Are We In A Tablet Bubble? Echoes of the Wii Fit Balance Board

Opening The Internet To A Computer Novice

My father-in-law recently asked us to help him join the computer age.

Seeing the rest of the family sharing photos via Flickr, video and voice chatting via Skype and Google Talk, enjoying the endless information and entertainment on the web, he had come to see its value as a communication device. He never owned one before.

He’s also a bit of a news junkie. He had just got his first digital camera and its filling memory card needed somewhere to be emptied.

Like many with this need we considered a tablet. Clearly we’re not alone as the netbook market has seen a 40% drop as people go the tablet route. Tablets, or more specifically the iPad2, gobbling up the market.

Bucking the trend, we decided to go with a laptop.

Whether Laptop or Tablet – A Decision Many Are Making But Few Are Admitting

Not only would a decent tablet cost more, it would arguably bring a poorer web browsing experience in a less versatile, less usable package.

We started watching for laptop options, the ideal device being an inexpensive unit that he would primarily use at home, allowing him to enjoy the so-called “full web” and to use Google Talk and Skype to video and voice chat.

In an ideal world it would weigh little and gently sip power, but given that it would be used primarily on household surfaces or laps, where a power outlet is never far away, those criteria ranked low.

This past weekend a Canadian retailer had a decent unit on sale for $379, so we grabbed one.

Its specs are surprisingly good for the price.

  • 15.6” LED-lit Screen (1366×768) w/webcam
  • AMD N660 Dual-Core Processor
  • Radeon HD 4250 Integrated Graphics
  • 4GB of DDR3 1333Mhz RAM
  • 640GB Hard Drive
  • 8x Dual-Layer DVD Burner
  • SD/MMC Memory Card Reader + 3 x USB 2.0
  • 802.11 g/n + 1Gbps Ethernet
  • Windows Home Premium

And on and on. It’s amazing what you can get for so little.

Some would argue that tablets and laptops are different markets, and I would agree that they should be: I see tablets as a niche device in between smartphones and a full laptop, where you want more portability and battery life, for which you’re willing to accept the compromises that the device and form factor represents. Whether a touch screen or not is simply not as important as it is held, and most laptops have a touch-screen equivalent in the form of a touchpad, some newer ones even offering multitouch.

Where Tablets Fit

A tablet doesn’t replace a smartphone, and it doesn’t replace a laptop/desktop. But if you’re a relatively new football fan like me and you’re watching the game and want to know what a nickelback position is, or what a hard count is, or you wonder whether that movie coming on is worth watching, a tablet is a perfect device to pull up web resources on (especially if it offers voice recognition). It’s also great tool when you’re casually considering dinner ideas.

Tablets are a perfect quick reference information-consumption coffee table device. They also make great remote controls or DLNA directors. I’ve used my tablet to play streams through Bluetooth to the media system.

Tablets are great work tools when you’re in the information gathering stage, which is an enormously important and under-appreciated aspect of any information-reliant task.

It is a usage where a $200 – $400 price range seems about right. $500 – $1000 seems excessive.

The tablet hype is going overboard. A lot of people are now buying tablets instead of laptops and desktops, being told that they’ve caught up or exceeded the venerable PC. We’re seeing chatter about workforces being equipped with expensive tablets as their primary device. Outside of the inventory takers and bedside doctors that are used as the example, such a decision is questionable: If your work doesn’t primarily involve the use of a clipboard, such examples hold little relevance and the device is being selected based on a strength that in most other cases is a weakness.

I believe this is a result of the novelty coupled with an exaggeration of the utility and power of the current crop of tablets, with owners trying to justify their excessive purchases with tales of the magical immersion they’ve experienced.

Many have already been relegated to shelf-filler. People seldom talk about foolish purchases, though, so you’re unlikely to hear much about that.

The Pet Rock of 2011

It is echos of the Wii Balance Board and the Wii Fit software product: It should have been obvious that those devices were oversold gimmicks, yet the tubes were awash with tales of people and their regimented fitness plans, sure that this represented a fundamental shift in the consumer to electronics interface.

They sold 20 million. Now some 20 million balance boards gather dust pushed under couches. I foresee the same outcome of many of the 10 million Xbox Kinect sales.

To go back to that cheap laptop I grabbed, let’s contrast some performance numbers with an iPad2. I do this because no one is doing this: While sales of tablets are soaring, and laptops are in freefall, every review only compares tablets against each other, or against smartphones, intertwined with talk about the end of days for the “PC era”.

I chose the iPad2 as the ambassador of tablets because it is the current performance leader in the space. It is a great device in a remarkable form factor. As a laptop replacement, though, it is a terrible mistake, just as most other $500+ tablets are (whether Android or RIM or Samsung, etc).

