Companion devices are not PC replacements

Companion devices are not PC replacements

Summary: There is no shortage of companion devices -- tablets and pseudo-laptops to name a few. While some considering such a device try to make a case for it replacing a "real" computer, the fact is those folks are missing the point.

Aibo computing

Tablets, Chromebooks, Surface, oh my! Everywhere you look you are bombarded by the wealth of companion devices on the market, those mobile devices designed to fit the active lifestyle. While such devices can often be used for productive tasks, they will not replace the need for real computers for most buyers.

We see it all the time, a new mobile device is released and reviewers start lamenting how it can't do everything that a real computer can do. It's as if there is some driving desire to find one single device that does everything one can possibly want to do.

The reality is no such device exists. Tablets and the like are companion devices in the true sense of the term. They have specific user scenarios that they fit very well, but they can't do everything a full computer can do. To expect more of companion devices is a recipe for disappointment.

The recent release of the Surface RT tablet by Microsoft is a good example of this phenomenon. While the inclusion of Windows, albeit a restricted version of it, makes some approach the Surface as if it is a full computer, in reality it is another companion device. It is designed to be used by Windows PC users who want a mobile version for occasional use. 

If approached in this vein, the Surface is a decent companion device. No it can't do everything a Windows desktop can do but it's not intended for such work. It's a mobile device for Windows PC users that can step in ably when pressed for such duty.

It's not just the Surface that is viewed as a full PC replacement, the same happens with most companion devices. I have covered my ability to use tablets, iPads and Android tablets alike, for temporary productive tasks. They fill in admirably for temporary work sessions, but I wouldn't use them all the time. There is still no substitute for computers that run full software.

Even my Chromebook, which is a decent work computer for me, is at its core a companion device. It does what it does nicely, but it is not a full computer nor can it replace one for me. Like other companion devices, that doesn't make it less useful, it just means I must recognize its limitations and use it accordingly.

Some folks don't get the idea of the companion device. They don't see why you'd use a limited device when you could just use a full computer. That view overlooks the benefits a well-designed companion device brings to the table. Ease of use and comfort are big advantages of mobile devices and most companion devices deliver that nicely. Sometimes a limited computing session is more than enough and that's where the companion device shines.

Tablets and other companion devices are getting cheaper all the time so it is becoming easier to have them in addition to full computers. While these devices are also getting more capable all the time, they are still not intended to be the only computer most people need. Recognize them as the companion device they are and a whole mobile world is opened up.

See related:

Topics: Tablets, Laptops, Mobility

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Bravo!

    Concise and to the point. Just like you said, it's nice to be able to do a quick check of email or web search with the iPod while sitting on the couch, but if I'm going to be doing in-depth searching & research on the web I find my desktop is just so much more comfortable to use.
  • Very well put

    This article is right on the mark. I recently became aware, when on a trip, that lugging a heavy laptop though the airport and hotel was a waste of time when all I used was my Android phone. Now, I am considering a larger companion device to be used on trips where I only need to get online to check emails, getting on social sites to check on friends and family and getting my maps up for navigation. Having purchased a Nexus 7, which I never see, because my precocious stepdaughter has confiscated the device I am in the market for either another Android tablet, or, perhaps a Chromebook. Currently, the odds are in favor of the new Samsung Chromebook, but I probably won't make a final decision until after Thanksgiving. A low-end ultrabook, like the Acer for around 500, is also not totally out of the question, but right now the form factor of the Samsung Chromebook is leading in most categories. We already own 3 Wintel laptops and I am not keen on adding to that inventory.
  • RE: Companion devices are not PC replacements

    Depends on the individual's and organization's requirements, including legacy software requirements. For some users and organizations (especially newly emerging businesses), tablets, Chromebooks and Chromeboxes *are already* PC replacements. Even a smartphone can be a PC replacement for someone constantly on the go.

