Should You Buy a Tablet or a Laptop?

It depends on what you want to use it for

An illustration of a laptop and a tablet with the differences between them listed.

 Lifewire / Nusha Ashjaee

Tablets have become popular because of their portability, easy-to-use interfaces, and the wide range of functions they offer. In many ways, the best tablets can replace a laptop for computing on the go. But is a tablet really a better choice over a more traditional laptop? After all, laptops are also portable, yet can be used for a wider range of tasks.

There is no one right answer; the better device for you depends on what you primarily want to use it for. Here we compare the differences between tablets and laptops to see which of the two may be a better choice for you.

Input Method

The most obvious difference between a laptop and a tablet is the presence or absence of a keyboard. Tablets rely solely on a touchscreen interface for input, which can be fine when you mainly want to point, drag, or tap to navigate around an application. It can be more challenging, though, when you need to input text, such as with an email message or Word document. Since tablets have no keyboard, users must type on virtual keyboards that have varying layouts and designs. Most people cannot type as quickly or as accurately on a virtual keyboard. 2-in-1 designs provide a detachable keyboard that may improve the ability to type text, 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 write a lot, while tablets work great for those who do more point interaction.

Size

Size is probably the biggest reason to go with a tablet instead of a laptop. Tablets are roughly the size of a small pad of paper and weigh under two pounds. Most laptops are far larger and heavier. Even one of the smallest ultraportables, the Apple MacBook Air 11, weighs over two pounds and has a profile larger than that of many tablets. The main reason for the larger profile is that the keyboard and trackpad take up additional space. Laptops that include more powerful components that require additional cooling and power are even larger. Because of their smaller size and weight, a tablet is much easier to carry around than a laptop, especially for travel.

If you don't need the extra power or other features that take up more space, tablets are the way to go.

Battery Life

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 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 five hours (though many newer ones are getting closer to eight, narrowing the gap with tablets). Essentially, tablets can withstand all-day usage, which few laptops can achieve.

If you're looking for the longest battery life, tablets are the clear winner.

Storage Capacity

In order to keep the size and costs of tablets down, manufacturers rely on new solid-state storage memory to store programs and data. While this technology has the potential to offer faster access and low power usage, it has one major disadvantage: the number of files 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, though some laptops have moved to solid-state drives as well and may allow as little as 64 GB of space. Both laptops and tablets include features like USB ports or microSD cards that make it easy to add external storage.

If you need to store a lot of applications and documents or other data, a laptop will be your best bet.

Performance

Since most tablets use low-power processors, they will generally fall behind laptops in the ability to complete computing tasks. Of course, the level of power also depends on how the tablet or laptop is being used. For tasks like email, web browsing, or playing video or audio, both platforms will work equally well since these activities don't require much performance. It gets more complicated once you start performing more demanding tasks that involve multitasking or graphics performance; in these cases, laptops typically perform better. There are exceptions, though, such as video editing. You might think a laptop would be better, but some high-end tablets can actually outperform laptops because of specialized hardware.

If you want to perform tasks that require a lot of power, a laptop is a better tool to use.

Software

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 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 applications 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 performance limitations mean some more advanced features supplied by corresponding laptop class programs may have to be dropped to fit into the tablet environment.

If you don't mind a watered-down version of certain software applications, a tablet is fine. But if you want the full set of features, go for the laptop.

Cost

There are three tiers of tablets on the market. The majority of them are budget models that cost under $100 and are good 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 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. Generally, on the low end of the price spectrum, tablets have the advantage, but at the higher end laptops do.

This one's a toss-up. To really figure out cost versus benefits before you pull the trigger on a new device, compare a specific tablet to a specific laptop.

Stand-Alone Device

If you can only afford one device, there's no question about it: you'll want a laptop. Whereas a tablet performs some computing functions quite well, a laptop is a fully self-contained system that you can use confidently for loading data and programs onto and backing up. Tablets actually require an additional computer system or connection to cloud storage for backing up the device or even activating it. Tablets are treated like secondary devices when it comes to their apps and data, giving laptops an advantage here.

Just need one device to cover all your computing needs? You'll definitely want a laptop.

Conclusion

Laptops still offer a greater level of 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 be considered a primary mobile computing device. Over time, many of these issues will likely be resolved. Plus, if you already have a laptop, a tablet may be a great add-on for those times when you just want entertainment or to perform other less demanding tasks. ​