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Despite a slow-down in growth, tablets are displacing traditional portable computers. The market is competitive with Apple’s iPad leading the charge and Microsoft blurring the gap between tablets and laptops with its Surface range

Tablet sales surge as pandemic bites

Canalys reports worldwide tablet shipments hit 37.5 million units in Q2 2020, a 26 percent year-on-year increase.

Worldwide tablet PC market Q2 2020

Source: Canalys Newsroom- Worldwide tablet PC market Q2 2020

The tablet is back. Tablet shipments climbed 26 percent in the second quarter. Desktop PC shipments dropped 26 percent, while notebook shipments were up 24 percent.

The overall effect was positive for PC makers who have suitable models, but otherwise it bordered on disastrous.

Across the world retail outlets selling computers and other electronic devices were closed down by the pandemic. Microsoft took the decision to permanently close its physical stores.

Apple wins

The only company to emerge unscathed was Apple, which had the right mix of products and offering to meet the public’s needs. The company made billions of extra dollars from its iPad and Mac product lines during the quarter.

Apple doesn’t provide unit sales numbers, but Canalys estimates the company sold 14.25 million iPads. That’s almost 20 percent more than the same time a year ago.

Apple now has a 38 percent share of the tablet market. Its nearest rival, Samsung has less than half that amount. Yet Samsung unit sales grew even faster than Apple’s numbers. The other tablet makers, Huawei, Amazon and Lenovo all posted a huge growth in sales.

Canalys does not count Microsoft’s Surface models as tablets.

As is usual with these reports, the focus is on unit sales. What Canalys doesn’t show is that Apple’s market share in terms of revenue is higher again. As a rough estimate Apple would account for more than half of tablet revenue and an even higher share of tablet profit.

Canalys notes the strong demand for tablets was because the devices are suitable for remote work and education. They do a solid job with communications and collaboration. Most of all, they are often cheaper to buy. The analyst company also points out retailers offered aggressive discounts on tablets. In the US mobile carriers offered 60 days of unlimited wireless for devices purchased in the education sector.

Choosing the right work-from-home computer

Some employers will give you a work-from-home computer. Others leave the choice or even the cost up to you. You may be your own employer and make all your own decisions.

Either way here’s a short, straightforward guide on choosing the best computer for your needs.

Start by taking a breath. There is no need to stress. You won’t fail this test. Making the wrong choice will not be a disaster.

That’s because for most people reading this almost anything you buy will be adequate. It will get the job done. There are some exceptions. We’ll look closer at them later. But if you fall into the exception camp you already know that.

Here we’re going to focus on finding the right kind of computer for you to work from home. That means something you are comfortable with. One that fits with both your work and the way you live at home. We’ll consider entertainment and other non-work tasks.

We’ll leave specifics, which brands, operating systems and models for another time. This is the first of a series of posts.

What is a computer anyway?

Let’s start by looking at the big picture. When we say computer, we mean what people in the industry might call a device. It could be a desktop personal computer, it could be a laptop or a tablet.

There are devices that sit between these classes. There are 2-in–1 devices that sit between laptops and tablets. Desktop replacement laptops are another class straddling category. As you can guess from the name, occupy the space between conventional laptops and desktop PCs.

At a pinch the right device for your needs could even be a high end mobile phone. Premium smartphones are a least as powerful as most conventional computers. You can connect many phones to keyboards and screens to act more like everyday computers. Samsung designed the Dex range to make this easier and better..

For the sake of keeping things simple, let’s say a computer comes with a screen, a processor and storage. Most come with a keyboard and either a mouse or a touchpad. There are devices worth considering where these are an optional extra.

Cloud does heavy lifting

Earlier we saw that almost anything you buy will be adequate. That’s because cloud computing can do much, even all, of the heavy lifting. So long as you have a reliable internet connection you’ll be able to connect to cloud services.

There’s a good chance the software and tools your company work with are already hosted in the cloud. The most popular cloud software is Google G-Suite and Microsoft 365.

Even the most basic device can connect to the cloud. In some cases there are cloud versions of applications that you might run on a desktop when working in the office.

Being able to connect to cloud apps and tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams covers most of the important stuff. Up to a point everything else in this post is about the icing on the cake. Your choices can make for a better working experience. They will give you something more comfortable to live with, can make you more productive and will offer more fun when you’re not working.

