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As Christmas time nears, there is a good chance that you are looking to buy a tablet computer or are going to receive one from Santa. There are an extremely large number of tablets around with manufacturers new and old trying to get a piece of the tablet computer market. But how have these tablets come about and what should you know before you decide to buy them. Lets take a look...

Tablet computers, or more simply "Tablets", are compact computers equipped with a touch sensitive screen and operating software that allows the user to interact with elements displayed on the screen, either by touching the screen or performing gestures using their fingers.

It is now possible to package complex and fast computer chips in increasingly small sizes. Chips that consume very little power and give off very little heat. At the same time LCD display technology has become more refined allowing construction of increasingly slim high resolution screens. There have also been massive improvements in touch-screen technology which in turn makes the screen extremely sensitive to touch and allows using more than one finger simultaneously (multi-touch). Combining these three key elements results in fantastic portable computer which is being dubbed a "Tablet" by manufacturers.

Lets take a look at that again:

  • A tiny yet powerful computer chip that gives off very less heat allows the computer shell to be shrunk and other components to be mounted close to the chip without issues of overheating.
  • Reduced power consumption in the chip allows the computer to be powered by smaller batteries, which in turn makes it portable.
  • Better LCD screen resolutions mean that the computer display is sharp and eye catching making it suitable for displaying images and graphics, watching movies and reading.
  • Increasingly accurate touch technology combined with the powerful chip allows the display to respond to a touch stimulus with a fluid and accurate response.

Operating Software

All computers require operating software (technically "operating system") to run. Tablet computers, being computers, require operating software too. The operating software is software that works closely with the underlying device and exposes its features either directly to the user or to other software installed on the device. It also manages installation, removal and running of other software (or Apps) on the device and provides a uniform and consistent way of interacting with the device. Operating software starts automatically as soon as the device is turned on. Operating software is complicated to write correctly and takes time and dedicated computer engineering knowledge to get right. While a large number of manufacturers have the necessary technical skills to knock together a very cool tablet computer, few have the skill and time to write operating software for it. When combined with the effort of writing a suitable operating software, designing a tablet computer becomes uneconomical for many.

Tablet computers are easier to uniquely identify than traditional computers. This often raises concerns of privacy as tablet manufacturers and App writers can use the unique serial number to track your behaviour over time.

Android LogoHowever this issue has been addressed by Google whos team of engineers have written the Android operating system which Google licences to hardware manufacturers for use on their tablets. A readily available good quality operating system suddenly makes manufacturing tablets economical for lots of manufacturers. Hence the sudden growth in the number of tablet computer manufacturers. Following suit from Google, Microsoft has also taken the plunge and created a Windows based operating system for tablets, further increasing competition for both operating software and tablets in the market. Finally Apple has its own operating system for tablets inspired by Mac OSX called iOS. However Apple does not allow other tablet manufacturers to use its operating system and uses iOS only on its own tablet hardware.

Apple App StoreOperating software in itself is not very useful to a user. It allows the computer to be switched on and off, allows monitoring battery charge and allows the user to turn services like bluetooth and camera on or off, adjust speaker volume etc. These operations in themselves do not accomplish any meaningful goal for a user. Hence all operating software allows the user to load other software which actually does work for the user. Software that checks emails, makes calls, takes notes, checks train schedules etc... All the aforementioned operating system companies, Google, Apple and Microsoft have therefore created an ecosystem around their respective tablet operating systems which allows third-party software companies to write and publish useful software and games for their operating system. Such software are called Apps1 in the tablet computer speak. The companies have linked their respective operating systems closely with their own App ecosystem (or App stores), allowing the user to find, buy, rate and download Apps they like.

The Advantages of Tablet Computers

iPad training, Prairie du Chien Memorial HospitalTablet computers together with their operating software and App ecosystem have several advantages:

