Tablets turning the tables on traditional computers [Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.]
(Saint Paul Pioneer Press (MN) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Dec. 07--Most people only use the iPad's on-screen keyboard for tapping out emails, tweets or Facebook updates.
But Patrick Rhone of St. Paul wrote a book that way -- with his Apple tablet at a slight incline on a desk or table at a variety of locations, and his index fingers flying across the virtual keys.
This isn't Rhone's only feat of mobile productivity. The technology consultant and prolific blogger customarily composes lengthy blog posts -- sometimes nearing 1,000 words each -- on his iPhone screen in horizontal orientation.
"The majority of the blog posts I write these days, I write in landscape, using my iPhone, typing with my thumbs," he said. "Why? Well, because it's what I have on hand all the time, and when inspiration hits me, I could be anywhere."
Although many others are putting mobile devices to work, Rhone is somewhat of an extreme case.
About a quarter-century after the personal-computer revolution took hold, Rhone and others are helping spark a new computer revolution -- this one centered on iPads, Android tablets and other ultra-portable devices.
The point of all this is productivity. Most who own iPads and similar hardware typically use them for content consumption -- watching videos, reading e-books and the like.
More and more people are harnessing the devices for content creation, though.
This often takes the form of writing, one of civilization's oldest skills, yet one at the heart of a mobile-computing groundswell that is threatening to overshadow traditional computers.
TABLET OUTSELLS PC
Tablet shipments are due to surpass PC shipments during the fourth quarter of 2013, according to IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based market-research firm.
Although PC shipments are still expected to be greater than tablet shipments for the full year, the tablet looks to gain the upper hand in 2015, according to IDC.
Rhone has been sold on tablets as productivity tools since 2010.
That is when Apple released the first iPad model, and pitched it partly as a work device via its iWork apps for document design, spreadsheet work and presentation creation. Rhone was among the millions snapping up that original, groundbreaking tablet.
Since then, other kinds of mobile devices have burst onto the scene. These have found adherents who, like Rhone, want to be productive on devices that aren't a burden to carry around, and are often easier on the pocketbook than portable computers.
Tablets running Google's Android operating system have improved in quality since their iffy early days. They are undercutting iPads on price and eating away at Apple's market share. Perhaps in response, Apple offered first-ever third-party discounts on certain of its iPads during Black Friday and Thanksgiving-week shopping.
Microsoft's Surface tablets haven't been hits, but the company has earned plaudits for building elegant machines and offering flip-out covers that double as superthin keyboards.
Other kinds of Windows tablets are inexpensive yet have power to spare, courtesy of Intel Atom "Bay Trail" processors.
Then there's Google's Web-centric Chromebook, a simplified and low-cost kind of notebook computer that runs neither Microsoft's Windows nor Apple's Mac OS X operating system but Chrome OS, a lightweight Google operating system derived from its popular Chrome browser.
Chromebooks are a hit in education, and are expected to be brisk sellers this holiday season -- as they were to a degree a year ago -- because they cost only $200 to $300.
Chromebooks also are finding fans among professionals who want an easy-to-use computer at a nice price that is focused on Google's Web services -- including Gmail and the Google Apps productivity suite.
REPLACING THE COMPUTER?
Some scoff -- with good reason -- at the notion of tablets or Chromebooks serving as stand-ins for traditional Windows PCs and Macintosh computers, which are more functional and flexible for most computing tasks. Such standard computers typically boast more raw power, too.
PCs and Macs tend to be more expensive than typical tablets and Chromebooks, however, putting off those seeking a secondary -- or primary -- computer that will not break the bank. Tablets or Chromebooks are better choices for many such people.
Tim Elliott, a Lakeville marketer and Web developer, had long used expensive MacBook Pro laptops, but wanted to simplify as his third Apple notebook reached the end of its useful life. With his souped-up Mac Pro desktop computer in his home office handling heavier computing chores, he realized he did not need a pricey and powerful laptop for the road.
He initially considered an iPad with an add-on physical keyboard, but found himself gravitating toward Chromebooks, which essentially consist of hardware built around a Web browser. This appealed to him because of the lower-overhead work he tends to do on the go: writing marketing materials and Web code, accessing Web resources and uploading website files to servers.
He realized he could do all of this and more in a Web-centric environment, using "Web apps" in place of traditional computer programs, to jump through all his usual hoops with minimal pain.
Chromebooks "are enough machine" for that kind of work, he said.
Elliott considered 11-inch machines, such as the HP Chromebook 11 and the Acer C720, but found them a bit cramped. He settled on an HP Chromebook 14, a model with a 14-inch display and good battery life -- all for about $300.
