When introducing the iPad in 2010, Apple called it “a revolutionary device for browsing the web, reading and sending email, enjoying photos, watching videos, listening to music, playing games, reading e-books and much more.” This “new category of devices,” as then-CEO Steve Jobs referred to it, launched the tablet phenomenon. By 2016, an estimated 650 million tablets will have been sold worldwide—many of them crucial to small-business operations.
“Tablets have matured far past simple personal use,” says Todd Haselton, who writes about the tech industry as executive director of mobile for TechnoBuffalo.com. Will they replace laptops and desktop computers altogether? The answer seems to be yes… eventually. Today’s tablets have some disadvantages when compared to desktops and laptops, like smaller screens and less processing speed and memory, but there are plenty of advantages, too. So let’s explore.
Reap the Rewards
Here’s how tablets earn their keep for small-business owners:
-The average tablet weighs less than 2 pounds and is smaller than a typical 8-by-10-inch book, so compactness and portability are notable benefits. Most can hook up to a monitor, keyboard and mouse for use just like a desktop.
-While you’ll still have to shell out a few hundred bucks, a tablet is cheaper than a laptop (although it won’t have all the functionality).
-Time is money, so answering emails and customer requests quickly is vital. A tablet also lets you collaborate with co-workers and clients on a more personal level via videoconferencing.
-People are visual, so for salespeople or other employees making pitches and presentations, a tablet is ideal for demonstrating products and services, and displaying charts, photos and more. Once you’ve dazzled your clients, they can even sign on the dotted line right on the tablet.
-There’s an appealing geek factor to tablets, so businesses use them to interact with and wow customers. For instance, a restaurant may have its menu online and let diners order from a tablet. Or a physician on rounds may display a patient’s X-rays.
-A December 2012 poll by technology solutions provider CDW found that 84 percent of employees who used a tablet for work said it made them better multitaskers. Users averaged 2.1 hours a day on their tablets for work and gained 1.1 hours of productivity daily, the poll found.
-If employees at companies such as Apple and Walmart use tablets to streamline inventory management, track shipments and the like, so can you.
Consider these facts before you open your wallet:
-While tablets are great for many business functions, a desktop is sometimes superior—for instance, if you’re creating a document and need to pull information from various online and stored computer files while you’re doing it. So know their limitations. In fact, before you replace all your laptops with tablets, Heinan Landa, CEO of Maryland-based IT management firm Optimal Networks, advises: “Assess how and how often your employees are using their laptops. If you manage a heavy laptop-user organization, tablets aren’t the replacement device for your organization right now. What we recommend is that when your organization is due for the next round of laptop replacements, allocate tablets for your light laptop users and collect feedback. This small, light-user population may be more productive with a tablet.”
-Make sure the tablet is easy to manage from an IT perspective. Haselton says you should ask yourself, Can you install apps remotely? What happens if a tablet is lost? Can you delete the data remotely? These factors are key, he says, especially for workers on the road.
-If your employees have iPhones, use lots of Apple apps and are familiar with the iOS operating system, your best bet might be to go with an iPad over a tablet with the rival Android operating system. And vice versa.
-To save on your purchase, consider a refurbished tablet, which typically comes with a warranty. Sharing is not a good savings option, Haselton says, because it’s inefficient. “If you need to keep costs low, look at the Google Nexus 7 or other sub-$200 tablets,” he says.
-Buy only the storage you need. More and more content can now be accessed via cloud computing, and there are apps such as LogMeIn that let you remotely access your desktop.
-Free wireless Internet access isn’t available everywhere, so buying a data plan for your tablet could save you money. But if you can share your smartphone’s mobile Internet connection by tethering it via a USB connection or other option, then you may not need one. Some carriers charge to enable tethering, though, so a pay-as-you-go plan could end up being cheaper than a monthly contract. Research the options, consider your usage habits and decide what’s best for you.
-Consider security. Tablets are more vulnerable than desktops and laptops, so you have to protect them.
Best of the Bunch
Apple’s iPad, the one that started it all, is easily the best-selling tablet, but it has plenty of competition. Everybody from Dell to BlackBerry to Google has gotten in the game with Android devices.
When asked for his top picks when it came to business use, Landa chose the ever-popular iPad ($500*) as well as the Samsung Galaxy Tab ($169). He also mentioned the Microsoft Surface Pro ($900), but conceded it’s pricey and bulky.
Haselton did praise the Surface Pro when talking about his favorites. “It’s very powerful and can compete with laptops. You can even set up a virtual private network (VPN) and access a work computer.” But like Landa, Haselton says the iPad is a top pick not only because of the large app selection, but also because “most people are used to the operating system and user interface already.” As his third choice, Haselton said he’d consider the new Samsung ATIV Tab 3 ($730). “I’m in love with it. It has a full version of Windows 8 and is super-portable. Plus it has an S Pen for taking notes on the fly.”
Other highly rated models include the Nexus 7 ($229), which runs on the latest version of the Android Jelly Bean operating system, and the Dell XPS 12 ($1,100), which, with a quick flip of the screen, converts from a laptop to a tablet.
Haselton is jazzed about the future of tablets. “I’m really interested to see what Microsoft has up its sleeves. We’ve heard rumors of 7- to 9-inch tablets with Windows 8, and I think the more portable a tablet is, the better. Add a Bluetooth keyboard if you need the extra space for typing. We’ve also long heard rumors that Nokia is working on a tablet, and that company is known for creating amazing hardware and adding a nice software touch.”
*All prices are approximate for a basic model.