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The Case Against Tablets

As I hunt for new computing hardware, I’m coming to the conclusion that tablets are simply a mistake. And yes, strongly informed by using one as a primary device for 5 years.

An ultra-light laptop has better utility and vastly superior privacy.

The one killer function, reading documents, seems better served by an e-book reader. ...

I'm exploring this question on Diaspora, with some good suggestions. Upshot is that tablets do most things poorly and virtually nothing well. And the landscape fully sucks.

Text reading and possibly notetaking is the major exception. And for that, an e-ink reader is the preferred option.

I'm surveying what uses people have, multi-response, with a goal more of completeness than representation. Please explain "Other".

joindiaspora.com/posts/880e5c4

Another possible application for tablets is as dedicated display devices. This seems to be appropriate where the application itself is well-supported. iPad + Square PoS (point-of-sale) terminals seem to be one fairly frequent application. Information kiosks or in-home information displays another.

(The use of Touch Displays in public in this Covid / Post-Covid era brings shudders though.)

For an information portal, e-Ink seems if anything better suited (lower power draw, clearer display, less glare), excepting, say, video monitoring.

One possible implication is that we'll see a lot more such specialised devices in fixed locations, rather than a something-you-carry. Prices will fall, but at ~$25--$100, already fairly typical of cheap Android phones, this becomes pretty viable.

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Explaining a few of the poll choices / rationale:

  • Web / Social Media: I'm combining these, both are typically browser (or other app) centric, and seem to address much use.

  • Email/text comms. Increasingly I see any text-based p2p exchanges as roughly similar, in the sense that it's content directly addressed to an individual or account.

  • Audio and Video both rely strongly on device capabilities. No speakers, jack, or other audio output and your podcasts will all sound distressingly similar ... and silent. Similarly video.

  • Reading. This is where dedicated ebook devices have a standout advantage. Reading on desktops, laptops, and to a lesser extent, tablets, is an exercise in trade-offs and frustrations.

  • Creating/editing and SW development: nonpassive activities. I split these Because Reasons, though they have strong similarities, some distinctions.

  • Direct non-text comms. Voice/video, again have device requirements.

  • Shopping seems like more an activity than capabilities distinction, seems reasonable to split out.

  • Sell-side commerce has its own set of needs, most especially integrating with Other People's Systems, a theme that recurs two spots down.

  • Data analysis ... can involve Very Large Datasets though often doesn't. It's immersive/flow-state, and tends to require specific software (Python or R most often these days, or spreadsheets).

  • Work, government, finance interactions, and a few slots down, Security, Regulary (should be Regulatory), and Standards environments: what and more specifically HOW you do things depends very much on Other People's Systems and what they expect or require. Your freedom of choice becomes far more constrained. I'm not looking so much at "network security devices" (firewall/routers, etc.), though the question itself is ambiguous.

  • Office Suites: if you cannot run or access these, you're hosed.

  • Gaming: Seems to be its own niche, though it covers a broad range of sins.

  • Mobile info... Any access to information on-the-go. Could be news, weather, traffic, transit status (a killer app for true mobile devices), or gathering information when shopping. Settling pub arguments over trivia. Plotting coups.

  • Academics, science, and tech have their own needs, more generally with a keyboard and generative engagement with documents, data, or information.

  • Automation: A possibly unlikely catch-all, could be organising your home or operating your nuclear power plant.

  • Photography and Video, Audio Production: I'm looking here at the primary capture rather than editing aspects, and suspect that beyond an actually impressive amateur level, dedicated equipment (cameras, audio recorders, mics, etc.) will be used. Tablets ... are reasonably good at this.

  • AI et al: major compute tasks. I expect these will require dedicated desktops if not servers / cloud infrastructure.

  • Other: Anything I've missed or omitted.

(If you're confused by this toot, see parent.)

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@dredmorbius Does this include the "yoga"-style convertible tablets and x86 tablets with detachable keyboards?

@jfred Convertible / hybrid / 2-in-1s offer the worst-of-both-worlds for laptops and tablets yes. For the cost, get a low-end laptop and an e-ink bookreader. Or upgrade the one you truly need.

The tablet+keyboard seems like it should work but 1) keyboards are rarely available other than for specific devices and 2) the tablet OS and app ecosystems render the resulting system all but entirely anti-productive. Possibly slightly less so for Apple devices, but still poor.

I'm unaware of x86 tablets. Virtually all are ARM and either Android or iOS. Pine's discontinued Pinetab is the lone exception.

