May/June 2019

The Digital Toolkit

The 2019 Tablet Showdown: Which One's Best?

Tom Mighell

I know that we typically discuss software and web applications here at The Digital Toolkit, but you’ve got to have someplace to use those applications, right? Last year saw a surge in development of new tablet devices from Apple, Microsoft and Google. How do they stack up against each other? Is it possible for a lawyer in 2019 to work only from a tablet? I have reviewed each of them and, in this installment of this column, I’ll share my thoughts.

First, the contenders. Apple’s established iPad Pro is facing off against newcomers—Microsoft’s Surface Go and Google’s Pixel Slate. Each tablet comes with its own detachable keyboard as well as its own stylus/pen/pencil (available for separate purchase), so you can use your tablet to take written notes and draw diagrams. Although there are some differences between these tools, don’t make your purchase decision on the accessories; they all get the job done.

The Surface Go

The Surface Go is the smallest member of Microsoft’s Surface family. The Go is also the smallest of our three competitors, with a 10-inch screen. It’s about as thick as the iPad Pro, but its smaller size makes it a joy to handle and carry; you can put it in a bag and forget it’s there. It also has the patented Surface hinge on the back that allows you to view the screen at several different angles. While its size makes it great for taking it to meetings or on vacation, you will probably want to use something larger to get serious work done. The design does have one unfortunate drawback, however. Phone and tablet manufacturers have been working for years to reduce the bezel, that is, the border between the screen and the frame. (See the latest iOS and Android phones to see essentially bezel-less devices.) By contrast, the Surface Go has a huge bezel, which makes the screen look cramped by comparison.

The Go ships with Windows S Mode—Microsoft’s tablet operating system that only runs apps from its App Store—but it’s very simple to switch over to the full version of Windows 10. This is the main benefit of using the Surface Go—being able to use full Windows 10 applications in such a small device is incredibly convenient. I was able to use Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat and all of my other standard computer applications with no problem. However, I also use my tablet for content consumption—to read my news feeds, see the latest on Twitter and read books. And, in these areas, the Go is disappointing. Windows apps for Twitter and RSS readers are just not that great, and for some reason Amazon does not even have a Kindle app for Windows.

For me, however, the worst thing about using the Surface Go is the battery life. Although other tech reviewers found the device lasted six to eight hours on a single charge, I got more like three to four hours, which is really unacceptable for using the device on a long plane flight. So as much as I love the form factor and working with full Windows applications, I decided that the Surface Go was, to coin a phrase, “not the way to Go.”

The Pixel Slate

Up next was Google’s Pixel Slate. This is Google’s first attempt at a tablet device, and the hardware is pretty slick. It offers a 12.3-inch screen, which makes it much easier to do real work. It is thinner than both the Surface Go and iPad Pro, and the bezel is not overwhelmingly large. Like the iPad Pro, it offers a USB-C port (actually, two), which means you can connect external hard drives, printers and other useful devices to extend the functionality of the tablet.

The Slate runs Chrome OS, which is different in that it relies on Google’s Chrome browser as its principal user interface. This is the tablet version of the Chromebook you may have heard about, which means it is only designed to run applications that exist on the web. The good news is, it will also run Android apps, which means you can install Microsoft Office applications, a PDF application and other office productivity tools. Because you will likely want to try to do some serious work on this tablet, I’d suggest you buy one of the higher-priced versions; the lower-end Slates are just not powerful enough to manage more than a couple of apps at a time.

The software, however, is still what I consider a work in progress. Many Android apps look like they are designed for a phone and awkwardly stretch across the tablet screen. I had difficulties in interacting with several websites, even in the Chrome browser. If your practice relies primarily on cloud-based tools, or if you live in Google Docs or the Microsoft Office world, you will likely get a lot of use out of this device. Otherwise, I imagine most lawyers will feel constrained working in a Chrome OS environment.

The iPad Pro

Which leads us to the 2018 version of the iPad Pro. The latest iteration of Apple’s tablet features a new hardware design. Gone are the rounded corners and soft shapes, replaced by squared-off edges and flat sides. This design change is probably the only thing I dislike about it. I really do like the wall-to-wall, practically bezel-free screen; it’s beautiful to view. In keeping with the latest trends, Apple finally removed the button from the screen, and you wake the device by pushing the power button. Although it has a USB-C port, not much you would want to connect to it will work. A full-size keyboard works, as well as a microphone, but as of this writing you cannot connect a printer or external storage and get it to work, aside from importing photos.

When it comes to software, the iPad wins hands down. They have a solid ecosystem of tablet-friendly apps, including apps designed for legal professionals—an area where Windows and Android developers still aren’t working.

My Recommendation

So what’s my verdict? After trying out all three of these tablets, I am sticking with the tried and true iPad Pro. It is easier to use, has superior battery life and the apps are just better—for now. I fully expect both Windows and Android to continue to improve their tablet offerings, and the story may be different this time next year.

This is not to say, however, that I am ready to proclaim the iPad Pro, or any tablet, a laptop replacement. I still believe that as convenient as these devices are, none of them can fully replace the utility of a laptop. They work very well in certain circumstances—heading out for a quick meeting, or even using an iPad to present evidence in trial—but, in my opinion, you’ll still want to keep a laptop on hand to get heavier work accomplished.

So what do you think? Have you tried any of these new tablets? Are you running a law practice solely from your tablet? Let’s continue the conversation online. Send me a tweet @TomMighell or an email at tmighell+dt@gmail.com. I’ll compile all your comments and post them on the Law Technology Today blog.

Tom Mighell

Tom Mighell is vice president of Delivery Services at Contoural and has served as chair of both the ABA Law Practice Division and ABA TECHSHOW. Email him at tmighell@gmail.com

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