Laptop

Laptops

The perfect device depends on what you intend to do, where you intend to do it, how you live and how much budget you have.

Laptops are the most popular choice by a long way. They range from tiny ultraportable laptops to huge desktop replacements. You can pick up a serviceable low-end laptop for a few hundred dollars or spend thousands.

If you don’t have a spare room or a rumpus that can act as a home office, a laptop you can pack away means you can work on the kitchen table or anywhere else. As things return to normal you can take the laptop to a cafe or the local library. You’ll also be able to carry it between the office and home when needed.

Laptop downside

The laptop downside is they often don’t last as long as desktop computers. In part that’s because they can take more of a hammering. Moving them around and bumping them doesn’t help.

Some laptops are fragile, others are more robust. As a rule of thumb smaller, lighter, thinner models are more robust. But first impressions can be deceptive.

Although it is easy to upgrade some laptops, that’s not always the case. This means the internal hardware can become out of date if newer, more demanding applications come along or if your needs change.

Unless you have technical and fine motor skills it is best to leave laptop upgrades and repairs to professionals. There is a cost, but it is often worth the investment.

You will hear stories of people who made a laptop last a decade or more. It happens far more often than the industry might have you think. Yet in general you can expect about five years useful life from a laptop if you look after it.

iPad Pro 12.9-inch 2018 with Pencil

Tablets

If mobility is your main consideration you may do better to choose a tablet with a keyboard case.

Tablets are easier to move around even when compared with light laptops. You can sometimes work on them in places where laptops feel clumsy. If space at home is tight or there’s a lot of competition for the kitchen table, a tablet could be your best bet.

Although tablets are not always more robust than laptops they often cope better with knocks if you have a nomadic working life. You will need to buy a cover or case to protect the screen. Often tablet keyboards double as protective covers.

Tablets tend to go a longer time between charges than laptops, but that can be down to how you use them.

You can buy tablets that connect direct to the mobile network for communications. Yet most tablet users do fine relying on Wi-fi or by tethering to a mobile phone to reach the internet.

Dell Inspiron 13 5000

Hybrid computer, 2-in–1s

The distinction between tablets and laptops is blurry. There are tablet-like laptops and laptop-like tablets.

Some laptops fold, origami style, to become tablets. Some can also work in a tent configuration. This is useful for watching movies or giving presentations.

It’s not always the case, but foldable laptops can be more fragile than straightforward tablets or laptops. Take care when choosing.

Another consideration with hybrids that almost everyone overlooks is that buyers often end up using them as only a laptop or tablet.

Given they tend to cost a little more than straight laptops and tablets, this means you can waste money. There are almost always better ways to spend that part of your tech budget.

Desktops almost forgotten these days

Laptops outsell desktops almost two to one1. In round numbers that means desktops only account for one computer sale in five.

There is still a strong case for choosing a desktop computer. Yet they are not right for everyone2.

Desktops can have big screens, far bigger than even the largest laptop. Big screens are great for productivity. They allow you to place documents or windows side by side. If you work with spreadsheets you can see a lot more data.

Desktop computer productive, fun

At a pinch a large desktop computer screen can double as your television. Lots of people do this with laptop or tablet screens, but larger screens are better. Desktops can also have far better audio speakers than laptops. In general they are better than laptops for games and other entertainment software.

You can also use a proper keyboard. While many laptops have great keyboards, desktop keyboards are often better. Again this can help productivity, especially if you are a touch typist.

In some ways desktop computers can be less expensive than laptops. You generally get more raw computing power, storage and graphics for your money.

Desktops also tend to be far easier to upgrade. They take less of a hammering, so you can make them last far longer than a laptop.

You need to have enough room and a spare desk or table for a desktop computer. You can’t pack it up when you’re not working. You can push the screen back and store the bulky part under the desk.

Don’t get too hung up on specifications

At the top of this story it says specifications are not the most important thing to consider any more. That’s true, but it needs more explaining.

Almost every device has more than enough power to handle all your everyday tasks. Writing, web surfing, playing music, watching videos and Zoom calls will not challenge any modern device.

Likewise every modern device will come with a screen of some description, that way you can see what is going on.

Storage used to be a huge deal. Today, if there’s not enough in the device you choose, you can make up for the shortfall by using cloud storage.

Where computer specifications matter

More processing power and memory means you can run more applications at the same time. You also need a more powerful processor if you want photo, video or music editing.