    The exciting thing about PCs today is that there is so much choice available. Individuals and organizations can purchase the device(s) that best meet their needs. For many, it will be multiple devices (e.g., a desktop system, a laptop and a smartphone). However, for others, there will be a single device whether a desktop system, laptop, tablet, Chromebook, Chromebox or smartphone. And as smartphone and tablet hardware gets more powerful, many will simply dock the device at home or in the office and have a keyboard and monitor available (the tablet or smartphone becomes a component of a desktop system).

    Desktop functions are already being transferred to Cloud-based services:

    Zoho Apps, Google Apps, Microsoft Office 365, Intuit QuickBooks/Payroll, CRM, HRM, project management, etc.

    And, last but not least, workstations are not desktop PCs. But, with the rise of the Cloud, many workstation functions are being transferred to Cloud-based services. One example:

    Autodesk 360 (Rendering, Optimization, Energy Analysis, Structural Analysis)

    The rise of cloud-based services along with increasingly more powerful mobile devices, will, over time, result in the replacement of conventional desktop systems by what you refer to as 'companion devices'. At some point in time, probably sooner rather than later, conventional desktop systems will no longer be dominant. However, like mainframes, they will remain an important technology for many individuals and organizations.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Basically agree

      I think James misses a basic point: A large percentage of casual users have been over-served by the PC. It is more powerful than they need and WAY too complicated. Therefore these "companion devices" may easily replace their PCs

      My wife and my daughter are cases in point. They have been using full Windows machines for years and I have spent a fair bit of time keeping them running well and securely.

      I frequently re-evaluate their needs. Right now they are using full Windows laptops. My daughter does use the occasional Windows program, but spends 95% of her computing time on the web. My wife spends 100% of her time on the web.

      I will be moving my wife to a Chromebook and a Nexus 7 soon.
      She is currently using a BB but will most likely move to an Android phone in due course. Having much the same interface via Chrome and all her files in the cloud, accessible on all her devices, will make both her life and my life simpler.

      The only area that still needs to be evaluated is the physical keyboard. My wife still prefers a physical keyboard. She uses her laptop in bed a bit and finds the heavier base with the keyboard, and the solidly attached but highly adjustable screen, the best solution for her. She does not type a lot, but typing on the screen, which by necessity must be at the same angle as the screen, will not work well for her I suspect. I do not think the Surface would work either. The weight distribution is all wrong: A heavy screen and a light and flimsy keyboard. It does not seem to work realty well unless you place it on desk/table.

      As for my daughter, I just need to find suitable replacements for her Windows programs, either in CromeOS or in a dual boot ChromeOS/Linux setup and she may move into a similar environment. She will be a bit behind my wife.

      The bottom line is that "companion devices" is all they will need.
      • Yes but this article supports my contention...

        That we are still a way from post-PC. I suspect even your wife and daughter may occasionally want to work on a system with more horsepower.
        • We are already post PC....

 the sense that PC is now only a particular niche in computing. For most users, the mainstream device is already the smartphone which they carry around everywhere. Tablets Smart TVs and Chromebook+server/cloud apps will increasingly replace PCs in various niches like home, personal productivity and business.
      • Your point is well made...BUT!

        While your correct that there are without a doubt many people that are over served by a full fledged computer and one of the many companion devices may serve them just right, thats not the question the article is addressing.

        What James is pointing out is that in the situation where people who purchase a companion device and are hoping for a full computer experience, they are very likely in for a big disappointment. Hes not speaking at all about people who do NOT need a full computer experience to get done what they want to do.

        I am sure someone in your position who is evaluating the family needs of computing is doing so in a thoughtful and reflective way, but again, its an area that does beg for some caution. I have personally seen several instances where someone today doing nothing much more than using the web is suddenly someone down the line who finds out there is actually something they would like to do besides that.

        And the issue of " spent a fair bit of time keeping them running well and securely" is always a touch of an oddity to me.

        I have three Windows PC's at home and the time I actually spend keeping them running well and secure is hardly worth mentioning. In fact I have found that aside from upgrading video cards on a couple of occasions to keep them providing very good quality video over the years it hasnt caused me any significant concerns or significant time.