How Fast Are Tablets Not As Fast As You Probably Think

Where the iPad2 takes 2,121 ms to run the Sunspider 0.9.1 gauntlet, this $379 laptop takes 285ms, completing 7.4 runs in the same time as the iPad2. Sunspider is a single-threaded test so this doesn’t exploit the second core in either system, though if it did the relative performance would be similar.

I included a Core i7-950 desktop as well, it coming in 10.4 times faster, though of course it hosts two more real cores and four more hyperthread cores and offers a magnitudes more powerful device.

In V8 Benchmark rev 3 the field widens, with the laptop (again,the $379 laptop) posting 20.8x better results (7448 vs 358), the desktop coming in 35x faster.

JavaScript performance isn’t everything, but the basic web performance and responsiveness is mirrored in other aspects of the platform. Which is why on tablets, like with smartphones, there is a large set of web site surrogates, tuned and twisted for the special limitations of the device. The platform is where the PC market was 15 years ago, when the web was unsuitable for serious business and everything came in app form, cheered on by those who benefit. We see the same thing today where people whose paycheck relies upon you living with a limited, isolated experience cheer on such limits because, in the end, you living in a computation ghetto serve their purposes.

Boundless Potential

This bargain-bin laptop plays high-profile h.264 1920×1080 24Mps video from my video camera flawlessly, using just 30% of the CPU. Despite having an old school 5.4k spinning rust drive it actually managed to run two such videos simultaneously…flawlessly. The iPad2, despite a best-of-class video capability, would choke to death on this standard consumer camera source, and that’s making a big assumption that the user got over the complex hurdles to get the data from the camera to the tablet in the first place.

It’s remarkable how necessary a real PC is in this post-PC era. It’s telling how simplicity disappears once you try to do ordinary real world tasks.

On this laptop the father-in-law can play just about any video or audio source imaginable, instantly and with ease. No limits or transcoding/massaging necessary. He can use every punch-the-monkey filled Flash site and they run flawlessly. Hulu, Netflix, eReaders…it’s all there. Rdio, Pandora, Slacker, playing real world DVDs…with ease. It isn’t a ghetto.

The GPU of the laptop is absolute bottom-of-the-barrel for a PC, though it easily holds its own against the best-of-class GPU in the iPad2.

We’ve gotten to the point where we’re amazed with so little on these newer devices, while we expect so much from everything in the PC realm. Every now and then the illusion is shattered – such as the unsatisfying experience many have with the Motorola Atrix in laptop form, where the underwhelming performance of the Tegra2 suddenly becomes obvious when compared with long existing competitors — but by and large we’re amazed by some pretty unamazing performances.

The iPad has some great video editing functionality given the limitations of the device. Comparing the video editor on an iPad to even a basic PC running a real video editing suite (I prefer Vegas Pro), though, is a laughable comparison.

And despite having used touchscreens for years, I question that anyone could claim that they enjoy the experience for general use: Notice that most posts and message from an iPad or touchscreen smartphone tends to be of remarkable brevity It isn’t because the user is having such a great experience documenting their thoughts. Tales of someone heroically forcing themselves to type more on the device are held up as acts of bravery.

There are many downsides to the laptop. It weighs some 3x more than an iPad, though to offset that it comes with a convenient carrying case/screen protector with integrated keyboard that will confidently hold it at whatever angle you’d like.

The laptop has a four hour battery life, versus the 10 hours of the iPad2 (mostly due to the lower power chips in the iPad2, but helped by the bigger 6930 mAh battery in the tablet versus the 4400 mAh unit in the laptop), which would be a terrible downside if the expected use were away from outlets.

Such is not the case for the vast majority of purchasers, however.

With Windows 7 Home Premium and the limited user account I’ve set up for the computer novice user, coupled with the silent sentience of Windows Security Essentials, I have little concern that he’ll do anything to negatively impact his experience: My eight, six and four year old have been rolling on their own PCs under such a configuration with ease and no issues. They have no difficulty whatsoever getting around on the platform.

I anticipate the occasional moved taskbar or hidden bookmark bar, though Remote Assistance and the brilliance of Easy Pass makes that easy to solve.

I’m very confident with this decision. I feel that a lot of people are expecting too much from tablets and are going to come to regret the expensive decision they have made. I do think there is a bit of a fad occurring in the tablet market (be sure to mark this as “claim chowder”) and, like with the Nintendo Wii, there will come a reckoning day.

The device and the technology are being grossly oversold, used as a replacement without ever being rationally compared to those devices. Outside of the clipboard replacement, we will need a few more generations of tablet chipsets – an area where the low-hanging fruit has already quickly disappeared and the performance gains are becoming harder to squeeze out – before they can credibly compete with low-end laptops. ARM technology is brilliant in its low power guise, but the question is whether such incredibly low power consumption is worth the compromises required. On a smartphone of course it is, but on a device that you use in lieu of a laptop, the answer is fuzzy.