What is the point of Tablet Computers?

The cost/benefit ratio of tablet computers seems to be a bit.... lacking.

For those of us following CES, you’ll know that the big news is that everyone is talking about tablet computers. Tablet this, tablet that.

I played with a Galaxy Tab over lunch today. I liked it, but walked away with the same confusion I had about the iPad after I played with one. I like tablets. They’re fun. But they’re not $500 worth of fun, and they’re REALLY not $500 + $60 a month for the data plan worth of fun. I guess, from my perspective, don’t understand what they’re FOR that makes them worth the money. Mobile web surfing? I’ve got my phone. Mobile games? I’ve got my phone. Listen to music? I’ve got my phone. What’s a tablet but a bigger phone? My Pre has a touchscreen — but it also has a keyboard. And it’s a phone.

What else do folks use their tablets for? Use as an e-reader? I can get a Sony Reader for $99 or a Kindle for $140. Or I can check out books from the library for free. Watching movies? I can get a portable DVD player for $100. And besides, how often do you watch movies on the go anyway? Mobile computing? I can get a netbook for $300 — which I can use to watch movies, play games, or use as an e-reader.

I can see tablets being useful for businesses — using tablets as electric notepads for pricing info, inventory management, etc.

But for consumers, what on Earth is the POINT of tablets that makes them worth an arm and a leg?

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Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Because it makes you look like a cool geek? That’s my only explanation for the self-absorbed people I see using their iPads conspicuously in public.

  2. Jack says:

    It’s about the form factor. Some people want a bigger screen than a netbook but not the weight of a laptop, and the keyboard is seldom used so it’s a distraction for them.

    Form factor means a lot to some people. I know someone who drinks a lot of milk, around 2 gallons a week, but she insists on buying a 1/2 gallon carton every couple of days because she doesn’t like the one gallon jug.

  3. John P says:

    You are correct, you can do everything on a phone that you could do on a tablet. I own an iPad. I love my iPad. Why? For all of the reasons you mentioned. I also own an iPhone. They perform most of the same functions, although the iPad’s interfaces seem to be better, however the biggest reason is the obvious – it is larger and easier to navigate because of the size. I rarely use my PC anymore.

    Since when though did owning a productive, functional, fun, interactive and usable device become a bad thing?

    Do you own a nice flat screen LCD-LED TV? Why, didn’t you have an old box model that got most of the same images? And besides, can’t you watch the game on your phone?

  4. Anon says:

    Wow, the milk analogy is the best explanation of tablet computing I’ve ever heard, and I already wanted one.

  5. B. Minich says:

    I see it as a laptop replacement. That’s what I tend to use mine for. I rarely take a laptop anywhere these days (and my laptop has grown roots and become a desktop replacement now). I wonder that, barring my moving from this house, whether I will ever move my laptop again.

  6. mantis says:

    Most people I know who own them got them for one of two reasons: a laptop replacement or a status symbol. For the former, a tablet is easier to carry and use in awkward situations (in bed, in an airplane/train/car, etc.). Many of them also use a stylus and a text recognition application for notetaking and such, so the lack of a keyboard doesn’t matter too much. As for the latter, those people just like to be seen with their iPads, even if they don’t have much use for them.

  7. Dave says:

    The iPad is a computer. It’s the best computer I’ve ever owned. It’s basically a netbook with a better screen that is more portable and runs better apps. That’s why it’s worth a $200 premium over the crappiest of netbooks.

    Asking ‘Why would anyone buy an iPad?” is basically asking “Why would anyone want to buy a really nice computer?”

  8. Jerry says:

    I bought my IPad in May, getting the wireless 64 gig version.

    I had previously looked at various e-book reader and the smart phones and realized that none of them would work well for me.

    I am diabetic and have the eyes to show for it 🙁
    Trying to use a smaller screen, I loose to much content that is just not visible.
    With the IPad (almost spelled that eyePad) I can read to my heart’s content because of the ability to enlarge font size. And speaking of reading, I can store dozens of books, dozens of CDs, dozens of videos and still have room to spare.

    I didn’t get the 3G version and have very rarely missed it. There seem to be enough free wi-fi spots around to allow me access to the web when ever needed.

    (now if apple would just allow it to use flash embedded videos .. .. ..)


