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Tablet or laptop for family: which is best?

Pros and cons of getting a laptop or a tablet for your family

Laptop vs tablet

We are living in the time of the tablet. In just two years since the launch of the original iPad the tablet has eaten into PC sales, rising to challenge the all-powerful laptop as the number one personal computer of choice for a number of people. If you are looking to treat your family to a computer, you may be considering a tablet rather than a laptop. But which is best? Here we compare the relative merits of laptops and tablets for a family setting, taking into consideration the vast spectrum of products in both categories. (See also: What tablet should I buy? iPad, Kindle Fire HD, Nexus 7...)

Tablet or laptop: price and value

In technology, you get what you pay for... most of the time. Right now, however, a certain class of cheap tablets are genuine bargains. Consider this: for the £450 price of a fairly basic 15in Dell or Lenovo laptop you could buy three Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD or Nook HD (comparison review) tablets. So that makes tablets the cheaper option, right?

Not quite. The Kindle Fire HD and Nook HD tablets are pure consumption devices. They are great for watching, listening and reading. But you can't do much with them in terms of productivity. Unless you have a truly passive brood, they won't get as much use as even a basic laptop. And bear in mind that the total cost of ownership of a tablet includes the cost of buying apps and media - precisely why these devices are so heavily subsidised. (The one exception to this rule is Google's Nexus tablets, which are both subsidised and capable of productivity tasks.)

If you want a tablet that can do more, generally speaking you have to shell out. The much more expensive iPad 4 with Retina Display and Surface RT are fairly priced, offering as they do much of the capabilities of a laptop in a svelte tablet form. And if you want a truly portable truly powerful computer you really should shell out for an Ultrabook or MacBook Air laptop - something that could easily cost you upwards of £1,000.

As we say: you get what you pay for, and neither a tablet nor a laptop generally offers better value. To ascertain whether a tablet or a laptop offers the better deal for your family, we will look into the capabilities of each form factor, below.

Tablet or laptop: movies and TV

Tablets are brilliant portable TVs, offering access to myriad sources of movies and television programmes. They tend to have low power consumption too, so you can get through a couple of films without charging a good tablet. They are also often fitted with cellular connectivity, meaning you can download or stream content wherever you go. And tablet apps on the major platforms offer simple and low-cost access to movies and TV programs.

On the flip side, viewing angles and smaller screens mean that it can be difficult for more than one person to enjoy a movie on the screen of a tablet, even with external speakers. Without those you may be reliant on headphones to enjoy decent audio quality. Storage on tablets can be much more limited than on a laptop, which is a problem when you consider the size of movie files. And if you want to stream over 3G or 4G, be prepared to shell out a fortune for data. That's if you haven't already spent your money on subscriptions and one-off fees for movies: tablets such as the Kindle Fire HD and the iPad offer easy access to films and TV programs, but you do have to pay for them.

Particularly in a living room setting, a laptop with a large screen and good speakers can make a decent TV substitute. Stick in a TV-tuner card and you can have digital TV as well as downloads and streaming. And if it has a DVD drive you can watch movies and box sets stored on disc, too. (See also: Kids' tablets buying advice: choose a tablet PC for your children).

Tablet or laptop: music and radio

A broadly similar argument can be made for and against tablets and laptops when it comes to listening to music, either through your own tunes or via the radio. With dedicated apps and music services, your tablet may well be the second-best portable music player and portable radio you ever had, after your smartphone. But without headphones it won't sound great, storage will be limited, and streaming can eat up your data allowance. On the plus side here, however, are the range of speaker docks in which you can invest. Get the right one and your tablet could easily become the centre of your aural home-entertainment world.

A laptop will be more versatile, however: potentially offering you the opportunity to play discs as well as download and stream music. But without speakers there is no guarantee the audio quality will be any better, and the battery life almost certainly won't be.

Tablet or laptop: homework and office work

This is one for the laptop crowd. Although with keyboard accessories the better tablets make great portable productivity devices, the iPad and Surface RT chief among them, there is still no substitute for a full spec PC if you are intending to use your gadget mainly for work. Having a proper keyboard and access to the full versions of Office software programs makes virtually all office- and homework tasks more simple to complete.

Of course, if you need to work on the move a good tablet takes away much of the pain of lugging around a big laptop. Cellular connectivity means you can work anywhere, battery life is better, and if your work principally involves email and web-based tools a tablet could be perfect. But for most people, for working in the home, a laptop is best.

Tablet or laptop: portability, sharing and social media

Even the most svelte Ultrabook struggles to compete with a tablet when it comes to portability, however. Being portable is not just a question of being small and light: always-on connectivity and strong battery life are critical, too. It's also probably fair to say that most tablets can take more of a beating than your average laptop: something to bear in mind if you are sharing with a clumsy teenager. But bear in mind that most tablets are difficult to share. Rather like smartphones they tend to have a single user account, so it is difficult to let a young child play with your iPad, for instance, without running the risk of them sending emails from your account, or posting into your Facebook.

You'll have similar issues with a laptop, of course, unless you maintain separate user accounts. But in a family setting it is much easier to set up a laptop with parental controls and discrete logins, making it more practical to share the same device between hardworking Dad and Mum, and Moshi Monster-obsessed child.

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