Maybe tablets were better than desktops all along

sweet iPad setup

Is a notebook the best portable computer, or have we just gotten used to its quirks? Photos: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

With Apple’s mobile and desktop platforms growing closer in iOS 8 and Yosemite, I started wondering: Is the laptop inherently better for computing than a tablet, or does it just seem that way because we’re so used to the folding form factor?

Could it be that, if the iPad had launched before the Mac and we’d spent the last 30 years using touchscreens, we would balk at using keyboards, mice and dumb screens to do our computing work? Or, in my time-reversed world, if Apple unveiled the Mac in 2010, would we all cling to our iPads and claim Cupertino was nuts for foisting OS X upon us?

First, the ground rules, for those ready to jump into the comments before reading this article. My point is not that the the iPad is better than the Mac now. Nor am I saying that the iPad will ever be good at putting two app windows on a screen. What I’m getting at is that maybe those “essential” ways of doing things are not essential at all, but instead just compromises made when GUI-based computers were invented. Now we’ve gotten so used to these compromises that other ways of doing things seem unthinkable.

Maybe tablets were better than desktops all along

“I’d love to see this on my iPad,” said nobody ever.

Multitasking

Let’s do this one first, because it seems to be the biggest problem. Multitasking is certainly what everybody brings up when I ask them what the Mac does better than the iPad. When they say this, I ask what they mean by “multitasking,” and it seems that they mean, “multiple windows on-screen at once.” That is, it’s not the device that needs to multitask, but the person using it.

Examples: looking at one thing while typing another; copying and pasting between documents; looking up something without leaving your current app.

Clearly the iPad is terrible at this kind of multitasking, and always will be. But what if we look at the task we want to achieve, instead of just the way we currently achieve it? Let’s take copying and pasting text from a Web page into a document, something I do all the time.

Currently, the best way to do this is on my iMac, with Safari and Byword (my text editor) side by side. I switch windows with mouse or keyboard, select text (with a mouse, probably), then switch back, place my cursor and paste (using ⌘-v).

Attempting to do the same thing on an iPad is annoying. Text selection isn’t really any worse, but I have to switch apps to paste the resulting text, and that causes a disconnect. Especially if my text editor gets terminated by the OS and I have to wait for it to relaunch.

But this problem has already been solved in a different way. I used to use an app called Writing Kit, a combined text editor and Web browser (and more). Writing Kit would let me highlight something in its browser and send it to the current text document. Better still, it would send the Web page’s URL along for the ride.

With iOS 8’s new “plugins,” which are essentially distilled versions of apps that run inside other apps, you can see that all kinds of solutions will be available. What about a popover from your Evernote so you can view notes as you type an email? Or a custom translation dictionary that’s as easy to call up as a browser page, only without leaving your current app?

I have a feeling these iOS 8 plugins will actually make for better inter-app communication, because that communication will be custom-tailored to the apps in question. Take the new Photos app on iOS, for example. You will be able to edit photos with the tools of any app you like, or you’ll be able to access the iOS photo library from other apps and write to it. This means a unified photo library without any duplicate pictures (caused by saving pictures to shuffle them between apps), and you will be able to roll back to the original, untouched image at any time. This is far better than the current desktop situation.

You will of course be able to think of plenty of counterexamples. But when you do, consider the underlying task you’re trying to complete. Don’t confuse it with the hoops we currently jump through to get the job done on the desktop. Because maybe there’s a better, quicker and easier way to get the job done on a tablet.

Filco majestouch

You can plug pretty much any keyboard into your iPad.

Keyboard

This one’s easy. We’ve already gotten used to the squishy, scissor-key keyboards on modern Macs. Even desktop Macs come with their own laptop-style chiclet keyboards. People say they need tactile feedback to type properly, but we’ve already given up the tactile (and audio) feedback of clacky keyboards in favor of slimline chiclet keys.

Maybe tablets were better than desktops all along

Try this with a real keyboard. Screenshots: Apple

I wouldn’t give up my clicky Filco keyboard, but that’s because I’m used to it. What if I’d spent the last 30 years typing on a glass touchscreen instead?

I’d probably look on a hardware keyboard the way a kid today looks at a cassette Walkman. Or how I look at film photography. I’d laugh at the lack of auto-correct or predictive suggestions (iOS 8’s QuickType). Or at the fact that I’m forced to use the row of number keys on the top of a QWERTY keyboard to tap in numbers.

