Tablet Laptops: You Can’t Fight Physics

21st October 2013

Microphone The Microsoft Surface 2 has been announced and the initial reviews are in. The result: it’s neither a great tablet nor a great laptop. You didn’t need a review to tell you this and it’s not really a software problem. It’s simple: you can’t fight the physics.

Although I’ve discussed this sort of issue previously I thought it’s worth highlighting the simple issues of the physics at play. When you work at your desk, you tend to have a level surface upon which to place your laptop. If you travel between the office and home then you will likely have two level surfaces. In which case you want a laptop that is powerful that you simply can carry with you between the two places: one work device at your two primary work locations.

If you have a tablet it’s more likely you will use that on a train, on a bus, sitting on the couch, the bed, in a chair and so on: no desk required. For those times a light device you can hold in your hand is ideal and the tablet form factor wins: Lightweight, good battery life and optimised for touch.

The problem lies in the cross-over use case: a more powerful device that can do what a desktop can, but can be used in ones lap. Traditionally this was the point of a laptop: weighted in the bottom so it would sit comfortably in the lap but use desktop software and input devices (trackpads) with desktop optimised software. Your fingers rest on the keyboard for access and don’t touch the screen which is sitting in front of you. Tap the screen, the laptop falls off your lap. Not smart.

I used to believe that a lap-tablet could work so much so that I purchased a RocketFish iCapsule for my iPad 1 and used it on the train. The problems were simple: the iPads centre of gravity was too high and it was essentially top-heavy. Despite the attempt to provide a rear extension to the keyboard it required one hand on the keyboard at ALL times to stay on my lap: especially when tapping the screen! This could be rectified by weighting the front edge of the keyboard however this would also add weight to the overall case/tablet combination that already weighed more than a 13" MBA.

The Surface can never be a laptop replacement for anyone that wants to use a laptop in their lap. Nor will ANY iPad keyboard every be usable in this use-case for this exact reason. So long as the tablet has a greater mass than the keyboard its centre of gravity will always lead to tipping over. Kickstands won’t cut it because they take up more room than a equivalent laptop on your lap and it’s too unstable. Weighting the keyboard solves the tipping problem but then makes the entire combination heavier than a laptop.

Tablets will always be at a disadvantage in this respect: to be standalone they MUST have their components including their screen in the one assembly. A laptop splits the heavy components into the base and keep their screens as light as possible making them stable in the lap.

One solution might be to put as much of the mass within a tablet on one side of the tablet, and make any keyboard docks only work from that side (lowering the COG) but in so doing, the tablet in standalone operation would feel very unbalanced and this would be very off-putting and uncomfortable. In particular, I can never see Apple choosing that tradeoff as they prize product symmetry very highly.

So long as the tablet weighs more than it’s keyboard, Tablet laptops just won’t work. You can’t fight the physics.