Key to using a tablet for work: Don't force it

Key to using a tablet for work: Don't force it

Summary: The lure of using a tablet for work is grand, but make sure it's the right path before rushing in.


The thought of replacing a bulky laptop with a thin, light tablet is compelling. That's the impression I get from the volume of email I get from readers who want to do it. I've written about using a tablet for my work and many reach out to me asking how they can do the same.

iPad Air and ZAGGkeys Cover keyboard (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

Unfortunately, most don't like the answer I give them. They are usually looking for me to affirm the direction they are leaning, to swap a tablet for their laptop. That's not something I can usually do.

I understand why the thought of using a tablet for work is so attractive. I went through the same thought process a few years ago and don't regret using a tablet for my work as much as I do. It's far more portable than any laptop and I can do what I need without compromise.

While a tablet-based methodology might end up being better than the old laptop method, for most switching is not worth the risk.

The last two words in the preceding paragraph are very important: without compromise. For those already working with a laptop, switching to a tablet must be done with no issues or regrets will soon set in.

If someone already has a good work setup, the only reason to change is to make it better. Whether that means the tool kit is smaller, lighter, or gets better battery life depends on the needs of the individual. Change for change's sake or because it's cool is not reason enough to disrupt the way work gets done.

While a tablet-based methodology might end up being better than the old laptop method, for most switching is not worth the risk. We all must do the best we can at our jobs and radically changing the way we approach it can rock the boat.

I tell most who ask me if they should try a tablet: it depends. If you already have a tablet, brand or platform is unimportant, then it's worth a try. Take the tablet and leave the laptop at home for a couple of days and see how it goes. Better yet, bring the laptop in addition to the tablet just in case the tablet doesn't fill in adequately.

If everything goes smoothly then you're home free and it probably won't hurt to use the tablet for a longer period. If it doesn't go smoothly then you should rethink things. Even if you get all the work done it might not be worth the device switch if it requires workarounds to get things accomplished as well as they would using the laptop. Why jump through hoops to do particular tasks on a tablet if you can do them easily on a laptop?

I don't ever recommend trying to use a tablet for work if it means buying one. That ups the risk significantly and many would end up trying everything to make it work given the financial outlay for the tablet. That's trying to force it to work, and that's rarely a good approach.

Having to do things in a roundabout way just to use the tablet is not something that most would be happy doing long-term. It makes little sense to do that just so you can say you use a tablet instead of a laptop. Always use what works best and both you and your employer will be happier.

Once more, with feeling: don't use a tablet if you have to force your way through getting the stuff done you need to do. It's not worth it in the long run. Use what makes the most sense, not what is cool.

I realize I am fortunate that I can use a tablet for my work, and I understand the draw for others. Even so, I wouldn't do it if it meant working around shortcomings using a tablet. I would just use my laptop. Getting work done is the most important thing, not how it gets done.

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Topics: Mobility, Laptops, Tablets, Bring Your Own Device

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  • Great advice

    and a nice write up.

    I wonder if looking back in 5 years time the same advice holds true.
    • I wonder if looking back in 5 years time ...

      I very much doubt it.

      Most current tablets are simply too small for many work requirements. Packing a small tablet wuth pc-software (as Surface does), is no solution - you just get a slower, clinkier, product that is still obsolete.

      The future will bring larger screens, and better ability to work with colleagues across several screens - and while Apple will likely leap ahead on this, Android will make it cost-effective for business.

      However much software you pack into a small device, you cannot use it to good advantage. Just for publishing, I use 5 or 6 programs at a time, and need to drag & drop quickly between screen - many people have much more complext tasks.

      Better laptops - like Chromebook and the Apple version when it arrives - will help; but the Post-windows pc still has a bright future, side by side with bigger, better tablets.

      "Docking" is a sad gimmick that restricts freedom of movement; seamless linking via the cloud is the future.
      • Better Laptop?

