Matt Powell of Broadband Genie tests a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet and the Surface Pro to find out what is the best device for work and play on the move. Read more at Broadband Genie's 2014 Road Trip site.
Remember netbooks? Tiny laptops were all the rage until the iPad launched in 2010, just two years later they were effectively dead as the major manufacturers ceased production due to plummeting sales.
Despite some predictions laptops haven't gone the way of the netbook but the traditional notebook PC is facing an increasing challenge from a growing choice of compelling portable gear. Tablets have never been so powerful and affordable, smartphones with huge screens and multi-core CPUs are commonplace and there's the recent rise of convertible tablets and lightweight ultrabooks.
But can you drop the laptop and use a tablet instead? Or is a hybrid like the Microsoft Surface Pro the ideal compromise? Could a smartphone be all you'll ever need? That's what we set out to discover by asking eight volunteers to pair up and head off across Edinburgh putting portable technology through a series of tests.
The tests were designed to hit the weak spots and strong points of one or more of the devices each time, and throw up obstacles the users would have to overcome. They were asked to take photos and video, use mobile internet to post on social media, edit documents and images and locate and navigate to Edinburgh landmarks.
The volunteers had no knowledge of the tasks in advance, most weren't technical experts and whenever possible we gave them devices they'd never used before. We weren't gathering hard data to arrange in graphs, this was about the real-world experience and practicalities of using modern portable technology. (See also: The 35 best smartphones: The best phones you can buy in 2014.)
Best technology for work and play on the move: Laptop
While the other portable devices we handed out were relatively new this was just an average 15-inch, Intel i3 based system. There's absolutely nothing remarkable about this computer, which was deliberate. Our plucky laptop volunteers were the control group.
This is the kind of thing you can pick up for under £500 hence they're incredibly common and may be the only option for many of us when we need a computer outside the house. The advantages and disadvantages were clear going in, we just wanted to see how they'd get on, and how much complaining they'd do when lugging it around Edinburgh.
Not surprisingly writing, editing and uploading or downloading files was a breeze. But without anything more than a simple front mounted webcam photography was a non starter (we let them use a smartphone for that) and although they were easily able to search and map landmarks it was obviously useless for navigation on the move. One particular gripe that's worth considering was the effort involved in getting it online. With no onboard mobile data connection they had to rely on public Wi-Fi and that was sometimes hard to track down. It was only later pointed out they could have tethered a smartphone...
Battery life was a constant worry as systems of this size do well to last for more than a few hours. It never died completely but they only used it sporadically to reserve power. The weight was irritating too, it's not hard to see why smaller portables are attractive for this reason if nothing else. In the end our laptop testers were the first to skulk off to the pub.
Best technology for work and play on the move: Smartphone
Samsung Galaxy S5 (see: Samsung Galaxy S5 review.)
Samsung's newest flagship smartphone doesn't change the winning formula too much but it's still a cracking handset with a beautiful display, tons of processing power and some useful new battery saving features. The 5.1-inch 1080p screen and powerful hardware make a smartphone like this a natural choice for anyone looking to replace all their gear with one device.
Our Galaxy S5 users were immediately smitten with the quality and size of the screen. They also found the user interface fast and responsive compared to their own iPhones, and were surprised it slipped so unobtrusively into a pocket despite the relatively large dimensions. However, in actual usage the S5's measurements were a handful, particularly when walking around, and they found the material was quite slippery.
Navigation and photography tasks were painless. The camera is fast and takes a great picture, the big screen made using Google Maps a pleasant experience and Android makes it really easy to post on social media.
Text entry was trickier. Although the default keyboard is very good it became uncomfortable for anything lengthier than a Twitter post or text message, and they found copy and paste to be fiddly. Android does offer a wide range of alternative keyboards so there's usually a way to make text input more pleasant but there's nothing to match a physical keyboard. A Bluetooth keyboard accessory would definitely help and, when paired with a case/stand combo, can turn any smartphone into a mini laptop. But that's another device to charge and carry around.
