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Tablets, Desktops, Laptops: How the Tools Fit My Life

© Sergey Nivens - Fotolia.com

With the endless arguments about tablets’ productivity or lack thereof, I decided to take a close look at the computing tools in my life. The result is a seemingly contradictory conclusion: We truly live in a post-PC era in which the traditional PC remains a vital player.

I think my habits are fairly typical of a knowledge worker in 2013. The main differentiations are probably that I am older than average and am self-employed, working from home. I spend pretty much all of my waking hours with some sort of connected device readily at hand.  My primarily tools are a oldish 27″ iMac, a 13″ MacBook Air, and an iPad (as of last Friday, an Air; before that an iPad 3.) I use an aged Windows 7 desktop less frequently and a Windows 8 ThinkPad less still. I use a Samsung Note 10.1 tablet only when I want to check something Android. And at any given time, I have assorted other equipment in for evaluation. And a Kindle Fire, which I use exclusively as an ebook reader.

A desktop for the desk. Most of each working day when I am in town is spent at my desk, and that means in front of my iMac, equipped with an aged USB keyboard that I think is left over from a Macintosh G4. For many things, it is my tool of choice. I do technical writing that  requires having lots of windows open at once and the use of Word, Excel, PowerPoint–not those functions but the actual Microsoft Office programs–and SharePoint. I make a lot of use of Adobe’s Creative Cloud–Photoshop for pictures, Premiere Pro for video, Audition for Audio. All of that is work from a legacy PC, in my case, mostly a Mac.

But there are many things for which I much prefer the iPad, even if the desktop Mac is available. I have the Tweetbot Twitter client on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone, but the iPad version is by far my favorite. On the Mac, when I click on a web link in a tweet, it opens the page in a tab that appears on the far right of my tab list. When I’m done and close the tab, I’m left in the browser in what had been my rightmost tab. The iPad version, by contrast, makes great use of the single-window, one-app-at-a-time interface. When I click a link, the page fills the screen. When I’m done, I click the Close button and in Tweetbot, exactly where I left off. (The iPhone version works the same, although web pages, of course, are harder to read on the small screen.) The Mac and iPad versions of the Feedly RSS reader work more similarly, but the iPad model is still slicker at opening web pages.

A iPad away. When I’m away from my desk, the iPad is generally with me. Mostly, I use it to keep up with incoming mail, my tweet stream, the odd game, and whatever else needs doing. For more serious work, I have a Zagg Flex keyboard. The iPad, over time, has largely enlaced the Mac book, with DropBox, Google Drive, and SugarSync giving me access to key documents. But it isn’t quite a laptop replacement.

I have done many Tech.pinions posts on the iPad, but it has its deficiencies. I usually write in the Byword markdown editor and then transfer the contents to WordPress, because the browser-based WordPress editor is not very well suited to touchscreen use. Handling art work remains a lot clumsier than it ought to be. but I can do it in a pinch.

My biggest frustration is trying to moderate Tech.pinions comments on the iPad. The Disqus moderation page really, really does’t like mobile Safari and handling comments is painful. It’s weird, but the need to moderate comments can be the one thing that causes me to take a laptop on a trip that I otherwise might leave at home. There’s an interesting distinction here. Some tasks, such as spreadsheets or video production, are inherently unsuited for the tablet. But many, such as Disqus moderation, are being held back simply because no one has optimized the software yet. In time, more and more of these chores will become accessible.

I find there are plenty of tools for writing on the iPad. Pages works fine for the sort of simple document you might want to create on a tablet, and both Byword and Editorial are great for straight text or HTML. I don’t do slide presentations much, but Keynote is fine.

