By Sam Rosenthal

Portability is Back

The first consumer oriented laptops were created to combine the multiple hardware components needed for a standard desktop computer into a single portable unit. The PC industry has been dominated by desktops since the very beginning, and laptops were long accepted as compact but decidedly less functional machines to be used in conjunction with the desktop. It was standard practice to use a desktop as a primary computer and a laptop as a secondary computer while traveling. Unsurprisingly, consumers found the laptop’s inability to perform as competently as the desktop quite irritating, and for what seemed like eternities, hardware companies pushed to close the gap between the desktop and the laptop in terms of overall performance. For the most part, they succeeded, as many laptops that can be purchased today perform just as well as their desktop counterparts. However, in the push to equalize desktops and laptops, the most important differentiator between the two types of computers, portability, was all but lost.

Take for example Toshiba’s attractively named Qosmio X505-Q894 laptop. It’s undoubtedly a capable machine, with 4GB of DDR3 memory, a 500 GB hard drive, a NVIDIA GeForce graphics card, a BluRay player, and a whopping 18.4” screen. If you couldn’t care less about the majority of these features, don’t be alarmed, as Toshiba’s target audience for this machine is probably smaller than the laptop itself. Here’s what you do care about: the machine weighs over ten pounds and has less than four hours of battery life. Portability was obviously not one of Toshiba’s main concerns.

What do you think weighs more, the kid or the laptop?

What do you think weighs more, the kid or the laptop?

None of the features in the Qosmio X5-whatever would seem out of place in a desktop computer or even in a video game console, but they have no business being in a portable computer. The internet has become the primary source of our daily computing activities, and quick access to the internet does not require a 18.4” screen. If I had to guess, most consumers probably only use their computer’s word processor and internet browser on a daily basis. A company called Asus came to the same conclusion when they launched their extraordinarily successful line of Eee PC netbooks, which generally have around 10 inch screens, over ten hours of battery life, and will cost you less than $400. They won’t run StarCraft II on the highest settings, but for many consumers they are satisfactory.

Even though my MacBook Pro is only two years old, the developments over the past two years have made it seem like somewhat of a relic. I will not criticize the laptop’s performance, it still is unbelievably fast and responsive, but with its 15-inch screen and nearly six-pound weight, it’s a pain to lug around. Compare this to Apple’s recent MacBook Air that has an 11-inch screen, weighs just over two pounds, and is less than 0.7 inches thick. The Air is not a netbook like the Eee PC, it is a fully functioning Mac that can run the vast majority of current software, but its arguably most remarkable feat is the omission of needless features. The Air does not have a CD drive, given that physical CDs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. The Air does not have a hard drive, given that a hard drive’s many moving parts are impractical for a portable computer. It uses the faster flash memory instead, and even though the Air stores far less data than the Toshiba monster, in all honesty it no longer matters. Data is moving away from our hard drives and into the cloud thanks to products like MobileMe and Dropbox, which are each worthy of blog posts of their own.

The MacBook Air and the iPad

The MacBook Air and the iPad

After all this talk on how laptops evolved into Godzilla-sized entertainment centers and then into something that can actually fit into a backpack, it is time to have a look at what might be the most monumental change to portable computing, well, ever. Apple introduced the world to tablets with the iPad just last year, and while it was not the first tablet ever released, it was the first practical one. Much like the iPhone, Apple’s competitors first denounced the device then further legitimized it by introducing tablets of their own. The iPad provides the two basic needs of computing, the word processor and access to the internet, while giving users an entirely new and exciting way to access their content.

The large touch screen display eliminates the barrier between the user and the content by requiring the much more direct user interaction. Flipping through a PDF on the iPad mimics the feel of flipping through a physical document, which is much more natural and intuitive than massaging the down arrow key. Another one of the iPad’s distinct advantages can be found in the plethora of apps. Like the Eee PC, the iPad also cannot run StarCraft II at the highest settings, but it can be used to play original and compelling games tailor made for the device. Blizzard may not know whether StarCraft is being played on a desktop or a laptop, but App Store developers know that their games are being played on a portable device and thus design them to be easily accessible on the go. Aside from playing games, the iPad can be used to stream movies, to tune a guitar, to manage financial statements, to read a newspaper, and so much more. All in all, it’s a more natural way to interact with content, and a more portable and cheaper way as well.

It took years, but finally we have realized that laptops are not desktops and should not attempt to be so. We added useless features, then removed them, then got rid of the remaining features we thought we needed (see: the keyboard). Desktops are becoming increasingly rare in this day and age, a sure sign that we need our content to be with us everywhere we go. The only question is: how will we take it with us? The laptop has long been the sole solution, but the rise of the tablet has paved the way for a whole new form of device to take its place. I cannot predict which device, if either, will win out down the road or if another will come to take the world by storm, but never has their been a more exciting time for portable computing. For the first time, our portable computers are truly meant to be portable.