Since the birth of the iPad especially, people have been speculating whether and when tablets would supplant laptops as our go-to, everyday machines. It hasn’t happened. Even now, in 2017 a tablet probably won’t cut it if you use your computer for much more than internet, word-processing, and email. But for many of us, honestly, those three things are all we need day-to-day. Plus, now that both Microsoft Office and the Apple productivity programs formerly known as iWork are available and capable on tablets, basic productivity work is (almost) as easy on a tablet as on a computer—as long as you have the right setup, that is.
If you’re between computers and need to get by on a tablet for a while, or if you realized you don’t use 90 percent of your expensive computer’s capabilities and don’t feel like buying another one, then listen up. Here’s what you need to know to live with a tablet as your primary device.
You’ll definitely need to store stuff in the cloud when you use a tablet. For one thing, it’s tough to get files on a tablet. You can’t use external dongles like thumb drives on most of them, and iPads, in particular, make getting at the internal file structure a chore. Plus there’s the simple issue of storage space. Tablets have considerably less storage space than new laptop— even laptops with SSDs instead of hard drives.
Luckily, the days of emailing yourself documents are long gone, and there are plenty of cloud storage services to choose from, with Dropbox, Onedrive and Google Drive coming out on top. Both of those services let you keep your files arranged just as they were on your computer. On the iPad, it’s best to use one of these apps rather than Apple’s iCloud if you want to be able to browse files just as you would on a computer. With only iCloud, you’re stuck throwing all your word-processing documents in one place, all your spreadsheets in another, and so on. You can’t group things by, say, project or time period.
For larger files, you might consider a tablet-specific external drive, like Seagate’s Wireless Mobile Storage drive (£150). It connects via a dedicated Wi-Fi network, holds 500 GB, and is simple and pleasant to use, with a dedicated app to access the files.
Besides the question of where to store and how to access all your individual files, there’s the issue of how to back up the tablet itself, which is tough to do without a computer (though tablet-specific hard drives like the Seagate can do it). What’s more, for some tablets—including all iPads—there’s no such thing as expandable storage; the gigabytes the tablet comes with is what you’re stuck with. Others have SD card expansion slots, and really, they all should.
A real keyboard is a must for anybody who wants to do serious work. Yes, a traditional mouse is more accurate than mashing your fingers on a touchscreen. But where an external mouse is a nice addition to tablet computing setup, it’s not absolutely necessary. A tablet’s most glaring shortcoming is its lack of a physical keyboard (save for the Surface, which comes with a keyboard as part of its half-tablet, half-computer gimmick).
The obvious choice for an iPad is Apple’s Wireless Keyboard (£70). That’s especially true if you’re already used to typing on an Apple laptop, since the key spacing is the same (and it’s also very similar to the iPad’s virtual keyboard). Another good choice for a standalone Bluetooth keyboard is Logitech’s Bluetooth Easy-Switch Keyboard (£100), which works with both Android and iOS devices.
For a keyboard that connects to the iPad and doubles as a screen cover (it’s a screen protector when it’s closed over the laptop screen, like a closed book cover, and a keyboard when it’s flipped open) there’s Belkin’s Qode Ultimate Keyboard Case Keyboard Case (£100). For a similar Samsung-friendly option, go with Logitech’s Ultrathin Keyboard Folio (£100). For Nexus tablets, it’s slim pickings. Luckily there’s a good one in the Google Nexus 9 Keyboard Folio (£129).
For tablet word processing like you’d get on a computer, there are two frontrunners: Microsoft Office (free for basic features), and Apple’s “productivity” apps (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote—all free). Both are near-replicas of the desktop versions, so making the switch to using them on a tablet is mostly a matter of getting used to using a touchscreen instead of a mouse. Dropbox and Google Docs also work just fine as word processors (and Dropbox can now be linked to Word), as does Editorial, a much-lauded iOS plain text editor, though it and similar apps don’t provide the formatting options Microsoft Word and Pages do.
All of these apps automatically save documents as you work, uploading them to the cloud. Pages and Word also all allow offline access to documents, as long as the latest changes you made to those documents were on the tablet, not a different device. With Google Docs, that only works for documents created on the tablet. All others have to be manually set to be available for offline use before you lose internet.
With all three, the best habit to get into for time when you know you’ll have no internet is to download all files ahead of time, storing them locally. When you do get internet again, changes will be automatically uploaded as soon as you open the apps—but only after the app has been opened, even if it’s already running in the background.
Sticking with the default browser on your tablet is just fine. But depending on your style of internet browsing, you might want something else. If you use the Google Chrome on your computer and want to sync bookmarks and browsing history across devices, then Google Chrome is probably your best bet for a mobile browser. Ditto for any other browser, including Apple’s Safari. Speaking of Safari: If you have an iPad and want to watch Flash videos, you’re out of luck, since Safari won’t let you.
CALENDAR, EMAIL, AND CONTACTS
All tablets make keeping your calendar, email, and contacts synced easy. In fact, it’s almost impossible to set up a tablet and not keep your accounts in sync. The first time you use the device, it’ll ask you for the information for your account of choice and then automatically connect its stock mail, calendar, and contacts apps. On an iPad, you can populate the calendar, contacts, and email with data from almost any kind of account. Android tablets tend to favor Google accounts.
As with internet browsers, you’ll likely want to replace the stock calendar and email programs with Google’s versions on Android tablets. The best calendar app on any device, I’d argue, is Sunrise, with its just-enough-details clean interface and integration with third-party apps on any OS. As for mail, arguably the best apps are Gmail, for its simplicity and intuitive design, and Mailbox, not only for its design too but also for how easy it makes it to remind yourself to write back to emails without marking everything as unread.
Connecting peripherals is a pain in the ass for one reason: Besides the Surface, few tablets have USB ports. That means you’ll have to rely mostly on Bluetooth, NFC, and Wi-Fi to link a tablet to pretty much any other device. Unless you’re using both an iPad and a Mac, in which case you can use the built-in Airdrop feature, you’ll need a third-party app such as Send Anywhere or Filedrop. If you’re nervous about security, Send Anywhere is the best option, since it sends files via P2P rather than storing them temporarily on a cloud server.
One of the main barriers to getting things done on a tablet has been the inability to have multiple windows or apps open simultaneously. There’s something to be said for focusing on the task at hand. But if your work demands looking at a webpage and typing a word-processing document at the same time, you’re stuck moving back and forth between apps.
If you’re willing to use an Android tablet, some models allow for true multitasking, with windows placed side-by-side. The Surface allows switching between apps placed side by side with keyboard shortcuts, and the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro lets you have multiple apps open and visible at once, arranged as tiles on the screen.
The non-existence of multitasking has been the bane of many iPad users for years. But it’s finally going away: Multitasking will appear in the new iOS 9 when it’s released later this summer. So if you’re been thinking about turing your iPad into a work device, there’s never been a better time.
Tablets demand tables. Using tablets as literal laptops—that is, things you put on your lap—is difficult. But you’ve got your physical keyboard, so you’re already one step towards a more ergonomic tablet setup. That keyboard will probably slide around, and the screen will likely have trouble staying upright. A good solution is a low tech one: a book on your lap, to hold everything steady and on a flat, level surface. A better solution, of course, is a table, on which you can also comfortably use a mouse.
Or your can just lie down. Prone, tablets are a dream.