Tablet vs laptop 300x156My aging laptop, a trusty and wonderful device–on which I’ve composed five novels, countless articles, poems and pieces—is nearing the end of its existence. I extended its life expectancy substantially by replacing various components as they wore out, namely the hard drive and battery pack, but still the Time Has Come to replace the device altogether.

Recently, while standing in line at a coffee-shop, I observed an individual place a roll-out rubberized keyboard on a small bistro table and then plug it into his smartphone. He put the android device on a small stand and began typing away like mad. This scene sparked a set of musings in my mind which have leaked out to much of my numerous contact lists this week and set me lurking about the web for related articles.

It seems many writers are in a bit of a quandary about which device to graduate to, should the need arise. I read a piece by Kimmo Linkama on the issue, voicing a similar question to mine: which of the ‘new’ devices are really work-able for writing? He admitted being hooked on his full QWERTY keyboard, asked his audience for “help” and got variety of rather vague replies. GottaBeMobile writer Will Shanklin wrote—way back in July 2011—that while tablet were OK for causal computing, for serious writers (and other content creators) they “simply would not do.”

Uncertainty continued to plague me. Yes, a tablet looks “fun”–and getting my email at a touch while writing certainly appeals–but is such a device practical for 6-8 hours of daily writing/editing? Do digital ‘pens’ really allow “natural” writing and digital storage without hampering the creative process? Is the laptop truly obsolete, or is it merely in a state of transition?

I wondered at just how many writers will simply purchase a better laptop when theirs is kaput, verses trekking into the wild and wooly outlands of New Technology. Admittedly, when the iPad first came out, I was goggled-eyed with the possibilities it presented but–as of late—I’ve been cycling through web ads for sleek/light laptops, being I am already familiar with the design’s practical use for composing large-volume prose.

The practical side of my inner consumer was not alone, nor unrivaled. Many fellow writers, freelance colleagues, and several dozen members of the eBook community, replied to my inquiries on the subject with very helpful—and at times adamant—advice, revealing in detail what device(s) they’ve personally used to compose their own prose:

Bestselling suspense/thriller author Joshua Graham uses a full-sized Win7 laptop, supplemented with his iPhone for syncing documents to his Go app. Graham’s co-host on the Dialogue blogtalkradio show, bestselling author Susan Wingate, uses a Dell laptop with a docking system, and swears by its portability–and also its useability–for serious writing.

The words “serious writing” were bandied around the reply emails rather frequently, often after the words “My tablet is fun but…” Author, journalist & blogger Daniel Audet replied as follows:

The most productive for me is an Alienware high end laptop with at least 6 gigs of ram, super fast hard drive, cutting edge sound and video cards and wi-fi capable with a security chip for wi-fi, HD or high res. screen and 9 hour battery. Sometimes I use a usb mini mouse. I’m using a biz class HP custom with most of the stuff I just mentioned however my next laptop 17″ or 19″ will be it.”

Attorney & Writer/Editor Guitta Karubian wrote:I’d go for a tablet if I knew one that didn’t have the problems of the iPad yet had all the goodies. Problems: No usb port on the older ones and expensive plus costs of adapter (for usb port), etc. I’m drawn to the iPad, in part because I switched to Mac Apple laptops 5 computers ago after having owned and worked with 12 or more PCs. (I presently have a small PC which I try not to use.) I would – regardless of what else I add to my arsenal – stay with a laptop as my primary. I don’t think anything compares as a storage unit + portability + ease of use including larger screen and keyboard. It’s unquestionably the most dependable and versatile in these regards.”

Author Caron Kamps Widden offered a great insight into the device life of international/traveling writers, and like Joshua Graham uses her laptop in tandem with her iPhone:

As an expat author living in Belgium, I use an HP Elite Book Laptop for writing, I also have the much smaller, HP mini, which is fine for email and simple tasks, but the screen is smallish, and keyboard tight, so it can be annoying to try to do anything advanced or prolonged. It does slip into a tote or larger handbag with ease. I use my IPhone for just about everything else when not near my laptop — email, calls, texts, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, my blog (but AT&T charges me an arm and both legs for roaming in Europe, despite paying extra monthly for added roaming and texting). I just bought the Kindle Fire — works great and the clarity is unreal for watching movies and favorite TV episodes. Great for accessing email and all of above (other than texting and calls). Does not work with ease when trying to connect to WiFi abroad. Best to download everything one needs, books, magazines, movies, TV shows to the device and not let it float in the ‘Cloud’ when traveling abroad.”

California author Caroline Gerardo’s response was short & highly practical:Laptop hands down wins. Tablet and other smaller devices slow typing process. My eyesight is bad from years of working on computer and sun exposure. Small print means big typos for this girl.”

Indie Writer Jo Anne Benware:My last three laptops were Dells and I have a Toshiba Netbook that I carry with me to my writer meetings and to the coffee shop when I need to get out of the house and write. I also use memory sticks so I can go between the two.”

