Computing

What It'll Take For Tablets To Replace PCs

Tablets are massively popular but still have a long way to go before they can replace PCs. Yasir Hossain at The Tech Block looks at what it would take to make that happen.

With features like LTE connectivity, ultra-high-resolution displays and laptop-like processing power, tablets have made their way into tens of millions of homes, and they’ve done it seemingly overnight. But despite popularity that borders on ubiquity and specs that edge them ever closer to desktops, it’s a rare house where a tablet has replaced a full-fledged computer. Why is that? Why haven’t more people scrapped their PCs for the sleeker, cheaper tablets?

The simplest answer is that tablets aren’t yet designed to take on their bigger cousins. Others suggest the newness of slates is partially to blame, but considering how they’ve outsold PCs recently, frankly, that’s crap. If they had the chops, they’d rule the roost in many households. Their low cost and extreme convenience would see to that. So what’s missing? What would it take for tablets to graduate from their supporting roles and assume starring ones. To my mind, three things.

More feedback

Touchscreens come in countless shapes and sizes, but at the end of the day, they fall into two basic camps: those with multitouch, and those without. Those without, like ATMs or the display in my five-year-old car, feel clunky and antiquated. They’re often a pain to deal with. The multitouch variety, on the other hand, is a pleasure to interact with. The ability to swipe, pinch, zoom and rotate content in an intuitive fashion has been nothing short of a game-changing, especially for tablets. Apple said it makes users feel as if they’re “touching the internet”. That’s a bit hyperbolic, but it’s true that manipulating a well-sorted touchscreen is more intimate than any keyboard and mouse combination. But that’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. Touchscreens lack two critical features.

The first is haptic feedback, and it’s not a new concept. We’ve seen crude versions in the past, mostly in the form of phones that respond to user inputs with slight vibrations. But that only scratches the surface of what could and should be done with technology that’s been largely brushed aside as a parlor trick. Imagine, for instance, playing Angry Birds and actually feeling the tension in the slingshot, or drawing with a stylus in Paper and forgetting that you’re not handling a real pen or marking up real paper. Haptic feedback could even recreate the sensation of typing on a physical keyboard, and as any writer will tell you, that’s critical to a decent word-processing experience. In short, it could add another dimension to tablets, one that’s necessary to suspend users’ disbelief and convince them that their synthetic experiences are as real and rewarding as their real-life counterparts.

Apple seems to grasp how valuable that is. Ahead of the new iPad’s launch, rumours swirled that the company had paired up with Senseg, one of the foremost experts on haptic feedback. The rumour was fuelled by Apple’s cryptic (it turned out to be literal) hint that it had something that needed to be seen and touched, and while haptic feedback wasn’t what it had in mind, patents have since emerged that reveal the company’s interest in rolling out feedback technology on its iPads, iPhones and iPod touches.

Quicker reflexes

But I told you touchscreens are in need of two innovations, and that’s just one. The other applies to something that doesn’t occur to most consumers, probably because it’s not something many manufacturers tout, but whether or not they realise it, it affects the immersiveness of their experience just the same. I’m talking about response time. As is, the average touchscreen’s response time, or the time it takes the screen to register a user’s inputs, is 100 milliseconds. That might not seem like a long time, and outside of computers, it isn’t. But when you’re tracing your finger over a touchscreen as you would in, say, Draw Something, that fraction of a second can feel positively glacial, and it’s enough to remind users that although their tablets mimic many real-life activities, like putting pen to paper, they’re a far, electronic cry from the real thing. Not only that, they literally lag behind keyboards, which have an average response time of just 8 to 10 milliseconds.
If touchscreens were to equal or better that mark, and let’s face it, they have to if tablets are to have any hope of replacing their big brothers, users could more easily forget all the processes standing between their inputs and their devices’ reactions, and tablets would be more attractive for it. And such an innovation isn’t far off. Microsoft’s Applied Sciences Group, for instance, recently showed off a touchscreen with a lightning-fast response time of one millisecond — 100 times faster than your run-of-the-mill slate’s screen.

A split personality

The third hurdle tablets have to clear on their way to credibility is arguably the biggest: the watered-down experience. As far as tablets have come, and as many apps as developers have added to their growing arsenals, they still pale in comparison to the versatility of the average Mac or PC, mostly because they were conceived with the casualest of intentions. Now, I’m not suggesting they turn their backs on those roots and adopt cumbersome desktop operating systems. That would be about as effective as a shot in the foot for devices that pride themselves on user friendliness. And besides, it’s been done, on the first tablets, and those weren’t exactly success stories.

Rather, any tablet with a prayer of replacing a computer that’s not covered in cobwebs needs to pull double duty; it needs to offer users the option of a bells-and-whistles operating system while preserving the simplicity that made it attractive in the first place. OnLive Desktop, an app that streams Windows 7 programs to Android and iOS slates, nearly delivers the missing half of that equation, but it’s dependent on an Internet connection, and those aren’t always available. Microsoft’s answer, on the other hand, won’t come and go with tablets’ connectivity. The company’s upcoming Windows 8 tablets will greet users with a beautiful, mobile-friendly Metro UI, but when those users demand a more complete experience – when productivity’s on the agenda, for example — the tablets will happily serve up Windows 7, too. And here’s the takeaway: When Windows 8 tablets are docked, they’ll function as full-featured laptops. I’d expound on the implications of that, but I think they’re obvious.The rub

The beauty of this wish list is it isn’t far-fetched. Each of these innovations is in the pipeline at some stage or another, and I’d wager they’ll come together on a tablet in the not-too-distant future. But as capable as that device will be, with specs that are sure to satisfy all but the most demanding users, its inroads into PCs won’t be automatic. Like laptops before it, it’ll be up against two things: PCs, and the idea that it’s nothing more than a luxury device.

The TechBlock is a technology-oriented blog and podcast where passionate, plugged-in enthusiasts dispense with the drivel and weigh in on the latest industry news and gadgets affecting you. Our unique emphasis on personality, beauty and clean design deliver content like you’ve never seen it before, and that’s the point. To see what we re all about, tune in to our podcast, subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Twitter.

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