  • They are extremely portable. Often carried in a pocket or bag and without requiring chargers or power plug points. This allows them to be carried and used in places and situations where a traditional computer or even laptop would not be convenient, like when standing in a train or when sat in a car.
  • Tablet computers provide lots of inbuilt sensors to detect position, orientation and touch as standard allowing them to accomplish tasks (like satellite navigation) that a traditional computer or laptop (that usually lack these sensors) cannot do.
  • They offer more intuitive tactile control by employing touch screens. Traditional computer users have to learn to use keyboards and mice to interact with graphics on a computer screen, a tablet allows the user to point to the graphic with their fingers. Something which most people can do without much effort. Even for disabled individuals, tablet computers offer a more accessible interface than traditional computers. This allows tablet computers to be used by a larger group of users including small children and disabled and elderly individuals.
  • Tablet computer operating systems are purposely designed to offer a simple interface, hiding or disabling complex computer tasks like file, folder and disk management from the users. Also the operating system manufacturers vet all Apps that can be downloaded from their App ecosystem for viruses and malware offering a more secure environment. This makes managing and trouble shooting tablet computers easier for users who are not tech-savvy.
  • Tablet operating systems are designed to be easier to update. Manufacturers usually release carefully controlled updates for their tablet operating systems and the tablets update themselves automatically over-the-air when connected to the Internet, usually only prompting the user once to confirm the update.
  • Due to their wider reach easy to use interface, tablet computer Apps are simpler to write and easier to distribute over the Internet. This allows App writers to charge less for their software. In fact most tablet computer Apps are priced at £0.99 or £1.99. The Apps are also highly targeted to do at most one thing like checking email or taking a picture or checking a train schedule. For a different task a different App is made available to download. Most tablet users have several Apps they use regularly and the operating system allows the user to switch between Apps.

The Downsides of Tablet Computers

Despite all the plus points and fame, tablet computers have some downsides:Marvel Super Heroes Computer Fun Book Two (1984)

  • While more powerful chips have become small enough to fit inside tablet computers, larger computer chips have also become exceedingly more powerful over the years. So traditional computers always trump tablet computers in sheer computing power. Tablet computers cannot handle intensive computing tasks well. They cannot for example be used to compute weather predictions or serve a website to thousands of users over the Internet.
  • Tablet computer Apps have to be snappy in order for them to be useful, this means they cannot be used to perform lengthy tasks (like rendering large and complex 3D vector graphics).
  • Due to their limited screen size and lack of dedicated external keyboard they may prove unsuitable for professional editing and writing tasks, where an A4 view of the page is required or large amounts of text need to be entered by experienced typists.
  • Tablet computers are good for running Apps but they are not suitable for writing Apps. Apps are written by computer programmers on traditional computers and copied over to the tablet for running them. So tablet computers are not good computer programming tools and are unsuitable for learning computer programming. Users cannot write their own Apps unless they own a traditional computer and are registered with the operating systems App ecosystem.
  • While you can install and remove Apps, tablet computers do not allow you to install, remove or switch operating systems or choose between multiple operating systems. They are locked to the operating system installed and supported by the manufacturer.
  • Because they hide the complexity of a computer system behind a pretty interface the users are limited to using Apps provided by the App ecosystem. Using un-vetted Apps from outside of the App ecosystem is either disabled or dangerous because security outside the App ecosystem is lax.
  • While tablet computers provide lots of inbuilt sensors they offer very limited outside connectivity to external displays, input devices, scanners and printers often requiring specialist hardware and/or connecting cables.
  • Tablet computers are easier to uniquely identify than traditional computers. The locked nature of the operating system, need for over-the-air updates and need to track App purchases and such other factors require the manufacturer to assign unique serial numbers to each tablet. These serial numbers are often readable by Apps on the tablet allowing them to uniquely identify a particular tablet. This often raises concerns of privacy as tablet manufacturers and App writers can use the unique serial number to track your behaviour over time.
  • Due to their limited electrical power and connectivity tablets cannot drive external hardware like disk drives or servo motors.
  • Finally tablet computers are fairly new and their extreme portability and accessibility is causing people to spend increasing amounts of time interacting with LCD display technologies, often at times or in environments not suited to LCD use (for example at night or when lighting is inadequate). The real impact of such interactions on human cognitive processes and human vision over extended periods isn't very well known or researched yet.

The Future

Intel Celeron CPUTablet computers are here to stay and they are only going to get better and more powerful. However they are constantly being developed and improved and hence any tablet you buy is in danger of being made obsolete very quickly. They are also fairly pricey for the limited hardware and computing power they offer. If you are planning to buy one read the above disadvantages carefully and consider how you would use your tablet.

Remember that portability, the key selling point of a tablet, is essentially dependent on battery life. The very cheap end of the market may have good tablets but they may have poor quality batteries that could die quickly leaving you with a pretty useless tablet computer. Without battery power its a brick.

Finally consider carefully the operating system you are getting with your tablet and its accompanying App ecosystem. A good operating system with a poor or non-existent App ecosystem will make the tablet pretty useless. A home-grown or hacked-on operating system will make the tablet a real pain to use and potentially a personal information security risk. Android and Apple are currently at the forefront of the operating system and App ecosystem race. Microsoft is catching on. Others have either died or are being left far behind and this trend is unlikely to change for a while. So spend your money wisely and you could open lots of new possibilities with your tablet computer.

  • 1. A term popularized by Apple and short for Software Application