A couple of writers surprised me by recommending using both a tablet and a laptop. Writer Pauline Jones uses her iPad (with a wireless keyboard) and supplements it with a MacAir:

I’ve managed to get a (surprising) amount of mileage out of my iPad, but did add a Mac Book Air to my entourage. (grin) What the Air can’t always do: download email. Even with free wifi, can’t always connect when on the road, but I love working on it. And its so light and easy to tote around. I did a lot of work on my iPad when on the road last January and could connect even without wifi because it is 3G. The problem I had was porting my files back to my Mac and then switching to doc format. Sometimes the files got a bit hinky going from Pages to doc format. Which would be why I got the Air. I can do simple email on my smart phone, but anything too detailed is just not something I want to do. Of course, the smart phone is great for social networking. I can take a picture and upload it to FB or twitter. I have an iPad 1, so can’t take pictures with it. But my iPad has worked hard for me in the two years I’ve owned it. But for really intense writing, the Air works great. I use Drop box to move files between them and my desktop.”

Only one responder had gone the way of a combo device–a thing both laptop and tablet–freelance writer Robert J. Medak.

My convertible is a Dell,” he wrote.It is smaller and handier than a Laptop. Since I work from home, I use my Desktop, and my Tablet the most. My tablet is used primarily for reading eBooks for review. The convertible is great for the times I am out and have access to Wi-Fi or just want to sit down and work with Word.”

Some writers, such as author and Speaker’s Assistant Yvonne Wu, responded that they use only the iPad/Fire/other tablet for writing, but–like other tablet writers–added that they accomplish all “serious writing” using a peripheral keyboard, whether plug-in, wireless or built into the tablet’s case. This add-on seems to be a common theme, even outside my writing contacts. After cruising the more popular writers forums, half of the posting Prosers appeared to be sticking with their laptops; the other half recommended their tablets, but always with that external keyboard caveat.

Despite the tablet’s soaring rise in the device realm, perhaps a Writer General’s warning should be pasted on the outside of tablet cartons:

Studies show that writers may need to use a peripheral keyboard with this device to actually write.”

[Via Greene Ink]


  1. Nice to see such a broad range of opinions.

    I have yet to see anyone express anywhere what I consider a serious negative to using an iPad / tablet , in addition to keyboard issues. When I write I like to see more than a couple lines above and below the insertion point. I like to be able to look back a few paragraphs as I’m writing without having to manually scroll up/down away from my current place in the text.

    The on-screen keyboard on an iPad (in landscape, my preferred orientation) takes up half the available screen real estate. It just feels “cramped”. The only way to get around that is use a smaller font (to small for my old eyes!) or an external keyboard.

    While I’m a hug fan of the iPad, I can’t see and haven’t gotten to the point of using it for long writing sessions. And that is after almost 2 years of use.

  2. I use the iPad to write long business emails and business plans as well as personal emails, and to edit presentations.

    I can perfectly see where it has limitations for long times. But it is perfectly adequate for my above use.

  3. I do all my writing on my iPad now. (Yes, I have an external keyboard. I too, see this as a *must*.)

    I don’t have any problems getting files to and from the iPad. I use Pages, and just use iClould to backup and transfer everything.

    I will admit that I still do most of my editing on my Macbook.. it’s just easier to scroll from the beggining to the end of a 80,000 word document with a mouse.

  4. For almost all writing tasks on laptops, I think Scrivener is the best. While it does have powerful features for complex projects, you can start by using its simplest features to simply keep chapters and scenes organized. Once Mac-only, it now has a Windows version with an iPad version under development.

    For on the go, a text app on a smartphone that auto-syncs with a similar app on your preferred OS (perhaps using Dropbox) is best. Notes taken on one, appear on the other without any bothersome synching. I don’t think I’d want to write on a tiny touch screen and carrying about a full-sized keyboard negates most of the portability. But for taking down ideas as they come to you, even in the middle of the night, it can’t be beat.

    For those with tight budgets, a second-hand version of one of the recording keyboards used by grade schools may make sense. The Neo 2 retails for about $150, but I picked up a used one at Goodwill for $10. You can get similar deals on the Alphasmart 2000 and 3000. One big plus for those who’ll be traveling far from civilized amenities is their extraordinary battery life. About 40 hours for the Alphasmart 2000 and up to several hundred hours for the Neo 2. And that’s with four cheap, easy-to-find AA batteries. When you get back home, just hook the gadget up to your computer and it’ll stream what you’ve written into your favorite writing app just like you were typing very fast.

    –Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien

  5. Does nobody write at home any more? I use my ergonomic keyboard and my 22″ widescreen display rotated into the vertical position.

    Software-wise, I started with Dark Room — an intentionally primitive “word entry” system — but I need more organization so I’ve switched to yWriter 5. Scrivener looks like overkill for my needs, and yWriter 5 is free (an important consideration for many writers).

  6. Reading this amicable feedback is heartening to me, especially in gaining more bits of useful information. I have heard of Scrivener and will give it a series of glances, if not more.

    As to writing outside, or the perceived lack thereof, I mostly write at home… but outside under the backyard pergola, a place which–even on rainy days–provides fresh air inspiration. Setting up a desktop outside is a bit silly in such a case as mine, and the laptop does come in handy when tied up at my children’s various extra-curricular classes.

    Thank you for all the remarks, folks.

  7. Hi Meredith, nice to talk to you, I had the same problem recently and after having a NEC which continually broke down and Compaq that lasted forever but was too heavy I bought a MacBook Air and have had absolutely no regrets. It is a laptop computer and I got the lightest/smallest one; it is perfect. I can slip it into my handbag/purse and take it anywhere. It is so delightful to use. Having had PC before it was strange to use the Mac but didn’t take long at all. Writing on it is pure pleasure.
    Best wishes, June :))

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