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How Tablets Could Save the Desktop

How Tablets Could Save the Desktop

Could a rise in tablets reverse the desktop's downward trend? For some users, the iPad 2 is an ideal travel computer, and desktops like Apple's new iMacs give you more bang for your buck. Laptops will still have their place for a long time to come, no doubt, but for a certain type of user, a desktop/tablet arrangement just makes more sense.

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
05/05/11 5:00 AM PT

The new iMacs have suddenly become deliciously compelling, and not because they now sport quad-core i5 processors that make them up to 70 percent faster than previous versions, graphics that are up to three times faster than before, or the new lightning-fast Thunderbolt ports.

No, the new iMacs are much more tantalizing than ever before simply because I own an iPad 2.

There's been a lot of talk about the demise of PC sales due to rising tablet sales, plus the notion that desktop PCs might soon go the way of the dinosaur. Now I'm wondering if tablets have the ability to reverse that trend.

I've now had a chance to get some traveling in with my iPad 2, and it turns out it can handle most of what I'm inclined to do with a computer while I'm on the go. I have a colleague who can type out notes on her iPad 2 while in meetings, but there's no way I'm anywhere near being able to use the touchscreen keyboard that efficiently. Still, the Mail program encourages brevity because the touchscreen is a pain, which in some ways is a productivity boost in and of itself.

The iPad 2 can browse the Web pretty well, and while it's a racehorse with a broken leg compared to a Mac with Expose, for quick hits of information you can gain a lot of time because getting your iPad 2 out of your bag and using it is much faster in many situations. Plus, zooming in and out of data with spreadsheets and applications, not to mention flicking around them, isn't so bad when you're on the go.

Back in the Office, It's Another Story

When I'm at my desk, of course, I want power and an expansive screen. The desk is where the serious work gets done, and while I can pair my iPad 2 with an Apple Bluetooth keyboard and type with manic ferocity, I need the ability to manage many applications, many Web pages and tons of email, along with the ability to manage many gigabytes of family photos and video.

Even when Apple launches its upcoming iCloud or revamped MobileMe service with a media storage locker (all rumor and supposition right now, which will undoubtably come true this year), it's just not going to be fast enough for me. I like editing movies on my iPad 2 with iMovie, but I'd prefer to do it on a larger screen.

Plus, if you're like me, the iPad 2 doesn't handle storage particularly well. It hides the file system from the user, so managing files, and photos in particular, is a pain compared to iPhoto on a Mac. In iPhoto, I can delete photos easily, crop or enhance them, package them up in myriad ways, and turn them into other things. Sure, you can do a lot of this with an iPad, but when I go camping for a weekend in the summer, I'm coming home with 2 GB of photos, minimum, in a few hundred shots, along with video. It's just too much volume for easy management.

And actually, while my MacBook is holding up admirably well for all of this, sometimes I get a little irritated at it, too. I could use a faster central processor and much faster graphics processor. Sometime after the next version of Mac OS X hits this year, I'll upgrade to a new MacBook Pro ... except now, it might be an iMac.

Wither the MacBook Pro?

These days, MacBooks are still selling exceedingly well -- well for Apple and excellent compared to much of the PC laptop industry. And the super-slim MacBook Air with snappy solid-state drives (SSDs) are popular too.

While I like the idea of the MacBook Air personally, it's just not a good desktop replacement. The hard drive sizes are too small, and messing around with a bunch of external storage for desktop use ... nah. So that leaves the MacBook Pro. They come with an exciting blend of processor, disk options, along with the new Thunderbolt ports. I was totally set on getting a new MacBook Pro -- to serve primarily as a desktop machine 95 percent of the time -- until I experienced the sweet ease-of-use the tablet form factor brings to mobile action.

The key difference between an iMac and a MacBook Pro isn't the screen size. I can easily hook up my 24-inch monitor to any MacBook, and they'll all drive it just fine. So while I drool over the 27-inch iMac screen, it's not a huge decision factor. What does pique my interest is the combination of quad-core i5 processors with graphics processors that are more powerful than what you can get in a MacBook Pro. Sure, you can beef up a MacBook Pro to pretty impressive stats, but it sure does seem like you get more overall performance for your dollar out of an iMac. I could even go with a 21.5-inch iMac and still use my 24-inch monitor. That's a lot of screen real estate for as low as US$1,200 (because I already have the extra monitor). Tempting. Either way, the 21.5-inch offers a better screen experience than comparably priced MacBooks. The savings over a fully-equipped 15-inch MacBook Pro starts to make buying and iPad 2 with an iMac more interesting than ever.

I imagine this sort of intersection between powerful tablet mobile abilities and more powerful desktop computers will appear in the PC world too, but I doubt with quite the potential impact, because PC and notebook PC prices tend to be quite a bit lower than iMac and MacBook prices.

Halo Effects

So the iPhone's halo effect led to more Mac sales overall, but what will the iPad 2 effect be? Will iPad sales cannibalize MacBook sales? And if so, will it also boost iMac (or Mac mini) sales for people like me?

I won't be making a move until after Apple ships Mac OS X 10.7 "Lion" this summer, which gives me ample time to thoroughly examine performance specs after various labs do their reviews. Any way you cut it, though, my iPad 2 has reignited my interest in the iMac line.


MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.


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