A shift is developing in the personal computing world — going from laptops to tablets. It hasn't quite hit the mainstream yet, but probably will very soon. About 230 million laptops will be sold worldwide this year, according to the research company Gartner Inc. But sales of tablets are expected to reach 50 million this year, and sometime soon those sales are expected to surpass laptop sales, at least in the United States.
Already, netbooks — small notebook computers that were hot among casual web surfers and college students — have taken a huge hit from tablets, which typically cost $400 to $700 and can download powerful apps and do many of the tasks that PCs do (and sometimes even do them better).
But those who plan to give up a laptop, or even a home desktop PC, to spend more time with a new tablet should realize that there are still some roadblocks involved in this transition.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to making a tablet your main PC is that touch screen. It's great for watching movies and browsing the Web, but not user friendly when it comes to writing a long report.
Touch typists aren't likely to keep up a fast word count on a tablet, but hunt-and-peck typists might find there's not much difference between a physical keyboard and a virtual one.
Depending on the size of the tablet, it might not be easy to thumb-type (as you would when texting on a smartphone) and hold the tablet at the same time.
If you're a writer or student with a need to type long e-mails or reports, however, an external keyboard might be a good fit. They're typically small and light enough that, combined with a tablet, they still weigh less than most netbooks or laptops.
Data storage dilemmas
Even the most modest laptops sold today have a spacious hard drive capable of storing plenty of music, movies and more data than you might possibly need.
Tablets, however, use flash memory, which is a lot more expensive and comes in much smaller quantities. Apple's largest-capacity iPad holds less than 64 gigabytes of data. Most competing tablets have 16 or 32 gigabytes built in, and many don't allow you to pop in external storage.
That means you might not be able to carry around your entire music, digital movie and document libraries on a tablet the way you might on a laptop. You might have to be more selective about what stays on the tablet.
You also can't watch DVDs on a tablet. You'll have to either convert DVDs to a digital format and transfer them or download movies and TV shows from the Android Market or iTunes.
And if you take photos or video with your tablet's built-in camera, that data will also add up and lead to a space crunch.
Some users e-mail big files to themselves to keep them stored in online services like Gmail. That also serves as a good backup in case the tablet is lost or the data becomes corrupted. Others use Internet file storage apps like Dropbox, which allows you to keep up to 2 gigabytes of data online for free.
As for music, Google and Amazon recently introduced online services that allow you to keep your music files online to stream wherever you've got Internet access. Apple announced a cloud-based data and music service due in the fall that likely will ease the storage crunch.
Flash and app fixes
Ask any Android tablet user what the iPad is missing and he'll tell you it's the ability to play Flash video or games. It's true: The iPad doesn't do Flash and probably never will. iPad users might find they need to run to a computer to view certain Flash-based content (or to a competing tablet).
The Skyfire ($2.99) iPad app will convert a Web page's Flash video so that it can be viewed on the iPad. It doesn't always work, but when it does, it's like a tiny miracle.
Tablets also lack Microsoft Office apps, but Apple's suite of apps, Pages, Keynote and Numbers, can open files from Word, PowerPoint and Excel and export documents to them as well. They cost $10 each.
Documents to Go ($15) is a good office documents app for Apple's devices as well as Android. OfficeSuite Pro for Android ($15) is another powerful option.
For those who use photo editing applications, Photoshop Express (free) for iPad and Android tablets and Photogene for iPad ($2.99) are both excellent.