        In so far as security goes, well, its going to be very interesting to see just how the multi millions of tablets that have been sold fare over the next few years as the hackers begin to plot out how to harvest from new fields so to speak, and its always possible that security may become a huge headache with some of these tablets.

        Replacing programs and moving people to a new OS seems a bit drastic in some ways if they are happy with what they have.

        The final concern is that once you move someone away from having easy regular access to a normal computer you certainly eliminate their ability to explore a full computers potential. I simply mean if one is at all the curious kind, its not at all unusual for even a casual computer user to, at some point, seek to learn a little more about what their computer can do and take up new interests and so forth.

        But certainly there are those who do not need their very own full blown computer. I would also say that there are loads of families out there who wished they could financially afford to have the problem of deciding that not everyone in their household needs a full blown computer and instead some of them can get by with a $500+ companion device. Large numbers of families can afford only one such device and of course in the majority of cases it may be a very poor decision to not go with a full computer if the family can only afford one device. I would tend to agree that if you have the kind of money it takes to get husband, wife and kids each their own device that one real computer in the home may be all that’s needed and beyond that companion devices may do for the rest. Maybe. It’s a rich mans problem. Its always the case that when you have the money to live a certain kind of life its easy to forget what one person sees as a problem and solution, many others will explain that’s not a problem for them because it’s a solution they cannot in any way afford.
    • "...Chromebooks and Chromeboxes *are already* PC replacements. "

      Our experience here, the Chromebooks have been a miserable failure. And are not even close to a PC Replacement. They are as one writer said "glorified tables with a keyboard". The online tools are seriously lacking features and functionality. Yes this is temporary but it will be a while when infrastructure and connection speeds and functionality can replace a good standard laptop, like a Macbook Pro or Macbook Air or one of the other ones. I watch people struggle to force themselves to use the companion devices as full blown replacements - and they ALWAYS go back to their laptop.
      • Not really sure what you claim as experience....

        ....but you clearly do not understand what a Chromebook is. A Chromebook is not intended to be a replacement for a PC - a Chromebook with a server running a server app is a replacement for a PC. You see, Chromebooks don't run apps locally, so other than for web browsing, which in itself is the main use of computers by the public, Chromebooks need to connect to servers to run apps (these can be local servers or cloud servers), and when they do, they can run pretty well anything Windows PCs can do and more. For example they can run any Linux, Windows or Mac application on any version of those OSes by connecting into a or Windows, Linux or Mac virtualised desktop or application server. Indeed running Windows on a server rather than on a desktop PC in this way is the cheapest and most secure way of running Windows from an IT management cost point of view.
    • Ah yes, the cloud

      Cloud security and access is problematic for me. The only way that I can guarantee my data security and accessability is by local storage. I suspect that there are many others, including corporations, feeling the same way. This situation is unlikely to change in the near future, so if the cloud works for you, great. But it won't work for every situation in todays world.
      • Local device security.

        Your proposed solution to security is to put data on the local hard drive, DVDs and USB flash drives. Unfortunately although it is simple to understand, that is the least secure option for your data. It is secure if you keep your laptop, DVDs and USB drives with your data in a safe with two holes for your hands and a glass window in front so you can type on it, but unfortunately most people need to carry around their laptops, data DVDs, and USB drives with them, and then your solution becomes very insecure. Your solution - ie. a disconnected laptop - is also impractical for pretty well all businesses and for individuals who need to communicate or share data, email etc.

        The correct solution for those who want or need high security is to put secure data on a local server which has password to control access, and an secure http connected web app which allows you to interact with data, but restricts who can download what. This is a workable electronic equivalent of putting your data in a safe and cutting two holes and a window in it to allow you to interact with it. Chromebooks are perfect for this.
  • Yes in terms of today, but a short-sighted viewpoint.

