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Can you use a tablet for work – all the time?

If you don't currently have a tablet and you're pondering getting hold of one to help you with work, you've got some interesting decisions to make. These will centre on both the tasks you need to complete for everyday work and the operating system and apps that offer you the best methods for doing those tasks efficiently.

I know that it's possible to get through a working day just using a tablet. I know because I've done it. But I can't get through every working day with just a tablet. I still use a laptop too. Some days I only use a laptop. Some days I combine laptop and tablet. In fact, that last permutation is the most popular one for me.

I'm not alone in taking this approach, and in fact most of the people I know professionally combine laptops and tablets in a work environment. So what are the defining characteristics that make us choose to take our laptop, our tablet, or both out with us on any one day?

Keyboards and mice

It is obvious that tablets lack built-in keyboards and mice. And that's an issue if you need to write large amounts of text or work with 'objects' because there simply aren't anything like a physical keyboard and mouse for efficiency.

Tablets offer on-screen keyboards, but these are only good up to a point. They get easier to use as screens get larger – and tablets get bigger and heavier. Having recently reviewed the Samsung Galaxy NotePRO 12.2, I can confidently say it is the best tablet I've ever used for keyboard-based input. That's because the screen is big enough to accommodate large keys and a standard keyboard style layout. I touch-typed relatively efficiently. At the other extreme of the spectrum, I have never, never used my Nexus 7 for general typing beyond the odd email here and there. The screen is just too small to allow me to use the keyboard at speed.

Tablets can have the advantage of handwriting recognition and that can be useful for certain kinds of working. I find Samsung's tablets are particularly good at converting my scrawl into typed text, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 offers a good compromise between portability and usability for handwriting recognition. But if you are a good touch typist, handwriting recognition is slow.

Imagine using a graphic design application on a tablet. It would be fiddly. Anything that involves consistent use of a mouse, work with fine detail, editing videos or images really needs a laptop with an external screen or a desktop computer. Yes, I know you can attach a mouse to some tablets, but you'll still likely find the screen too small for the levels of detail you require.

Keycases and keyboards

Which brings me to the use of keyboards and keycases for tablets. I recently completed a look at a range of keyboards for the iPad Air (published in two parts). These can speed up typing considerably, and deliver the added advantage of allowing you to see more of the screen. In that sense, I am a fan. But wrapping your tablet up in a keycase immediately makes it bigger and heavier. You trade off some portability for an increase in usability. Depending on the kinds of apps you use and the things you need to do at work, you might well just be better off carrying a laptop instead.

Screen size

There's no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of finding the perfect tablet screen size. That's why so many differently-sized screens exist, from the 7in of tablets like the Google Nexus 7, through the 9.7in of the iPad Air, 10in of a myriad of tablets including the Nexus 10, and the 12.2in of the new Galaxy NotePRO and Galaxy TabPRO. It's the same with notebooks, where people have their preferences for smaller and larger screens.

There is an important viewability issue here and in the end smaller tablet screens often just aren't practical for working with word-processing type tasks, image editing or anything that requires 'granularity'. Higher resolution screens don't help. Packing in the pixels might improve video clarity and reduce 'fuzzy' text, but it also means more information is squished onto a screen.

Where tablets excel is in using apps designed for their screen size and for finger-based input. Apps designed for Windows 8 and 8.1, for iOS and for Android are based around finger-friendly use. If you do a lot of social media, or view a lot of videos or presentations as part of your work, a tablet could be fine.

Where's your stuff?

Many of us have a lot of data in the cloud these days. If you work primarily in the cloud, then you can operate wherever the Internet is available, and you can feasibly work as well with a tablet as a notebook.

If, on the other hand, you need to use data stored locally, for example massive spreadsheets, lots of graphics rich content or just a whole heap of documents, the storage capacity of a tablet simply might not be up to it. Even the highest capacity tablets these days can't approach the 500MB or more that laptops can accommodate as standard.

Power and battery life

Even best of breed tablets simply can't compete with laptops for sheer processing power. Your laptop can open several applications at once, you can flick between them, the performance is fast and efficient. Tablets are not made for efficient multitasking, and can't handle processor-hungry activities. On the other hand, a tablet can boast a much better battery life than a laptop, making it a good choice for some kinds of work scenario.

Getting connected

Tablets tend to major on wireless connectivity over physical connections. If you need to access a USB stick, or want to use HDMI, you will need to shop around carefully. You will find some tablets that support USB sticks – the Asus Transformer range for example - but these also have keyboard sections and so they're larger and heavier to carry around than regular tablets. As for Ethernet, if you need to connect to a network using that technology, then a laptop is your top choice.

How about a hybrid?

Of course, it doesn't have to be a case of either laptop or tablet. You can carry both, or opt for one or the other at different times. Or you could simply take a look at a hybrid style device - variously more laptop or tablet - for example the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga, Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13, Microsoft Surface Pro 2 or Asus Transformer T100.