An advantage of tablets and two-in-one devices over small laptops

February 21, 2019

For reasons beyond the scope of this entry, I spent a certain amount of today just sitting around somewhere. Wisely, I took my iPad along and used it to pass the time, including doing a certain amount of productive work. As a result of my usage today, I have formed an opinion about why I think tablets (with physical keyboards) are often a superior option to a small laptop of roughly the same physical size.

To put it simply, what I found is that my iPad's display wasn't tall enough when in horizontal mode and wasn't wide enough in vertical mode. As a result, I kept going back and forth between the two orientations depending on what I was doing at the time and what I wanted to do (sometimes swapping even in the same SSH session). This limitation is essentially intrinsic to the relatively small form factor; there is no way around it. And the advantage of a tablet is that it swaps fluidly between horizontal and vertical orientation.

(This works fluidly for me with my iPad because the physical keyboard is also the cover and folds away when iPad is in vertical orientation.)

A traditional laptop is essentially locked to a horizontal orientation because of its physical construction as a clamshell; if you turn it vertically, you still have the keyboard half of the clamshell sitting there in the way, making your handling awkward and distorting the balance. To make it work well in vertical orientation you need something more sophisticated and mechanically complex (and thus more expensive), something that is not really a straightforward laptop any more.

This tablet advantage falls away as the screen size grows so that it's tall enough even when horizontal. Tastes will differ for when this happens; for me, even the XPS 13 is on the edge (and it's significantly bigger than my iPad). But I'm spoiled by my large desktop screens.

(There are also real advantages to a relatively small form factor in a device that is intended to be easily handled and easy to use in a wide variety of situations. My iPad is a comfortable lap device in a way that an XPS 13 sized tablet wouldn't really be.)

PS: Neither the iPad nor a conventional two-in-one device have a good solution for using the device in vertical orientation with a physical keyboard. The iPad's keyboard only works in horizontal mode, and the two-in-one devices I've seen all fold the keyboard away for vertical use. This is an annoying constraint for things like SSH sessions; if I want more vertical space or just to not flop the iPad sideways temporarily as I take a brief look at something, I have to give up a physical keyboard.

Written on 21 February 2019.
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Last modified: Thu Feb 21 23:39:46 2019
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