"I think if your budget is $300, you'll get a lot more with a Chromebook than you do with a $300 Windows PC" that has out-of-date internals and subpar build quality, he said.
Kevin Schoonover of Cottage Grove lately has been obsessed with squeezing productivity out of mobile devices -- not just for himself, but potentially for fellow employees at Arrow Enterprise Computer Solutions in Eden Prairie, where he is director of engineering.
Schoonover and his company are examples of business enterprises that are rethinking how and where work is done, and on what kinds of devices, while keeping a focus on teamwork.
Schoonover thinks ultra-portable Windows devices are a big part of the solution -- and has recently been putting one such device, Dell's new Venue 8 Pro, through its paces.
The Venue 8 Pro, which has riveted the Windows world, manages to cram Windows 8 into an 8-inch device that costs a mere $300, yet provides decent performance and battery life.
Schoonover said he's pretty happy with the device so far.
The computer's killer app, he said, is the Microsoft OneNote for organizing information like his meeting notes, task lists and project documents.
OneNote "has done away with my paper notes," he said.
The Venue's small size is another big plus, said Schoonover, who acknowledges he is not the smallest guy in the world. An airplane seat with a conventional laptop placed atop the tray table can be a tight fit.
He is far more comfortable while aloft with the Venue, which he pairs with a physical Bluetooth keyboard from Logitech on the tray table.
The Venue is not his primary computer, and he would not "create a bunch of Excel pivot tables" on it, among other demanding tasks -- but he said it's fine for the road.
Schoonover has played with other mobile computers. He has one of Microsoft's first-generation Surface tablets at the office, as well. For personal use, he went with an Android-based HP Slate 8 tablet.
He's noticed, though, that denizens of executive suites prefer the iPad almost without exception.
Until recently, Christopher and Mary Lower ran their home-based Sterling Cross Communications public-relations agency using aging Windows PCs.
One of the PCs, a Dell laptop, "was literally 20 pounds," Christopher Lower said. "You could do arm curls with it and get a good workout."
A newer desktop PC still does much of the agency's heavy lifting, but the Lowers are on iPads now for much of their day-to-day work -- including anything that would take them outside their Maple Grove residence.
Each also totes an Apple wireless keyboard along with an Incase Origami Workstation, a kind of keyboard case that morphs into an iPad stand when folded out in a particular way.
Portable Wi-Fi hotspots for cellular wireless-data access ensure they're always online while on the move.
"I literally can set up our office anywhere in the world and be at work," Christopher Lower said.
More than half of the Lowers' work weeks involves heavy writing of one kind or another -- anything from press releases and blog posts to meeting notes and text for sites they set up for their clients.
Christopher Lower has had a few minor problems with this. He has very large hands, for instance, so he finds the Bluetooth keyboard a smidgen too narrow for his taste. Using his fingertips on-screen for finding a cursor or cutting and pasting is even more of a challenge.
"It takes me a while to precisely get my finger in the right spot, because I have these big meat hands," he said.
Quibbles aside, the Lowers are delighted that the iPad has made their dream of a "virtual office" a reality.
When Christopher Lower is in clients' offices, he'll have the iPad on his lap without the keyboard and Origami Workstation, typing with his index fingers.
"I just hunker down and finger-pluck," he said.
The easy chairs at one of his favorite cafes have wide armrests that accommodate the tablets with their accessories perfectly.
And when he is home for the evening, he'll put in a few hours in bed with his iPad on a lap desk before turning in.
"We're at the point where we can't imagine life without" the iPads, Mary Lower said.
SCULPTING WITH THUMBS
Rhone, the St. Paul author and blogger, set aside his first-generation iPad as a plaything for his young daughter when his wife gave him an iPad mini -- Apple's smaller, lighter, thinner tablet -- not long ago.
This changed Rhone's writing routine to a degree. The mini is small enough that he can hold it up in a portrait orientation and compose on it with his thumbs, a maneuver that is not possible with a full-size iPad. He can also place it at a slight angle on a flat surface for composing with his index fingers, as he did with his previous tablet.
He'll switch to his primary machine, an Apple MacBook Air laptop, when doing heavy text editing with a lot of organizing or hyperlinking.
But, somewhat to his surprise, he still uses his iPhone most often for composing, including those meaty blog posts.
Rhone, who increasingly makes writing his primary vocation after years of tech-consulting work, said on-screen typing has made him feel more intimate with the words he creates.
"I have an emotional bond with what I'm writing that just doesn't exist when I'm removed from it" while on a physical keyboard, he said. "When I'm working with my text, it almost feels like I'm sculpting."
(c)2013 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)
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