Not convinced? No matter: If you still want a hardware keyboard for your iPad, you can buy one and it works every bit as well as the software one. Which is a lot easier than trying to add a capacitive multi-touch keyboard to your Mac.

Maybe tablets were better than desktops all along

Stopgap: The mouse stood in for the touchscreen for 30 years. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mouse

The mouse is a good example, because it’s clearly the ultimate kludge of the desktop GUI, and at the same it’s the thing that made the Mac possible. Folks say the mouse pointer is more accurate than the touch-based UI of the iPad. I’d say this is bunk – humans have been using fingers for zillions of years, and mice for only the last 30.

I think what people really mean is that the mouse pointer is smaller, and therefore makes it easier to click small targets on-screen. You’re ahead of me here: Touch targets are larger on an iPad than they are on a Mac, and as a result I never miss what I’m trying to tap.

But what about drawing apps? You could say that this is a specialist use-case, but tablets are so perfect for drawing that it’s worth a look. Right now, even the thinnest stylus can only equal the accuracy of a fat sausage finger stabbing at the screen. And there’s no way for a passive stylus to communicate pressure to the iPad. This is changing in iOS 8, though: It looks like new APIs will allow styluses much more accurate control of line width.

It’s only a matter of time before software catches up here. After all, things like Wacom’s Cintiq – essentially a giant iPad with a pressure-sensitive pen — have been the go-to peripheral for Mac artists for years. Touch is clearly way better than the mouse already.

Maybe tablets were better than desktops all along

LOL. Thank god somebody invented the cloud. Photo: Morn/Wikimedia Commons

Storage

If you need more storage for you Mac, just hook up anther hard drive. If you need more storage for your iOS device, you’re pretty screwed. Or are you?

After all, Dropbox already gives way more storage on it’s paid plans than we had on even desktop computers not so long ago. And with iCloud soon to offer more storage than most folks will need for photos, and iCloud storage for regular files, maybe the idea is moot? You’ll be able to access all your files, all the time. And isn’t that the point of adding extra storage to your computer?

That leaves local backups, or just local copies of your data. Perhaps that’s a task for Apple’s Time Capsule. Either way, this last problem isn’t a tablet problem so much as a limitation of the current iOS.

Conclusion

There are other things the iPad isn’t good at, but these are solved by clever services. For instance, you can’t suck down multiple gigs of movies via BitTorrent. But you don’t need to: You can just sign up for a service like Streamza or Put.io, let it “download” your torrents to its servers and stream the result direct to your iPad.

Now that I’m on this roll, I’m having trouble coming up with any situations that are inherently better on the desktop than they are on iOS. Once you start thinking of new and better ways to achieve a given result, rather than asking the iPad to reach those results the same way a desktop computer would achieve them, the iPad offers the opportunity to rethink the old ways and come up with something better.

When I came back to the Mac after using my iPad pretty much exclusively for work for around a year, I frequently found myself frozen, confused by all the on-screen options. The iPad had plenty of downsides (mostly fixed since), but it was far more streamlined than a Mac once you got used to it.

Maybe that’s what causes all the arguments about whether the iPad is a “real” computer. Of course it’s a real computer. We just haven’t gotten used to it yet.

  • Dan Shernicoff

    While I agree that for most people and most tasks a tablet is better there are exceptions the most notable of which is web browsing. This isn’t a limitation of the tablet (in concept or in execution) or the browser but of the web developer. I still run across sites that only work in IE. Or Firefox. I am very often frustrated when I grab my tablet to check something out only to find that the site doesn’t work properly on a mobile device because all of the navigation is done with drop-down menus spawned when the mouse rolls over.

    The other glaring case is development. I’m a programmer. I can’t work on a tablet – not just because of the keyboard but also because the work environment I need does not exist on any tablet on the market (with the exception of the Surface Pro but that’s more of a laptop without a keyboard.)

    There is also the issue of being able to have your research open while you are working. For me this means that I have one screen open to the documentation of the API that I’m having trouble with while working in my IDE on the other screen. Or being able to quickly reference WiKipedia while writing your term paper. Or looking at the numbers while writing the marketing report or slides.

    For many, many uses the tablet is a better portable solution but for others it’s less than ideal.

  • Pudge Wagzs

    You make some very good points but I like to play and hand break my Bluerays which I can’t do on my iPad.
    While the IPad is getting closer there are still things I need my Mac Mini for.

