Laptop vs tablet: which is best for a small business?

Laptop and tablet
We all need a phone, but does it go with a laptop or tablet?

Sales of desktop and notebook PCs have continued to fall. In its last survey on the market Gartner put the figure at just over 10% for the first quarter of this year. The reason? The expanding use of tablet PCs.

As Mikako Kitagawa, Principal Analyst at Gartner, explains: "We are seeing the PC market reduction directly tied to the shrinking installed base of PCs, as inexpensive tablets displace the low-end machines used primarily for consumption in mature and developed markets.

"In emerging markets, inexpensive tablets have become the first computing device for many people, who at best are deferring the purchase of a PC. This is also accounting for the collapse of the mini notebook market."

Businesses approaching their replacement cycle for aging desktop and notebook PCs are asking whether they can move to tablet devices. With the trend towards 'bring your own device' taking hold, employees increasingly want to use their own personal tablets and smartphones.

Small business owners clearly have a decision to make, but need to take care, as the IT in use must be integrated to provide the most efficiency.

The market at the moment has divided into a number of categories including traditional notebook PCs, the new range of ultrabooks, tablet PCs and hybrid notebook/tablets that attempt to offer the best of both worlds.

With so much choice it's important to clearly understand how the portable technology in your business is currently used and, more importantly, how this will change in the future.

Your checklist

Often, tablet PCs and notebooks are not mutually exclusive, but offer complementary devices that can be used for specific purposes. Attempting to configure a tablet PC like a notebook computer will ultimately deliver a disappointing experience.

A better approach is to ask how each device can be used efficiently with its own specific strengths. It's worth taking a number of issues into consideration.

One is whether a touch interface is appropriate for the applications in use. As tablets have a heritage in the consumer market where there is a greater emphasis on consuming rather than creating content, some applications – such as spreadsheets – don't lend themselves to touch interfaces.

Second is that tablets can be expensive when compared to a notebook PC. Can you justify the cost?

As notebooks have developed their price has tumbled, and fully featured notebook PCs come at a significantly lower cost than some tablet PCs. Look at the business case for buying tablet PCs over notebooks. Is this justified?

Integration question

Next is to ask whether your business can integrate what multiple operating systems into the IT systems it currently uses?

As tablets use operating systems designed for mobile devices, these have to be maintained, supported and integrated into your businesses other IT systems. Carefully assess the impact tablet PCs could have before moving to these platforms.

Then ask if the storage capacity of the mobile devices you are looking at is adequate for your business's needs? Tablet PCs cannot compete if you need masses of storage capacity on the devices needed to run your business.

It's also worth considering the new breed of Ultrabooks?

A new category of ultra thin and light notebook PCs has been developing over the past couple of years. They are lightweight, have a compact design, a full keyboard and the other features you'd expect on a notebook.

Costs are still quite high, but Ultrabooks offer a halfway house between traditional notebook PCs and tablets.

Screen size

Also ask if you need larger screens. In the past, laptops were often used as desktop PC replacements, as they typically had 17-inch screens. Tablet PCs have much smaller screens, which could be an issue when running some applications.

You should also think about the ergonomics of the technology in your business.

Desktop PCs have the best ergonomics, as they can be configured for user comfort. Notebook PCs are not as good because they have smaller keyboards. Tablet PCs have on-screen keyboards which are smaller still.

Ergonomics is no joke as last year 141,000 cases of musculoskeletal disorders were reported to the Health and Safety Executive.

Finally, it's possible that a hybrid laptop/tablet could provide a compromise.

Pioneered by the Asus Transformer range, these notebook PCs have a detachable screen and run the tablet version of Windows (Surface). The compromise is in screen size, which is typically 10-12 inches.

It's likely that in future the market will be dominated by tablet PCs with hybrid devices following closely. Tablet PCs are developing at such a pace that they will soon have similar features to their notebook cousins.

However, their ergonomics still makes them a poor choice in some business scenarios in which a notebook PC or even a desktop would be more appropriate. It's critical to avoid being blinded by the bright light of tablet PC development and think through your business's IT needs before making your buying decision.

Decided which one will be best for you? Now check out our round-ups of the top 10 laptops and best tablets for business.