How many devices do you need?

In his most recent article, Paul Graham writes about what he calls “tablets” — his general term for iPhones, iPads, and the corresponding things running Android.  Like a lot of people, he thinks we’re headed towards a future where we only need, roughly, one device each: a multi-purpose phone/camera/computer/emailer/book-reader.

I’m not so sure.

I do agree that we’re headed to a place where the limits on what a device can do are imposed by its physical size — not because of how much compute-power you can fit into a small box (that constraint is pretty much gone now) but because of hardware-only components like screens, keyboards and camera optics.  The (not very exciting) insight that comes from this is that most of us are still going to need several different devices because we want different size/functionality trade-offs at different times.

At the top end of the big-and-functional scale, I can’t see myself ever not needing a laptop: something with a decent-sized screen that I can use for programming with multiple windows open at once, and with a full-sized keyboard for proper typing.  For a few years now we’ve been past the point where there is not much need for desktop computers except that they have bigger screens.  Already if I had to choose between my desktop and laptop, I’d unhestitatingly go for the laptop.  What, really, does a desktop box get you these days apart from a bigger screen?  Lower cost, I guess, is the only other advantage.

(Also at the top end is a Real Camera.  If you need better quality images than point-and-click devices give you — perhaps because you are preparing specimen photographs for publication — then you need a camera with proper optics, and there’s no way you can have that without it taking up physical space.)

At the bottom end of the big-and-functional scale, there’s my iPod Shuffle (1st generation).

It does almost nothing.

I think that is about the smallest a device can be: it has no hardware beyond a couple of buttons and a headphone socket. There’s no screen.  Although it doesn’t do much, that’s OK in some circumstances because its small size and nothing-to-go-wrongness mean that I will use it in situations where I wouldn’t use a laptop (on a bus, for example) or maybe even an iPod Nano (which I would hestitate to use on a beach for fear of sand damage).  The result is that the Shuffle goes with me almost everywhere, whereas I treat my laptop with kid gloves.

The question is, how many quanta of bigness-and-functionality are there between an iPod Nano and a MacBook?  (Sorry for the Applecentricity of these examples: those are just the devices I happen to have)  For most people there is at least one more point in between: their phones.  I’ve managed to make it to the end of 2010 without having a mobile phone — my position is that if people want to get in touch with me they know my email address — but we’re approaching the point where  phones do so many things that it’ll be worth having one even if I never tell anyone the number.

For a fair few people, it seems that something like the iPad fills another intermediate position; or maybe most iPad users have it instead of a laptop?  This interests me.  Could it be that most iPad owners don’t have a laptop?  Or, if they do, have they mostly stopped using it and shifted over to the iPad?  I don’t see this ever happening to me, but then I’ve never used (or indeed seen) an iPad, so I don’t know how seductive they can be.  I use the laptop mostly to make things (scientific papers, computer programs, blog entries, images) rather than to consume things other people have made; I get the impression that the iPad is really meant as a consumer device: a successor to the television rather than to the PC.  Is that fair?

So how many of the niches between small-and-powerless to big-and-powerful do your own gadgets fill?  Anyone have the whole Shuffle – Nano – iPhone – iPad – MacBook – iMac continuum?  (Or its non-Apple equivalent, of course.)  Does anyone have non-obsolete devices that they just don’t use because others get the job done?

20 responses to “How many devices do you need?