People who work with large databases or huge spreadsheets also need more powerful processors. But you can often let cloud computing do that kind of heavy lifting.

So by all means choose an upscale specification, but don’t waste money buying more computer than you will ever need. You’d be better off spending that money on a better quality device. We’ll come back to this point in a later post.


  1. In case you were wondering laptops outsell tablets by around four to three. ↩︎
  2. I’ve recently gone back to using a desktop as my main work-from-home computer. ↩︎

How the iPad made lockdown productive

An enforced stay at home meant a change of emphasis for personal technology. The Apple iPad proved the best tool of all.

Here in New Zealand we spent five weeks at lockdown level 4 and two weeks at level 3.

For most of us that meant staying at home apart from exercise, trips to buy food or urgent medical appointments.

Above all it meant working and being entertained at home. For that you need a computing device, the right software and decent connectivity.

iPad ticks all the boxes

Phones, tablets and personal computers all fit the bill, but the one that delivered best on all counts turned out to an iPad.

It could be any iPad. In my case it was the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, but most of what I’m about to say could equally apply to a basic NZ$600 iPad.

The iPad has the perfect combination of features for working at home. The screen is much bigger than on a phone.

Videoconferencing is a breeze on an iPad. If you are lucky enough to work with other Apple users the FaceTime app is excellent. We used it for three way catch-ups with our daughters who were locked down elsewhere.

Not everyone you deal with chooses Apple kit. Zoom and most other popular videoconference tools work fine on the iPad. In fact I find they work better on the iPad than anything else.

That’s entertainment

The iPad is also great for watching Netflix and other online entertainment. Sadly there was no sport in the lockdown, but it’s great to cuddle up warm in the wee small hours to watch matches beamed in from the other side of the world.

All iPads are good for video, the 12.9-inch screen is better for older, weaker eyes. It’s also possible to wirelessly connect the iPad to a big TV screen. In our case we use a Chromecast.

Add a keyboard to an iPad and it becomes a basic computer. You can surf the web, read and compose emails, write blog posts like this one or even wrangle Office apps like Microsoft Word and Excel.

It’s possible to write without a keyboard. I’ve posted elsewhere about my keyboard-free iPad writing experience.

Yet a real keyboard is better. I have an Apple Magic Keyboard, the iPad Pro Smart Keyboard and a couple of older Logitech Bluetooth keyboard. All work a treat.

Creativity

There are creative apps. My iPad doubles as a music workstation, photo editing terminal and games machine. Apple’s Pencil helps when it comes to fine drawing or other on screen work.

I also download magazines, books, audio books, podcasts and music to the iPad. It’s a great reader.

Yes, you can do all the above with a phone. Yet the bigger screen improves everything, except portability, which isn’t a huge deal in a lockdown.

Best of all the iPad’s form means you can do all these things from a desk, from the dining room table, from the deck, sofa or the bed.

Value

Apple iPads can be good value. As already mentioned the cheapest full size model costs NZ$600.

That’s much cheaper than an equivalent phone and, by the time you’re added a keyboard, the price is on a par with everyday laptops.

That basic iPad will done everything, although it may wheeze a little with more demanding create apps.

While the basic iPad is a bargain at $600, you may be reading this and thinking you could economise further with a cheaper tablet. There are pitfalls with that plan.

A cheaper tablet will have a lower quality screen. In general it will be slower than the iPad and may not be so flexible with software choices.

You’ll need to budget extra for a keyboard. There are excellent Logitech keyboards for around $170. These will also protect your iPad. The Apple Magic Keyboard doesn’t hook up direct to the iPad – I use a stand when I wrote on the iPad with this keyboard. It costs $150.

Apple’s Smart Keyboards are pricey. The 11-inch model costs NZ$330 while the 12.9-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard costs $359. I find they work the best, but they bump up the entry price a lot.

Storage

The other cost to consider is buying more storage with your iPad. The basic model comes with 32GB. That’s fine if you are at home and have an external hard drive or a cloud account with plenty of storage. I’d recommend finding the extra $180 to get the 128GB model.

Adding a keyboard and storage takes the iPad price up to around the $1000 mark. If you don’t have a specific need for a laptop and there is maybe already a more traditional computer at home, this would be good choice.

Is it good value? It depends on how you use technology.

