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.

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    about 4tb's worth of space.

      Good point, even 64gb is pretty lame.

      I cou ldn't write an assignment with a tablet, word processing on tablets leaves a lot to be desired, even with some haptic magic.

    How about having the CPU power to encode video / music? Even laptops suck at this. Tablets are toys, for consuming content. No time soon will you be able to have the full creative experiance that desktop with a true keyboard and mouse brings on a tablet.

    MotorMouth, MotorMouth, Where for art thou MotorMouth?

      You've said his name three times!

      Now he's going to appear!

    Not sure Bruce, I think I see home storage slowly turning into a low powered home server styled machine.

    What I really miss on my iPad is the ability to read something and watch a YouTube video, or any low level multitasking capability.

      I meant, I want ALL my data with me out and about, not at home. The article is about what will it take for tablets to replace computers, the obvious to me is hd size.
      Right now i like the look of teh asus zenbook (11.6 inch screen version). Would love to have that connected to external hd's and peripherals (monitor/keyboard etc), then just unplug and go when you need to. Tbh i see this beating ANY (solely) touchscreen device. Ultranetbooks ftw.

    I disagree. I agree with the above. Give Windows 8 a year, maybe 18 months and you will see tablets that act like an iPad when out and about, and when you get home, dock them and they'll switch to a main (probably Intel) processor, like an i7 for chomping through masses of HD content if you want to.

    Why else would Microsoft be offering up Windows 8 on ARM? Eventually, they'll combine ARMand Intel almost certainly for, literally, an all-in-one device. Something that'll give you 16 or 20 hours of tablet battery life, watching videos, browsing and playing games on the go and then, when docked, could act as almost a full home server, guiding and organising all your home networking, streaming, automation and other computing needs.

    It seems far off, but then again, before the iPad, so did a decent tablet.....now look at them all.

    So Apple filing for patents for the haptic feedback stuff, and Microsoft developing a touchscreen with faster response times (and probably patenting whatever they've done to achieve this), never the twain shall meet, right?

      Apple and Microsoft have fairly extensive cross licensing agreements in place - it's why they're not suing each other in the current patent war.

    I think tablets also need an xserver capability, so we can run GUI desktop programs on a *nix server, and route the display to our tablet, even if we can only display one full screened window at a time. Oracle has something like this that works similar to their SunRay thin clients (except the client runs on a PC or iPad (no Android support yet :( ) ), but that serves up a whole desktop over their protocol, which is difficult to use on such a small screen.

    greater storage and much better input for word processing, such as a keyboard. But I don't want to replace my PC or laptop, the have there won purpose. The tablet is for the couch to surf and quick porn, that is all

      The irony of your comment and name is just outstanding.

    How about enough grunt to run Arma3? Oh wait, the screen's not big enough.
    It's a bit like saying what will it take for a plumber to start using a hammer to replace all their other tools. You don't see chefs using swiss-army knives to prepare hundreds of meals a night in a restaurant. Every tool has it's purpose, and a tablet's is not for replacing a "PC" as you call it.
    Tablets are for consumer/social content like watching youtube, diddling with facebook, reading books, video calls, as a replacement for pad and pen at meetings, so you can your reports in front of you without shuffling through a whole folder of stuff... sharing photos etc.
    They're not for gaming, or watching an HD movie with surround sound. They're not for hardcore CAD/CAM work, they're not for hardcore wordprocessing or spreadsheets.
    To me this is a pointless speculation article written for no reason other than to write something so you get paid.

    I'm looking forward to what we'll see with Win8 cause my ideal tablet is one that can switch between "tablet" and "computer" modes, which seems to be what Win8 will provide. Of course it would need to function with input from a standard USB mouse and keyboard when in "computer" mode (none of this awkward transformer tablet stuff) and run full versions of regular Win programs like AutoCAD or Office.

    OK, here's what tablets really need before they will be viable.
    1. A full-featured OS that runs all the software we already own and know how to use and supports all the peripherals that make our computers the workhorses they are.
    2. More storage. Lots more storage.
    3. Proper connectivity - USB 2, USB 3, LightPeak/Thunderbolt, SD cards, HDMI, S/PDIF etc, etc. I don't want to have to use Bluetooth for keyboard and mouse because Bluetooth keyboards and mice blow goats.

