A tablet can be a productive tool when you use the right app or have the right accessories, and there are a number of ways to make that happen. You may want a tablet that does plenty, yet not rely on it to do everything. This is what can be described as a “situational substitute” — a term that kind of falls into two camps that do the same thing.

One is a tablet that provides some of the same type of functionality you’d find in a laptop, like a keyboard and trackpad. The other is a tablet that can’t fully replace or replicate a laptop, but can act as an effective support tool to get things done.

So what does that mean? Laptops and tablets aren’t the same. Tablets offer a degree of portability that’s hard for laptops to match. Lighter and thinner, with touchscreens and an array of accessories to integrate them into your workflow, it’s very possible to do more with a tablet.

Portability meets productivity

Tablets usually fall under consumption devices rather than devices to create content. Part of that is because of how portable they are. Watch a show, and you can literally take it with you almost anywhere. Why not work that way, too? You can already largely do that with a laptop, so a tablet isn’t a stretch.

Tablet screens are like a canvas to work with, and if you go bigger, you have extra real estate to see what you’re doing. That makes it easier to see important data, either for reference or to edit yourself. Since the first iPad in 2010, tablet apps are not only far more optimized and sophisticated, they’re also more varied and specialized. It also doesn’t matter as much anymore what kind of work you need to do.

Tablets come in a wide variety of screen sizes. You can go smaller, like with an 8.3-inch iPad Mini or as high as the 14.6-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra. Use either one as a video conferencing tool, freeing up your computer screen for other tasks, especially if you’re collaborating on a project or assignment.

Today, you can use a tablet as a second screen, integrating it into your desktop or laptop experience. Apple has such a feature called Sidecar working with Macs to extend the computer screen to the iPad. Samsung has a similar feature with Windows computers using its tablets. The Microsoft Surface Go can also work with Windows computers as a second screen. These solutions can work wirelessly, giving you some wiggle room in how you integrate them, meaning you can pull the tablet in for a closer look, or disconnect it to work on something else.

Using the right accessories

It’s possible to augment a tablet’s capabilities by pairing it with the right accessories. There’s a lot of them, and the maturation of the tablet market means you’ve got a lot of choices.

Assuming you want to attach a keyboard to emulate a laptop, you can certainly do that. Bluetooth keyboards come in different forms, be they separate units you pull out when you need them or folio cases that also include some protection for the tablet itself. Others may connect more directly, like with certain Surface devices or Samsung tablets, both of which use magnetic connectors.

A keyboard simplifies word processing so that typing up documents feels natural. With a trackpad, you also have a mouse and cursor to interface with the tablet’s software like you would on a computer.

That’s also where a stylus or pen can come in. If you’re working on a creative project involving drawing, sketching, photo editing, or any other visual medium, you could use the pen in a way that feels more integrated. For example, if you mirror your computer screen to your tablet, or vice versa, what you do on the tablet is visible on the computer screen or monitor, if you’re using one. In other words, you gain the precision of putting a pen to the tablet, with the larger screen on a monitor.

Don’t rule out a tablet stand for such a purpose, either. Place a tablet in an elevated position, and you improve your ergonomic situation at your desk. A nice win-win. Stands vary, as you can get a simple stand to sit on your desk or an arm to articulate how you want.

Which platform works best

This is a highly relative consideration because it depends on a few factors. Which ecosystem are you already tied to? Are you using a Windows PC or Mac? iPhone or Android phone? How do you want to integrate a tablet into the devices you already have?

Not surprisingly, it’s easier to integrate one to work with what you already have. An iPad running iPadOS will work more fluidly with a Mac than a Surface or Samsung one would. It may not work as well with a Windows PC the way a Surface or Samsung tablet does. It’s not just about using the tablet as a second screen, it’s also about sharing or transferring files between devices. Using the same apps may also bring you benefits. The point is to take the path of least resistance and remove roadblocks for better efficiency.

The iPad is the trend-setter, a benchmark for what makes a tablet versatile and effective. They come in a number of sizes and lines. The iPad Mini is the smallest, whereas the regular iPad is more an entry-level product. A step up is the iPad Air, while the iPad Pro sports the highest specs and largest screens.

Microsoft Surface devices have come a long way in the last decade, now standing out as premium Windows-based tablets. While laptops are part of the lineup now, the Surface Go 3 and Surface Pro 9 stand out as tablet alternatives. You would have to buy the Type Cover separately to bring a keyboard into the mix, but in any case, you get a full version of Windows to work with.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab series runs on Android, though with some flexibility in how you use it. These tablets work closer with Windows PCs than they would with Macs, but they can work well if you’re using the same apps on both platforms. Then there’s DeX, Samsung’s own desktop operating system that you can run on the tablet itself, or use when connected to a either a PC or Mac.

top ten laptops

Which tablet is the right fit?

There is a difference between a tablet that’s premium and an entry-level one. As you might expect, you can do more with the former than you can with the latter. Some may be compatible with a stylus or pen, while others aren’t. You may be able to use a pen with one device but not the other.

When your workflow or studies require a lot from you, going premium may offer the best long-term solution. Possibly the kind of device you can use for a few years without looking back. One way to assess that is to consider things like screen size, processing power, ecosystem, accessory options, and price. You may also want to consider how you plan to deploy it where you work most. A tablet needs to have its place on your desk.

There is a lot more variety in this product category, with a number of vendors making tablets or 2-in-1 convertibles that switch between laptop and tablet. They don’t usually come in typical tablet sizes, but you can use them that way anytime you want. If we’re being technical, these are laptops, not tablets, but because they split the screen from the keyboard, you can use it like a tablet.

Getting it done

When you know what to look for, you have a much better idea what which tools will fit. You may already have a laptop, but not a tablet. Or you may have a tablet, and not really want a laptop. Whether it’s an outright replacement, or a supportive substitute for specific situations, these devices may be good places to start in that search.

Check out all the latest tablets available here.

Ted Kritsonis
Editor Cellular/Mobile Technology
I’m a fortunate man in being able to do the fun job of following and reporting on one of the most exciting industries in the world today. In my time covering consumer tech, I’ve written for a number of publications, including the Globe and Mail, Yahoo! Canada, CBC.ca, Canoe, Digital Trends, MobileSyrup, G4 Tech, PC World, Faze and AppStorm. I’ve also appeared on TV as a tech expert for Global, CTV and the Shopping Channel.