    I don't disagree that no tablet-like device is today, a full desktop replacement, but the reality is that in a very short time tablets will be. Imagine this: you ride the train to work, using your tablet to do email, go over your to do like, check up on friends in Facebook, do a bit of research, etc. You arrive at your office where, as your table gets close to a monitor on the desk, the tablet's screen is mirrored, and your wireless keyboard and mouse are connected too to the tablet. Your files are on a shared enterprise server, or in the cloud somewhere. The tablet serves as a CPU for most if not all of the daily tasks of the average office worker. This scenario isn't that hard to envision, especially as tablets get more powerful and faster. Apple knows this, and Google, and even Microsoft.

    This will not replace stand-alone computers. There are jobs and tasks where a more powerful computer may be needed. But anyone is kidding themselves if they don't see how the tablet is moving towards desktop replacement. If not today, down the road in the not too distant future.
  • Thanks Mr. Kerry

    This article reminds me of a failed presidential candidate from 2004. If you read the article, you sound convincing and knowledgeable , however, you're the same person that religiously defends that your iPad is your do-everything device. Is this your concession that...gasp... your iPad isn't the work horse you make it seem?

    I think you would have been better suited, as others have added, to detail the fact that some people only user their desktop to play solitare (like my g'ma) or to check email and do facebook (like a large majority of people). And while I acknowledge they are not out yet, Surface Pro and the other Windows 8 (not RT) tablets will do everything a low-end desktop can do... you could literally hook up a monitor, keyboard/mouse, put a vented box over it and you wouldn't know if it was a low-end desktop or a tablet. ...I guess we'll be hearing that article in a few more weeks on how these tablets totally change the game or some nonsense like that.

    I know plenty of people that have a computer incapable of running Vista/7/8, however, are just fine with that since they only really use their phone or tablet.
  • Agreed

    I think the idea of the "Post PC" era is incorrect. Far be it for me to disagree with the late Steve Jobs but I think we're looking at a future in which the ratio of devices will certainly be different but desktop devices are not going to go away. There are a number of things you would not use a desktop for and a number of things you CAN'T use a portable device for. (At least not very well).

    Max Peck
  • Completely disagree

    "Some folks don't get the idea of the companion device."

    No, some folks like you don't get the idea that simply because you call it a companion device, makes it a companion device. My iPad was the definition of a companion device. I bought it to replace my laptop and it failed. I was constantly frustrated, for every reason you stated above. The iPad is a perfect example of why companion devices purchased as laptop replacements suck and boy, does the iPad ever suck as a laptop replacement. I know you love adding a keyboard to your iPad (which for some reason doesn't make it a tweener device in your eyes) but iPad + keyboard is worse than iPad without a keyboard because the keyboard doesn't actually allow the iPad to become a content creation device.

    The Surface RT is not a companion device. I leave my laptop at home and never ever miss it. I can understand why people who are stuck with an iPad are forced to also bring their laptops but what they fail to understand, like you James Kendrick, is that there is a better way. The laptop is required only because the iPad sucks so much. When your tablet doesn't do what you want it to do, you reach into your bag and pull out your 3lb laptop and wait for it to boot up. When my tablet doesn't do what I want it to do, I flip out the TouchCover keyboard and I'm instantly in content creation mode. That is a laptop replacement.

    Just because the iPad sucks as a laptop replacement, don't make the mistake of thinking all tablets suck as laptop replacements. It would be like suggesting that cell phones made lousy media playback devices and so you need a cellphone companion device to play your MP3s and videos, therefore the iPhone sucks.
    • Opinins are like A$$holes...

      ... and mine is no different. But I would respectfully disagree with you. I have several devices, some are desktop models, some are mobile devices. I use all of them. I bet you use a desktop device at some point in your day or week. So call them what you will, but mobile devices are not best at being a primary devices *unless* you primarily consume, not create on that device. If you read email and perhaps respond with a short to moderate reply, I still consider that primarily consumptive. When I really need to do work, I can't do it on a mobile device.

      When I want to read in bed, I really don't like it on a tablet or phone. So I have a Mac Air by the bed and that's what it's for. reading, browsing, some emailing, etc. I consider it to be a mobile device, but it's no iPad. It's a real, full-function computer. And the form is perfect for laying in bed. It rests on my chest and I don't have to hold it up. Still, even though I could carry this over to a Thunderbolt display and make it my "desktop", I prefer to have separate computers for that.