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  • macsimcon

    Tablets are inherently inferior to Desktops:

    1. Tablets have a fixed screen size. With a Desktop, you can use any screen you like.
    2. Tablets are limited to running stripped-down software. I’ve yet to find a Tablet application which can do as much as its Desktop version.
    3. Tablets have larger targets on screen, whereas Desktops have smaller targets because you’re working with a pointer, resulting in fewer functions on screen due to the smaller size of the screen.
    4. Tablets have limited amounts of memory, far less than their Desktop counterparts.
    5. Tablets have limited amounts of storage, far less than their Desktop counterparts.
    6. Tablets have to be propped-up to remain vertical, and each time you have to take your hands off of the keyboard to touch something on the screen, you risk knocking the tablet over. No matter how sturdy a case or stand, it’s never going to be as sturdy as an LCD is with a Desktop, if for no other reason than you aren’t constantly touching the LCD’s screen.
    7. Tablets can’t use wired keyboards, just Bluetooth keyboards
    8. Tablet operating systems limit user interaction and troubleshooting when something goes wrong, unlike a Desktop operating system
    9. Manufacturers can claim that they have Desktop-class processors in their tablets, yet none of those processors are as powerful as the processors you can get for Desktops.
    10. Storage in tablets may be fast, but it can never be redundant. You can mirror two drives in your Desktop for redundancy, but you can’t mirror the flash storage on a Tablet.

    If tablets are better than desktops, why don’t people run Avid, or Final Cut, or Logic, or FileMaker on them? Those applications have far too many features to be accessed using a finger on something which lacks multitasking, doesn’t have enough memory, and doesn’t have enough processor speed and fast enough storage.

    Those are just the shortcomings I can list off the top of my head. I’m sure I could find more.

    • Dan Shernicoff

      The article is specifically about portable computing – laptops , not desktops.

      • Ben

        The title of the article is “Maybe tablets were better than desktops all along”, not “better than laptops”.

      • Jimmy

        Re-read the title of the article!

        “Maybe tablets were better than desktops all along”

        Nice article, BTW…interesting points. At least tablets are catching up to streamline day-to-day tasks. It will be a while before they overtake desktops, if they ever do. But, the main point you make which I agree with, we have to rethink how we accomplish computing tasks!

    • Alan Colon

      The walls between tablets and desktops are coming down.

      1. Tablets have a fixed screen size. With a Desktop, you can use any screen you like.
      >> MS Surface allows external monitors. My Surface RT is hooked through a KVM to a 23 inch monitor.

      2. Tablets are limited to running stripped-down software. I’ve yet to find a Tablet application which can do as much as its Desktop version.
      >> MS Surface RT Word, Excel, and Powerpoint do everything the desktop version does (no Access, admittedly)

      3. Tablets have larger targets on screen, whereas Desktops have smaller targets because you’re working with a pointer, resulting in fewer functions on screen due to the smaller size of the screen.
      >> MS Surface has Metro mode for fingers, and desktop mode for mouse.

      4. Tablets have limited amounts of memory, far less than their Desktop counterparts.
      5. Tablets have limited amounts of storage, far less than their Desktop counterparts.
      >> Agreed.

      6. Tablets have to be propped-up to remain vertical, and each time you have to take your hands off of the keyboard to touch something on the screen, you risk knocking the tablet over. No matter how sturdy a case or stand, it’s never going to be as sturdy as an LCD is with a Desktop, if for no other reason than you aren’t constantly touching the LCD’s screen.
      >> MS Surface has a kickstand.

      7. Tablets can’t use wired keyboards, just Bluetooth keyboards
      >> Surface has a USB port, to a hub, I use a USB KVM to it and a USB printer.

      8. Tablet operating systems limit user interaction and troubleshooting when something goes wrong, unlike a Desktop operating system
      >> Surface RT and Pro allow full interaction and troubleshooting.

      9. Manufacturers can claim that they have Desktop-class processors in their tablets, yet none of those processors are as powerful as the processors you can get for Desktops.
      >> Surface Pro 3 has i7 processors. Not as many cores as you can get in a desktop, admittedly.

