Plenty of people can do most of what they need to do on a tablet. I'm just not one of them.
I've tried to love tablets, lots of them. I've tried every iPad since the first one was released in 2010. I've gone through too many different Android tablets to count, from Motorola Xoom to Samsung Galaxy Tab. I've tested various iterations of the Amazon Kindle Fire. I was even enthusiastic about the Microsoft Surface for about 30 minutes.
While I've found some clever things to like in all of these tablets, in the end they all got tossed in a drawer or placed on a shelf or passed to a colleague or shipped back to the vendor. Any of the ones that I held on to for longer than a few weeks eventually ended up languishing in my laptop bag. But, a few months ago I figured out a formula that has made the latest tablet I've been testing—the iPad Air—a lot more useful.
My simple formula
First, I don't need a tablet to do things I already do really well with a laptop. I'm proficient with a laptop. It works great. I use it to write and edit documents, write longer-than-one-sentence emails, dig into spreadsheets and charts, and manage social media.
I also don't need a tablet to quickly scan emails, my calendar, or social media because I already do that stuff on my smartphone.
So what does that leave? For someone that isn't using a tablet to run a special function like a Square cash register, there's one thing that the tablet does uniquely better than a laptop or a smartphone: view content. Obvious, right? The problem is that there are all kinds of tablet apps now and most of us tend to load way too many of them on our tablets. A lot of these apps end up distracting us from viewing content.
So my solution was to get rid of most of them, simplify the tablet settings, and focus on the apps that take advantage of the strengths of a tablet. In this case, I'm using the iPad as my example—since it's still by far the most widely-used tablet among business professionals—but most of these tips can be adapted to just about any tablet.
1. Remove all mail, social media, and private accounts
Since I use my laptop for creating and sharing and my smartphone for scanning updates and messages, I realized I didn't need the redundancy of having Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Dropbox, and other private accounts loaded on my tablet. So I deleted them all.
It was liberating. The tablet quickly became something I looked forward to picking up and spending time on because I could immerse in content without being harried by messages or tempted to jump into social media or my email.
There was another great side effect of getting rid of all these accounts—it allowed me to remove the passcode from the tablet. On the iPad Air with its Smart Case, that meant it would now automatically flip on and off when I opened the cover and was ready to start using the tablet. It's a little thing, but it made the experience of using a tablet a little more simple and enjoyable.
2. Load the best content apps
Once I had deleted all of those account apps it left a lot of open space on my home screen. I decided to fill it up with all of the best apps for reading and viewing content. I dragged content apps out of folders, I re-downloaded interesting content apps that I hadn't used in a while, and I searched for new ones that take advantage of the tablet's larger multi-touch screen.
The Newsstand app on the iPad became my new best friend. With all of the clutter cleared away, I put the Newsstand icon in the anchor slot in the lower right-hand corner and naturally paid more attention to the publications I subscribe to in there.
Incumbent apps like Amazon Kindle, Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Video also became more important as I put content apps at the center of my tablet experience. If you want to see how I filled out the rest of my home screen, take a look at my list of 18 great iPad apps for consuming content.
3. Turn off all notifications
By removing mail, social media, and other private account apps I suddenly had far fewer interruptions from alerts and notifications. I liked the ability to focus on content so much that I took it a step farther and went into settings and turned off almost all notifications. This turned out to be huge, and I've never looked back. I get the important notifications on my phone, so if I want to make sure I don't miss an important message, I've still got that nearby. I wish I would have thought to do this a lot sooner.
4. Optimize battery life
One of the big benefits of turning off notifications was a boost in battery life. Again, this opened my eyes to a better overall experience and so I decided to take it a step farther. I researched tips on improving iPad battery life and then monkeyed with the settings.
Here's what I did:
- Decreased the brightness of the display
- Told the Wi-Fi not to ask me to join new networks
- Turned off the "Motion" setting for backgrounds in iOS 7
- Turned off automatic app updates
- Turned off Bluetooth
- Went into Background App Refresh and disabled a bunch of apps
- Turned off Location Services
The combination of these changes more than doubled my battery life. I only need to charge the iPad Air about three times a week at this point.
This formula made the iPad infinitely more useful to me as a general purpose device for consuming content. As counterintuitive as it may sound, I now use it a lot more even though I do less with it. It also made using a tablet a much more enjoyable experience, more akin to kicking back and reading a book—which is much different than the way I feel about using a laptop or a smartphone.
Again, while these tips are centered on the iPad, most of this can easily be adapted to the Nexus 7 or the Kindle Fire or the Microsoft Surface or many other tablets.People use tablets in lots of different ways. How do you use a tablet in ways that plays to its strengths? I'd love to hear about it. Let me know in the comments.
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.