  1. Hi there – interesting article and a topic certainly worthy of discussion. I do most of my programming (games development generally) from home and can’t imagine swapping my hulking great i7 PC for a laptop. First I would have to find a laptop that can support four monitors along with umpteen drives and a PSP development system. It would also need the grunt to emulate a mac or android device for when I’m coding on those platforms, have a fast graphics card for when I want to blow stuff up or render complex models in Blender and Max plus a ton of connections for things like my bass guitar and midi keyboards. I’m sure there are laptops that can do all this but I’m betting they cost three or four times as much as the desktop PC I built. I *could* get away with less screen estate and less speed – my laptop for coding on the train is an ancient celeron which can handle Visual Studio well enough for short jaunts but even a modern laptop would be a strain long term. However I’m not a typical user in which case your point may well be valid. Perhaps one day our mobile phones will be able to dock into our home setup and handle all of this while working very well as a holographic book reader/laptop/mp3 player the rest of the time. It doesn’t feel like we’re far away from that day. Maybe compact phones will come along with fold out screens or projectors for distance use, amazing but tiny speakers that use neural transmission, software driven zoom emulation and can interface with your monitor and tv remotely when you’re at home – in which case one gadget could rule them all. 2017?

  2. I had most of the continuum: Shuffle, iPhone, iPad, MacBook, iMac. I sold the MacBook because the iPad had replaced it in usage; when I want to do more I go to the desktop (which will soon be a Mac Pro instead of an iMac). My “full computer” working environment is two big monitors, lots of storage, a scanner and some of the surrounding desk space to spread out reference material, so a notebook isn’t really a good fit for me.

    I think the iPad makes a great companion to a desktop PC, both around the house (with things like Air Video and Apple’s and on the road, where LogMeIn, iWork, and Dropbox allow me to get by without carrying my main box all the time. I also like the fact that I’m not toting $3000 worth of stealsble equipment and my master copy of my data with me; if someone steals my iPad I can remote wipe it and I’m only out the cost of the device. It’s a better desktop companion device, IMHO, than a notebook is. (When on the road with it I do take my Bluetooth keyboard everywhere.)

    I also have a Kindle 3, which I think fills an important niche. However, I think that’s mainly about weight, since it’s more comfortable to hold for hours on end while reading than the iPad. A 7-inch tablet as light as the Kindle might replace tha in the lineup for me, though the Kindle’s single-purposeness allows its awesome battery life, since a general purpose tablet wouldn’t work so well with e-ink.

  3. I think the useful device categories are these, pick three:

    Nano – iPod/iPhone – Kindle/Small tablet – iPad – Laptop – Desktop

    That’s the current range, but an individual’s three might be different according to his use case. For example, the first two commenters can’t go without their multiple monitors; personally, I prefer the portability of my MacBook which I connect to a larger external display at my home office. Once you get above the main three you start to have slightly redundant uses where end up with more devices than you really want for your purposes. For example, when go to the gym I usually have my phone with me, so a shuffle doesn’t make much sense.

    I think we need: 1) a work device, 2) a work-ish/play device and 3) a play device.

    The first is the one with the most power and flexibility. It’s the one use for “creation” of …stuff. Code, video, images, music, etc.. Personally this is my laptop, others might use a desktop. To each his own.

    The second device is the iPad or mythical worthy competitor. I disagree that it’s primarily a “consumer device” in the sense that it’s for passive use. My plan, once I purchase one, is to use it to more distinctly separate my modes of work time. Planning, communication and writing will happen on the iPad but the code writing will be on my laptop. Also, I’m very excited about the iPad’s use as a musical device and as a canvas for “painting”.

    Finally, there’s the play device, which is (of course) an oversimplification. For me this is the iPhone. Yes, I use it for work functions like phone calls, email and task management, but it’s also for little diversions like Angry Birds.

    Of course, there are people who don’t even need three. My wife would have little use for her iMac if she had an iPad. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind a multi-monitor Mac Pro setup for the office with a satellite laptop for co-working and coffee shop programming. But unfortunately, there are real contraints in this world.

  4. We’ve had this discussion a few times at work, and one thing that stands out to me is how resistant/hostile developers are towards tablets, with constant refrain that they would never have one instead of a laptop.

    It’s interesting that by default it’s a binary decision (and also interesting that some of these people have no problems with games consoles).

    A similar thing applies as to whether 7″, 9″, 11″ or 13″ is the ‘right size’. My guess is that much like TV screens or radios or most mass market CE, eventually the answer will be that we can choose the one we prefer, rather than their being a correct answer.