      10. Storage in tablets may be fast, but it can never be redundant. You can mirror two drives in your Desktop for redundancy, but you can’t mirror the flash storage on a Tablet.
      >> Agreed. Although you can mirror your local storage in a Surface the SD card storage (again, limited to 64 gigs, not like terabyte RAID arrays on a desktop). You can also hook a USB external array to a Surface docking station and back up to that when not mobile.

      iPads, android tablets, and the first Surface RT devices were designed around physical limitations on what a tablet-sized device could do. In 18 months, the Surface Pro 3 is lighter than an original Surface RT, despite a 30% larger screen.

      The ‘tablet’ in terms of the iPad model is a transitional step toward the very near future where there will be no technological or OS differences between a tablet and a desktop (other than those things that are space limited, like RAID drives).

      • tailhook

        1. Are you capable of using touch on that monitor? Probably not, so you’re back to mouse and keyboard and basically emulating a desktop, which the Surface was designed to do during times of heavy input.

        2. The Surface RT version of those tools *are not* apps. They’re applications that have been put in an app wrapper. Good luck copying and pasting between them, one of the core functionalities of any modern application.

        3. Desktop mode is desktop mode. When you use it as such, you aren’t really using a tablet, you’re using a PC in a tablet form factor.

      • Alan Colon

        @tailhook “2. The Surface RT version of those tools *are not* apps. They’re applications that have been put in an app wrapper. Good luck copying and pasting between them, one of the core functionalities of any modern application.”

        You can copy and paste between them just fine. I am using a Surface RT for my MBA research, papers, accounting work in Excel, I am constantly copying and inserting data from one application to another.
        Unless you mean something else that I’m not understanding.

        The larger point is that the tablet is dead. It was a transient form factor, based on hardware limitations at the time of their creation (I.e., the inability of a small light form factor to have enough power to run a full OS). Apple scaled up the iPhone and gave the iPad the phone OS.

        Nothing wrong with that, at at the time. But Moore’s Law always carries the day.

    • tailhook

      11. Nobody writes computer programs on a tablet. EVER.

      Tablets are great as consumption devices. They suck balls as creation devices, because if you’re anything other than a bush league programmer, you have multiple independent resources open and available to you while constructing the program. These could be text files that show the program’s input or output, they could be other projects that you pull code out of, or google searches to find the right API commands to perform the function you’re looking for.

      And nobody wants to sit around holding their device while they try to pound out the code they want. So yes, for consumption apps.. bravo tablet. For any serious work, they’re expensive toys. And no.. blogging a couple quick ‘graphs I don’t consider serious work.

  • Garnetstar

    I can’t agree. I’m a science professor, and what I do is write.
    Reports, papers, grant proposals, grant reviews, lectures, class
    materials, etc. etc. I turn out about 100 pages a day. And seconds
    count when I have so much to do.

    I am a touch typist, and on a
    real-sized keyboard I can do 80 words per minute without errors. I
    couldn’t possibly use anything but a real keyboard. No virtual one will
    do, unless it’s exactly the same size, with the same keys. And, though a
    wireless keyboard is that, the larger screen really helps my speed as
    well. I don’t use tablets for anything to do with work, nothing, except
    projecting my slides during lectures. And, regular old projectors with a
    laptop, even the document camera, work just as well at that.

    (BTW, anyone know of a text-editing app that allows superscripts and
    subscripts? I can’t type a single chemistry formula without them, and
    I’m not paying for an Office subscription. Lousy software.)

    I
    *must* be able to use an iOS I’m quickest and most comfortable with, not
    the one Apple decides is best for us. On a laptop I can partition the
    hard drive or boot up from external ones, from multiple OS versions, to
    use the features or apps that are best in each one. I use OS 10.8, OS
    10.6.8, and Windows, switching from one to another whenever I like. I
    know some professors who use all those as well as some OS 9 systems,
    every day.

    It’s not legal to store my grades or other federally-protected student information on third-party cloud servers. Not even Google Drive. I need external storage, multiple disks that I can keep in various locations in case one is destroyed by a fire or stolen.

    I have to be able to run obscure scientific apps, not
    ones that are popular (it’ll be a cold day in hell when ChemDraw, which I
    use every day, comes to the App Store). Theoreticians have even more
    advanced apps that they need to customize and use.

    Tablets just aren’t customizable enough.

  • Kam Francois-Ashbrook

    Questions that are completely off topic; what is that tray called and where can I find one?

