laptop on workbench

PC vs. Tablet: Use the Right Tool for the Job

One device that does everything is one device that does everything poorly

Like many of you, I've spent a lot of time contorting myself to adapt to the ever-shifting personal technology landscape. And like many of you, I bet, I've pretty much had it.

Roughly a decade ago—honestly, who can remember these things clearly anymore?—I recall typing up an editorial for this very column while flying home from a business trip. The device I was using at the time was a Palm PDA, perhaps a Palm TX, connected via a balky folding keyboard on which it precariously rested. I was just finishing the article when the plane hit some turbulence and the PDA jostled slightly from its resting place on the keyboard. Disconnected for that one fleeting second, the silly little device froze completely, sending about 1,000 words off into the ether, never to be seen again.

Related: Canalys Portends that 50% of PC Shipments in 2014 Will Be Tablets, Defines What a PC Is

This episode would have been instructive had I learned anything from it. But the intervening years have seen me repeat this same basic mistake again and again as part of a fervent but ultimately unsuccessful bid to travel ever-lighter. Over the years, I've tried various Tablet PCs (the original generation from 2003-ish), netbooks, mini-PCs (remember the Toshiba Libretto?), and, most recently, current-generation tablets. None of them were the solution I wanted, and each provided new problems of its own.

Related: In Praise of the PC

Two insurmountable obstacles prevented me from reaching what I always viewed as a form of nerdvana. One, I'm just a big guy. I can barely squeeze into a coach airline seat, and my personal version of hell is an intercontinental flight with the seat in front of me jacked back so far I can lean just slightly forward and touch it with the tip of my nose. This happens more frequently than I care to discuss.

Two, and this is the one I really had the hardest time coming to grips with, I actually need a real PC. With a real, full-sized keyboard. With a large screen my ever-aging eyes can actually see.

But I sometimes realize I'll never really give up the dream. This year, in particular, has been a tough one, thanks to the ongoing move away from "real" PCs and to things that are not quite PCs: hybrid PCs, "transforming" PCs, tablets with clip-on hardware keyboards, full-blown tablets that make no pretense of being a PC, mini-tablets with 7- to 8-inch screens, and even certain "phablets," such as the ginormous Nokia Lumia 1520, have all triggered wistful "what if" moments.

So let me provide the one service for which we as humans are uniquely suited: the ability to give the advice that we just can't follow ourselves. And it goes like this: Use the right tool for the job. Everything else is just spinning wheels.

Now, it's certainly true that some people—many, in fact—can get what for them is "real" work done on a tablet or even a smartphone, phablet, or mini-tablet. That is, these devices provide access to email, calendar, contacts, the web, social media networks, various Microsoft and third-party services, and even remote desktop capabilities for the truly dedicated. They are simple and easily manageable.

This is the Steve Jobs adage about cars and trucks: PCs are like trucks, still necessary for the select few, but tablets are like cars and far more applicable for the masses. These types of comparison always break down under any kind of scrutiny—is a smartphone a motorcycle?—but let's not overthink it. It was a pithy point, and easily understood.

Of course, in our world—what we might call IT, or that of knowledge workers, but what I prefer to think of as the world of the "doers"—PCs aren't going anywhere. And I think that many reading this, like me, have had that moment when we've sat with our hands hovered uncertainly over some other device—tablet, phone, whatever—and have simply gotten up, fished the laptop out of whatever bag it's stored in, and gotten back to work. That is, we'd perhaps like to be able to get it all done on such a simple device. But our jobs are a bit more demanding.

The year before Microsoft released the Surface, a co-worker was waxing on and on about the hours and dollars he had spent contorting an iPad to be sort of like a laptop. He needed a stand of some kind, an external keyboard, various adapters for connecting it to anything, and a special bag for carrying all that crap around. Exasperated at this crazy justification, I finally told him he should just carry an Ultrabook so he could get work done. "But I can get work done on the iPad," he protested.

"Then you're not working hard enough," was my answer.

I worry about trailing off into the tech version of those big truck ads that play interminably during NFL games on Sunday. But there's a basic truth in the message there: As much as we might like the notion of a single device that does it all, such a device probably doesn't exist, and never will, for many of us. You can contort an iPad or other non-Windows tablet into a sort-of PC. And you can contort a Windows PC into a sort-of tablet. But the results, so far at least, are rarely successful.

Increasingly, I hear from people that they just don't want multi-touch on their Ultrabooks, for example, and after fighting this view for a few years, I'm starting to think that maybe these contrarians have a point. We're so quick to give up this separation between work and home, to triage work email while we're sitting on our couch at night, fine-tune that presentation, or keep a monitoring eye on the servers back in the data center. Maybe a single device that does it all isn't the solution. Maybe it's just another step toward a Matrix-like future in which we're always connected and thus always working.

I've kind of had it. And perhaps by working at home for roughly 20 years, I'm on the vanguard of something that will eventually occur to others. (A rarity, believe me.) I'm not going to compromise my work or personal experiences for the other. I'm going to use the right tool for the job, and if that means a traditional, non-touch Ultrabook for work and a mini-tablet for fun, so be it. Like I said, I'm a big guy. I can shoulder that load.

I'm at least going to try.

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