6 tablet benefits (and 4 shortcomings) for travelers vis-à-vis laptops

iPad, photo courtesy of Apple Inc.

Do you have an iPad, an Asus Eee Pad, a Samsung Galaxy Tab or another “tablet” mobile computing device? Do you have a laptop computer? Have you considered dumping your laptop in favor of a tablet when you travel? If you have, you’re not alone.

Tablets are becoming more advanced, and serious tablet apps are allowing business travelers and vacationers alike to use their tablets more productively than ever, but can they successfully replace laptops for travel?

Many travelers have answered, yes.

More than a few tablet users are now leaving their laptops at home, yet I still see scads of laptops traveling. One only has to see all those bins sporting laptops at TSA airport checkpoints to know tablets haven’t yet become the primary travel computing device. I am, however, seeing more and more travelers with both tablets and laptops while on their journeys.

At this time, it appears the major question affecting whether a traveler replaces their venerable laptop with a tablet is whether or not they’re primarily a content user, or a content creator, while away from home.

Business travelers and content creators, who are making and editing memos, letters, and spreadsheets, plus answering large numbers of email in detail, are still primarily traveling with laptops for their work.  On the other hand, more and more vacationers — primarily content users who are researching places to visit, events to attend, and other travel information, plus sending a few emails — are ditching their laptops and lightening their carry-ons with tablets. In an emergency, their tablets will suffice for essential office work, as necessary, yet serious content creation, is still not the forte of tablets.

Let’s look at tablet pluses for travelers:

• Traveling light is a goal for many travelers. Laptops with screens of 14 inches or more will generally weigh at least 4.5 pounds. Tablets, like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, weigh less than a pound. Laptops also normally require bulky separate power supplies which aren’t feather light, while tablets need only a lightweight cable and small adaptor for recharging.

• Tablets can easily fit into a travel pocketbook with lots of other gear, or a small travel daypack. That’s not so with a laptop.

• There are a variety of business apps for tablets available today. Tablets can display and edit Microsoft Office documents, and display Adobe “pdf” documents. They also can access Cloud documents such as Google Docs.

• There are a variety of tablet apps today to edit photographs, both from the tablet’s own camera and from digital cameras, if in a suitable format, such as jpg, the main format of digital point-and-shoot cameras.

• Tablets are fabulous entertainment devices, able to help travelers pleasantly pass the sometimes endless hours cooped up on planes and trains. They can display downloaded movies and TV shows, run terrific games, play almost endless music, stream movies, music and videos, and display books, magazines, and newspapers.

• Tablets are excellent communication devices. Email and texting are among its core functions. They easily “surf” the Web and run apps which utilize “online” data for all sorts of purposes and uses, such as location research, reservations for theater, museums, hotels and restaurants, etc., while traveling, locating stations and providing street navigation.

Is that enough for travelers? It depends. Let’s examine some tablet shortcomings compared to laptops, for travelers.

• Laptop computers have built-in keyboards, with true finger-sized keys. Tablets have built-in “on-screen” keyboards, with no touch characteristics, which are awkward to use for more than short passages. There are physical keyboards available for tablets, but that adds weight and size to its package, reducing the tablet’s size/weight advantage.

• While tablets have many available business apps today, and can handle important business document formats, their apps are not nearly as powerful, or easy to use, as their laptop counterparts, and don’t have all the laptop’s software features.

• Tablets have apps which can do some sophisticated photo effects, but they are cumbersome to use for true photo editing, unlike laptops. Tablets which use fingers as a “mouse” don’t permit accurate enough pointing in photo editing apps, which makes it difficult to achieve quality area edits, often required for photographs. Even 3rd party pointers for tablets aren’t accurate enough.

• Tablets today have more overall memory than ever, but still suffer from a lack of storage capacity, compared to laptops. For business travelers needing space for presentations and “offline” documents, for example, tablet storage is generally inadequate. For travelers who are photo enthusiasts, the storage capacity of today’s tablets is typically wholly insufficient for any journey of more than a day or so.

For the typical business traveler, today’s high-end tablets could be okay in a pinch, but for a business trip requiring meaningful content creation and/or editing, a laptop is still the de rigueur computing device. For serious travel photographers, professional or amateur, the same is certainly true.

For vacationers with little need of document and photo file capacity, and little or no need to combine work with pleasure while vacationing, a great tablet might be all that’s necessary and would be, therefore, advantageous compared to hauling around a laptop.

  • TJ

    Dear Ned,
    You didn’t mention a few other benefits of tablets. First, you don’t have to take them out of the bag to go through security. As you mentioned, because of their smaller size, they can fit in a backpack or carryon bag quite easily, even with a small bluetooth keyboard. With one less carryon bag, one less bag to check. A few trips with one less checked bag pays for the tablet and its accessories. Oh yeah, stuck in the waiting area, no more hot lap or fighting over a power outlet.

    And, you can set your tablet on the tray table and still have room for your beverage and snack. No more looking for a power supply on the trip either. Better battery life. You can easily bring movies with you and not run out of battery before the end of the flight. Need to bring a lot of paperwork to read. Or, maybe a few books. A tablet lightens the load.

    Plus, for photographers an iPad is a dream. With the small camera kit you can load your photos to the iPad and then upload to the cloud. No more carrying an extra drive for storage and backup, extra cards, etc. More room for the other lenses. Need to do something on a photo or make a drawing or illustration, and your fingers are too bulky…get a stylus. Can’t do that on a laptop. The camera kit also has the ability to plug in anything with a USB, or read digital cards.