  9. mantis says:

    (now if apple would just allow it to use flash embedded videos .. .. ..)

    Doubtful. The Adobe-Mac feud continues. However, the fine folks at Skyfire have made a mobile browser that gets around Apple’s Flash ban by transcoding pages into HTML5, which iPad/iPhone/iPods support. If Flash on your iPad is worth $5 to you, you can get it today.

  10. Trumwill says:

    I can’t imagine ever getting an iPad, but I also don’t fully appreciate the point of a Netbook. Why get one of those when I can just have a laptop? The answer is, as others have pointed out, the form factor. To me, having a full-on laptop isn’t an inconvenience to me (when compared to the things that it can do or at least do more efficiently than a netbook) isn’t worth the increased portability. Others came to the other conclusion.

  11. john personna says:

    It’s all about price point, and the famed adoption curve.

    I was just at fry’s, playing with a few 7″ android tablets priced (I think) $150, $250, $700.

    The $250 model (“Velocity” brand), no contract, seemed pretty nice even compared to the $700 galaxy pad, no contract. Remember also that the B&N Color Nook is really an android tablet priced at $250.

    There was a sale recently with a Velocity at like $110. I didn’t get to try that model.

    Most of us have a house full of computers (and a pocket full). We don’t need an extra device. But, at some price point it will be convenient to have a tablet for the coffee table (or as a walkin’ around computer) … to replace the magazine list once recommended by Paul Fussel. Heh, in that context the status aspect is covered by long-standing precedent.

    (as hobby android developer I am of course talking my book)

  12. Alex Knapp says:

    @John –

    A $100-200 price point for a tablet makes a lot more sense to me.

  13. Matt Young says:

    Try the square then root:
    sqrt(99^2 + 300^2 +140*2..+90^2) < $600?? No.

    The triangle identity should tell tablet makers if there exists a market for people who want all of those things. The answer is no, prices must drop.

  14. Jfoobar says:

    I myself do not yet own a tablet, but if I had to engage in air or rail travel just a little more often than I do now, I would buy an iPad in a heartbeat. I cannot imagine a better gadget to have while traveling.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    Hang in there a while, Alex. My little consortium and I are busy coming up with the reason you will want an iPad.

  16. pylon says:

    Meanwhile, check out your ads!!

  17. Vast Variety says:

    I’d love to have a tablet for writing and for work but I need one that is a true computer, running windows. I’m certainly not going to shell out $500.00 that only runs Android and I will in no way ever own a product from Apple.

  18. mantis says:


    What is a “true computer,” exactly?

  19. God, you sound like a central planner. Why should you care what they cost or how they will be used if you don’t want them. If people want to spend money on them then that is their choice. If enough do this they will succeed. Let the market do its thing and for Pete’s sake let other people spend their money how they chose. I can guarantee you that 90+% of the power of a smartphone, or a laptop for that matter, is never utilized by most people. If you think they are going to be market failures, use it. Be aggresive and do some naked shorts against the relevant stocks.

    FWIW, I’ve been to a couple of technology conferences recently and the damn things are ubquitous on show floors. In fact, I plan to buy two to use for my next show. It is easy to see a number of very worthwhile application for these devices, but that doesn’t mean they have to replace or displace PCs, smartphones or anything else. Anyone saying this is either trying to sell something, is clueless to begin with, or just likes a command economy.

  20. Ben Wolf says:


    Your knee-jerk defensiveness is getting old. Central Planner? Alex gave an opinion and asked what others thought. Nothing more.

  21. Trumwill says:

    Charles, at no point is Alex suggesting that iPads should be banned. He just has an opinion as to whether or not it’s worth the cost. This isn’t a central-planning issue.

  22. john personna says:

    In Soviet Russia tablet browses you!

  23. Richard Gardner says:

    A local trendy restaurant has their servers using them as a point of sale system – orders entered at the table direct to the kitchen.

    I also know a commercial pilot who has one and prefers it to a netbook – about the same volume in the carry-on luggage but better screen.

    These are both niche applications.

  24. mantis says:

    In Soviet Russia tablet browses you!


  25. Dave says:

    These are both niche applications.