@dredmorbius Probably the "standard" example of an x86 tablet is the Surface line, though I have this similar device from HP that I bought secondhand.

This is still pretty large and heavy as tablets go; if it had better driver support in Linux I would probably buy a Surface Go, but there are a few missing pieces that stop me (notably webcams in COVID times).

Desktop OSes are still a bit unwieldy on these, but I'm looking forward to future developments bridging that gap (e.g. Gnome 40)

@jfred If the Surface can reliably run Linux, that might be an exception to my anti-convertibles judgement. I've seen the hardware, several years back, and was impressed.

I'd prefer an external, removable, disableable camera/mic, frankly.

Even if the hardware is capable, though, there's still the problem, in my experience, that Linux applications don't generally play well with Touch. Even where they're specifically designed for that. Even if, say, there were a very small set of tools I was using when mobile, that seems ... disadvantageous. Which puts me back in the "just get a fucking laptop already" camp.

@dredmorbius @jfred been using (x86/pc) tablet+bluetooth-keyboard for over half a decade & i strongly recommend it. windows & linux are both pretty trash at pure tablet mode, but occasionally i do use the tablet alone.

what i love is that1) i can carry a light gooseneck tablet arm with me & that gives me the best/most-adjustable positioning/ergonomics of any portable workstation i have ever had, by far, 2) it's so light-weight, 1.6 lbs.

microsoft and dell have both been making x86 tablets since 2013; the surface pro & venue 11 pro (which i used for a good number of years).

@dredmorbius @jfred I bought a bunch of Winbooks when they were giving them away(x86). Got linux running on one, but it wasn't pretty. Probably could have gotten it working with enough TLC.

@dredmorbius I concluded a while ago that I have no use for a tablet that my phone or laptop don't already cover. Although I heard about a 10 inch eink tablet recently that I am seriously considering getting for reading ebooks and academic papers.

@pelagikat Pretty much precisely my use case.

Leaning very strongly to Onyx Boox 10.3" or 13.3" device.

Latter is overkill for almost all 1-up reading, but should make 2-up landscape viable.

And the support Termux and (I think) have a keyboard option.

@dredmorbius When Steve Jobs launched the iPad he said "Netbooks aren't better at anything"
I was sitting there at the time thinking that my cheap little Netbook was still more useful than his great innovation.

@jamesmullarkey @dredmorbius Tablets are useful in situations where a laptop's form factor won't fit well.

A laptop literally won't fit on some treadmills, but a tablet will. That lets me watch anime or read something (with big text) while exercising.

Our kitchen counter has limited space; a laptop's keyboard would get in the way. A tablet takes up vertical space, but almost no counter space.

A laptop usually works in bed (it's called a laptop for a reason), but it limits my postures a bit which can cause discomfort.

For situations like these, a convertible laptop/tablet hybrid that lets me fold away the keyboard would actually be nice. I wouldn't use a tablet if I have to type a lot, but if I'm just doing a videoconf with someone, pausing/playing, or scrolling then it's fine. I don't even need a tablet-optimized UI if I have something like a stylus.

@Seirdy Video notwithstanding, the ebook reader would probably work better in the kitchen, bed, or (if you're into reading whilst exercising) on a treadmill, for most text, and audio.

The ebook readers I'm considering support audio output (onboard speakers, headphone jacks!!!, and Bluetooth speakers), so the option of listening to a video or podcast is also present.

Most also offer reasonably-good Web capabilities, though the Android ones may not fully support all apps or Google's app store (the Boox can enable Google Play, though Google doesn't really like this Because Reasons). So you can get your social media fix as well.

Tablets (and ebook readers) do offer more flexibility in usage positions, agreed.

Don't take your device to bed!!! 😺

@jamesmullarkey

@dredmorbius I don’t really understand the question. Are you asking what people are using tablets for, or any computer-like device? Because if it’s the latter I think everything will be needed to some degree?

Anyway, I do virtually everything on my phone (phablet) or tablet. I’m only typing this now on my phone since my tablet ran out of battery. Using a laptop would force me to sit behind a desk, which I already do all day for work, or at least put on my glasses. A tablet or phone I can hold really close to my face to see everything clearly in a relaxed way, while sitting/lying on the couch.

@gidi Computing / info devices generally. Server to mobile/wearable.

"Fitness/Biomonitoring" might be an "other" option.

Home monitoring/security.

IoT management.

@dredmorbius I don't have a tablet but recently I've been considering one for reading as I'm to begin my thesis and thus a shit ton of reading and annotating.

