Should You Buy a Tablet or a Laptop?

A comparison of smart tablets and laptop computers

The best tablets are more powerful than some budget laptops, but is a tablet a suitable substitute for a traditional portable computer? Learn about the differences between tablets and laptops to help you decide which best fits your needs.

Information in this article applies broadly to a wide range of devices. Check the specifications of individual products for a more direct comparison.

Overall Findings

  • Longer battery life.

  • Smaller and lighter.

  • Designed for media consumption.

  • More powerful.

  • Programs typically have more features.

  • Designed for productivity.

You'll probably want a laptop if you can only afford one device. Budget laptops cost the same as mid-tier tablets and can do much more. Tablets are primarily for browsing the web, reading ebooks, playing games, listening to music, and other passive activities. On the other hand, laptops are for productivity, creating documents, sending emails, and using powerful software. There are also hybrids, or convertible laptops, which you can use in tablet mode to have the best of both worlds.

An illustration of a laptop and a tablet with the differences between them listed.
Lifewire / Nusha Ashjaee 

Input Method: You Can Do More With Laptops

Tablets rely solely on a touchscreen interface for input, which can present challenges when you need to input text. Since tablets have no keyboard, you must type on virtual keyboards with varying layouts and designs. Some of the best 2-in-1 tablets come with a detachable keyboard, but these models still fall short of the laptop experience because of their smaller size and more restrictive designs. If you add an external Bluetooth keyboard, you'll add costs and peripherals that must be carried with the tablet, making it less portable. Laptops are better for people who type a lot.

Size: Tablets Are More Portable

Most tablets weigh under two pounds. Even the smallest laptops, like the Apple MacBook Air 11, weigh more and have a larger profile than most tablets. The main reason for the size difference is that the keyboard and trackpad take up additional space. Laptops with more powerful components require additional cooling, adding to the size. Because of their smaller size and weight, a tablet is much easier to carry around than a laptop, especially for travel.

Battery Life: Tablets Last Longer

Because of the low power requirements of their hardware components, tablets are efficient. Most of a tablet's interior is the battery. Laptops, on the other hand, use more powerful hardware. The battery within a laptop takes up a far smaller percentage of the space needed for its internal components. Thus, even with the higher capacity battery offered by laptops, they don't run as long as tablets. Many tablets can support up to ten hours of web usage before requiring a charge. The average laptop only runs for about four to eight hours.

Some premium laptops running ARM-based processors achieve battery lives competitive with tablets, but some critical software won't run on ARM-based platforms.

Storage Capacity: Laptops Have More Space

To keep the size and costs of tablets down, manufacturers rely on solid-state storage memory to store programs and data. This technology has one major disadvantage: the amount of data it can store. Most tablets allow between 16 and 128 gigabytes of storage. By comparison, most laptops still use conventional hard drives that hold much more. The average budget laptop comes with a 500 GB hard drive, although some laptops have also moved to solid-state drives. Both laptops and tablets include features like USB ports or microSD cards that make it possible to add external storage.

Performance: Laptops Are More Powerful

Both platforms will work equally well for tasks like email, web browsing, or playing video or audio, since these activities don't require much processing power. Things get more complicated once you start performing more demanding tasks that involve multitasking or HD graphics. In these cases, laptops typically perform better. There are exceptions, though, such as for video editing. Some high-end tablets can outperform laptops thanks to specialized hardware.

Software: Tablet Apps Are Restrictive

The same software running on a laptop versus a tablet can be vastly different in terms of capabilities. If a tablet runs Windows, it can theoretically run the same software as a laptop, but it will likely be slower. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as the Microsoft Surface Pro, a tablet you can deploy as a primary laptop with the same software used in a work environment.

The two other major tablet platforms are Android and iOS, both of which require applications specific to their operating systems. Many apps are available for each of these platforms, and many will perform most of the basic tasks as a laptop. However, they still lack input devices, and hardware limitations mean that some laptop programs may have to be scaled down to fit into the tablet environment.

The iPad ran iOS until iOS 13, after which the tablet version of Apple's mobile operating system shifted to iPadOS 13. The iOS environment now applies only to the iPhone.

Cost: It's a Toss-Up

There are three tiers of tablets on the market. Most of them are budget models that cost less than $100 and are ideal for simple tasks. Models in the middle tier cost between $200 to $400 and do most tasks just fine (as a comparison, budget laptops start at around $400). Primary-tier tablets cost from about $500 to more than $1000. They may provide the best performance, but at these prices, they tend to offer worse performance than a laptop.

Final Verdict

Laptops still offer greater flexibility for mobile computing. They may not have the same level of portability, running times, or ease of use as a tablet, but there are still many technical limitations that tablets must resolve before they replace laptops. If you already have a laptop, a tablet may be an excellent add-on when you want to read, play games, or browse the web. ​

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