        So how is that Chromebook working for you as far as publishing?
        You criticize the Surface that just might be able to run your software and complement a Chromebook and an Apple product that you say does not yet exist. Talk about BIAS...
        The article is about using the device for work. Yes many people have much more complex tasks than yours but that is NOT the majority. Still laughing about the Chromebook and work tasks... LOL good one dude... ;-)
        • Get a hybrid

          I have a hybrid. It is the best of both worlds. No reason to compromise in either direction.
      • I love how you praise Apple for devices and services that don't exist.

        and how despite nearly everything in computers moving away from big laptops and towards smaller more portable devices, you have determined that devices will swell into big screens again.

        On top of that you somehow believe they will have some sort of unique feature that allows these big devices to connect to cloud services and multiple displays.... because other devices will not be able to do that also?!?!?!

        Somehow I think you completely miss the point that not everyone has the same needs as you do and there will be CHOICES for many devices in many form factors that suit many various needs of many different groups of people.
        • Patience

          Henan73 has history on his side; Apple (and Google, to some extent) continues to lead innovation in this area. He's not praising Apple products that don't yet exist, he's anticipating them.

          And you're right, there will be choices; since when is this news?
          • Apple led, past tense, in this area.

            I can't think of any new ground Apple has broke since the iPad was released. I'm not convinced that Apple has some killer thing they are holding back as their competition blows by them. Heenan is already saying Apple will release better laptops than everyone else.

            Google is certainly doing lots of new things. No arguments there.

            As for choices, I agree. Heenan doesn't seem to as he condemns anything that doesn't seem to suit his need of big screens and multiple monitors.
          • Hardly

            MS might be late to the mobile game but with each iteration of Windows major and minor updates, advances in hardware, and flexibility in form factors, Windows mobile devices are some of the most interesting, flexible, and powerful devices out there now. And these are devices that allow an individual to bridge so many of their worlds; legacy apps, desktop usage, laptop usage, and tablet.

            ChromeBook so far looks to be a niche product and there is nothing new on Apples fronts. Android could challenge MS but Android fragmentation with all the custom skins is starting to confuse customers. A Samsung looks so different than, say, a Sony Android tablet. Like those Win tiles or hate them, like iOS there is a sorta reassurance to seeing them on device after device at Best Buy.
            Rann Xeroxx
          • Yeah well

            Except for trying to force the Desktop Mode on to a tablet! Sorry but, the tablets should have omitted the desktop piece because it is awkward at best without a keyboard and mouse.
          • So wrong

            There are far too many sites, games, web apps, etc.. You can only access via the desktop. If, hopefully someday, when MS has a good crop of apps this will no longer be the case.
          • Except...

            When I take my Surface with me, I can stand around and use Metro touch with all the benefits and limits of a touch interface, and when I sit down I can use the touch pad or mouse and keyboard and gain all the productivity benefits from that interface.

            On a full Windows tablet, I have access to all my legacy apps. For example, I have a meeting room web conf. Windows desktop program that has no mobile equivalent. Is it a legacy app and will it twilight a few years from now? Sure but I need this program now, even when I am on the go. With Windows 8 I get a modern touch UI AND I get all this legacy crap that i HAVE to use till its EOF. By that time, Windows 10 might have gone complete touch or have a touch only skew.

            Why limited yourself?
            Rann Xeroxx
          • do you have ohe?

            I have a windows 8.1 tablet and find it a lot more useful with the desktop. love the metro apps but as far as work I can get far more work tasks accomplished with it. glad they gave people a choice instead of always dictating what I need like some companies.
          • Desktop on Surface was essential

            If MS had made a brand new, app-less, pure tablet OS, would you have bought one? Would anyone? The ability to use tablet-centric apps on the move, as well as traditional desktop apps, at a desk, is what makes the MS option compelling. Adding that keyboard and mouse (touch pad) is no harder than adding a cover to some other tablet OS devices and you can even add full size desktop accessories, USB or BT, and a large monitor if you desire, when more sedentary. Surface, though, isn't really the focus of this article, I don't think. Kendrick is talking about the blown up phone OS offerings that trade weight and battery life for reduced capability (depending of course on what you need to do). The Surface, and some other options from assorted vendors, have shown that trade off will likely not be necessary for long. The decision will soon be what size monitor and keyboard you need to do your job. That's a physical need/desire. Processing power to do all but the most demanding tasks will be available in cell phone sized devices very soon. It darn near is now.
        • Seriously?

