It’s like watching evolution in progress. First, there was the personal computer, and for the sake of this short history lesson, we’ll only go as far back as the IBM or MacIntosh of the early 1980’s. Then the laptop appeared on the scene not too long after, followed by mobile phones and PDAs. Things calmed down for a bit until touch screen technology became viable for the consumer market, and then came the blending of PDAs and mobile phones into smartphones. Then came tablets, which caused a cascade of children with qualities blended with other devices. Tablets and smartphones are the parents of mini tablets (slightly smaller tablets) and phablets (slightly larger smartphones), while tablets and laptops sired convertible tablets (tablets with attached keyboards) and hybrids (laptops or tablets with detachable keyboards).
So if you’re a library buying new devices for the public, how do you choose where to put your money? Glad you asked.
Most often, the question is about tablet versus laptop; this is the question asked when portability or space are of concern. Most sources suggest that it comes down to the intended use. If the intended use is consumption — viewing websites or movies, checking email, and maybe playing some basic games — then tablets win out over laptops. On the flip side, if someone wants to craft a resume, do online tax filing or tinker with photos, then the laptops come out ahead. In libraries, this can mean the difference between “short-term” and “long-term” computer use, or “children’s computers” as compared to “adult-use computers.”
Things to think about in either case: both laptops and tablets can be tricky to manage in terms of physical security (making sure they don’t leave the building), and tablets are also tough to lock down so that others aren’t able to tinker with their settings (though you can go a long ways with the parental controls of most tablets). Also, tablets are the hardest to troubleshoot of the three, and even replacing a tablet’s battery may mean sending it back to the manufacturer. Laptops are easier to deal with, but are more difficult to maintain than desktops.
Desktops have the greatest space needs by far, but often make for a better long-term investment. Desktops can be comparable in expense to laptops, particularly since monitors can and often will outlive the desktops with which they were purchased, and don’t need to be replaced for many years. If a part fails within a desktop, often it can be swapped out with little trouble. Desktops are ideal for high-end software needs, as it’s far less expensive to buy the necessary desktop components for computer gaming or video rendering than the comparable laptop would cost.
So the long and short of it: tablets are great for basic web browsing (though no tablet currently supports Flash out of the box) and productivity, but are rarely the best choice for workhorse machines. Consider tablets when you want to educate your patrons on the use of tablets, or to give them a fun and easy way to connect to the Internet. Laptops and desktops are better for a more well-rounded service, with laptops winning out when space or mobility is a factor. Desktops are best for longevity or high-end software needs.
What’s your experience with tablets versus laptops? What way is your library headed?