    Realistically though, I don't believe tablets are anything more than a stop-gap measure, like hybrid cars. The real future is in devices like the Asus Padfone, where you phone plugs into a tablet when you need more screen-space and the tablet, in turn, slots into a clamshell dock like the Transformer tablets do now. Just look at the iPhone 4S and iPad2. Both sport the same internals so the only thing you really need if you have an iPhone 4S is some way of plugging into a bigger screen. Having two devices which are essentially the same is stupid (not for Apple, obviously, as they can make you pay twice for something you already have) but the way these devices are devised leaves you little choice if you are going to buy into it.

    For me, I have a phone and a laptop that complement one another perfectly. I just don't see that there is any room for another device in-between, so until I can replace one or the other, those are the two things I'll be sticking with.

      "The real future is in devices like the Asus Padfone, where you phone plugs into a tablet when you need more screen-space and the tablet, in turn, slots into a clamshell dock like the Transformer tablets do now"

      So your ideal future is a Voltron-like device that has a slot that the previous device tier fits into? But then you'll just wind up with a hulking Sega Megadrive with a bunch of add-ons that don't significantly improve the underlying hardware/

        It's good to see your 19th century brain hasn't failed you on this one.
        1. The good old days of full blown, bloated OS's on any portable device, will die, very very soon. Powerful and capable OS's don't need 8Gb of language strings, font packages and useless system files. Get over it, nobody will put a full blown OS on a tablet. There are more and more web services coming online every week, providing high yield coding , converting and extremely powerful editing tools. Thats the future.
        2. Storage, storage, storage? How about a floppy drive? With web storage and syncing services for free negating almost all need to have EVERYTHING on your device, why would you want to carry things you MIGHT use only sporadically . No, no, no.
        3. Why do you need physical connections when wireless solutions do the same thing, without a clutter of cables? You left out serial cables BTW. Airplay, airsharing and a bevy of connection apps for bluetooth keyboards and mice remove the need for cables. Haven't you ever used remote tools?
        4. I'm so fucking glad you have nothing to do with the design of our future technology. I'm sure if it were up to you, the horse and cart would still be around, but with a steam powered horse. You're a joke.

          Hey dont knock serial ports!
          For all the n etwork engineers, a laptop with a native serial port is gold. Bugger using those usb to serial adapters.

      Nah. Lenovo Yoga - ultratablet running Win8.

      Next step: Cloud base EVERYTHING, ubiquitous wifi... welcome2future

    For a start, I want a Wii fi only tablet with a screen that is a4 size. I don't need to be carrying a tablet out in the streets. I have the galaxy note for that. I need the tablet to dock into something with keyboard that automatically hooks up to my 50 inch TV screen and the said dock to have 2 terabyte memory and also have extra cores to add to the tablets to make it a real power house. Oh, and an instant sexy secretary to sit on my lap.

    Biggest things for me would be unified hardware add-ons. One official keyboard that works seamlessly across any app, or one official gamepad that's supported by every game, ditto for bluetooth styli. Trimmed versions of full-blooded apps like Word, Photoshop etc with no dumbing down. Basically the very opposite of what Apple's doing to Mac OS.

    There is no need to replace the PC. the tablet is for when your doing things that a tablet does best and a PC is for when doing things a PC does best. I own both and couldn't go without either.

    Hey dont knock serial ports!
    For all the network engineers, a laptop with a native serial port is gold. Bugger using those usb to serial adapters.

    But that's why they're sticking lte or other high speed stuff in there.

    Of course we'd need the download caps to back that JP.

    If we are talking iPads, a few simple improvements would go a very long way.

    1: being able to place, name and organise files, then have the ability to attach them to an email, from the email app. (I know its a bit old fashioned but I think this is important!)

    2. Full flash/pdf accessibility in safari. I open alot of pdfs that only show the first page because of stupid ios safari.

    3. "download linked file as..." Come on Apple, its not that hard.

    I could go on, but its pretty clear that tablets have alot of catching up to do before we even start talking about pie in the sky futurism.

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