Notebooks vs tablets: Battle of the portable devices

Ever since the emergence of the iPad as a major technology product, the question has been asked: Notebook or tablet? Is a laptop even necessary when tablets can perform so many of the same functions? Are we truly living in the post-PC era? The answer is: It depends.

Every person uses their technology a bit differently, and some can indeed get by with a tablet alone. But don't go assuming that the days of the laptop are numbered. While some can make do with a tablet, there are some compromises required for the tablet-only lifestyle that some users can't make. To help you figure out which device is right for you, we’re going to look at a few of the best features of each.

Notebooks

Notebooks, like desktop PCs before them, have a built-in benefit over tablets, and that benefit is power. As a rule, laptops have more powerful processing hardware, allowing for a wider range of uses, faster performance and better multitasking. Laptops can easily handle common tablet uses – like web browsing and media streaming – and then go significantly further, with uses ranging from simple data entry to complex tasks like photo and video editing.

And while games may be a significant part of any app store, serious PC gaming is worlds away from Angry Birds and Cut the Rope, relying on faster processors and discrete graphics cards to crank out complex rendered environments at resolutions and frame rates that tablets can't touch. Even a PC gaming tablet such as the Razer Edge (which will hopefully come out in the UK later this year) can't match the raw performance offered by a dedicated gaming laptop.

As well as processing hardware, there’s also the issue of storage. Where tablets may boast anywhere from 16GB to 128GB of storage space, the average laptop offers 500GB or more. Even the slimmest notebooks featuring smaller SSDs – like the Apple MacBook Air 11in (Mid 2013) – offer at least 128GB, starting where tablets top out. Add in features like optical drives for DVD or Blu-ray discs, card slots for full-size SD cards, and USB-connected flash drives and portable drives, and you can have mountains of data at your fingertips.

There's also the question of form factor. Laptops have the benefit of having a keyboard and mouse built-in, allowing you to do all of the typing and mouse-related work you would do on a desktop. Touchscreens don't offer the same level of granular control that a mouse and cursor does, while on-screen keyboards are really only fit for entering short bursts of text, such as a status update or a tweet. A physical keyboard is a must for entering long blocks of text, and a mouse is far more efficient than a touchscreen for frequent swapping of windows, clicking of links, and general computing tasks. This is even more important in the workplace, where those very tasks may make up the bulk of your day.

Then there's the question of ports and peripherals. While both laptops and tablets have an ecosystem of accessories and devices built around them, notebooks – with their broadly compatible USB ports, HDMI outputs, and other features – work with a universe of accessories that don't need to be tailored to a specific device (they’ll work with almost any properly equipped PC). From mice and keyboards to webcams and storage devices, laptops are the obvious choice.

Bottom line: If you need to do serious work, need powerful processing or multitasking, or need compatibility with a specific accessory or storage device, there's no good alternative to the laptop. Tablets can fulfil some of these needs some of the time, but when it's time to really get things done, the laptop still reigns supreme.

Tablets

On the other hand, considering that most laptops (save for the real bargain basement stuff) start at £400 and go up from there, tablets are, with a few exceptions, more affordable. The latest Apple iPad might start at £400, but there are dozens of competitors like the Google Nexus 7 and the Amazon Kindle Fire HD that cut that price in half (at least), making tablets one of the most affordable options around when it comes to media, games and the web.

The design of the modern tablet – all touchscreen – is also extremely intuitive, especially when paired with touch-friendly operating systems, be it Windows 8, Android, or iOS. The icon-heavy designs are very easy for tech newcomers to figure out, and gestures like swiping from one screen to the next are far easier to grasp than tapping Windows keys or navigating a file tree. Many tablets support some level of multitasking, allowing you to run one or more apps in the background while working in another, but the full-screen focus of most tablets is also seen as a distraction-free alternative to the multitasking of Windows.

The small size of tablets also makes them more mobile. While laptops may be portable, and easily packed in a laptop bag, tablets are truly mobile – tailored for use while in motion instead of sitting stationary. The smaller form factor also makes it more comfortable to use the device casually. A tablet can be used at the library, but also on the subway, in the kitchen, on the couch, in bed, and everywhere in between. The small screens are also well-suited to personal media consumption, whether it's watching shows and movies or reading an eBook or website.

Where laptop PCs deal in software, tablets are all about apps, providing a user experience tailored to the use of a touchscreen, and blending always-on data connectivity with the unique capabilities of a mobile device, taking advantage of touch input, motion sensors, GPS data, and built-in cameras. Apps are also generally less expensive than PC software, with a large selection available completely free.

While laptops offer all sorts of options for file support and available programs, the process of buying and consuming digital media is often simpler on a tablet than anywhere else. Broadcasters and movie studios are bending over backwards with apps and services that put their content into the hands of iOS and Android users, and digital distribution through iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play has supplanted many of the traditional outlets as the go-to source for media.

If your daily computer use revolves around the Internet and social media, streaming services like Spotify and Netflix, and only light productivity, then you may be able to make do with a tablet alone.

Hybrids

With all of this laptop-versus-tablet talk, it's worth noting that companies are hard at work to bring you the best of both worlds. Intel has spent gobs of money promoting an array of two-in-one devices, for example small laptops with detachable tablets such as the HP SlateBook x2, or convertible designs that flip and fold between the two, like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11S or the Dell XPS 12.

These laptop/tablet hybrids are made to close the gap between laptop capabilities and tablet convenience, and the new hybrid category will only get better over time as technologies improve and designs are refined.

Tablet users are also presented with a phalanx of accessories, like cases with built-in stands to prop up tablets, and keyboards to provide a better typing experience, all aimed at increasing the productivity side of the tablet.

As of now, these blended devices and cobbled-together collections of accessories tend to be hit-or-miss experiments in design, but designers and engineers are working out the bugs with every iteration, and soon the laptop versus tablet question may disappear entirely.

Can't we all just get along?

Although there are clear reasons to favour one device over the other for certain specific uses, the laptop versus tablet debate is a false one. In today's connected world, there isn't really an either-or decision to be made – laptops and tablets are best used together, as companion devices.

The ideal setup will vary from one person to the next, but many shoppers who make the decision to forgo a laptop or skip the whole tablet thing will find themselves butting up against the simple reality that there is no one device that is best for everything. Tablets and laptops are really designed to be companion devices, sharing files via cloud storage and allowing you to take your web-connected life everywhere.