’t tell you when the last time an app just plain crashed on me. Updates aren’t a massive pain and take barely longer than iOS updates.

It’s harder than ever to crown a winner, and it’s possible that the winner may change next year. But…

…the winner for 2019 is…

If I could only bring one device, if I could only buy one device, surprisingly it would be a decent touch-enabled Windows laptop. I’m talking about something from Microsoft’s Surface line. Surface started out as the worst idea in the history of bad ideas, but it’s gotten better every year. It’s still not as stylish as an iPad but it does work really well. There is a decent keyboard cover for it, too. It’s just as pricey as an iPad, but then you get the option to run it pretty much the way you want. You can treat it like a tablet and it will actually work that way. You can treat it like a tiny laptop and there’s practically nothing it won’t do.

By next year, iPadOS will be firmly established and there’s always the rumor of full-featured versions of Office and Photoshop “just right around the corner.” I could change my mind at that point, but if you’re in the market today, and you’re ok stepping out of the Apple ecosystem, a laptop really is the better value.