Tech Smart: Close to prime time

May 14, 2012
Noah Levine

Issue 5

Since the first generation iPad was released just two years back the market for tablet computers has exploded, and with good reason. Tablets provide previously unknown portability and convenience. Sure laptops were portable, but they needed to be flipped open to use and weighed far more than a tablet. A tablet is as simple to use while standing as it is while seated and by design, these machines are ready to go the moment they're clicked on. Abundant advantages

Since the first generation iPad was released just two years back the market for tablet computers has exploded, and with good reason.

Tablets provide previously unknown portability and convenience. Sure laptops were portable, but they needed to be flipped open to use and weighed far more than a tablet. A tablet is as simple to use while standing as it is while seated and by design, these machines are ready to go the moment they're clicked on.

Abundant advantages

Another feature powering the tablet boom was Apple's decision to power the iPad with its mobile iOS operating system rather than trying to cram a full desktop platform under the hood. This move allowed tablets to be powered by smaller chips, increasing battery life and lower device costs. It's a move that has been emulated by many, but with the rapid expansion of processor power at various sizes, full scale desktop OS on a tablet might not be far off.

It certainly didn't hurt that these mobile machines are as simple to use as possible. Touch what you want to use, move it to where you want it to go and other finger commands that are completely intuitive. The mobile OS software available creates a rich platform for most computing tasks.

For now though, software companies have been satisfied with scaling down their programs for the tablet screen size, touchscreen interface and lower computing power requirements. Add to this the equally explosive rise in online content and ever faster mobile networks, and you have the perfect storm for the rise of tablet computing.

But for the past few years I'd been watching from afar, living vicariously through devices purchased by friends and relatives and playing with a slate in the store any time I had a chance. This spring I finally decided to go all in on one of these devices, snapping up a refurbished iPad 2 at a discounted price when the latest model hit the market.

After making the device my daily companion at work and at home for the past month or so, I feel I have a clearer sense of where these computing tools fit today and the amazing potential they promise for the future.

Easy to like

Right away I was able to get a solid grasp on how beneficial this tablet could be, and how quickly I could integrate it into both my workday and my home life. The size of the tablet makes it far nicer to bring to a business meeting, especially one in a restaurant or other place where tabletop space can be at a premium.

Apple's device responds instantly to commands and is quick to orient itself to the task before it. The screen size and weight proved to be ideal for getting immersed in content whether video, social media or the magazines beginning to dive into the tablet publishing arena. But while it's a personal experience at its core, the screen is large enough for a handful of people to share.

App developers have really given the iPad a boost. Wandering through the AppStore provides a glimpse of endless possibilities as software designers are continuing to think up new ways to use the screen, the cameras and the other hardware features. I've come to realize that what I do on my device today is only the tip of what's to come as Apple and the iPad developer community find new ways to make this device go.

Second screen

In daily use my iPad sits on my desk in an upright stand so it can serve as my auxiliary monitor. If I need to look something up or note a reference I don't have to break away from whatever I have my main computer doing. It's become a communications hub handling email viewing, social media tasks, video conferencing and more.

When working on graphics or other processor taxing tasks on my main computer, this little sidekick is ready to serve as a reference volume, video player or anything else I need to check into without having to shift the main machine off its appointed task. Pictures, videos, web pages and other content are always at the ready at a size and resolution suited to the way I need to see them.

Still second fiddle

With all that I love about this new machine in my life it's not yet ready to be my one and only computer. There's a good number of reasons for this, but while many of them might be mitigated by technological developments in the near future, there are a few key flaws without apparent fixes on the horizon.

Among the most common complaints from people about tablets is the issue with typing on a touchscreen. I'm not one of those people as I've quickly adapted to the flat keyboard that provides no sensory feedback. But admittedly, I'm an above average touch typer on any keyboard. The autocomplete features help fix any minor miscues in my touchscreen typing most of the time, but that has its own drawbacks as it can be over zealous in its corrections and extra careful proof reading is critical. Autocorrect can add in new mistakes, and those errors can be embarrassing at best and catastrophic at worst. Autocorrect does learn your tendencies and will pick up on common words you use as it's attempting to "correct" to something wrong.

I actually typed this entire column on the slate in the same time it usually takes me at a desktop or laptop computer. The keystrokes aren't too much of a problem, but with no give from the ”keys”, my fingers did start to hurt a bit after pounding away on the glass screen for a bit. Unlike with autocorrect, I'm not sure what the fix for this problem would be beyond an external Bluetooth keyboard which somewhat deflates the portable benefits of the slate itself.

The bigger drawback in functionality is the relatively timid processor. When compared to a top tier desktop, or even highly specced laptop, this slate is a slowpoke. OS optimization makes up for it, but if you ask a tablet to handle major video production or 3D modeling as would be key for a dental lab's computing needs, nothing currently on the market would be up to the task.

Help is on the way

But that doesn't mean slates won't eventually win the day. Processor power and internal memory are rapidly improving which will make tablets all the more useful as main machines. However, they still have a very long way to go, and if they do overtake their desk- and laptop brethren it will most likely be thanks to cloud processing.

Once wired, WiFi and mobile Internet speeds are ready for it, there's no reason why something as complex as a dental CAD software couldn't live in the clouds to be accessed just like a Google Doc. In this scenario, a powerful remote computer would be accessed via the web, data would be viewed, controlled and manipulated via the tablet, but the actual computational crunching would be handled off-slate. The touch interface that is so natural and easy to learn would be a natural fit for working on dental restorations. Software such as exoCAD is already offering touch integration. And to take the level of slate-based control even further, other tools could be created to allow dental technicians to ”touch” their digital restoration designs with any manner of styli, or other implements capable of interacting with the touch surface.

The verdict

It's already clear that tablets are here to stay. They're useful tools right now for a range of things. A benchtop tablet could be a communications hub that brings the dentist to the bench via email and video, a way to have large shade and case images at the ready whenever and wherever needed, and a portal to product information, educational videos and other vital information.

These gadgets are great toys, but they can be far more than a plaything. They are ready to make an impact right now, and can change the way you work. That potential is only going to grow, and it might not be too long before a decently powerful and connected touchscreen will be the only computer everyone needs.