The pain of Numbers. I haven’t used Numbers much, but I tried last weekend to use it to create a not-too-complicated budget document on the iPad. It quickly sent me scurrying back to my Mac and Excel. Trying to enter spreadsheet data from the on-screen keyboard was horrible. I found Apple’s system of modal keyboards–one for pure numerical entry, one for text, one for functions–slowed me down insanely. I understand why they do it–using the full regular iPad keyboard covers too much of the screen–but I just couldn’t get used to it. Using an external keyboard helped some, but Numbers just is not a very good program; it’s a case where simplicity actually gets in the way and the minimalist user interface actually makes things harder. But, in general, spreadsheets, unless they are very small and simple, are one of those things that really belong on a traditional PC, the bigger the display, the better.

Would Microsoft Office on the iPad make it even more useful. I can see some edge cases where it would be nice to have it, but only if Microsoft could produce apps that really fit the device. Their inability so far to do this for Windows tablets is not encouraging. I agree with my colleague Tim Bajarin (Tech.pinion  Insiders only) that this ship has sailed.

You’ve probably noticed that the device that gets lost in this workflow is my MacBook. Most days it just sits on the desk or in a bag, closed and forlorn. It gets used on longer trips when I know I am going to need the power of traditional PC applications, or when I have to work on something that must be done in Word because of the need to handle long, highly formatted documents or a requirement for Word-compatible change tracking. But most of the time, the desktop and the iPad handle my workflow (with the iPhone filling in) and the laptop that has become the tweener that gets left out.



Published by

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

128 thoughts on “Tablets, Desktops, Laptops: How the Tools Fit My Life”

  1. > We truly live in a post-PC era in which the traditional PC remains a vital player.

    I couldn’t agree more. I applaud that tech writers are starting to question if and how tablets will or will not replace PCs based on a thorough and honest analysis of their own usage. John Gruber’s recent piece also comes to mind. http://daringfireball.net/2013/10/the_ipad_air

    Although many will dismiss the usage patterns of heavy users as irrelevant to the mass market, I find it interesting that the tasks that bring you back to a laptop are actually quite simple. You mention moderating DISQUS comments. They don’t seem to be the heavy lifting tasks that are unique to power users.

    1. Disqus comment moderation is an example of a chore that could easily be done on a tablet if the software were modified a bit. All they either need is either a dedicated app or HTML that works better with mobile Safari.

          1. Yes, of course.

            Because there are so many, it suggests that these pains will not be eliminated any time soon, even for the average user. Although it may be easy to fix a site specifically for tablets from a programming perspective, there are many many issues with supporting multiple platforms, even just the Apple ones.

            What I’m trying to say is that since there are so many small issues that are not getting fixed quickly, it may still be quite a few years until we can comfortably get rid of a PC. As you said, the traditional PC remains a vital player.

      1. You might try a different browser on your iPad. iCab allows one to change the user agent and I find that by doing that often misbehaving web sites will then work.

        1. I have. They have the same problems, probably because Apple forces all iOS browsers to use the Safari renderer.

          There are two different problems with the Discus moderation page. One is an issue in which the panel that allows comment editing and replies sometimes appears when summoned and sometimes does;t. The other is just bad design for a touch screen. For example, the link that gives you full display of a long comment is perilously close to the delete link, so it is very easy to delete a comment when you just want to expand it.

  2. I have been using Desktop computers since the Commodore 64, I have always owned a computer since then.

    But I have never owned a laptop. I get work provided ones when I need them, and generally I loathe them. The tiny screens, the tiny keyboards, aggravating pointing devices.

    So I found it interesting that your laptop gets negligible use.

    A tablet on the other hand, isn’t just an inferior desktop, but a different mode of doing things, so I will get one of those.

    1. I agree with Defendor. I’ve never been a laptop fan. Small screens compared to the three I use and each one seems to have a different keyboard.

      The “lay back” element of the iPad is one of the most appealing points for me.

    2. Laptops are so powerful these days, desktops are becoming redundant. You can dock a powerful laptop, use a full-size keyboard, nice mouse, with a multi-monitor setup. I just don’t understand complaints about tiny keyboards, etc. This is why I think the future will be about hybrid devices and despite all the hate Microsoft and the Surface (non RT) get, I believe in their chosen strategy.

