The laptop in the tablet world

I have owned a laptop for decades, and I’ve always gone for the “small and light” laptop class because as a desktop user, my laptop is only for travel, and ease of carrying is thus very important. Of course once I get there I have envied the larger screens and better keyboards and other features of the bigger laptops people carry, but generally been happy with the decision.

Others have gone for “desktop replacement” laptops which are powerful, big and heavy. Those folks don’t have a desktop, at most they plug their laptop into an external monitor and other peripherals at home. The laptop is a bitch to carry but of course all files come with it.

Today, the tablet is changing that equation. I now find that when I am going into a situation where I want a minimal device that’s easy to carry, the tablet is the answer, and even better the tablet and bluetooth keyboard. I even carry a keyboard that’s a fair bit larger than the tablet, but still very light compared to a laptop. When I am in a meeting, or sitting attending an event, I am not going to do the things I need the laptop for. Well, not as much, anyway. On the airplane, the tablet is usually quite satisfactory — in fact better when in coach, though technically the keyboard is not allowed on a plane. (My tablet can plug in a USB keyboard if needed.)

Planes are a particular problem. It’s not safe to check LCD screens in your luggage, so any laptop screen has to come aboard with you, and this is a pain if the computer is heavy.

With the tablet dealing with the “I want small and light” situations, what is the right laptop answer?

One obvious solution are the “convertible tablet” computers being offered by various vendors. These are laptops where the screen is a tablet and it can be removed. These tend to be Windows devices, and somewhat expensive, but the approximate direction is correct.

Another option would be to break the laptop up into 3 or more components:

  • The tablet, running your favourite tablet OS
  • A keyboard, of your choice, which can be carried easily with the tablet for typing-based applications. Able to hold the laptop and connect to it in a permitted way on the plane. Touchpad or connection for mouse.
  • A “block,” whose form factor is now quite variable, with the other stuff.

This would be combined with a high-speed data+power bus that allows the three components to connect, share power, and send data fast enough for video when needed.

The block could go in your checked luggage, along with the keyboard.

The block would have other laptop elements — USB ports, video out, battery, power in, disk drive, ram, speakers, ethernet, DVD (if needed), more powerful CPU and GPU. As the block could be more rectangular, it could support a trackball.

The block also might not have battery, if it’s strictly for desk use. You have the tablet for use off the grid, so you might survive without a battery. The block could probably run for a short time on the tablet’s battery in an emergency. Due to its shape, it’s easier to have removable battery packs for the block.

The block would also double as a USB charger for all your devices, and of course be able to charge the tablet and keyboard.

The block could avoid having radios (using the ones in the tablet) but if you want the block to operate without the tablet it would need those. It would use the tablet’s camera. The block would be able to use the tablet as a touchscreen display, but it would also commonly be connected to external monitors. In particular, more and more hotel rooms now have HD displays, and in some cases (far too few) you can plug in a monitor cable and use them as a display. They are usually not positioned very conveniently for the desk, but that should change — or hotels should just start having computer displays as part of standard equipment at the desk, or to be borrowed (sadly for some ridiculous fee at first) from the hotel.

As noted, the you can’t trust a hotel keyboard and mouse, you have to bring those. Another nice touch would be if the hotel screens could be accessed wirelessly, though the new generation of tablets and phones are getting MyDP/Slimport so they can output video.

For now, outside of the Microsoft Surface world, we face the problem that the tablet OS (Android or IOS) is different from the laptop OS (Windows, MacOS or Linux.) Android has a linux inside but it’s hard to access. We also face the problem that most tablet apps are not designed for use with a proper keyboard and single-touch mouse. The tablet apps are still stripped down (and the web sites insist on giving you mobile versions) so there are a number of applications which I much prefer in the laptop environment.

We could also see the arrival of independent screens, and so people could buy a keyboard, block and screen and have it be identical in function to the old laptop. With those things, plus a tablet, you would have top flexibility.

  • In your hotel room you would have a laptop style computing with two or three screens (your screen, the tablet, and possibly the hotel TV.)
  • Walking around, just the tablet
  • Sitting in meetings or at events, the tablet plus the keyboard
  • On the plane, the tablet alone, or tablet plus keyboard. The block can go in checked luggage. With a suitable case, perhaps the screen can too. Where the keyboard goes is your choice.
  • At home, the block may be your desktop, if you bought a high-powered block. Plug it into a dock there.

Maybe your phone can even be yet another screen. Multi-monitor is nice. Perhaps just over wireless with VNC or similar.

One of the curses of laptops is they are not expandable. With desktop computers, you usually get to extend their lives with new PCI cards or even motherboard swaps. Not so with laptops, they are very quickly obsolete. Blocks might be designed to be a little bit more future-proof. Because they are no longer constrained in shape or size the way they were as laptop bases, people could consider blocks with PCI slots. And as noted, whether there’s a battery is up to the user. Losing the battery loses a fair bit of weight and size.

The "correct" direction

I'm totally with you on your desire for something that is flexible and adaptable for more power and better input methods for "real work" at a desk, and having a lighter "on the go" mode that's more for viewing/reading and less for input.

Like you, I've tended to opt for "small and light" in my laptops, while keeping a multi-screen desktop computer for my main machine. Even the best "small and light" laptops have been too heavy and bulky for me, though, and I can't stand laptop keyboards and trackpads for cursor movement (I always carry a mouse in my laptop bag). Not to mention only having a single screen makes me almost claustrophobic. When I'm traveling my laptop actually usually winds up staying behind in my room because I just can't be arsed with its compromises. (On the other hand I used to carry my Newton everywhere because it was light enough and great for taking and searching through notes, contacts, and calendars, and using some light purpose-built database apps.)

I really don't see a three piece solution like you propose happening, though. Even two piece options have not taken off. And I don't think it's about just having some company eventually "get it right," either. The majority of customers for computing devices just don't have the needs/desires that we do. I recognize that the kind of thing I really want is generally a niche market.

I'm still always on the lookout for potential solutions, though. For instance, there's this new Kensington USB 3.0 Docking Station with Dual DVI/HDMI/VGA Video. It supports two external monitors, and includes a Gigabit Ethernet port, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 4 USB 2.0 ports, and audio in and out jacks. Since I always use at least three monitors, with that and the built-in video out port on a laptop I could have a laptop hooked up to three external displays. Hooking up a proper desktop keyboard and mouse I could completely ignore the built-in display, keyboard, and trackpad on the laptop unless I'm traveling with it.

Yes, in this sense I'd be "wasting" those parts of the computer when I'm at my desk, but oh well.

I think where the overall market is going is just that tablets are displacing desktops for mobile use, and the tablet compromises really don't matter enough to a large enough number of people to outweigh tablets' ease of use (direct touch screen interaction, instant-on, single-focus apps, etc.), battery life, and weight benefits. For non-mobile or "semi-portable" use laptops are just replacing desktops. The people like us who want more flexibility and expandability are then becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of the overall market.

What's "correct" for us just isn't what's "correct" for computer companies to be focusing on for their profits, now.

What's correct

What I like about the component model is that you can pick and choose the components you like, even from different vendors. But even if you use the same vendor, you can upgrade and choose independently.

I crave my 30” desktop display. When I am on a laptop or tablet I miss it. And like you, I also carry a mouse, not being satisfied at all with touchpads. IBM kept the trackpoint nubbin to itself and so we are doomed to the touchpad.

It is a bit annoying to carry independent parts, but since we always put our laptop in a bag these days it’s not too hard to get it all together. Where having parts fails is if you want to use it on a plane or on your actual lap. The tablet has taken over that space.

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