Now is the time for lawyers to invest in a tablet device

Has all the buzz around tablets set your head spinning? Not sure what to make of it all?

You’re not alone. Early adopters define them in techspeak and leave the other 95 per cent of us to struggle with their jargon.

Don’t let the techspeak discourage you – tablets are worth checking out.

What are tablets

Essentially slate-like devices, their touch screens have proven intuitive enough to sell millions of tablets over the past year. Basic email, web surfing and social media, as well as entertainment and gaming, work well on tablets. Battery life tends to be stellar, and the whole package is far lighter than notebooks.

The biggest drawback? Unless you get a separate keyboard, you likely won’t write your next brief on a tablet. (I wrote drafts of three articles about the iPad using an iPad and Apple’s Pages word processor, but I wouldn’t want to handle revision on it.)

Three major players dominate today’s tablet market: Apple, Google and Research in Motion.

Apple iPad

The market leader (no other tablet is even close at this point), the iPad has it all: great performance, thousands of apps, a wide selection of accessories, and a price point which competing tablet makers are struggling to meet.

While not necessarily failings, some people knock the iPad for:

  • not including a USB port to handle things like external storage devices
  • Apple’s “walled garden” (aka App Store) approach, in which Apple controls the applications you can put on your device

BlackBerry PlayBook

BlackBerry fans (in other words, just about every lawyer I know) will at least check out the PlayBook. The larger screen, even if it’s smaller than the iPad’s, makes using applications far more pleasant, a less squinty experience.

A PlayBook won’t give you email or PIM apps if you don’t have a BlackBerry to tether it to, but the flip side of that limitation is that if you lose the PlayBook, you don’t lose that information.

Less forgivable: while the PlayBook’s screen is smaller and third-party apps scarcer, its price is comparable to the iPad’s.

Google Android-based tablets

Google makes its Android phone and tablet operating systems free to hardware makers, so you can pick up models from Motorola (which, at press time, Google is trying to buy), HTC, LG and others.

Android’s selection of third-party tablet apps ought to compare to that for Apple in short order. Just don’t get pirated apps – Android phone owners have already suffered malware attacks thanks to such indiscretions.

Tablet shopping: a primer

The first question many people ask is “Which tablet should I get?” Let me suggest a better one: “Can a tablet prove useful to me?” This second question leads to more questions which, once answered, provide the answer to the first.

So let’s flesh out the second question.

What tablets can handle the tasks you perform daily?

If you only want to perform generic tasks like web browsing, email, calendaring and contact lookups, just about any tablet will do.

But if you use third-party applications like task managers, file sharing tools or document readers with annotation features, check the tablet’s third-party application market.

Will the tablet operating system be around next year?

In August, tech titan Hewlett-Packard stopped producing HP TouchPads. Since nobody but HP makes tablets run by WebOS (formerly of Palm Inc., which HP bought last year), expect the WebOS market – devices, third-party applications, support – to languish.

Will you show other people things on your tablet?

If you’re going to share your screen, check out larger tablets.

Will the tablet work with other devices and applications you use?

Need to synchronize information with your computer, phone or Microsoft Exchange? Chances are there’s an app for that. Check the tablet’s app store to make sure.

Will IT support bless the device?

Probably. Partners and upper-level staff are demanding that firms support their devices. And many IT departments are wising up, realizing that they can’t just say no anymore. Still, ask your IT people about the devices they currently support. While you’re at it, get their opinions on the right device for you.

Do you need cellular access, or will wifi suffice?

If you can make do accessing the Internet using wifi hotspots (and not needing cellular access), you save money in both the initial purchase price and by forgoing the cost of a data plan for your tablet.

Will the battery last all day?

Tablets ought to provide at least a full day’s use on one charge.

Are you being overcharged?

The six models of the market-leading Apple iPad can be had for prices ranging from less than $600 to less than $1,000, taxes included. Other tablets ought not be pricier.

Malware threats

Digital criminals have yet to truly target tablets, but if an August McAfee report entitled “McAfee Threats Report: Second Quarter 2011” is any indication, they’re aiming for Android phones above all.

Mobile devices – a quick comparison

The current focus on flashy tablet devices takes away from the fact that they’re meant to serve a purpose – your mobile computing needs. Remember, other devices may serve your needs just as well.

Laptops

Pros

They’ve been around for so long they’re easy to overlook, but they’re still mobile workhorses.

They’re easy to tote, and since they work like desktop computers the learning curve isn’t too steep. They support sophisticated applications and feature a physical keyboard, a must for creating long documents.

Cons

Laptops generally cost more than tablets, and desktops with equivalent technology. They’re heavier and take longer to start than tablets.

Netbooks

Pros

Slightly smaller and less expensive than full-size laptops, netbooks handle everyday computing tasks with aplomb.

Cons

They’re cheaper for several reasons. For one, they’re made with older technology, so they’re slower and rarely have as much hard disk or memory capacity as laptops. They also have no optical drives and cramped keyboards and screens.

And their slight low-price advantage can’t hold given the coming competition from tablets.

For a PDF of this article, click tablet_primer.

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