I've looked into e-ink tablets and IDK if they'll be good enough. I prefer typing my textual annotations o they are searchable. Also, I make use of colour a lot when annotating. E-ink devices don't seem to be able to satisfy those needs. Also they're niche products and thus pricy. Almost the cheapest of tablets would cut it for me. 1/

@dredmorbius but the reMarkable 2 is $450 with the stylus, +intl shipping, +a large ass customs tax, totalling up to >$750 for me.

With the tablet I don't really care about the software, or paperlikeness. it's the posture and mobility. You can use it with the posture you use for books and notebooks, and it's way more comfortable than reading with a computer, esp. vs. reading on a laptop when you're outside. I might get the best chair but can't take it to the library with me...

2/2

@cadadr After a lot of back-and-forth on the Remarkable, I'm leaning against it:

  • The software seems less flexible overall than other e-ink devices.
  • A True Linux device is VERY attractive, but ultimately, crippled by conspicuous (and inexplicable) lapses.
  • There is no keyboard option, nor Buetooth support. Bluetooth keyboards suck, but for tablets, they're among the few viable options. (An IRDA pairing might be an alternative).
  • The storage allocation is simply mind-bogglingly-stupidly small.

The last is utlimately determinative. I've given thoughts to actually physically hacking reasonable (128 GB -- 1 TB) storage onto the device, but ... that seems high-risk in terms of either success or damage.

The device has only 8 GB of internal storage ... and no expandability (e.g., MicroSD slot). My goal is to carry a library of references AND NOT WORRY ABOUT THE DETAILS OF SPACE MANAGEMENT. An optimised PDF book weighs in at about 5 MB, and image scans easily run to 50-100 MB or more. Even assuming none of that 8 GB is devoted to OS and apps (and some is), that's a limit of 1,600 optimised items, or ~80 scans.

I've already got over 64 GB in documents alone, and over the anticipated lifetime of the device I expect that to grow. New Android tablets are shipping with 64 -- 256 GB onboard storage AND MicroSD expansion to 512 GB -- 1 TB, or more.

The Boox has 32--64 GB, plus the option of an OTG storage (something I've only just learned of), which remains tight but actually useful.

So, yeah, nah, on the Remarkable2.

@dredmorbius Wow. My Zotero has... 3.3GB, and that's mostly papers, and none of my docs or notes. 8GB is small even for someone like me who's actively trying to keep digital footprint small.

Biggest turnoff for me tho is software (the actual PDF reader, in older toot I meant the OS). Attached scr of annot tools I use in Okular. _None_ of the readers allow a fraction of what Okular has to offer, and even on Android, I've only found Xodo as the best reader which still can't do all Okular does. 1/

@dredmorbius From what I gather from their marketing and online reviews, these devices cater to casual readers of fiction and some of them sell themselves as good for drawing like you'd do on proper sketching paper and a good variety of pencils and charcoal sticks. It's pretty obvious that it's not designed with research or journalism in mind.

Keyboards are nice but at least for my use case they kinda defeat the purpose, which is reading ergonomics.

2/2

@dredmorbius Thanks for the links BTW, I was pretty OOTL since about last summer wrt these readers.

Maybe one day someone who actuallr reads stuff and does annotations and takes actual notes makes a coloured e-ink device that can help with reading non-fiction and research. I'd happily break the bank for such a thing.

@cadadr My pleasure. I'm doing a bunch of research on the market right now and people's questions and concerns help shape what I'm digging for. The colour device status surprises me, for example.

@cadadr I share most of your conclusions, though the fact that the devices aren't designed for research/journalism doesn't mean that they cannot be used in that regard.

(The academic and journalism markets are small, niche, probably have different marketing channels, and both seem to be in general decline presently.)

The larger devices (Remarkable, and 10 & 13 inch Onxy) do conspicuously mention research and academia, so perhaps they're starting to wake up. There's a hell of a lot of technical corporate research, and government market as well, which may or may not have a document management problem. That should be an exploitable niche too.

All of which need basic display functionality, input (keyboard), and some serious thoughts to document management, and probably security as well.

@cadadr I get the impression that a lot of product placement derives from "Oh, well, that didn't work as we expected, how can we spin it as a positive?" So crappy text input but you can draw on it => notetaking and digital sketchpad devices.

Mind: a lot of people might do better with a real goddamned keyboard.

@cadadr Bookreader software is ... another gripe.

I've mostly leaned on PocketBook Reader, for Android, (also FB Reader and Google's minimalist PDF previewer). The basic reading functionality is ... OK, but managing the archive itself is an utter failure. Even the metadata management is a fucking mess. Editing is tedious, cannot be done while looking at the document itself (so it's impossible to transcribe, say, titles or authors names).