          You're at home, you have a 27" Monitor and you have your MacBook Air 11", do you continue to use the tiny screen or maybe a Bluetooth Keyboard, Mouse/Track Pad, and that 27" Monitor?

          I think we both know the answer, the smaller laptop screen is good for portability but, not ideal if you have an office either at home or work. Many people choose the light laptop when we have our refresh at work and then they say, I can't work on that thing, it is too small (12" screen is the smallest we have) and then they use a Docking station with a 23" Monitor (Of course they try to get us to provide a second monitor for home as well).
          • Surface RT with Monitor

            I even use my Surface RT with a monitor.... a really BIG monitor.

            Rann Xeroxx
      • Heenan73, be honest here, for a change.

        Look, we understand a large part of your reasons for posting is intended to "allow" you the opportunity to "ding" MS, and that's fine, just don't let it force the direction of your posts as it has. I just pretty much dismiss any comment like that on any product as a result of "fear of the unknown"

        It seem there's a great many people that are using Surface Pro (and other Pro tablets) AS a solution. Just because you don't want to see it as solution doesn't mean everyone thinks like you.

        It makes you sound like a Luddite, wherein "laptops have always done the job in that past, so new ways of doing it are wrong"

        And docking is a sad gimmick that restricts freedom of movement? THAT was funny.

        And just so you don't throw out the old "What else would a Nothing but MS person say" I've stated many a time our house has both MS and Apple products in it, as I don't base my purchasing around childish company allegiances, I buy what I feel will work best for certain situations.

        (And of course PC hardware in a tablet is not a solution, unless of course Apple does it, then you'll be here at that point claiming how much sense it makes to have a 10" tablet running full OS X, but that's just a supposition in my part, we'll see how that works out in the future)
      • Ya

        If I were using a portable computer for work stuffs I would just get a laptop. The Surface (either Pro or RT) is just too small at 10" for real productivity. Incidentally I don't think MS is currently designing a larger Surface tablet (as they should) although I could be wrong. Reports I'm hearing is that they are working on a smaller tablet, perhaps 7" or 8"?

        A laptop is so much better than Surface. You get the benefit of a nice backlit keyboard with real, regular keys with nothing compromised. You don't have to worry about standing a laptop on your lap at the right angle, no stability issues. You get a real trackpad to work with and/or a touch screen.

        You have the ability to have much greater storage with a laptop, you don't have to worry about being limited to 64GB. You can have a 500GB hard drive or bigger. With a laptop you get a nice big 13" or 15" screen. In a word, a laptop is something you can really do some serious work on.
        • Catch up

          Maybe you haven't heard, Surface keyboards come with backlight. Even the touch ones. You can get a 512G Surface. If that's not enough, you know you can get a 2T drive the size of a cell phone for $100 these days. They work on laptops too. Stability on a lap is a personal issue. I have no problem using mine that way, though typically the keyboard is folded back when in my lap. Nice big 13-15" screen is nice, until you need to use it on an airline tray table. If you can't do serious work on an i5, device with 8G of ram, and 512G of storage, then your requirements are probably in the 2-3% that need a Mac Pro.
    • How can you say that...

      Look, the guy writes umpteen reviews of keyboard cases so, he's clearly trying many of them... Even the picture shows an iPad with a keyboard attached!

      What he's really saying is, "A Laptop would have been better but, I wanted this instead so, I make it work!"

      Here's the reality, there are light weigh laptops that cost less than an iPad Mini and can get the job done more efficiently than what he's using.

      Asus has laptops that run Windows 7, 8, 8.1, and Ubuntu (my choice) if you so choose... You get better word processing on all those solutions and you can even use plain text editing if need be. You get a more ergonomic approach to work and full mouse support (The iPad doesn't give you this unless you Jailbreak it.

      Another option is the Chrome book even those are better suited to long bouts of typing overall and have mouse support.

      I get that these tablets have keyboard cases or even bundled keyboard docks but, if you wanted a keyboard, you should have bought a laptop because that's really the ideal solution for a writers needs.
    • author keeps confusing people

      A tablet is only for consuming things like reading or watching movies...but seriously not for regular work....people still want their ipads be like a laptop and keep put them keyboards..that is ugly.