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 really 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

Tablets
  • Longer battery life.

  • Smaller and lighter.

  • Designed for media consumption.

Laptops
  • More powerful.

  • Programs typically have more features.

  • Designed for productivity.

If you can only afford one device, then you'll probably want a laptop. Budget laptops cost the same as mid-tier tablets, and they can do so much more. Tablets are primarily used for browsing the web, reading ebooks, playing games, listening to music, and other passive activities. Laptops, on the other hand, are made for productivity, which means creating documents, sending emails, and using powerful software. There are also hybrids, or convertible laptops, which can be used in tablet mode so that you can 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, users must type on virtual keyboards that have varying layouts and designs. 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. Tablet users can add an external Bluetooth keyboard, but doing so adds costs and peripherals that must be carried with the tablet, making it less portable. Laptops are better for those 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, weighs more and has a profile larger than most tablets. The main reason for the larger profile is that the keyboard and trackpad take up additional space. Laptops that include more powerful components require additional cooling, which adds 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 designed for efficiency. In fact, most of a tablet's interior is taken up by 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. In comparison, the average laptop only runs for about four to eight hours.

Storage Capacity: Laptops Have More Space

In order 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 (GB) of storage. By comparison, most laptops still use traditional hard drives that hold much more. The average budget laptop comes with a 500 GB hard drive, although some laptops have moved to solid-state drives as well. 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

For tasks like email, web browsing, or playing video or audio, both platforms will work equally well 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. You might think a laptop would be better, but some high-end tablets can actually 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 is running 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 that you can deploy as a primary laptop with the same software used in a work environment.

The two other major tablet platforms right now are Android and iOS, both of which require applications specific to their operating systems. There are many apps available for each of these platforms, and many will perform most of the basic tasks a laptop enables you to do. However, they still lack input devices, and hardware limitations mean that some more advanced features supplied by laptop programs may have to be dropped to fit into the tablet environment.

Cost: It's a Toss-Up

There are three tiers of tablets on the market. The majority of them are budget models that cost under $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 around $500 to over $1000. They may provide the best performance, but at these prices, they tend to provide worse performance than a laptop for the same cost.

Final Verdict

Laptops still offer greater flexibility when it comes to mobile computing. They may not have the same level of portability, running times, or ease of use as a tablet, but there are still a number of issues that tablets need to resolve before they can replace laptops. If you already have a laptop, a tablet may be a great add-on for those times when you just want to read, play games, or browse the web. ​