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Tablets: An important piece in the desktop replacement puzzle

Tablets: An important piece in the desktop replacement puzzle

Phil Parent pokes a nuanced hole in the idea that some device will one day replace the PC

With all of the ink and trees (or bits and bytes) expended on ‘desktop replacements’ the question has to be asked: will any one device replace the desktop PC? The answer, of course, is no. The desktop PC has been with us for some three decades and has reinvented itself from a very basic tool for personal word processing and spreadsheets to the primary hub around which every other bit of hardware and software revolves. However, that role is changing as more and more devices - smartphones, tablets and laptops - are taking over more and more of the tasks that were once the exclusive domain of the desktop.

The main differences amongst the four form factors are size, processing power, input/output functionality and applications supported. No one device does them all. You can’t make a phone call from a desktop (not easily, anyway) nor can you put it in your shirt pocket. And you can’t create CAD drawings nor run annual financial reports on a smartphone. As Le Corbusier famously stated, "form follows function". That statement is as true for personal and corporate computing today as it was for designing chairs and offices in 1925.

Cost

Surprisingly, cost really isn’t much of an issue. A quick scan of the latest Harvey Norman and Dick Smith catalogues shows the Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone retailing for $899, the Samsung Galaxy Note tablet at $799 and the HP Pavilion DV6-7003AX notebook retails at $999. They’ve already replaced the desktop, at least as far as ad space goes. There are no mentions of desktops in any of the major hardware retailer’s fliers. But Harvey Norman on-line advertises the Compaq CQ1040AN Desktop with 20" Monitor for $899. Of course, you can get cheaper or more expensive versions for all of the form factors depending on specifications, but the fact remains that you’re paying for capabilities and functionality, not the form factor.

When you consider all of the things you can do with all of these devices and the similarity in price, the dollars and cents are almost immaterial. If you use these devices effectively, computing is as inexpensive today as it has ever been in history.

Keep in mind, though, that connectivity costs can be a major factor in ‘replacing the desktop.’ Connecting to the internet via wi-fi or a wired LAN is cheap. Connecting to 3G is not. You would have to have deep pockets indeed to create detailed reports from real-time ‘big data’ multi-dimensional databases over a 3G connection with your smartphone.

Size matters

There is no technological fix for size. The typical 22-inch desktop display with a 16 x 9 aspect ratio has a visible area of some 1335 cm2, much larger that this page of Reseller News.…A good-sized laptop, with a 17-inch screen - which is about the size of this page - gives the user about 800 cm2 of visual space. Compare that to a 10.1-inch tablet display, again at 16 x 9, that provides 276 cm2 or the high-end smartphone with a 3.7-inch screen….it checks in at 35cm2. Clearly, the display is a huge determinant of what you can accomplish.

Of course, you can always connect your smaller device to a larger screen via a docking station or a USB port. Indeed, docking stations with extra ports for mice, screens, external storage, LAN interfaces and battery chargers have been a vital accessory for mobile devices for years. In fact, last week’s announcement in San Francisco of the HP ElitePad 900, optimised for Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 operating system, is also designed to work with optional Smart Jackets. These Smart Jackets combine a cover, keyboard, extra battery pack and docking port and are positioned to be a part of an ‘ecosystem’ of accessories that HP hopes will be a selling point for the ElitePad 900. In media reports, Ajay Gupta, HP's commercial notebook products director, is quoted as saying “Smart Jackets, in addition to adding ports and batteries, will evolve over time to meet the needs of specific industries, such as health care or retail.”

But the fact remains if you are using a smartphone or tablet without the benefit of an auxiliary screen, your graphical user interface is small fraction of a laptop or desktop. That alone can seriously impact the user experience for many enterprise applications.

Processing power

If and when the cloud becomes ubiquitous and all processing is done at some datacentre, the processing power on the client device will be a non-issue. But that is a long way off. Until that happens, the utility of the device is predicated upon the grunt of the processor. “We have in excess of 140 individual processor SKUs for specific form factors,” says Kamil Gurgen, ANZ distribution manager at Intel, “including 70 optimised for ultrabooks. There are many different factors that affect the processing power of the chip…the wattage, the heat-generation, the graphics to be processed and more. Each one of our chips, and the line-up is constantly evolving, is optimised for specific tasks.’

Intel has some exciting new micro-architecture coming up with Haswell, their next-generation processor. “We always have to balance energy efficiency with a scalable architecture,” continues Gurgen. “Haswell incorporartes some clever technology that provides a huge increase in processing vs power consumption at both full power and idle.” Haswell, built on 22 nanometre technology, is designed with mobility in mind and will give smaller devices much more capabilities.

But at the high end, where a certain amount of processing has to be done on the client, with such applications as CAD (computer assisted design), GIS (geographic information systems), BI (business intelligence) or gaming with high-end graphics, there is just physically not enough room for the heat management features such as larger fans or water-cooling. So no matter how well mobile chips perform, non-mobile chips that are optimised for performance rather than efficiency have more grunt. And for process-intensive application, there is no substitute.

Input / Output

Entering data on a smartphone is more difficult than entering data on a tablet. And traditional keyboards are usually easier to navigate than a laptop’s keyboard. But that is changing. Typing as the preferred data entry method is losing ground as touch screens gain traction. “Windows 8 will be optimised to support the ‘touch experience’,” says David Rayner, consumer group director at Microsoft New Zealand. “There will always be a place for the keyboard and mouse but we want to give users the choice of input options.”

Microsoft Windows 8 will be all about choice, he says. “Having the same operating system across all form factors — smartphone, tablet, laptop and desktop — not to mention compatibility with server software — will provide a ‘no compromise’ user experience regardless of the device used,” continues Rayner. “Windows 8 will provide a ‘one window’ experience into your digital life, both professional with enterprise applications and personal with your ‘new age applications.”

Applications

So it all boils down to applications. Form follows function. If you need to crunch numbers, zap zombies or cut and compile code, a high end workstation with a fat pipe, wide screen, graphics accelerator and industrial-strength cooling is a must have. Anything else and you will be seriously compromising your user experience. But those are specific applications. Most people use their desktops for Office applications and web browsing. And those applications can be easily supported by a desktop / laptop / tablet.

When used in conjunction with a docking station, a tablet or laptop form factor can provide a full desktop experience for the vast majority of applications…email, Word or Excel, web browsing, downloading video or audio and tapping into all but the most complex enterprise applications…with virtually no degradation in response rates. And with the ‘smarts’ inherent in the new Windows 8 as well as competing operating systems, the interface and synchronisation issues will be more or less obviated.

But putting a smartphone in a docking station won’t give you enough processing power to run applications over and above the basics. Plus, as mentioned above, the 3G costs make downloading graphics or large files expensive.

Replacing the desktop

Tablets are moving fast with more processing power, standardised operating systems, connectivity options (3G, wi-fi and LAN), enhanced docking stations and voice calling capabilities. Their touch screen gives them another option for input/output and their camera capabilities can drive video-conferencing. They have lots of capabilities packed into an easily carried package.

For desk-bound tasks that require powerful processing capabilities, the desktop still rules. But for everything else, just about, a tablet / docking station, screen and keyboard combination will provide an experience so well-supported that the average punter shouldn’t be able to tell if the machine behind the display is a tablet, laptop or mini-tower. Response rates and screen resolutions will be virtually indistinguishable from one device or the other. Plus, with a tablet, you can undock it and take it to the beach. You can’t do that with a desktop.


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