It clearly is good value for me. Apple recently added an app to the iPad that tells you how much time you spend with the device. During a typical lockdown week I was spending about 45 hours on the iPad and less than an hour on the iPhone.

 

Android tablets – Best left on the shelf

Google doesn’t like to talk about it, but there’s one type of Android hardware you really shouldn’t be buying.

Writing at Computerworld JR Raphael reveals: The Android hardware truth Google won’t tell you.

Before we go further, note that Raphael writes a regular Android column. This isn’t an attack from outside the tent.

He says:

“Google’s priorities and the desires of the companies making the bulk of the devices don’t always align. And that forces Google to do a delicate dance in order to push forward with its own plans without saying anything that’d go directly against a device-maker’s interests.

Well, it’s time to stop beating around the bush and just say what Google won’t openly acknowledge: You should not be buying an Android tablet in 2020. Period.”

Long wait for Android tablet OS updates

It’s a long story well worth reading. The gist boils down to Google having some good ideas about how Android should work with tablets, then it lost interest for a while. That while turned out to be too long.

Now we’re in a position where Google isn’t updating the tablet version of its operating system at anything like an acceptable pace. Raphael points out Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 got Android 10 eight months after the software was first released. And that’s the Android tablet with the best OS upgrade record.

He says:

“Plain and simple, buying an Android tablet is setting yourself up for disappointment — when it comes to both performance and capability and when it comes to the critical areas of privacy, security, and ongoing software upkeep.”

Get a Chromebook instead

Raphael recommends people who want an Android tablet would do better to buy a convertible Chromebook.

All this is one reason why Apple continues to dominate tablet sales with iPad and iPad Pro models. The only other serious player in premium tablets is Microsoft with its Surface range. These two brands run iOS and Windows. The Android tablet market skews towards the low end with a lot of low value, undifferentiated tablet models.

Sure, plenty of people are happy with these devices. No doubt many reading this love their Android tablets. Yet the Android world hasn’t got its tablet act together enough to mount an assault on the premium market. That’s odd considering how, outside of the US, Android has a huge share of the phone market.

NZ device sales fall, would have collapsed but for Covid–19

Gartner’s latest New Zealand shipment forecasts makes for grim reading if you are in the device business.

The total device market is set to drop by 14.6 percent in 2020 when compared with 2019. That means a total of 360,000 fewer devices.

New Zealand fares worse than the rest of the world which Gartner says will see a 13.6 percent fall in device unit shipments.

Falls everywhere

There are falls in each category Gartner measures, see the table.

New Zealand shipments forecast by device type (thousands of units)
Device Type20192020
Traditional PCs (Desk-Based and Notebook)439396
Ultramobiles (Premium)199190
Total PC Market637585
Ultramobiles (Basic and Utility)538474
Computing Device Market1,1761,059
Mobile Phones1,3251,077
Total Device Market2,5002,136
Due to rounding, some figures may not add up precisely to the totals shown.
Thin and light notebooks are listed under premium ultramobiles
Tablets and Chromebooks are listed under basic ultramobiles
Source: May (2020)

Mobile phone sales have fallen faster than computing devices. Gartner forecasts 1.08 million units in 2020 compared with 1.36 million units in 2019. That’s a drop of nearly 19 percent.

The analyst company says it expects consumers to extend the life of their mobile phones replacing them on average once every 2.7 years. For more on this see How long should I keep my phone?

Pandemic device impact

Looking at the worldwide numbers, Gartner says the fall could have been so much worse if it were not for pandemic lockdowns. Because millions of people were forced to work or study from home there was an increase on spending on notebooks and tablets.

Gartner says getting on for half of all employees will work remotely for some or all of the time after the pandemic. This compares with around 30 percent of employees beforehand.

This has accelerated the move from desktop PCs to notebooks.

Phones

While people have used their phones more during the lockdown, Gartner says lower disposable incomes mean that people will upgrade more slowly than in the past. Gartner sees the average life of a mobile phone increase from 2.5 to 2.7 years.

One other trend spotted by Gartner is the relative lack of interest in 5G handsets. Before the pandemic it was widely thought that the appearance of 5G mobile networks would kick-start a handset upgrade cycle.

Gartner now forecasts that 5G phones will only account for 11 percent of handset shipments this year. In part this is because of the delayed delivery of new handsets. Gartner also says the extra charges imposed on 5G customers is inhibiting sales.