There is no Author field in the metadata structure.

Given the default metadata associated with most documents (utter shite), I'm just gobstopped.

And that doesn't even get to managing larger collections of works. Point-and-drool interfaces scale to maybe a few dozen items. I've got dozens to the 3.5th power, and plan on scaling to the 5th to 7th powers.

(That's ... another project)

@cadadr There is a bluetooth keyboard option for the Boox Onote and Mzx tablets (10.3" and 13.3"), and low-cost at $30.

blog.the-ebook-reader.com/2020

There seem to be ... some options for other devices as well:
duckduckgo.com/?q=ebook+reader

@cadadr There are in fact colour e-ink devices beginning to appear, and the price is ... not unreasonable ($280):

onyxboox.com/boox_poke2color

That's on one of the smaller (6") devices. But not bad.

Note that Because 3-Colour Pixels, effective DPI is reduced by a factor of 3.

Others from Kindle, Nook, and more: discover.hubpages.com/technolo

@cadadr Another large-format (10.3 inch) colour ebook reader, the Bigme B1 Pro:

blog.the-ebook-reader.com/2021

Spendy at $775, though not outrageously so compared to B&W similarly-sized tablets.

@dredmorbius I'm sure some people will rip me a new one for this, but I have a chromebook that I really like for my mobile needs. It is simple and does what I need, and I didn't spend much money for it.

@Ahuka I'm beginning to see the wisdom in that, though would vastly prefer a Linux device myself.

@dredmorbius I don't do my heavy-duty work on it, of course, I have a desktop for that. But for watching YouTube, writing, reading e-mail and so on it works great. And since it runs Android apps I do my Spanish lessons on Android apps while using a real keyboard.

@dredmorbius I've barely used my laptop since I got the Pixel C (back when that was current). The smaller size and touchscreen make it much friendlier for casual web browsing on the sofa. For typing more than a couple of sentences, the keyboard attachment works well enough. E-ink is nice for reading books, less so for web browsing, let alone videos. Laptops, OTOH, are too large for comfort and too small for real work.

@mansr If I think of the laptop as a mobile terminal more than its own fully-capable compute device, I do far better. I much prefer the larger screen storage, thermal management, etc., of a desktop, but ... well, sometimes you just don't get to have that. I can SSH (or remote-X) into my desktop or server(s) from a laptop, at least if I'm in LAN range (often).

Any video that can be watched on a tablet can be watched on a laptop.

A tablet's principle use seems to be for one-the-road information access and comms, where it can be useful, but a laptop is in pretty much all cases more capable if frequently less convenient.

Laptop battery and WiFi capabilities have improved dramatically in the past 5 years or so.

@dredmorbius The things I do on a desktop computer are simply not feasible with a portable device of any description. With that in mind, I find a tablet more suited for the remaining tasks. That's just my view, but you asked.

@mansr "The things I do on a desktop computer are simply not feasible with a portable device of any description."

society.oftrolls.com/@mansr/10

I'm curious what those things might be.

@dredmorbius An obvious one is having lots of windows open, enough to cover two fairly large monitors. Compute-wise, the desktop machine has 16 CPU cores and 128 GB RAM. You don't get that in anything that can compete with a tablet for portability.

@mansr Right. Screen real estate is screen real estate, and size precludes that.

Terminal multiplexing and tabs can get you part of the way there.

@dredmorbius Everyone is different, there's no "This is the one true answer" IMO. I've got an 11" iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard case (the one with the keyboard + trackpad) and I bloody love it. I play my guitar on it, edit photos with Lightroom and the Apple Pencil, catch up on social media and forums, chat with friends with iMessage and Signal. I'd never entirely ditch my computer for it, but it's replaced a LOT of regular computer use.

@dredmorbius It's nice and compact to sit on the lounge open beside me when I'm playing Xbox or watching TV as well. However, it also can't replace the computer (currently 2013 27" iMac, to be replaced with an ARM 16" MacBook Pro when they're out) for a number of things... in particular coding, or doing anything where having multiple overlapping windows is needed. Sometimes I just need a big screen. :)

@virtualwolf Agreed here, though on balance a Very Small Laptop seems to me >>> than a Largish Tablet in virtually any function.

The notable exception: reading documents.

