My Tablet Goes to Work

It's good for surfing, reading, and posting to Facebook, but could my tablet actually help me do my job? I decided to find out.
Ben RadlinskiSeptember 29, 2011

I have a tablet, an Asus Transformer. I’ve had it for about two months, and I love it. It lets me surf the web and keep up with my friends on Facebook and Google+, and I’m currently tapping my way through book one of A Song of Ice and Fire, A Game of Thrones. The Transformer has proven to be a stellar platform for playing Scrabble with my friends, and it enables me to become even more annoying to everyone by giving me the ability to record and post YouTube videos whenever I feel like it.

The only thing I had yet to try was doing some real work on the thing. So I decided to spend a day using my tablet for work, avoiding my PC as much as possible, just to see if I could.

Typing and Browsing
Unlike the iPad, which runs Apple’s proprietary iOS operating system, the Asus Transformer is Android-based. Android, which is an open-source system (meaning the code is available to anyone for free) and is what Amazon’s new Kindle Fire will run, has all the basic applications you’d expect from a tablet and, for the most part, a laptop. The Transformer has the added bonus of a keyboard dock into which you can slide the tablet, turning it into a sort of mini-laptop. However, for my experiment, I eschewed the dock for the tablet’s touch-screen keyboard. The dock also has a trackpad mouse, but again, for my experiment, I used the tablet touch screen only.

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I’m not the quickest touch-screen typist, but my skills have improved over the past couple of months, so I figured I’d be all set. But trying to type lengthy e-mails or documents on the tablet proved to be difficult. I first tried the standard keyboard layout and attempted to touch-type, but that was a complete disaster. I watched my text scroll across the screen in a river of typos and unintelligible drivel. So I switched to the thumbs-only design with a QWERTY keyboard split in half. This proved easier, and I was able to turn out a multiparagraph e-mail in under 10 minutes. But there’s still no comparing it to a regular keyboard. The touch screen is not as forgiving as a real keyboard, and while autocorrect is a powerful tool, we’ve all seen the damage it can do.

With my productivity impaired by the touch-screen keyboard, I moved on to the touch screen itself. Nothing, people say, is easier than moving things around on a screen with your finger: clicking links, zooming in, zooming out. People are absolutely right. Your finger is a better tool than a mouse.

There are a number of browsers available for tablets, more on Android than iOS, and they all work pretty well. I like Dolphin and used it for my testing. Android supports Flash, so most sites that use Flash looked (with a little nudging) just like they would on my desktop PC, albeit smaller.

Doing Business
Business applications are making their way onto tablets, but right now there’s nothing out there that’s ready to compete with good old Microsoft Office. You’re going to have to settle for some analogous application and hope it performs well enough to meet your needs. You’re not going to be working on a massive Excel spreadsheet on any tablet. Not yet, anyway. You can look at them, and zoom in and out, but don’t think about linking pivot tables or building macros unless you have mad skills and incredible reserves of patience.

My Transformer includes a copy of Polaris Office, which is a serviceable version of OpenOffice, the open-source version of the Office suite. We use Google Apps here at CFO, and as the Transformer is an Android tablet, I opted to go with Google Apps. There’s a Google Docs app that can give you access to all your documents…provided they’re in Google Apps. I was able to write the story you’re reading right now on my tablet, make changes to some of my budget spreadsheets, and look at a PowerPoint presentation sent to me by a colleague.

All this is useful stuff and, I believe, approximates real work. And if you’re working remotely, and either don’t have access to a laptop or don’t feel like lugging one around, the tablet will enable you to get stuff done. But don’t expect to close the books or write next year’s business plan on the thing. I think this is the best value overall if you are looking for a tablet with stylus support . If you use advanced Web applications, you’re most likely going to run into problems with a tablet, no matter what it is. Android also includes a VPN client, so I was able to access files on my network while working remotely. Increasingly, tablets provide something for almost everything you need to do in order to get your job done; you just need to fiddle around a bit more than you would with a PC.

To say my tablet experiment was a complete success would be a bit of an exaggeration.  Constructing documents, working on basic spreadsheets, and using e-mail were all relatively easy, with a few glitches here and there. Typing without a keyboard was a pain, and I’d advise getting a tablet you can hook one up to. Web surfing was fine, with the only caveat being that if you run across a site with Flash, you need to manually press an icon on the screen to start the Flash application.

So, tablet, I love you, you’re fun. I’d take you on vacation anytime if I thought I might need to do a little emergency work. But if I needed to do the job for which I’m so lavishly paid, I’m leaving you at home and packing the laptop. It may not always be like that, but that’s the way it is now.