Differences Between Portable Computers & Tablets

by Michael Cox

    Although it was Microsoft's Tablet PC version of Windows that first brought tablet computers to the general market in 2002, it wasn't until the release of Apple's iPad in 2010 that touch-screen tablets gained widespread acceptance. As consumers continue to buy fewer desktop computers, laptops have shrunk, with extremely lightweight notebooks offering full-size keyboards and netbooks with fast wireless access but limited memory or storage. When you consider your options for an on-the-go device, the form factor and model you choose should fit your work or lifestyle.


    The most stark difference between a laptop and a tablet is the laptop's integrated keyboard. Tablets are made to be touched, and the default keyboard usually consists of an image of keys on the screen. While you can buy a physical keyboard designed for use with a tablet, having to carry the tablet and the keyboard may defeat the portability of the device. Laptops usually include a full-size physical keyboard, along with function keys and other controls, although the feel and layout may vary. Some netbooks include full-size keyboards, while others must miniaturize their keyboard to fit their narrow form factor.


    Another area where tablets lag behind is in available applications. A laptop or netbook can run the same apps created for desktop computers, while tablets must run apps specifically created for them. Not only is there a much smaller selection of tablet apps, but also those apps often include a limited feature set. However, apps optimized for a tablet should run with consistent speed. On a powerful notebook, even photo-editing apps or 3-D games may run with desktop-like speed, but the limited processor and RAM in a netbook may balk at such processor-intensive apps.

    Size and Weight

    While a laptop's strength is power and connectivity, its weakness is often weight. A full-featured 17-inch "desktop replacement" laptop can feel quite heavy in a bag or backpack. Usually reduced weight means reduced features, and the light weight of the Samsung Series 9 or MacBook Air come with tradeoffs in connectivity or the lack of a CD/DVD drive. Likewise, the reduced size of a netbook may mean a smaller battery, fewer ports and screen sizes of 11 inches and less. While even the lightest laptops and netbooks weigh in at over two pounds, 10-inch tablets weigh half that much, and the weight of 7-inch tablets like the Kindle Fire or iPad Mini is measured in ounces.


    The biggest difference between tablets and their traditional laptop brethren is that of connectivity. A business laptop may feature several USB ports, VGA and HDMI video out, RJ-45 for Ethernet networking, dedicated audio in and out, a memory card slot and a Thunderbolt port or ExpressCard slot. On the other hand, netbooks often include the bare minimum of Ethernet, USB, VGA and a headphone jack. Tablets offer even fewer inputs, some with only a headphone jack and a mini-USB or proprietary port to tether to a computer or charge the battery. However, you may find a variety of peripherals that utilize either those ports or their integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to provide features from keyboards to high-fidelity audio. Memory is often at a premium on a tablet, although some include a memory card slot or full-size USB port for more storage. If you're a road warrior, note that some tablets such as the iPad offer versions with cellular data connectivity built in.


    When you're choosing a portable device, the deciding factor should be how you plan to use it. The conventional wisdom holds that a laptop is better at creating content while a tablet is better at viewing or listening to content, but those distinctions are not hard and fast, and they're changing almost by the day. If you do a significant amount of touch-typing or create PowerPoint presentations, you'll want a full keyboard and ability to use Microsoft Office. If you're surfing the Internet, tweeting and reading email, an inexpensive netbook or tablet may be for you. If you want to read e-books, share photos or videos, play games on the go, make notes on the road or take photos right from your computer, a tablet might be the ticket.

    About the Author

    Michael Cox writes about lifestyle issues, popular culture, sports and technology. In a career spanning more than 10 years, he has contributed to dozens of magazines, books and websites, including MSN.com and "Adobe Magazine." Cox holds a professional certificate in technical communications from the University of Washington.

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