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Computer or Tablet: Which Do You Need?

How to determine the gadget that's best for you

I love my iPad Air 2. I use it to check my email, play with Pinterest, read books, learn Italian, watch movies, check out what’s happening with my friends and family on Facebook, make lists of things to do on Evernote, watch the weather on DarkSky, find out what birds I’m seeing through BirdSnap, identify the constellations in the sky with Universe HD, read the news on Flipboard, use Twitter to tweet about what I’ve just read on Flipboard and more.

I also love my iMac and my MacBook Air. My work involves heavy-duty computer use, and I simply could not do it without the word processing, slide presentation and photo editing capabilities that my computers provide.
Still, the question for me and everyone else — and especially for people 50+ who may be working less — is whether there will come a time when we need all the tech. Are we already at a crossroads where tablets, which fit easily into a pocketbook, may be enough tech for everyone? A forecast by Statista reveals that while desktop and laptop growth will level off or even dip a bit by 2017, global tablet shipments will nearly double.

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Evidently, we are a world moving toward tablet use. Here’s what this means for the average boomer:
The Tablet: A Primer
Tablets — including Apple’s iPad and several that run on Google’s Android operating system, such as the Google Nexus 9, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S and the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 — may look like skinny computers, but they work differently.
Computers, for the most part, depend on software programs that live on a hard drive. Many applications, like Facebook, must be accessed through the computer browser: Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome or Firefox to name four.
Tablets, by contrast, have apps — self-contained programs that do one thing only. Click on Words With Friends, and that’s the game you’ll play. When you want to switch to Candy Crush Saga, you'd have to open that app and you would no longer see Words With Friends on your screen.

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“Even tablets that promote themselves by promising you can use more than one app at a time don’t do it so well,” observes Duane Myers, a political consultant in Dayton, Ohio who is also a well-regarded tech expert. Tablets' browsers are improving, but websites may be difficult to read and manipulate on a mobile device (the fault of the website owner, not the device).
Input systems also differ. On a computer, the keyboard and mouse rule. Tablets depend on touch. And voice. If you have an iPad, you can doubleclick a button and say, “Siri, read me my email,” or, “Siri, open up Candy Crush Saga." (Tablets can also be used with keyboards wirelessly connected through Bluetooth signals.)
Work at Home? You Probably Need a Computer
So many apps are available for tablets — from word processing to social media to games — that people gawking at the latest line of iPad Airs may consider throwing over the laptop. How convenient to have so much power in a device that slips into a pocketbook!
I have seen programmers writing code on an iPad; however, I know from personal experience that many intensive work-related activities cannot be done easily on a tablet. The size of the screen plays a crucial role: I cannot easily switch between multiple browser tabs on a tablet. Even with the new Microsoft Word app, editing an article is close to impossible on my iPad.
Liz Scherer, a health and wellness consultant from the Washington, D.C. area, feels similarly. “It’s so helpful to have a large screen,” she says, “even if what I’m doing is not strictly speaking ‘work.’ My iPad — that’s for the gym.”
Other boomers can’t imagine the tablet ever replacing their laptops, even when they’re online “just for fun.”

Susan Borst, who works for a well-known interactive trade organization in New York City, ticks off what she considers the benefits of her home laptop: “It’s easier to type on; it has more storage; the screen is better,” she says. “We have three iPads at home and the only time I use one is to video my daughter’s dance competitions. I can see more of the picture as I film than I would with a phone camera.”
Just Entertainment? A Tablet May Be Enough
Others, though, like the idea of powering down the computer when the day’s work is done and turning to the tablet.

“Sometimes during the day, when I’m working on my laptop, I’ll fiddle around to check my email,” admits Marjorie Lehman, the managing editor of a consumer health website. “For me, switching to the iPad signals that the day is done, that I’m in relaxation mode.”

Lehman uses her iPad to check out reviews of plays on the iPad browser, to play games and read books. “I love my iPad, and when I retire, I think I’ll hardly use my laptop at all,” she adds.
Amy Vernon, a digital consultant from Elizabeth, N.J., has helped her parents transition from the computer to the iPad. The iPad, she says, is "terrific for keeping in touch. For some reason, my parents always were having email problems with their computer. With the iPad, they don’t. They can use Skype to talk their grandchildren. They can use Netflix. It’s also cozier to cuddle up with a tablet than a laptop.”
Of course for some, a laptop works better for relaxation-time than a tablet.

“I’m a little topsy-turvy,” jokes Cathy Chester, an advocate for people living with MS who lives in northern New Jersey. “I like how light the iPad is when I’m going to work. It’s easier to carry than a laptop, and with the problems my MS gives me with my hands, that can be crucial.” However, in the evening, Chester returns to her laptop. “The keyboard is easier for me to use and the screen is larger, so I don’t strain my eyes. I crawl into bed with my laptop, not my iPad,” she notes.

(MORE: Is Your Computer Killing Your Eyes?)
Power to the Tablet
Technophiles believe that the tablet will soon eclipse the laptop and desktop. Myers, a 50-plusser himself, points to its strengths. “There are so many apps available, many of them free or nearly so, that you can do anything on the tablet. Many stores have apps, so you can shop. You can show pictures to your friends. You can watch movies and TV shows — or you can set it up so the tablet streams the show to your larger television,” Myers says.
Also important to remember: the tablet has enough memory that through Amazon, Google Play or the Apple store, you can purchase a movie, download it and watch it when you don’t have an Internet connection — perfect for entertaining grandchildren in the backseat of a car.

When you think about it, the tablet screen is actually larger and clearer than those you find on the back of the seat in front of you on airplanes. (Add to that the benefit of viewing a movie you actually want to see during a long flight and not putting your hands all over something other people have been touching.)

Another tablet benefit: Amazon and Apple both allow family members to share the contents of their digital library.
Ryan Geddes, a tech entrepreneur in Toronto, points out that while a laptop grows hot, and thus uncomfortable if you have it in your lap, a tablet does not. The battery life in a tablet is much longer than the one in a laptop. “Basically, since there are no moving parts, it’s harder to break a tablet than a laptop, unless you drop it,” Geddes says.
Myers’s and Geddes’s conclusion: for most people not doing heavy work, the tablet is enough.
A Quick Buyer’s Guide for Tablets
Tablets differ according to make and model, and the screen size can vary from about 7 inches to over 11; but they are all relatively lightweight. Memory capacity varies greatly and affects price. The better Android tablets and iPads have cameras included. Some specifics:

  • The Barnes and Noble Nook is basically an e-reader. The more expensive models have some Internet connectivity; $99 to $319 (which is a Samsung Galaxy).
  • The Kindle Fire HDX 8.9; from $379. One benefit of the Fire is its “Mayday” feature that connects to help 24/7 at the touch of a button if something goes wrong.
  • Google Nexus 9; $399.99 – $599.99
  • iPad Mini 3; $399 – $729, depending on memory and connectivity options, etc.
  • iPad Air 2;  $499 – $829, depending on memory and connectivity options, etc.

Most tech reviewers agree that the iPad Air 2 is, at the moment, the best tablet on the market. It is also pricey, though, and some say the Google Nexus provides excellent value.

If you’re looking to save money, though, beware of paying too little. Right now the market is flooded with Android models with outdated software and knockoffs from China which can be very, very cheap. However, you’ll get what you pay for. If you can’t get onto the Google Play store to download apps (which is what happens with the $99 models), you’ve basically bought a useless hunk of metal and plastic.

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