    Now personally I’m in the ‘I need a device with a keyboard and an operating system that supports multi-windowing’ segment of the population. If I could only have one, I would choose a laptop.

    On the other hand, my parents now have an iPad and laptop, and I can see how that works. The iPad is the screen that lives in the front room, that is used to quickly browse the web, or as a toy (it’s a digital harp, along with many other musical instruments, it’s an adult’s etchasketch where you can paint with your fingers).

    In a typical family home, I can definitely see how one or more tablets would reduce the need for laptops (i.e. no need to tie up the laptop just to browse the web / update Facebook) – and mobiles are already doing this.

    The current price will obviously fall far below the laptop (no moving disks, no hinge carrying power and data from base unit to screen, no keyboard unit made of hundreds of individual components – disassemble a MacBook keyboard and each key is made of 4 separate components). The manufacturing costs for tablets are far lower, it’s just the component costs that are currently high because they’re new.

    And once a decent (iPad/Galaxy Tab) class device is £199, £150, it becomes a different conversation, especially in a multi-computer household. Do we really need 2 laptops if one of us just uses it to browse the Internet?

  5. I have been struggling with the question since the iPhone came out. As I am a total computer addict with a continuous need to be online all the time I tend to analyse how I spend my time online and on which device. And that is a personal thing. I am not into downloading video, I am not into gaming, I do not use foursquare nor facebook. So where do I spend my cycles on? Mostly RSS feeds and e-mail and articles and books which I use my MacBook to access. Development is something done on a multiscreen desktop environment, or it will feel like sculpting through a keyhole.

    So my laptop serves mainly the same needs as would a tablet like iPad or Galaxy Tab. That, and sometimes I need to descent to command line tools like SSH or other network tools…

    It is only that personalized use of computers that define which device one would need. I am sure most readers will find they have a different balance of computer use.

    There is however a social aspect to consider (besides showing off those amazing devices that are around). I frequently find that when in a meeting, opening your laptop signals that you are only physically present. Same with texting on your phone while engaged in some social event. Funny enough, putting your tablet before you on the table signals that you want to spend the meeting as productive as possible.

    So would a tablet fill a gap for me? I think so. But it would replace a lot of things that I currently use my laptop for. Easier, more social but nonetheless, I do not seeing it adding useful capabilities that either my phone or laptop would provide. I am still contemplating if that Galaxy Tab will be worth its 650 euro’s for me….

  6. I too am leaning towards the correct answer being 3. For me those are

    Desktop (screen size, RAM and storage is at a premium for me).

    A maybe carry, this could be a laptop or an ipad style tablet. Something which is easy enough to take anywhere, yet powerful enough to get the jobs you need done.

    An always carry, this will probably be a smartphone, although the line between smartphone and small tablet will ever blur.

    For me the ipad has a special place as it is so very easy to share with other people, much easier to pass around than a laptop for example, it is much more intuitive to use too. As a result I think that my ideal lineup will be iPhone, ipad, MacBook (possibly an air), desktop.

  7. Interesting that almost without exception we seem to be talking about Apple kit.

  8. I see the charm of things like tiny MP3-players, and the need for stationary computers with high-end graphics cards with fast and even multiple processors. Gamers and people into graphics and game development probably make up the bulk of people who need the latter. Personally I just need a phone and a laptop.

    A phone can do so many things and it keeps me connected to the whole world while at the same time being small enough to disappear in my pocket when I don’t want to notice it, and a laptop is the smallest portable device with a decent sized keyboard and screen that is not too fidgety to work on.

    I choose a smartphone and a 13″ MacBook.

  9. mmm, guess I’m the only one who still prefers a good, powerful desktop, doh, guess it’s because I’m in gaming and other stuffs requiring too much CPU & graphics throughput.