  • JimGramze

    The biggest problem with a virtual on-screen keyboard is that it uses up too much of the screen. The second biggest is that I can touch type with a physical keyboard but with a virtual keyboard I have to look at my hands. That is a serious downgrade.

    The problem with touch is that the hand and fingers block the screen while touching. The finger blocks the precise point you are trying to touch. Big buttons solve this for very simple tasks, but trying to edit this message is difficult because when I try to move the cursor, my finger often blocks the loupe. The more precise you need to be with something, the less you want to impair your vision while doing it.

    I don’t see the multitasking being all that big of a deal on the iPad. Once I know my text editor is on the left and the web page is on the “Space” to the right, flicking back and forth to copy and paste is extremely easy. I just wish I could arrange exactly where certain apps are in this flicking queue to better optimize moving back and forth, like I can with Spaces on my iMac.

  • digitaldumdum

    “Maybe tablets were better than desktops all along”

    Nope. However detailed and seemingly reasoned, I’m just not buyin’ the premise or explanation. Surfing quickly, downloading and uploading easily, writing and editing text, creating and editing audio and video, storing and backing up data in a wide variety of ways… all these things are what separates a desktop or laptop computer from a pad of any brand. What the future (and Apple) brings may eventually blur the line, but for now each device has it’s unique virtues. In my mind there is very little over-lap.

    • Syriac

      Hear Hear

      • digitaldumdum

        Thanks. Judging from the amount and depth of replies, Charlie Sorrel did exactly what Cult hires him for: generating clicks and taps. The premise is BS, and therefore bound to inspire all sorts of discussion… about nothing. Charlie is a wordsmith, but he’s better at reviewing the fancy leather pouches, shoulder bags and electronic gizmos he usually comments on.

  • apfwebs

    I agree with much of what you’ve said. My iPad has been my main squeeze for a couple years now. I fetch out the laptop almost always just for routine backups and maintenance. One big thing I miss from the desktop system is a decent Web Inspector for web design. Another is a granular file system for easy file movement (e.g., editing a text file alternately in Textastic, Pages, and elsewhere; or a saving a photo directly from ArtStudio to a Textastic folder…). Finally, I miss finding my software outside the App Store: no GIMP or Firefox or LibreOffice around here, pards.

  • PcGee

    Yeah maybe if you’re a writer. No way can you use a tablet for content creation such as print design, photo editing, video editing and compositing, web design & development. Can not do those on a tablet! I’ve seen a lot of these type of articles and there’s a reason, the people writing them are writers.

  • Nick

    You forgot what a lot would consider the most important differential – power and performance. While I’ll admit tablets are getting pretty impressive, they’ll never catch up with the raw computing power of desktops. If you can fit and power a component in a tablet, you can have one 10x bigger in a desktop, so desktops will always be ahead. Good luck running the latest games, or CAD modelling software etc.on a tablet.

    And it’s pretty galling to dismiss the entire issue of multitasking by saying that there’s a way of copy-pasting on a tablet that isn’t awful. There’s much much more to multitasking than that.

  • http://www.designstrategies.com Len Williams

    This hypothetical universe where the tablet came first just never would have happened. The typewriter was a HUGE breakthrough for the modern office circa 1860, which lead to electric typewriters and finally to computers in the late 80s. It was a logical progression of keyboard data entry technology. Typing on a keyboard is still the best and fastest method of entering text in large amounts, so it makes no sense that touchpad technology would have evolved before keyboard-based data entry. Also, the desktop metaphor and files in a filing cabinet metaphor paralleled how businesses and homes had operated for about a century. Some kids may not even know what a filing cabinet is these days.

    Until voice entry is fully developed with sufficient artificial intelligence, keyboard entry will continue to be the best method of data entry. Within 10 years AI and voice command technology may finally eliminate the need for a keyboard, but that time is not yet.

  • Glen

    Interesting points. Please offer more articles with creative solutions to desktop issues on tablets!

  • Dave4321

    “Now that I’m on this roll, I’m having trouble coming up with any situations that are inherently better on the desktop than they are on iOS.”

    The main problem is that you have very little use for a computer. If you can do your job with a web browser/txt editor combo app, then great, but that is not the real world for most of us. Most people need some kind of cross program file manager as well.

    Oh yea,also Skyrim at 1440p and 4x fxaa.

About the author

Charlie Sorrel Charlie Sorrel is the Reviews Editor here on Cult of Mac. Follow Charlie  on Twitter at @mistercharlie.

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