/ Technology

Tablet PCs are inessential playthings

Next 10-inch Tablet on table

Stylish and slick, but overpriced. Wallet-friendly, but lacklustre. The current dearth of tablet PCs that can combine looks and functionality with affordability will put many people off buying one.

What Apple’s iPad started, many manufacturers are now trying to rival. To date I’ve been lucky enough (or not) to play with no less than four tablets.

That one of them’s the iPad almost goes without saying, but I’ve also checked out the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the Toshiba Folio 100 and the Next 10-inch Tablet.

Ben Stevens recently chastised journalists who are quick to dismiss technological innovations, such as tablets, without just cause. But having checked out much of the range on the market, I reckon I have grounds to question the value of tablet PCs – at the moment, anyway.

Decent tablets are too expensive

Don’t get me wrong. The glass and aluminium styled iPad 3G, like all things Apple, is a thing of beauty. What it does, it does brilliantly. And the petite Samsung Galaxy Tab more than lived up to my expectations of web access and functionality in an attractive, pocket-sized package.

But at well over £400 each, the iPad and Galaxy Tab are simply out of the financial reach of many of us poor mortals – especially when you can get a Which? Best Buy netbook for half the price.

Budget tablets aren’t up to scratch

So I eagerly anticipated getting my hands on two of the more modestly priced Android tablets to hit the high street – the Toshiba Folio 100 (RRP £329) and the budget Next 10-inch Tablet (RRP £180). Sadly, my optimism was short-lived.

While we’ve not put them through our full lab tests yet, initial impressions of both left something to be desired. Build quality ain’t great – particularly on the Next Tablet.

Key tablet selling features, like access to the Google Android App store and 3G connectivity, are missing from both. And touchscreen usability for the Next Tablet is shockingly bad.

Who really needs a tablet anyway?

For me, there’s a big difference between ‘cheap’ and ‘value for money’, and despite their lower costs, neither Toshiba nor Next’s tablets offer good value for money.

I might be willing to fork out the £400+ for the iPad or Galaxy Tab if I felt a tablet would fill a gaping void in my tech-gadget ownership. But I already have a smartphone and a laptop, and in spite of what tablet-makers would like us to think, I’m not convinced there’s such a big gap between the two for tablets to fill.

I’m willing to be proved wrong. And perhaps if you’re a big fan of watching video on-the-go, or crave a level of portability that a netbook or laptop doesn’t offer, you might disagree. But until the prices of high-spec tablets come down – which previous technology trends suggest they will – I’ve got more important things to spend my hard-earned cash on.

Read Al Warman’s argument in favour of tablets in ‘Tablet PCs are inspirational gadgets‘.

Do you think Tablet PCs are any good?

No, they're inessential playthings (37%, 143 Votes)

I don't give a monkey's (33%, 127 Votes)

Yes, they're inspirational gadgets (30%, 115 Votes)

Total Voters: 385

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I like a phone for… making phone calls. I like it small, light and easy to use for phoning and texting. Email reading, a basic camera and music player good. I don’t need (or want) a smartphone for that. I had an iPhone for a year, so this isn’t sour grapes – it just wasn’t a great phone.

However, an iPad does *everything* I do with my laptop for the same price, but instant on, quick load, instant off, decent battery life, decent screen size, easier to carry around. I would swop my laptop for an iPad now if I could!

Gareth says:
25 November 2010

I generally agree with Ceri. For a lot of people, a tablet – such as the iPad – is just a plaything. All they use it for is showing it off to other people.

I will say that it could be fantastic for some people who have simpler requirements, and use it as their only computer.

I have a laptop (17″ MacBook Pro) and a smartphone (iPhone 4). I also have an iPod touch for long journeys where I don’t want to drain my iPhone battery in case I need to use it as a phone. As I have all of these things, I don’t actually know what I would use a tablet (iPad) for, which cannot be done as well or better by what I have.

The main task I use my laptop for is editing and publishing digital photos. These are usually RAW files taken from professional / prosumer DSLR cameras. The full HD screen, latest Intel Core processor, 500GB HD and 4GB of RAM mean this is very fast and capable when running Apple’s professional photo software, not available for the iPad, and which has a fraction of the power / capacity. If I need to show anyone my photos my laptop fits into a slim backpack, and it’s not too much of a chore to carry it around. I have everything with me.

With an iPad you still have to take some kind of bag with you to carry it, and what you’re carrying around is much less capable (depending on what you want to do with it).

Usually, I don’t carry my laptop, I just take my iPhone. It has all of my email, web bookmarks, contacts and specific apps – camera apps, games, etc. It also carries a (large) section of my music and video from iTunes, and preview galleries of my photos.

There isn’t really anything I could do with an iPad that I cannot do with my iPhone. The iPad has a bigger screen, but the actual resolution isn’t that much more than my iPhone 4 with its “Retina Display”. The biggest difference is that my iPhone fits in my pocket, and I don’t have to think about it. It is always with me.

If you have a laptop and a smartphone, and perhaps good syncing / web services between the two, I cannot really see the value an iPad / tablet has. I don’t think it’s going to add much. It’s just another device that you have to carry around, needs to be charged, kept in sync, etc.

If you have a desktop computer and a basic mobile phone (or even a smartphone), then yes, maybe a tablet / iPad can add something, especially if it had 3G connectivity for when you were out an about.

If you don’t have anything – perhaps just a basic mobile phone – and the tablet / iPad was your only computer, and you just wanted to use it for email, web browsing, Facebook, games, etc. – then I can see a lot of value in them. My Mum would be much more comfortable using an iPad than a standard laptop, for example. That could be a big market going forward, similarly with education.

However, at the moment you still need another, ‘proper’, computer to set up an iPad. I think this is a massive oversight by Apple. It’s still acting as a computer peripheral, which is ridiculous really. Maybe Apple will realise this and change it for the next model.

Tablets – Laptops For Dummies.

But I mean that in a nice way. For too long simple applications on laptops have been hidden away in software applications geared around people who need a basic grasp of IT. Too much emphasis has been placed on the software and not on its purpose. Who has time for that? How many people would buy a TV if you needed a basic grasp of electronics to use one?

Tablets (and smartphones) finally bring the usefulness of laptops to the fore leaving their complexities, rightfully, to the world of geeks.

Charles F Hutchings says:
30 November 2010

I being a Dummie, would like to know that, if you purchase a tablet, do you have to pay to use it on i.e
web browsing or gaming etc..?

Hi Charles, If you’re using a tablet to access the internet over a wireless (wi-fi) network at home then you won’t be charged for the data you download. However as tablets are essentially large smartphones, many of them also work on 3G mobile phone data networks. For this you’ll need to pay for a Sim card, and like for mobile phones, pay on either a contract or pay-as-you-go basis for the data you use.

Once you’ve downloaded games, ebooks, music or video, however, you won’t need to be connected to the internet to use them on your tablet.

There’s a lot more detail in my Tablet Buyers’ Guide if you’d like to find out more.