    I do dislike tablets, yeah, fancy toys, but still toys. I need a proper keyboard to use ’em properly, carrying a keyboard kills the only advantage they got, portability. About ebooks readers… well, may be obsolete but I need to feel the paper under my hands…

    For other stuffs when I’m not at my PC, there’s the iPAQ (soon there’ll be something new I guess), no Apple stuffs, too restricted and their policy about publishing in their store simply gets me angry (6 months for having an app refused for trivial access to sim card).

    Even the Mac line, everybody thinks of ’em as perfect devices, well they’re not. The quality of components is not the one they told, with the same amount of $ you can have a powerful and up to date PC. Regarding OS stability, Mac is also full of bugs/exploits, just like Windows boxes, still better go on linux for security.

    Gaming console, well, acceptable for the quick play. I own a wii, a PS, a PS2 a PS3 and a couple of Xbox, I’m not much for hand-held even in this segment. If I’m out, I prefer to live reality and cut threads with work and e-friends.

    Back to the topic, guess the one single devices is still a chimera. For example, we have cameras in our cellular phones, but when we need to make proper photos we revert back to our digital cameras.

    Moreover hand-held universal devices, requires one thing… connectivity, with the prices we’ve got in Europe for data transmission and with the lack of wifi spots (at least here in Italy), the choice to go hand-held is still too hard.

    Forgive the rudeness, but I’m just escaped from a 2 hellish days in Gatwick

  10. About ebooks readers… well, may be obsolete but I need to feel the paper under my hands…

    Just curious–have you tried ebooks and found this to be true, or is an a priori preference? Because I said the same before I got mine. Now I prefer reading on my Kindle 3 to reading physical books, as long as it’s text only (illustrations are a different story).

  11. I’ll go with a laptop and an iPhone/iTouch. I have a visual problem, so I can’t use a desktop – bad ergonomics – and definitely can’t use more than one screen, so I’m probably odder than most. Still, my laptop lets me do 3D rendering, image processing, movie editing, code development and such. I can imagine a faster processor being a plus, but not a real big plus.

    Of course, I can’t carry my laptop everywhere, so I want a computer I can carry in my pocket and have available on the hiking trail, walking around town, in the gym, while shopping and so on. My iPod Touch has replaced my old Palm TX very nicely, and it promises to just get better.

    The fact that I am comfortable with these two sizes suggests that your five level scheme makes sense, but it isn’t just a matter of choosing three, rather choosing a useful spread.

  12. Personally, I prefer the combo of phone, laptop for portability and web, desktop for gaming (PC Gaming, btw), and another desktop for “getting stuff done”. All three of my PCs run Linux, either fulltime (in the case of my server) or dual-boot (the laptop and gaming rig). Which do I use most? Depends on what I’m doing and where. If I’m out and about, like at a friend’s house, obviously I’m using my laptop and/or phone, if anything. At home, my laptop running Windows 7 is relegated to being the host device for my MagicJack phone line and my gaming rig is used for games, movies, coding, etc.
    As several commenters have pointed out, its a matter of preference. I don’t use multiple monitors on a regular basis, though I have connected an external CRT to my laptop to test the monitor. I do have mp3/mp4 players, which sit on my desk and collect dust 99% of the time since my phone also plays mp3 just fine.
    In summary, my lineup is this: Motorola W510, HP Pavillion Laptop dv6000, majorly upgraded Gateway desktop that started life as a 5200S, and an old P4 running Ubuntu 10.10 fulltime as my server.

    Have a great day,
    David R Vaughan, MCP

  13. You know, I’d probably add one item to the top of the spectrum, which is a projector or large-screen TV computing setup. That might be an Apple TV or it might be a Mac Mini or a gaming PC, but I think for a lot of folks the ramp from tiny handheld device to large stationery device stops not at iMac but on the living room wall.

    Shuffle – Nano – iPhone – iPad – MacBook – Desktop – Living Room Display.

  14. @Matt: of course I’ve tried. I’ve bought a Kindle, but after a couple o f weeks I’ve given it to my young brother as a present. Differently from me, he’s much more into this kind of tech gadgets.