      1. The reason I go with a desktop is that when I do need to carry a laptop, I want it to be really small and light–not a MacBook Pro. And the Air, which I really like, doesn’t have the oomph to replace the iMac. So I end up with the iMac and an iPad and an MBA for occasional use, mostly on travel.

      2. A laptop of equivalent power to a desktop always costs more money, and is just about impossible to upgrade/repair yourself.

        I upgraded my desktops CPU/GPU/RAM/Optical/HDD (and added SSD). Greatly expanding it’s value/lifetime.

        It only makes sense to have a laptop over a desktop if you actually need it to be mobile. I don’t, so a laptop is just an inferior desktop for me.

        1. For me, laptop = built in UPS + second screen. Used by itself it’s still acceptable, when docked with external keyboard, mouse and larger display it’s a perfectly capable desktop replacement. So yes, it costs more, and even with the additional functionality it’s not cost-effective vs a desktop + UPS + monitor, but the portability factor is very useful for me.

          I agree completely with your upgradeability argument. I have found that for me, selling a two-year-old MacBook Pro and buying a new one ends up saving me time and money overall. With USB3 and Thunderbolt, external drives are useful again. 🙂

          One other factor that applies in Australia: the current tax laws stipulate that a laptop can be claimed as a work-from-home device (even when purchased with an external keyboard + mouse + monitor!) but a desktop computer cannot. This came into effect in the mid-1990s IIRC, and had a large impact on sales of both types of machine. I’m sure that other countries have a similar set of laws as well.

          1. Never heard of a tax rule like that. It’s certainly not the case in the US. With that sort of deductibility rule, a MacBook Pro and a big monitor would be cheaper than a 27″ iMac, net of taxes.

        2. I do agree that a laptop will always cost more than a desktop with equivalent specs. But the question nowadays is – does one really need that much power that a desktop is required?

          Looks like you have the Core 2 Quad Q6600 @ 3,2GHz but realistically, you are at the end of any upgrades for your LGA775 platform – performance is maxxed out, DDR2 is more expensive and a motherboard replacement will not have the new features of an equivalent new gen platform and will probably cost the same (and hopefully in-stock).

          Unless you are a gamer (Radeon R290 for $400 nips at the heals of the $1000 Titan!), need 4 or more physical cores, or need lots of RAM to run multiple VMs, an i5 mobile equipped laptop supplies plenty of muscle for productivity/multi-media work. Dell for example puts the price of entry @ CA$550. NAS for storage and you’re set.

          As for repairs and upgrades, I like doing that myself but I think we tinkerers are the only ones who value it. Most would rather just bring their unit in for servicing.

          My current desktop is an AMD Phenom II X6 1045T @ 3.5GHz with 8GB of DDR3 RAM which I was forced to build since my older Pentium LGA775 platform did not accept the Core 2 Quads and also could not support more than 4GB of RAM. With me no longer gaming, I could live with less (I use my Windows 8 non-RT tablet most of the time now). If I needed even more power right now, my upgrade path would be an FX-8350 but I think that by the time I need/want an upgrade, instead of it being a choice between platforms (Intel vs. AMD), it will be a matter of choosing a device.

  3. Great post. I’m currently awaiting a new Asus T100 to use as my main daily computer hooked up to a large full 1920 HD monitor with USB keyboard and mouse instead of my Core i7 920 desktop as the new bay trail Atom based tablets are good enough for the majority of my daily tasks.

    Also something not a lot of people have commented on surprisingly in these times of high energy prices is the energy savings and therefore financial saving by making such a switch. In my case, by my rough calculations my Core i7 920 with a HD 4850 uses something like 500W peak but the tablet with dock should be around 5W max which when used for 10+ hours most days will actually mean the T100 should pay for itself within a few months!

