Welcome, tablet overlords


— 4:16 PM on January 6, 2012

I've never been a big fan of the holiday party circuit. There's always a certain awkwardness attached to hanging out with people you only see once or twice a year—and don't communicate with otherwise. The string of vaguely familiar faces whose names I've long since given up trying to remember inevitably peppers me with questions about what I'm working on. Usually, my replies brings a quick end to the conversation.

The fact that I've tested enough SSDs to match the capacity of my home file server doesn't impress mainstream audiences like it would TR regulars. Tales of high-end X79 motherboards running water-cooled Sandy Bridge-E processors cause eyes to glaze over. Not even the pair of GeForce GTX 580 3GB graphics cards I've been using to test multi-GPU lane configurations inspired more than a polite nod this year. As soon as I mentioned the Transformer Prime, though, I suddenly became the most interesting person in the room.

"That's that new Android tablet with the keyboard, right? Man, that thing looks awesome."

Although my social circles aren't populated with folks who would classify themselves as PC enthusiasts or even geeks, everyone seems to be interested in tablets. The iPad is a popular choice, of course, but plenty of folks are keen on cheaper options like the Kindle Fire and the recently discounted BlackBerry PlayBook. One guy I talked to was even eager to brag about the sub-$100 tablet he ordered from China, although he hadn't taken delivery yet.

The last time I saw this much consumer interest in a new class of computing device was during the netbook craze of a few years ago. It's fitting, then, that tablets have been pegged as netbook killers. For the developing world, where a netbook might serve as someone's only Windows-compatible PC, tablets seem unlikely to make a significant dent anytime soon. However, for anyone looking for a portable computing device to complement an existing PC, tablets have considerable appeal—especially if you're more into consumption than creation.

Most of my brief holiday was spent using the Transformer Prime as my primary PC, and it just doesn't work well in that role. The keyboard isn't big enough, the touchpad isn't smart enough, and the performance isn't as good as my two-year-old budget ultraportable notebook. I'm far more productive in a Windows environment surrounded by familiar applications. That said, if I'm watching movies, surfing the web, going through email, checking my calendar, or reading just about anything, the Prime offers a much better experience. So does my original Transformer.

The fact is that today's tablets have better screens than the average notebook. Tablets don't have to sit on a desk or be propped up on your lap, either; they can easily be held in one hand and rotated into a portrait mode perfect for reading everything from comic books to the web. There's also something about touchscreen interfaces that, when executed well, offers a more satisfying interaction than swiping a touchpad or clicking a mouse. As precise as those instruments are, they feel more detached than watching a user interface move fluidly beneath your fingertips.

While some have been quick to write off tablets as a fad, I can't disagree more. Human beings have been using tablets of one form or another since they were carved from stone. Modern versions simply employ the latest technology to provide windows on our increasingly digital world. Smartphones offer similar windows, but they sacrifice screen size to slip easily into pockets. Even 7" tablets seem like too much of a compromise, and I can definitely see the appeal of displays larger than the 10-inchers dominating the market right now.

The PC world has long had its own convertible tablets, and it's likely to gain more as Windows 8 prioritizes touch-based input. I must admit, though, I prefer the simplicity of a slate. The lack of a hardware keyboard, combined with my disdain for typing more than a sentence or two on a touchscreen, is incredibly liberating. As somewhat of a workaholic, it's nice to have a computing platform that's poorly suited to productivity and perfectly tailored for relaxed entertainment.

It's also gratifying to see everyday folks genuinely excited about the latest computing devices. PCs plateaued long ago for these people, and they're simply not interested in additional CPU cores, solid-state storage, or the gobs of pixel-pushing horsepower that comes with fresh graphics processors. Tablets represent an engaging and fundamentally new platform adept at handling everyday tasks like email, web surfing, and Facebook stalking.

Some pundits have gone so far as to predict that tablets will kill the PC, but that seems incredibly absurd to me. Like smartphones, tablets have a place in the larger computer ecosystem. I don't think they'll supplant traditional desktops anymore than notebooks already have. The line between notebooks and tablets is likely to blur as time goes on, too. Making arbitrary distinctions about what counts as a personal computer is silly when so many devices offer honest-to-goodness computing power and good user experiences.

We're likely to be inundated with new tablets at the Consumer Electronics show next week, and you'll probably see more tablet reviews from us in 2012. Don't worry, though; we'll remain focused on our traditional areas of coverage. New CPUs, graphics cards, motherboards, SSDs, and other components may be snoozers at holiday parties, but they're the lifeblood of the enthusiast community, and we remain passionate about them. Tablets represent something new, and I have a feeling we'll be talking about then for a very long time to come.

   
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