@virtualwolf Apple's iPads, especially the larger sizes, come closest to what I'd consider viable. The drawbacks for me:

  • Battery life (compared to eInk devices). Getting battery anxiety late in the day sucks. Though tablets are generally quite good.
  • No Linux command-line shell environment. Termux (termux.com/) for Android is far from complete but its several hundred packages make for a stunningly useful expansion of the Tablet experience. Mind: I've been using Unix systems for, depending on where you count, 33 -- 40+ years. There's a much weaker option, iSH, for iOS (ish.app/).
  • Lack of Firefox or Tor Browser. The power and extensions (adblock!) of Firefox are critically useful to me.

Otherwise, I'd be interested in your use / experience. iPad for me is a near miss, but ultimately still a miss.

@dredmorbius Yeah I agree with the lack of good Unix environment, that would be absolutely KILLER! It's one of the other things I forgot to mention in my "Couldn't replace" bit. I use Safari on both Mac and iPad, and the ad-blocker 1Blocker works an absolute treat on them.

But yeah, I don't think of using my iPad as a computer replacement, just a replace-some-tasks-I'd-normally-do-on-a-computer. For your uses I can totally see how it wouldn't work. :)

@virtualwolf Why Apple don't recognise and support this is ... Fuck it. Not My Problem.

@dredmorbius @virtualwolf Most places where I'd want a shell on the iPad, I either open Prompt/Coda to log into my Mac, or Pythonista to write scripts on the device.

If I'm doing *actual work*, that's on the desktop Mac. But I've done sysadmin rescue tasks from phones with terminals for 20 years.

@dredmorbius

I own a really awful Samsung tablet that I bought primarily so I'd have something that can run my many Humble Bundle Android games plus a couple of others I'd bought over the years.

The main thing I use it for is to enter my weight into a weight tracking app in the morning, but I occasionally read the web or play one of the games.

The web browsing has gotten extremely unpleasant due to just how bad Firefox for Android has gotten.

@suetanvil My tablet (also a Samsung) was an emergency on-the-road purchase whist my laptop was disabled. It has a keyboard, though that was failing from the beginning (fuck you very much Logitech) and finally died completely.

The fact that there is not an active aftermarket for keyboards and tent-style self-supporting folio cases for arbitrary tablets ... utterly blows my mind.

Apple here is the exception, and that only recently (past 2 years AFAIR).

But as a locked down, unrootable, un-ROMable device, with pre-loaded bloatware, the tablet's been a long-standing frustration. Google, Android, Samsung, and Logitech can all get fucked.

@dredmorbius

FWIW, I had no trouble deleting the bloatware with adb, so that’s an option.

But I’m done taking glass slabs seriously. They’re useful appliances sometimes but nothing more.

@dredmorbius

Although, while I’m here, does anyone know of a path to installing straight Linux (or BSD, fine) on a tablet? Not mobile Linux; straight keyboard-and-mouse Linux that can use the USB port and a hub to turn the tablet into a hacky laptop?

@ dredmorbius "Sitting on a shelf unpowered and unused."

3 of them.

LUCKILY today at the store they did NOT have the Remarkable 2 in stock. Just on display.

THAT one I would use.

(For writing, drawing, and POSSIBLY reading. I have book readers (2) for that. )

I would NOT use it to do anything on the internet. At all. It would NOT be connected to the internet. There is absolutely NO NEED for it to be connected to the internet. At all.

@Truck

There is absolutely NO NEED for it to be connected to the internet. At all.

My counter to that argument (and a major disagreement with the Remarkable's design intent) is that I VERY OFTEN am reading a book or paper, find a reference AND WANT TO FIND AND READ THE SOURCE THERE AND THEN.

This specific use case is what makes legit resources such as OpenLibrary, and illicit ones all the more so such as Sci-Hub, LibGen, Z-Library, etc., utterly fucking transformational in doing lit-based reviews. There's no friction between "ooh ... let's see the source" and having it in hand. A few seconds.

Vs. travelling to bookstores and/or libraries, dealing with orders, ILL, and all that jazz. Even budget-wise, individual purchases are utterly debilitating in that regard. Price-based access to extant information is a major drag.

There might need to be a carefully vetted and curated set of Web sites, but yes, I can absolutely see reasons for Internet connections.

@dredmorbius I'll allow that.

I'll also say, having grown up in a time when that wasn't an option. it's very possible to go without the internet on a tablet. And since I have a computer with a larger screen right here, already on...

So for ME, it's not going to be something I need/use. I'll disable it however I can. Which, to be fair, actually has already been done on the tablets I have: the major browsers haven't made updated browsers available for their versions. (I actually realized I have 4... I didn't remember the ipad.)

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