    Regarding video projector… they’re good, what a pity I don’t have enough space to get one of them at home :(

    Will give a try to some Android smart-phones in the near future (Motorola or HTC), as I stated before, I don’t like much Apple’s policy with their app store, but that’s just a matter of personal opinions.

    Even if I do really dislike all this multi-device, indeed I’m a techie-geek, so I do not exclude buyin’ something new just for fun.

  15. I recently acquired my first smart-phone (Samsung Epic 4G) and was surprised to find that I often turned to it to read my Kindle books rather than going to get the Kindle off my bedside table. For me, which device I use is often a matter of convenience. The “phone” (honestly, it’s secondary – or maybe tertiary – function is a phone) is in my pocket and I don’t waste 1 of my 4 minutes of free time going to fetch the Kindle. The reading experience is surprisingly good on a 4″ high resolution screen. The advantage of the Kindle of course is battery life. The biggest deterrent for me of using my phone for various things is “will this cause my battery to die before I can get home and charge it up?”.

  16. I’ve found the iPad enables me to game, to read books, email, tweets, etc., to write in my diary, to sketch freely, to watch video, and to do things for which I once used a laptop or paper. I don’t have to sit at the same desk hour after hour using a computer to accomplish these tasks. In the past I had to.

    It does not wholly substitute for a TV, if I share the video with others; for a music player, because it is too bulky; for a laptop, because its data entry (not just text) is inefficient; nor for a desktop for obvious reasons.

    It doesn’t substitute for a phone, for a GPS, for a game machine (think Gameboy, not Xbox), because the tablet isn’t portable enough.

    The only thing better than three synchronized devices (phone, tablet, computer) would be cheap, reliable “cloud” storage. And ‘cloud’ could mean stored on remote commercial servers (e.g., Dropbox) or stored on my server at home, accessed by VPN. As yet the wireless networks can’t handle the traffic and the wired networks aren’t secure enough.

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  19. Up until recently I haven’t considered other devices, but I guess time has finally caught up with me. I’ll always use a desktop, that’s for sure. I also have a laptop (definitely not a netbook), to use somewhere other than at the desk, and which I can take with me, but with some power under the hood so I can do some programming.

    I decided that I needed a small device for those boring moments when nothing happens – mostly waiting somewhere. What I was looking for was mp3 player, casual browsing, e-book reader. I didn’t want a smartphone, so I thought of the iPod Touch, but after some research I decided to get the Archos 43, which looks like a great Android alternative, with a larger screen. I’ll receive it in about two weeks.

    Now, I’m considering getting a new phone since my current one is all crappy and its battery lasts only one day. I want something simple with the focus on battery life, good call quality, but I’m still in a dilemma – should I go with a basic, cheap phone, or a slightly more expensive with features that complement the Archos. I’m afraid that going for the latter would defeat my rationale for not getting a smartphone in the first place (though I do save around 100 pounds, but I end up with two devices). I’ll have to think on this.

  20. Late to the conversation here, but found it interesting. I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about this topic recently.

    For me, it breaks down to three devices: something that fits in my pocket, something that fits in my bag, and something with major screen real estate. This means a smartphone, a tablet/e reader/netbook device, and a desktop. For that second category, I really do mean a combination of all three, which doesn’t quite exist yet. I want something with the tablet shape, an e-ink screen (black and white only is perfectly okay with me!), and the full computing abilities of a netbook. Many tablet OSs seem to be overgrown smartphone systems rather than a proper computer OS – no thanks, not for me. I like being able to select and install my software without going through an app store.

    I do love having multiple large monitors for work. There’s just no living with anything else when you need to be flipping between half a dozen different windows on a regular basis. It’s possible that the tablet category will become powerful enough to replace the desktop box and just dock with the larger monitors, but I suspect that won’t be practical for a while yet. There’s still a big price/performance gap between desktops and portable devices. We’ll see how it develops.

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