Like Diogenes in his quest for an honest man, or an Arthurian knight in pursuit of the Holy Grail, I’ve been looking – for what seems like forever – for a computing device that doesn’t seem to exist. All I want is a machine that’s as compact, thin and light as my Galaxy Note, has a built-in screen that’s as gorgeous as that on my Tab S, has a fantastic keyboard that weighs almost nothing like my Surface Pro, and has processor and memory power equivalent to my desktop tower. Is that really too much to ask?
Of course it is – although after the rapid evolution of computers that I’ve witnessed over the last two decades, I wouldn’t be so foolish as to say that a 4.0 GHz 6.5 inch smart phone with 32 GB of RAM won’t happen in my lifetime. In the meantime, though, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the more interesting form factors – both successful and failed – that we’ve seen over the years, and take a look at all the different forms that computing devices take today and the use cases for each, and what needs to happen before we can finally make it to the one-device-does-it-all stage.
In the mid-1980s, the vast majority of personal computers were large desktop machines. Fewer than five percent were battery-operated portable computers. At that time, and until the early/mid-90s, the average household didn’t have a computer; only “geeks” bought them. And most geeks subscribed to the “bigger is better” theory, with huge towers invoking the envy of fellow “computer nuts.” Of course, most of us were into upgrading our systems with more RAM or bigger hard drives and those gigantic cases were much easier to work in.
I remember the first portable computer I ever saw, a KayPro “suitcase” style machine that weighed “only” around 25 pounds. These were later dubbed “luggable” computers. The first portable I bought for myself was a Radio Shack Model 100 that was much lighter – a little under 4 pounds and looked like an electric typewriter. It didn’t have a monitor, just a monochromatic LCD panel that displayed a few lines of text. It was amazing to be able to carry a computer around with me.
I’ve owned and used many different “mobile” computers over the years. They’ve gotten better and better. The laptop I used when I was teaching MCSE classes in the 90s was a seven pound monster, even though its screen was only around 15 inches – and its power converter added another three pounds to my bag. I was out of breath by the time I carried that up three flights of stairs to my classroom every day.
I remember how thrilled I was when I bought my first Sony VAIO in the early 2000s. It was tiny by the standards of that time, weighing less than three pounds. It had an 11-inch display that was gorgeous (again by the standards of that time – today’s high res AMOLED and Retina screens, with 4K displays for laptops now available would, of course, put it to shame).
Ultra portability is great when you’re on the move a lot, but it’s also nice to have more of a desktop experience on your mobile system. That’s the reason I also had, for a while, an HP laptop that was a 16 inch behemoth, weighing slightly more than the one I carried up those stairs to my MCSE classes, but with much, much more power.
And then there were tablets. I loved the idea from the beginning. It was like something out of Star Trek. I had one of the first Windows tablet PCs, running XP Tablet Edition, and in fact I had a Star Trek LCARS desktop wallpaper on it for most of its life. It was thick and heavy, a “convertible” model with a twist-around keyboard (you could also get “slates” that didn’t have a physical keyboard, but they weren’t really a lot more compact and the onscreen keyboards back then were pretty bad). The worst part, though, was that they were quite a bit less powerful than their “regular laptop” counterparts and at the same time they were a lot more expensive. I admit I didn’t put that tablet to use nearly as much as I thought I would, but it did provide a taste of the potential in a touch-screen device.
We all know what happened next. Apple, which had failed miserably in its first attempt to market a tablet in the early 90s (the Newton), came back with a vengeance. It already had a big success with the first iPhones, which brought smart phones out of the niche market and into the mainstream. The company simply designed a bigger version of the iPhone and called it the iPad, and the rest is history. Whatever you think of Apple and its products (full disclosure: I’m not a fan), you have to give them credit for catapulting us forward into the mobile-first era, and opening up a market for other vendors.
Samsung, of course, is the one that really took that ball and ran with it, although there are many other major players – LG, HTC, Nokia/Microsoft, Lenovo, Asus, etc. – that offer high quality and/or innovative smart phone and/or tablet designs. There are also dozens, maybe hundreds of smaller companies churning out cheap tablets and “phablets” – supersized smart phones that can serve both functions.
Another disclosure: I am a fan of Sammy’s products. I’ve owned numerous Samsung smart phones and several Galaxy tablets. My current phone is a Galaxy Note 3, which will be upgrade to a Note 4 soon after the new version is released to the public. My go-to tablet is a Galaxy Tab S 8.4 inch, which I take with me almost everywhere these days. When I bought it, I wanted a 7 inch but I wanted the greater processing power and memory of the Tab S more. I discovered after I got it that this is actually a great form factor and its very good camera – unusual on a tablet – was a nice bonus.
Personally, I was disappointed that the new Note will be the same size as the old one. I was hoping for an XL version that would bridge the gap between my phone and tablet, at 6.3 or even 6.5 inches. Sure, there are other phablets out there that fall in that size range, but none have the full feature set of the Galaxy line (I confess I could be tempted by the Nokia Lumia 1020 if it were offered on Verizon instead of just AT&T, but whether to switch ecosystems and give up some of my favorite apps would be a difficult decision).
Sometimes it seems as if there is an excess of different phones, phablets and tablets available, even from just one manufacturer such as Samsung. However, what constitutes the “perfect” form factor – not to mention price point, hardware specs and feature set – is very much a matter of personal preference and what works for one person may not work nearly as well for someone else. It all depends on your lifestyle, habits, even your physical attributes such as the size of your hands and the acuity of your vision.
I know my own use case might not be the norm. I am decidedly not a “phone person” so I rarely use my phone to make voice calls. Thus I don’t care if a phablet looks silly when you hold it up to your ear because I wouldn’t be doing that often. To someone who talks on the phone a lot, that might matter. Even with the plethora of different devices available, you might find, as I did, that you still can’t find that perfect combination of power, price, functionality and form. But if that’s the case, don’t give up. With so many vendors bringing out new devices all the time, there is a very good chance that something at least close to your dream device will be released in the near future.