Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tablets, smartphones and everything else - how many devices do you need?

Today, a friend told me that he is considering whether to buy an iPhone or an iPad. Of course, the short answer would have been 'get both' but that's just not a practical answer for most of us. I believe that every device - dumbphone, smartphone, ebook reader, tablet, netbook, laptop, desktop - has a precise application. As manufacturers flood the market with more and more types of devices and form factors, it becomes important to know what your applications and usage will be and then you can make an exact choice. Otherwise, we run the real risk of throwing a lot of money down the drain buying expensive devices that don't really do what we want them to do.

Today smartphones are like the proverbial Swiss knife, doing a bit of everything on the go - gaming, browsing, productivity, music, photography, movies etc. Yes, phones are a portable solution, but there will always be a better solution. For instance, an enthusiastic photographer will never substitute his standalone camera for a phone camera. Yes, it can be a handy alternative at an office party, but when he goes to shoot 'real' pictures, he will want his stand-alone camera.

I spoke to someone who was very unhappy after buying an iPad. He wanted a device that would help him to make presentations on the go and be light to use and carry. He soon found that while it was easy to create basic presentation decks on the iPad, he could not edit objects with the same precision and ease that he did on his MacBook.  His expectations did not match the set of applications that tablets are really good at, and therefore he felt he had wasted his money.

Historically, convergence has not worked and it is certainly not in manufacturers' interest to make it work. Standalone devices, even at budget price, always have better specs for specialised applications - especially gaming, photography, music.

What combination of devices you own, and how many you own, is a matter of your need and choice. However, here is my checklist on which device is best suited for which applications;

1) Smartphones
If you will mostly use email, text and chat, then a BlackBerry and BBM is what you need. Given the current uncertainty about RIM's future, a Curve at under Rs.15,000 would be a safe bet.

If you want a Swiss knife - to browse the net, game, download apps, take photos etc. but have a  budget, go for an Android phone. It is a fantastic smartphone platform that offers something for every pocket.

When you spend over Rs.25,000 for a phone, then I believe that it should constitute a major chunk of your online browsing, or it should offer an additional functionality like a good camera or MP4 player. Apart from the iPhone 4, the Android ecosystem offers some great choices like Galaxy S II, HTC Desire HD, Dell Streak etc. Hardware freaks (I am one of them) will always be fascinated by the specs on Android phones, which tend to be ahead of the curve, like the new superfast processor in the Samsung Galaxy S2.


2) Tablet 
At the current stage of evolution, a tablet is useful for browsing, light gaming and some basic typing (mails, short documents). They are not yet engineered to be great productivity devices. Tablets are simply perfect for consuming content in unconventional positions - lying down, curled up on the sofa, on the floor. But this is a convenience that you are paying a premium for and if you have a budget, you can easily substitute a tablet with a netbook, or a regular laptop.

If you intend to buy a 3G enabled tablet, then you should seriously consider what you intend to do on your phone. Maybe you could re-focus on the phone as a messaging device and go for one with big keys, or a great QWERTY keyboard like BlackBerry or Nokia. At most, you would need only push mail on your phone!

If you still intend to get an expensive smartphone, save yourself some money and get a wi-fi only tablet.


3) ebook reader
Like tablets, ebook readers have a fantastic form factor that allows you to read in pretty much any posture. If you have a tablet and you are a light reader, you would not want an ebook reader. But if reading is going to be your main application, I would recommend that you get a Kindle. E-ink is just so much easier on the eyes. And the future of ebook readers very clearly includes improved touch screen functionality and maybe even color+E-ink combo screens, which will make them more tablet-like in nature

4) Netbook
While the analysts threaten that this category will become obsolete with the advent of tablets, the price factor (Rs.15-18,000 as opposed to Rs.30,000+ for tablets) makes netbooks hard to ignore if you are on a budget. It appears that Intel will re-invent the tired-out Atom range of processors, and some other manufacturers may put ARM processors into netbooks and this could breathe a new life into the category. For me the parallel for netbooks is touchscreen phones with QWERTY keyboards. The touch+QWERTY smartphones satisfy a niche audience and netbooks can do that too. My friend who was dissatisfied with the iPad for editing presentations would have found a MacBook Air to be a much better tool. The Air could well be the future of netbooks - touting cool and fast solid state drives, ultra thin and light and with reasonably powerful processors. Now if we could get this in the same price range as tablets, netbooks would become a great alternative.

Looking at the functionality of each device, I would say that most of us need just a smartphone and some of us may need a smartphone and one extra device. But gadget freaks are not driven by pure need, otherwise most gadgets would never get sold at all!