    Ha! Smaller, lighter, better is not “niche.” Tablet computers will be ubiquitous in a decade and much of this little thread will look kind of silly.

    Kind of like this:


  26. Trumwill says:

    Not “better” for typing. Not better if you need storage. Not better if you use USB products. Not better if you want software that Steve Jobs doesn’t think you should have. Not better if you want to play DVDs. Not better if you want the ability to run CPU-intensive applications.

  27. Wayne says:

    I agree with Jack. For most it comes down to personal preferences and uses. The “I can’t see why anyone would want one since I don’t” seems a little self center attitude to me.

    Yes Alex gave opinion. The opinion was “what is the point of tablet computers” and not “tablets computers are not for me”.

    Tablets are not that great of fit for me. However I know those who it is a great fit. When dealing with sketches, graphs and writing notes on them, it is nice to have the right size, weight and controllable appliance to do it with. That is only one example. It is like 14”, 15”, 19”, etc screens. One size doesn’t fit all and some work better in certain situation as others. I use several different sizes myself.

  28. MarkedMan says:

    I have one. Love it. Use it multiple hours a day. No one has yet mentioned instant on, but that is a huge factor in its utility. Here is a typical day with my iPad.
    – Wake up. Go to the smallest room in the house to do some “reading”. Check my email. Answer. Check my calendar.
    – Turn the speaker back on and use the Public Radio app to stream my local radio station. Too late? I stream Chicago, or Boulder, or San Francisco and get Morning Edition on the time delay. Hang it (in its fold-y case) from the towel rack next to the shower.
    – Eat breakfast while going over the blogs, including this one.
    – All day long, email and calendar.
    – Pull up documents and web pages to use during a meeting. (Example, I pulled up a patent someone was discussing today).
    – After dinner, if I’m home alone, I might watch a TV show I downloaded from iTunes while in bed, or read an eBook. Or more blogs.
    – Exchange emails with my Chinese counterparts (who are 13 hours ahead).
    – Do the NYTimes crossword puzzle, or as much of it as I can before I fall asleep.

    Rather, Rinse, Repeat.

    I can’t stress how much more useful this is since it is on all day (no problem with battery). NO boot up. And even a netbook is comparatively large when you open it up. Hardly conducive to lying sideways in bed reading. Other uses: Last night my son had to do a moon observation and the sky was cloudy. Opened up an app, and held the iPad up over my head and scanned the sky for the moon. (OK, the moon had already set, but I got that info from the same app.) When I’m in China I take pictures of addresses written in Chinese and show them to the taxi drivers. Or a picture of the well known hotel I stay at. Or my travel reservations and itinerary. I could go on. But won’t.

  29. sbk says:

    As a general aviation (small planes) pilot it is cheaper to purchase the top of the line iPad and buy the apps for the navigational sectional maps and the airport charts for the entire U.S. than it is to purchase a years worth in hard copy for only my area of the country. The charts in hard copy are the same size as the iPad screen. The iPhone screen is too small to use for actual navigation. This is without even considering some of the gps and weather technology that is available that rivals aviation instruments that generally sell for thousands of dollars.

    So yeah, the iPad is a tremendous deal.

  30. Steven says:

    I don’t have an ipad but I’m thinking of getting one for one reason: ergonomics. Laptops are horrible for your neck & back and netbooks even worse.

  31. Dave says:

    Not “better” for typing. Not better if you need storage. Not better if you use USB products. Not better if you want software that Steve Jobs doesn’t think you should have. Not better if you want to play DVDs. Not better if you want the ability to run CPU-intensive applications.

    I’ll grant you typing, but the rest of these are the new “niche” applications. DVDs! Ha!

  32. epistorese says:

    It ultimately come down, on virtually ALL tech products that we buy them because we want them and because they are for sale. And, whether we like it or not, this desire to replace our smartphone every 6 weeks with the latest model is what propels our economy–and thus the economies of most industrialized nations in the world. Are they useful? Your call. If we start thinking with our brains instead of our egos will the economy tank even more? Undoubtedly!

  33. john says:

    1) This is too funny as we were discussing this exact thing about an hour before this came up here at OTB. And no, none of us engineers get the whole table thing either.

    2) “True computers” don’t run MSWindows!