    1. I think a few months payback is pretty wildly optimistic, but this clearly is an issue. I don’t think individuals worry too much about power costs because they tend to be pretty small for one machine. But businesses and other institutional users most certainly do, because those savings multiplied by several thousand make a big difference.

      1. Thanks for the reply Steve. Some rough calculations sat here in a cold UK…

        20 hours usage per day (or on time) X 600W = £1.90 per day usage
        6 days average use = £11.40 per week spent
        £349 T100 cost divided by £11.40 per week = 30 weeks or approx 7.5 months to cover cost of T100.

        T100 would obviously need charging during the same 20 hour usage pattern above but with a 11 hour+ battery life let’s say it only needs 10 hours per day charging at 10W (via the 2A @ 5V charger) = 10W x 10 hours = £0.02 per day usage = £0.12 per week running costs!

        I hope my maths stacks up?

        1. I trust you saw Glarung-Quena’s reply with some revised power consumption figures. But even with his numbers, you could get recovery in less than a year an a half.

          My mistake was assuming U.S. economics. Electricity is still a lot cheaper here.

          1. I did see his power consumption figures yes and actually posted a long reply to his below where the average I get is at least 350W using my main desktop at normal level rising to 400W or more at load but it seems Disqus has removed this!?

          2. That doesn’t make any sense. I have an older Core 2 Quad processor overclocked to 3.2GHz. This is a much less power efficient processor that doesn’t ramp down to low power like an i7 when doing lightweight tasks, and an older 8800GT GPU, that consume similar power to a 4850, and an older (sub 80%) power supply.

            According to my power meter that I have plugged in. It is consuming less than a 100 watts doing lightweight stuff like web browsing.

            Yours should consume less than mine, not more.

            Unless you bitcoin mining, or folding or similar activity, your aren’t consuming 350 watss 20h/day.

    2. “my Core i7 920 with a HD 4850 uses something like 500W peak”

      No way. The i7 920 idles at 12 watts and maxes out at 130 watts, The HD4850 idles at 18 watts and maxes out at 89 watts (under 3dmark). Figure 10 watts for your hard drive and another 10-20 watts for your motherboard. Add those numbers up and add another 20% for power supply inefficiency, and your system should idle at around 75 watts, and when you have it totally redlined (maxing out the CPU and GPU, which never happens unless you’re running folding@home or something like that), it should use a maximum of 300 watts.

      Citations: actual watts consumed by the HD 4850: http://www.hardware.fr/articles/781-1/vraie-consommation-73-cartes-graphiques.html. Article is in French but the tables are perfectly comprehensible.

      Idle and TDP for the CPU: http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/processors/core/core-i7-900-ee-and-desktop-processor-series-datasheet-vol-1.html

      I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people have totally unrealistic ideas of how much energy their electronics use. Get a kill-a-watt meter, and instead of guessing you’ll be able to *know* how much energy your devices use.

      1. Trying this comment again Glarung-Quena as the last version seems to have vanished!?

        I was wanting someone to check my quick maths but having looked at this again, without the Intel 920 within a full system seems to be 144W at idle as per http://www.pcstats.com/articleview.cfm?articleid=2582&page=3 and around 210W at load.

        The HD 4850 within a Core 2 Duo rig detailed here http://www.techpowerup.com/reviews/powercolor/hd_4850/21.html draws 128W idle, 192W average and 208W at load and using the other processor link I think if we add 20W to 50W for the difference between the Core 2 Duo used in the graphics tests and my i7 920 that gives around 160W idle, 240W average and 300W at load.

        Using these seemingly more accurate figures still shows a HUGE 16X difference in energy consumption between a 10W an Atom based tablet (when plugged in for 50% of the time) as a desktop replacement and a 160W+ desktop where I personally don’t think there is more than a 4X performance difference in the two set ups I’m using.

