Why Tablets Will Kill Netbooks

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Look, I know you like the netbook idea -- and you love netbook prices. If you're like most people, you think tablets are expensive, slow, heavy and a pain to use. But if you've bought one, you know that netbooks aren't as great as they sound. And next year's tablets will be way better than you think.

Of course, everybody's talking about, hinting at and arguing over all the non-existent tablets of tomorrow. You've heard a lot about

, for example, which could hit the market as early as March.

News broke recently that Apple has taken control of the TabletMac trademark. The tablet formerly known as CrunchPad (now unfortunately named the JooJoo; see video) goes on sale today for $499. Asustek is said to be planning to launch a tablet based on the Eee PC. And Dell may show a touch-screen Android tablet at the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, next month.

I'm sure this is one seafaring hazard metaphor too many, but all this tablet news is just the tip of the iceberg. You can expect small touch-screen tablets from all major vendors, and minor ones as well.

As Ian Paul argued today in a PC World column, "2010 will be the year of the tablet computer." (Paul is one of the few Apple tablet deniers, but his recent piece indicates that he may be coming around to the inevitable.)

Why Tablets are Finally Ready for Prime Time

Tablet devices have a bad reputation, thanks primarily to Microsoft's fuzzy vision for the devices, which resulted in several years of incredibly expensive, slow, clunky, unappealing pen-based tablets from all the usual Microsoft partners.

Seven trends are conspiring as we speak to usher in a tsunami of tablets totally unlike the current generation of tablet PCs. Here's what's new:

1. Touch instead of pen

Microsoft always loved the stylus, but most people hate it. Apple and others understood that actually touching the screen is far more appealing than using some funky pen. And touch requires an entirely different user interface, which Microsoft was unwilling or unable to build into Windows until Windows 7.

The casual observer might believe that the usability difference between pen and touch is small. But using a pen is an unnatural act, one that until very recently only a tiny minority of people ever engaged in. The psychological payoffs for using a pen on paper are the tactile feel of the paper, the instant feedback of the trail of ink and the physicality of stacks and files and binders of paper notes. Pen-based computer systems don't offer any of those payoffs.

Meanwhile, interacting with and manipulating objects in our environment with our fingers is the most natural of acts. People have been doing it since before our species even existed.

Most users don't really know why they like or don't like different user interfaces. They don't know why tablet-based and stylus-based devices are somewhat irritating to use, and why touch-based interfaces like the iPhone are a joy to use. The reason can be found not in the design of the gadget, but in the design of humans -- we're the ones who are touch-based systems.

In one respect, pen and touch systems are opposites. One makes us adapt, the other adapts to us.

The main difference in usability between yesterday's tablets and next year's tablets is touch. And touch will make all the difference in the world.

2. Cell phone operating systems

Current tablet systems are PCs that run full-size PC operating systems, usually Microsoft Windows. The combination of mobile processors and the extra layer of code required for the pen system resulted in a relatively slow experience. It also helps make tablets more expensive.

Next year's tablets will run cell phone operating systems like iPhone OS, Android and others. That will make them cheaper, faster and far more usable on a mobile device.

3. Cheaper components

Because tomorrow's tablets will be big cell phones, rather than small PCs, they'll be cheaper to manufacture. They'll have lower-powered chips, less RAM, smaller screens, fewer ports and cheaper (or free) operating systems.

Plus, Moore's Law is still in effect. All component prices will come down, which means next year's touch tablets will be priced similarly to last year's netbooks: Cheap!

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