  34. DC Loser says:

    @John – I still have some IBM punchcards if you’re in the market for some to use on your “true computer.” 🙂

  35. SJ Reidhead says:

    Okay, look, I really really really am using my iPad for technical assistance on the new book I’m writing. I swear I am. Just because I have the frog-lily-pad game is no sign that I am not using my iPad for “work”.

    Seriously, I’m working on a book that will have about 2000 old photos. The iPad has been a “God-Send” for me. It is so much easier working with the photos, blowing them up for small details that I honestly can say that if you are doing a book that includes numerous photos, it is a great tool.

    I swear it is. Just because I have the new Star Trek movie on it is no sign I am not serious about this!

    The Pink Flamingo

  36. john says:

    @DC Loser:
    I don’t know……if I can’t create a Beowolf cluster out of something, I toss it. 🙂

  37. tom p says:

    “What is the point of Tablet Computers?”

    C’mon Alex, you know what the point is…


  38. tom p says:

    And by the by, there is nothing wrong with making lots of….


  39. michael reynolds says:

    I would just point out that when the TV first came out there wasn’t much to watch. New media specific to the iPad is being created at a feverish pace.

  40. I got a 32G WiFi iPad for Christmas and my experience has been similar to MarkedMan’s. It is a fabulous device and one that creates mobile computing in a way that a laptop doesn’t (although it isn’t a laptop replacement).

    Now, in terms of Alex’s basis question in re: price, it is clearly a luxury item.

  41. MarkedMan says:

    Recently, my company started giving the salesmen iPads to supplement their Windows notebooks, which makes a lot of sense, since they show customers (surgeons) videos, pdf copies of papers, device animations, etc. The salesmen, of course, love this since a surgeon will not hold still while a computer boots up, even the 30-45 seconds it takes from hibernate. But I’m wondering how they will react when (inevitably in my opinion) they take away their windows computers. Because that’s where the iPad becomes cost effective – instead of, rather than in addition to a corporate windows laptop. And since they do all their expense reports, ordering, etc on cloud based apps already, it won’t take much to get them completely off Windows.

  42. matt says:

    “Why would anyone want to buy a really nice computer?”

    Because my desktop cost less and is completely upgradable while allowing me a gigantic variety in potential uses. Granted it’s not very mobile but I’m not really a mobile computing kind of person (cannot afford the costs)..

    There are plenty of uses for tablets and as the price point drops more uses will be found

  43. john personna says:

    Btw, OTB’s provider or tech crew should get some phone and tablet friendly CSS in the pipeline – if they don’t already

  44. Rick DeMent says:

    If you are talking about the tablet form factor, I can see a lot of uses that many have also mentioned. If you are talking about the iPad in specific I will most likely end up getting an android version for a better price point and more flexibly.

  45. Don L says:

    Wow! This reaction sounds like an NRA convention after a president says, “What do we need guns for anyways?”

    I’ll stick with my netbook (and my laptop and desktop) Technology is like a fishing rod – you have to a different one for every kind of fish you chase. Apps are like lures – never have enough of them -just in case.

  46. MarkedMan says:

    Jim DeMint said “I will most likely end up getting an android version for a better price point and more flexibly.”

    Pay close attention to the cost with plan if you go for something other than the wifi version. I have the d-lux iPad (courtesy of my employer) with the $25/month plan – and have never even come close to going over. Important caveat to that – It is set to connect to wifi whenever possible including at work and at home.

  47. john personna says:

    The iPad is like the iPhone in that it is a bit better, sooner. I like Android, but I don’t think it is in stores now with quite the same quality of experience.

    That said, this vid of Android 3.0, Honeycomb, for tablet, is pretty wild.

  48. john personna says:

    Oh, interesting to note that what were physical buttons on android phones (for Home, Back, and Menu) are now soft, drawn in the margin of the pads.

    As an iPhone to Droid X refugee I find the buttons somewhat useful but also somewhat confusing.

    This is where the demands of Steve Jobs are important. The iphone is a no-buttons, touch screen only, device. No compromise meant a cleaner UI.

    Anyway, “softing” the buttons is an important evolution.

  49. Wes says:

    tablets were dying before the ipad came around. anything apple does makes a fashion statement that people have to listen to; even if the device is unpractical by any means.