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Monday, September 19, 2011

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Last week I wrote about my new HP Touchpad, describing it's functionality as an ebook reader. But for most of us here at the Friday Challenge, a more interesting use for a tablet computer is as a portable writing machine.

As I mentioned last week, I already have a Dell netbook, which weighs about twice as much as the Touchpad, has about half the battery life as the Touchpad (and only then because I bought a nine cell battery), a screen only slightly larger than the Touchpad, and a keyboard which is advertised as being 92% the size of a standard QWERTY keyboard. Oh, and it generates a lot of heat.

If you've got a desk or table on which to place the netbook, it's a good portable writing machine. The smaller keyboard takes some getting used to -- typing on Chiclets is how Bruce has described using his -- but once I've adjusted to the slightly smaller size, I can type fast enough to keep up with my imagination. Despite the netbook's memory limitations -- one GB of memory and a small, 80 GB hard drive -- the netbook can run any word processor available for PCs, including anything associated with MS Office. I mention Office not because it's so good (though I do really like OneNote) but because Microsoft is not known for making particularly memory-efficient software. All in all, the netbook is a good, highly portable option for a writer looking for a way to carry his work around with him. Or her.

Given my summary of the netbook, what possible benefit is there to a Touchpad, iPad, or any of the other tablets? Compared to a tablet computer, a netbook is bulky, heavy, and far more difficult to carry around. My Touchpad is nearly as easy to carry around as my Kindle. I can't stuff the Touchpad in one of my pants pockets, something I can do with the Kindle (depending on the pants I'm wearing), but the Touchpad is a seriously portable device which does not suffer from the heat build up you get from a netbook.

What the Touchpad is not is a serious touch typing device. The Touchpad, like all tablets, has a touchscreen QWERTY keyboard. I've compared the size of the keyboard to the netbook and the two keyboards are very nearly the same size. The problem with the touchscreen keyboard isn't its size. The problem is that there is no tactile feedback from the keys.

There's not little bump or bar on the 'F' and 'J' keys to help identify the home position. There's feel of a key being struck and, even worse, no feel of two keys being struck. If you hit the wrong key or hit two keys at once, you're only going to notice if you're looking at the screen. Despite the fact that I am a very good touch typist (somewhere in the 90 to 100 word per minute range), I cannot touch type on the touchscreen keyboard. I must look at the keyboard rather than the words and that ruins my typing training and the decades of experience I've had. Worse, you don't press and hold the shift key. Hitting it causes the entire keyboard to change from lower to upper case letters but you don't continue to hold it down. Once again, this goes against over 35 years of experience typing.

To be fair, you can buy portable keyboards for tablets. They're wireless and come in various sizes, including full-size. I haven't tried one of those keyboards, but I have no reason to assume they won't work just fine and provide all the tactile feedback missing from the touchscreen keyboard. The primary problem I see with the wireless keyboard is that it effective ruins the one big advantage the tablets have over the netbooks -- portability. It's one thing to carry around a tablet somewhat larger than a Kindle. It's something totally different to carry around the table and the keyboard. You're going to end up getting a carrying bag for the tablet and keyboard, leaving you carting around something which will probably be somewhat lighter than the netbook but just as bulky. To be fair, I have seen a really clever Logitech design for the iPad which has a keyboard tucked inside a protective case. While it's really clever, it's also $100.

Put simply, to make your tablet work well for writing, you have to spend more than the cost of a netbook (since all the cheap Touchpads are gone now) and then spend even more to get a keyboard for it. By the time you're finished buying these, you could most likely have purchased two netbooks for about the same price as your one tablet and keyboard.

Bottom line, judged solely as a portable means of writing on the go, I would have to say that tablets still lose out to netbooks. If you have other reasons for getting a tablet, though, then the extra cost of the keyboard would certainly be worth the money.
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