Battery life, the Achilles' heel of any portable gadget, was an issue on the S5. An afternoon of constant use left the phone nearly drained by the evening. Navigation in particular was a major power hog as the need to maintain data and GPS links and have the screen powered on resulted in a rapid decline in battery.
Best technology for work and play on the move: Tablet
Apple iPad Mini 2 (see: iPad mini 2 with Retina display review.)
Unlike its first iteration the latest version of the iPad Mini doesn't lose out much on specifications compared to its bigger brothers. While smaller and lighter you still get that headline Retina Display and the same 64-bit A7 chip found in the iPad Air. The mix of power, portability and a huge range of apps and accessories makes the iPad a tempting alternative to laptops.
The iPad Mini 2 proved useful for our volunteers when faced with text and image editing tasks. The big screen made text input more comfortable even with a virtual keyboard, though a keyboard accessory would definitely be advantageous for lengthy text entry. They also found it easy to get some nice images when recording photo and video, with the bigger display proving useful when framing a shot and viewing the results. iOS7 makes social media sharing very straightforward too.
The iPad was equipped with mobile data support and had a Three SIM card. This feature adds a significant premium to the basic price of any tablet but it is far more convenient than using a tethered smartphone or Wi-Fi hotspot; if you're serious about working on the move with a tablet we feel it's worth the additional cost.
The experience of using an iPad for navigation was mixed. The bigger display makes it much easier to search on a web browser and use Google Maps to plan a route but on the move it's not as comfortable or convenient. We don't imagine many will prefer a tablet over a smartphone for this purpose, it's far easier to quickly pull out your phone and check the location, or keep it in your pocket to use headphones and voice directions.
One shortcoming of the iPad in particular that may well crop up if you're using it for work is the difficulty of transferring files between the iPad and a computer. It's not possible to simply browse the iPad's storage and drag files onto a desktop or laptop. To move data off you'll need to send it to a cloud storage service such as iCloud or Dropbox, email it to yourself or use a third party tool. None of these options are particularly convenient. Many Android tablets, however, can simply be connected via USB and accessed as a mass storage device.
Best technology for work and play on the move: Convertible tablet
Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (See: Microsoft Surface Pro 2 review.)
The Surface Pro 2 is a beast of a tablet which boasts a powerful mobile processor (Intel i5 or i7), 10-inch 1080p display, up to 512GB storage and Windows 8.1. Add the optional Type Cover accessory which gives it a real keyboard and this package offers lot more flexibility for proper computing compared to the competition.
The hardware and software of the Surface Pro 2 made the productivity tasks very easy - sit down, flip out the keyboard, deploy the kickstand and get to work. Its weaker areas were anything to do with photography or requiring on-the-go access. Front and rear cameras are just 1.2MP so image quality is limited, and like other tablets it's not the most convenient way of getting information while walking around. Neither is surprising and a smartphone fills the gap, but you should not expect the Surface Pro 2 to take pictures like the iPad Mini.
Our test subjects were new to the Surface Pro, had never used Windows 8 with the Modern UI and mostly stick to Apple gear outside of work. First impressions of the Surface Pro 2 left them impressed with the build quality, keyboard accessory and touchscreen but they were never that happy with the UI, complaining that the interface was convoluted and got in the way of what they were trying to do. Though they did admit it made a lot more sense here than on a normal Windows 8 laptop.
Despite these misgivings there's a major advantage to having Windows running on a highly portable platform like the Surface Pro: it's got an incredible choice of software. Most of the tools you'd use on a laptop or desktop will work, including productivity and creative applications like Office and Photoshop. And where Android and iOS tablets can be fiddly when faced with more unusual file formats or specialist requirements there's little you can't easily achieve with Windows.
The Surface Pro 2 proved extremely useful in any of our tasks where a keyboard or mouse came in handy, and did so without the weight or power requirements of a full size laptop. It does sit in a niche between tablet and laptop that's not going to be right for everyone but there's a section of the market, business users in particular, who'll find the Surface to be a perfect match. (See also: The 25 best tablets of 2014: What's the best tablet in the UK right now?)
Matt Powell writes on behalf of the consumer broadband information website Broadband Genie.