        Server companies have been reducing costs using lower power servers via a similar logic for a while which is simply what I’m trying to illustrate via an average desktop based home worker type set up and I think if normal home users did similar calculations and realised they could save £100’s per year by using similar newer, more efficient processors they would upgrade. I think I have talked myself into writing a detailed blog post about this myself now and will add a link once written 🙂

        1. None of this is to disagree with you that switching from
          your current rig to a modern Atom tablet is going to save you
          electricity and lower your power bill.

          First, you need to read the fine print on any tech site’s power usage
          chart before applying their numbers. 90% of them just plug the assembled system into a kill-a-watt meter and measure the draw at the wall, which means their measurements are thrown off by power supply inefficiencies, and also the individual thing they’re reviewing (whether a graphics card or a cpu) gets mixed in with all the other components of their test system. Which makes such reviews fairly useless for determining how much your own system is going to draw, unless you’re building the exact same system as they are using to test.

          In addition to measuring a full system at the wall, The PCstats review you linked to specifies that they disabled all of the power management that is turned on by default in an i7 system, so their figures are going to be grossly inflated from that. Disabling intel’s speedstep is just plain stupid — it ensures you’re wasting electricity by keeping the CPU constantly spinning its wheels when the system is idle, and gets no performance gain since the CPU is able to rev up from a low power state to full speed essentially instantly.

          The CPU figures I gave were from Intel’s own tech specs, and thus are authoritative. When you are web surfing or typing a document on your machine, the CPU is going to be essentially idle (12 watts) nearly the entire time. The only time the CPU is going to be anywhere near full load (130 watts) is when you’re doing video re-encoding or something similar. If gaming gets your CPU to 50% load, then it’ll probably be drawing halfway between those two, or 72 watts.

          Video card makers haven’t always been as forthcoming as Intel with their products’ idle and load power draws. The techpowerup review you linked to is again measuring the entire system’s power draw at the wall. However, the French-language article I linked to measured power draw of video cards directly, by plugging them into a special PCI-e slot that included a built in power meter, so again I regard those figures as fairly definitive – between 18 and 90 watts for the HD4850.

          OK, here’s a fairly apples-apples point of comparison: this Anandtech review pairs a HD 4850 with a core 2 quad that has a slightly higher TDP than your i7 (138 to your 130, I think), so the idle draw figures there are going to be higher than yours. Also note that the anandtech system uses a ludicrous 1200 watt power supply, so the efficiency at idle is abysmal and if you have a more sane power supply, your idle figures will again be lower than their 160 watts.

          Any way you cut it, if you aren’t using your current system for gaming, your video card is massive overkill, and if you aren’t using your system for gaming or something like video re-encoding, your i7 CPU is also quite overpowered for routine tasks.

          (Energy efficiency and computers are both things I have a nerdy level of interest in, which is how I know this stuff. It’s been fun talking about it, thanks for the opportunity).

          1. Thanks for the further detailed reply – I appreciate your nerdy level of interest in this 🙂

            That AnandTech link looks like the perfect example for me to use as a base for my own figures without access to my own kill-a-watt meter and looking at my rig more carefully I actually have a 450W PSU so I am willing to accept 160W at idle and 240W at load based on that link.

            I’m pleased we both agree switching from my current rig (which is overkill for 99% of what I now use it for) to a modern Atom tablet is going to save me a lot of electricity over a year and therefore lower my power bill. Here in the UK (via the EU) we have Energy labels on a lot of appliances (Wiki here) which I see no reason why this couldn’t be applied to computing devices if there was the will which would at least give consumers the opportunity to compare like for like and could even contribute to the Western World reducing overall energy usage!

            I might try and see if I can come up with something like this for the most popular computers on my UK computer price comparison site (see Disqus profile) based on our chat.

            Thanks again

      1. At the time of purchase I was more interested in performance and buying something that would last than power usage but both my needs have changed and technology has greatly improved in laptops / tablets since I purchased it 5 years ago now.

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