      When I am in a doctor's waiting room, I can read on my iPhone from my Kindle app or my NY Times app, or my browser, and I can send messages and email via the tiny keyboard or Siri but not very long ones. Too cumbersome, yet I can stay connected with it. Yes, I even have the Google Drive app so I can pull up my insurance papers in a pinch. But no way is this my primary device.

      I do have an iPad, currently not being used for much but sometimes friends use it when they need a computing device while visiting with us.

      My main machines are both Intel i7 machines. A big PC with 6 cores running Win 7 for heavy-duty tasks and a new Mac Mini with the fastest 4 core and 16 gigs of RAM and Parallels to run my other Win 7 alongside Mountain Lion. I use this machine to RDP into multiple PCs I use at the office to do my work. I have another, older Mac Mini that is my home theater PC.

      And those are only *my* devices. My partner has his own.

      Tell me again how this is a post-PC world?
    • I personally think James Kendrick has a good point.

      I can't deny your experience but I seriously doubt that the Surface RT would completely replace my laptop or desktop computer. It might work for you but not for me. I think that would be also true for many others, that they will want a more powerful system behind the "companion" device. Not saying you can't do a lot but not everything. Even if the Surface RT was the end-all it is:
      1) Slower at anything requiring heavy lifting: It won't compile a million lines of C++ code in 3 minutes like my i7 can. Or do heavy computation, or run 3 instances of Visual Studio, Sync my blackberry 10 instances of word, one or two of excel, lotus notes all at the same time
      2) Less storage. Need a TB or two, not happening.
      3) Less connectivity. Won't support many USB devices.
      4) Less expandibility. Try doing video capture or DVD burning or add more memory etc.
      5) I can try almost any software on a PC even other OSes but with a "companion" device (Surface, Kindle, IPad or whatever) not so much.
    • I leave my laptop at home and never ever miss it either!

      toddbottom3 is right again. Just because Evil Steve Jobs and his minions at Apple clearly stated that the iPad has never been intended to be a laptop or desktop replacement, doesn't mean it shouldn't have been! And frankly they really failed at doing what I don't think they should have done even though they said they did it!

      iPad simply sucks at being what I expect it to be: a full replacement for my PC. What I want from a tablet is the full PC experience: I want a bloated, memory hogging OS that is sluggish and buggy, with Microsoft Office Trademark and few other useable applications. I want to see wires coming off it connecting me to millions of peripherals. I want Security Patches, virus protection programs, and an unholy marriage between tiles and desktop environments - none of which I get from iPad. Sorry, Apple, but FAIL. Just, fail.
  • about time..

    I have been saying this same thing all the time and yet I still see some comments implying that tablets, can do everything just fine. I bought a Nexus 7 to be a companion device, essentially to control my stereo system when I am outside on my deck - very convenient. Also comes in handy to check an e-mail, browse the web and even watch a movie while sitting outside on a warm day. Indoors? Well read a book maybe, add to the shopping list a few other simple tasks; but when it gets down to heavy duty work only a computer will do.
    OK, I will admit that if all you ever do on a computer is read e-mail, surf the web and watch movies then you are well equipped; but then you really are not a true tech users.
    • Your last sentence is the differentiator

      "I will admit that if all you ever do on a computer is read e-mail, surf the web and watch movies then you are well equipped; but then you really are not a true tech users."

      Which is why Surface RT with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote is so much better than an iPad that doesn't let you do anything other than read e-mail, surf the web, and watch movies.

      The iPad is the definition of a companion device. You cannot efficiently create content on an iPad. I tried for over a year. Can't be done.

      The Surface RT can be used to satisfy every tablet use case that the iPad can be used for but can also efficiently create content. That is what makes it a suitable laptop replacement for hundreds of millions of people. The question is: will those hundreds of millions of people deny themselves the perfect device for them because they read uninformed opinions like James Kendrick's? If so, that is very sad.