Editorial: tablets aren't the 'third device' I'd hoped for... from a productivity standpoint, anyway

Hang tight just a second -- let me preface all of this with a quick reminder that I'm speaking on a personal level, and I'm absolutely certain that slates have a place in this world somewhere. We could go back and forth for hours with use-case scenarios (and the same could be done with cars, time machines or your luxury good of choice), but this isn't about proving that a tablet can do one or two things; it's about the limitations and awkwardness of using one that no one seems to talk about.

After years of watching the masses fawn over the iPad (and every other PC maker scramble to come out with something that serves a similar purpose), I still can't ever imagine myself investing in one, let alone actually using one in place of a smartphone or laptop. I've met quite a few folks in my line of work that all ask me the same thing: "Should I buy an iPad?" It's worth noting that no one actually asks if "they should buy a tablet," but that's speaking more about Apple's absurdly enviable mind (and in turn, market) share than anything else. My response is always the same: "If you can't think of a reason you'd need it, you don't need it."

Tablets, for whatever reason, seem to defy logic when it comes to purchase rationalization in the consumer electronics realm. I've yet to meet a bloke who purchased an ultraportable without knowing full-well that they would take advantage of enhanced battery life and a highly mobile chassis. Everyone I've know that invested in a high-end gaming rig knew why they were shelling out on that $500 GPU (read: frames-per-second). And all of my movie cuttin' pals knew precisely why they just had to have a Thunderbolt RAID setup. But tablets? People are just buying these things in a fit of hysteria -- does anyone actually know why this "third device" is such a necessity? Let's dive a little deeper, shall we?

The obvious answers (and the not-so-obvious question)

Look, I'm not disputing that tablets serve a purpose. I would've leaped for ever-loving joy if my middle school classes were delivered on one, and my photographing wife uses hers to show example poses to nervous brides and grooms who want to look good in their wedding album. But when it comes to using one as a tool for myself -- a device which should make me more productive -- slates have failed to provide me with a compelling reason to drop $500+ on yet another computing instrument.

And here's why. With qHD displays becoming the norm, most modern smartphones can nearly match even the highest-resolution tablet display. Pixel-for-pixel, I can see almost as much information in the palm of my hand as I can with an unwieldy screen that requires two hands to use with any precision whatsoever. And then, there's typing. Let's say I'm in class, or at a conference, or in a boardroom meeting, and I'm attempting to jot a few notes down for later. If needed, I can peck away with a shocking amount of accuracy using SwiftKey's magical prediction keyboard on insert-your-Android-phone-here... with one hand. Is it really worth the pocketbook hit to bring something else in there to do the same thing?

If you're asking what the big deal is with using both of your arms to operate a handheld computing apparatus, you're asking the wrong question. What you should be asking is this: "Why did I just spend $500 on a device that's just marginally easier to get work done on than the smartphone I already own, while being entirely more limiting than even a netbook from an OS standpoint?" If anything, it's just a testament to how immensely useful, longevous and mobile the modern day laptop truly is.

Look, tablets are weird to use

C'mon, admit it. Slates are silly to hold and silly to operate. Ever tried taking a photo with a tablet? You're guaranteed to get perfect facial expressions for tomorrow's highlight image on Awkward Family Photos, but that's about it. Without a case, it's even awkward to type on a tablet. You're usually left with two options: propping it up against your leg, or laying it flat on a table and forcing yourself to hover directly over it, neither of which strike me as "natural." You might say that using one is no less strange than pecking away on a laptop, but if I have to sit down with it I might as well use something with a keyboard.

I'll confess that using one as an in-flight entertainment device looks pretty practical, but my 4.3-inch smartphone screen would accomplish the same task with a lot less fuss (and without taking up another square millimeter of precious space within my carry-on bag -- something only hardcore minimalist travelers like myself will appreciate).

I also can't seem to grok the value in spending half a grand on something with a souped-up mobile OS. Marketers have stated from the start that a tablet is a "third device" -- something that's worth owning even if you already posses a smartphone and a laptop. I'm guessing it's because they know tablets aren't capable of replacing either. It's too big to fit into any pair of pants I own (MC Hammer digs from Halloween 2008 notwithstanding), and it's downright frustrating to use as a netbook replacement.

Even something as basic as chewing through unread emails proves to be a gigantic pain on a tablet. I typically get through eight or nine messages before I need to a) add an attachment from a file system that doesn't exist or b) open up a new browser to complete an inbox search whilst keeping the existing message open in a nearby window. Foiled again. This also brings up the point of multitasking; even with webOS' absolutely laudatory "Cards" system on the now-defunct TouchPad, there's no actual multi-window, multi-app multitasking. I can grab a 10-inch netbook -- priced at $300 or less, usually -- and multitask in ways that iOS could only dream of. Again, I'm looking at this strictly from a productivity standpoint, and if you're still trying to convince me that I need a "third device," you're barking up the wrong tree. I also won't argue that the "experience" of using iOS on a tablet is exemplary, but at most, it's a novelty in my world.

The "third device" requirement is manufactured

Apple, and everyone else trying their best to hawk tablets, would have you believe that there's a huge hole in your technophile lifestyle that can only be filled by hauling around yet another contraption. I beg to differ. For consumers who don't consider themselves power users, you might be able to get away with using a tablet in place of a laptop. If that's you, fantastic. You just figured out a way to stick with only two devices, and you made the second one a good bit more compact. But if use things like Photoshop and Windows Movie Maker (real esoteric stuff, I tell ya), or you like to actually add attachments to your email from a file system, you'll probably find yourself in a place like myself: wondering what the heck the fuss is all about.

My dear friend and confidant Chris Ziegler said this of the iPad in January of 2010: "This is simply Cupertino's answer to the smartbook executed with typical Apple spit and polish, and whether anyone really needs the world's slickest smartbook remains to be seen." For me, it has been seen, and I'm no worse off without another computing apparatus forced between my already-capable phone and laptop. Another of my peers -- Mr. Michael Gartenberg -- confessed this about the iPad just over a year ago: "So what's missing? The required accessories. In order to make the iPad a real productivity tool capable of replacing your laptop, you're going to want a Bluetooth keyboard, the VGA adapter for presenting, and a copy of iWork (or another compatible office suite). Even then, you're still going to be missing some of the functionality that you're only going to get on a full computer."

I'm not disputing the fact that the iPad is a runaway hit; Apple has sold millions, and it'll continue to dominate this landscape for the foreseeable future. Its shareholders are obviously thrilled with the demand. But here's a genuine question: how many of you actually use your tablet (of any brand) for productivity tasks as much as you thought you would when you lined up around the block to buy it? And after you invest a couple hundred in accessories to make it halfway useful, aren't you better off (financially and otherwise) with a bona fide laptop? For me, that answer is "yes."