    Need a file, check the cloud. The cloud services negate the storage issue. Only yesterday I needed to download a big presentation, make some edits and send to some folks. Did it all online and then sent the link for everyone to download.

    Photoshop…well, that is a problem. Truth be told, I’d hate to work on photoshop on a small laptop screen anyway.

    I will concede that some content creation is better on a laptop, however, in the past 2 years I haven’t found anything I really can’t do with my iPad, a bluetooth keyboard, online services and some cool apps. I’ll grant you Photoshop and some heavy duty spreadsheet stuff aren’t easy to replace. But, if you have presentations, no more carrying a lot of extra equipment. There’s an adapter for that, too.

    The very few times I’ve missed something, the business center in the hotel had what I needed.

    So, if you’re just taking a short trip, let’s face it, you’re probably not going to be doing heavy content creation anyway. You’re mostly trucking to meetings. The tablet works just fine.

    It’s no longer an entertainment device. It does just fine for a road warrior in the majority of situations. For those folks wondering, do the test…bring both and see how much you really need to use the laptop. It will help you decide if you really need it, or if you just can’t let it go.

  • http://twitter.com/orsay orsay

    So true!

  • Anonymous

    Hi TJ. Thanks for the comprehensive post. It’s appreciated.

    I don’t get unlimited space so I have to make choices about what to say and what to leave out, so sometimes points that readers come up with have been left on the “cutting-room floor.”

    You’re right about laptops needing separate bins while tablets can stay in one’s bag. I personally don’t look at it as that much of a big deal. When my laptop is in my briefcase, I don’t even have to take it out, as it’s one of those TSA approved bags. Of course, prior to my last flight I saw several tablets pulled out of bags by TSA, turned on to make sure they were really tablets, then swabbed for explosives. Sometimes even tablets get more than a passing x-ray.

    I’ve never taken a bag solely for my laptop. It either packs nicely in my camera equipment bag, or it’s easily stuffed in my briefcase, which is TSA approved for laptops.

    As to the Bluetooth keyboard, the small ones are a waste of money as far as I’m concerned. I rather type directly on the tablet than drag one of them, as they aren’t any better for typing than the on screen keyboard, in my opinion. A full size keyboard on the other hand helps a great deal, but it does add real bulk, taking away some of the tablet’s size advantage, in my opinion.

    Yes tablets can certainly be propped up along with a drink on the tray table. I guess I didn’t think of that because I stick mostly to bottled water when I fly. I never drink alcoholic, or caffeinated beverages when flying. They’re diuretics and increase dehydration. It’s healthier to avoid them and many like me feel better at the end of the flight for it.

    When you say that “for photographers an iPad is a dream,” you’ve lost me. If you’re strictly a vacationer taking point and shoot snapshots, the storage capacity of the iPad, with the cloud may be adequate, but the cloud is slow compared to in computer or tablet storage, and if you have loaded up your iPad or other tablet with lots of apps, music and videos the process is a pain in the neck, and recalling photos from the cloud to work on is another step many of us just don’t want.

    I use the cloud often, but in a measured way. I highly recommend it, for example, as a storage backup for essential travel documents such as passports, reservations, etc., with passports individually password protected, of course. I personally don’t think it’s nearly as great overall, however, as many. It’s far slower than local storage, it can tax ISP caps for individuals and homes, especially for those who like to stream, it’s not available if your Internet is down, and if you need a file then, and it’s not stored locally, you’re out of luck.

    But even if you find storage of photos not a problem, the apps for photo editing are so-so at best and I’ve tried most of the good ones. You have a lack of control for editing that laptops have no problem with, even with a stylus which I have.

    My camera’s JPG photos come out at more than 7MB per photo. Most photo enthusiasts and now many vacation DSLR users, and even some high end point and shoot camera users, store their photos in the RAW format today because it’s so advantageous. Most DSLR photos today, stored in a lossless compressed RAW format are in excess of 15MBs per photo, and there is no current app able to edit these photos, of which I’m aware.

    I was with a “weekend” photographer in the Galapagos a few years back, and with another in Russia last year. They were asking me for guidance during the trips to improve the quality of their photos, so I paid attention to what they were doing. Both were taking about 300-400 photos per day. With digital photography extra photos cost nothing, and vacationers are taking advantage of that and waiting until they’re home to cull bad shots out.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree about tablets and photography.

    As to business uses, tablets are much improved than they were, but they are still not there yet, ready to replace laptops. The screen size alone is a problem when creating content, and the apps don’t have the power many of us regularly use.

    Finally, when I take my laptop, I have it, a power supply and a travel mouse. If I was going to sub my iPad for it, I’d have to have the iPad, keyboard, stylus, dongle set for presentations, and dongle set for connecting to the camera. All those accessories take away part of the tablet advantage.

    The tablet is no longer just the entertainment toy it once was, but it’s not yet the computing device that many of us need, as far as I’m concerned.

  • Tess

    One more thing to consider is the mode of transportation. Travel on a cruise ship would be very expensive if you were going to try to make extensive use of the cloud for photo storage. Connections are slow and expensive.

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  • madtad1

    There is an Ipad app called “LogMeIn” that allows you to remotely access your computers via your Ipad and use them remotely, even to the extent of being able to print from them remotely. I had a boss that never travelled with his laptop anymore and controlled his multinational company, including all of its servers, remotely via this app.

  • http://twitter.com/genebernice genebernice

    For business travelers, its better to carry laptop, when compared to tablets, because of its better storage capacity, which results in success of business.


  • Plip

    I used laptops over they years, traveling for business, but now that I am retired I find my Smartphone does so many things, and is so easy to use, I leave my laptop at home for the “heavy work”.