In 2003, the New York Times reported that laptops outsold desktops for the first time. In Q4 2012, NPD forecasts that tablets will outsell laptops for the first time. People are rapidly adopting devices that are lighter, simpler and less expensive than standard corporate laptops.

The Chromebook and iPad represent very distinct approaches to the post-PC device world. The iPad relies on installed apps and a touchscreen. The Chromebook gives us a web browser contained in a traditional laptop form. The iPad 4 and Samsung Chromebook 550 represent the “best available” models, respectively.

Here’s a brief look at how each of these devices offers connectivity, applications, and access to data that may transform how you work.

Spec Summary & Comparison

The Samsung Chromebook 550 and iPad 4 both deliver simpler computing experiences then many conventional corporate laptops:

  • Boot times measured in seconds
  • Battery life of 10 hours (iPad) or 6 hours (Chromebook)
  • Weight of 1.5lbs. (iPad) or 3lbs. (Chromebook)
  • Limited access to the file system
  • Streamlined updates of the operating system, apps or extensions
  • Built-in cameras, microphones and speakers for video conferencing
  • Ubiquitous connectivity, thanks to WiFi or WiFi plus cellular data connections.

Some of the newest iPads connect to fast LTE networks; the newest Chromebooks with cellular devices max out with 3G connections.

Both systems encourage user focus, although in different ways. iPad applications inherently fill the screen, encouraging mono-tasking. Chromebooks essentially run a single application – a web browser – complemented by user-added extensions and web apps.

The Chromebook and iPad are distinctly different pieces of hardware. The iPad uses touch, the Chromebook, a conventional trackpad and keyboard. The iPad display changes orientation as the user rotates the device; the Chromebook doesn’t. iPad versions with cellular connectivity include GPS; the Chromebook doesn’t. The iPad has a back-facing camera for shooting photos or video; the Chromebook doesn’t.

Enterprise management features differ, as well. The iPad supports Mobile Device Management of iPads with third party software. Google’s own Google Apps’ control panel provides controls for management of Chrome OS devices.

Both product lines include multiple models. The Chromebook line now includes devices with 11″ screens and slower performance (the $249 Samsung Chromebook), as well as a less-expensive device with a conventional hard drive (the $199 Acer C7 Chromebook). The iPad mini (starting at $329) is considerably smaller and lighter than the iPad, but lacks the “retina display” of the larger iPad.

Four decisions

1. Internet: Do you need cellular connectivity?

Devices with built-in 3G or 4G connections enable the truly mobile workforce. Give the same workforce WiFi-only devices and you significantly restrict the number of locations from which work can be done.

The hardware cost pales in comparison to the cost of Internet access. Over a two-year period, $10 per month on a shared data plan adds up to $240. A more typical $20 per month accrues to $480. And many plans cost more.

The Chromebook and iPad may change the cost calculation overall for enterprises accustomed to spending $1,500 to $2,000 for traditional WiFi-only laptops. A few hundred dollars for a device, plus several hundred dollars over two years for mobile data becomes an attractive expenditure.

2. Data: How do you access, create and store data?

Input devices matter. Nearly any device handles email and basic document editing. But typing on a physical keyboard may be the fastest way to enter large quantities of data. And drawing a quick sketch with your finger might convey your point clearly. Personal preferences and habits play a significant role when choosing input devices.

Internet-connected iPads or Chromebooks make it possible to redesign data flows. There’s no need to write up a paper work order. Instead, take a picture, type text directly into an app or web-form. Hit send. The data is captured and accessible for the next step in the workflow.

3. Applications: What apps do you need?

Legacy application requirements may represent one of the biggest barriers to adoption of “Post-PC” devices. Microsoft Office, notably, is not available for either device. Office Web Apps work in a browser and may be sufficient for some users. QuickOffice Pro HD or Documents to Go enable editing of Microsoft Office documents locally on the iPad.

In other cases, virtualized solutions work. Nivio provides virtualized desktops and software – solutions previously only feasible for large corporate IT teams. Citrix Receiver for iPad enables enterprise desktop access, while GoToMyPC and LogMeIn provide remote desktop services.

In the long term, choose solutions that work both in a browser and as installed apps. Google Drive is moving toward this rapidly: Google Drive works fully in the Chromebook browser, while the Google Drive app on iOS lets you create and edit Docs and Sheets. Evernote is similarly useful, working in both a browser and via locally-installed apps on many platforms.

4. Device: What task do you need to accomplish?

Choose devices best suited for the tasks you need to accomplish. Note the use of the plural: devices. In a browser-and-app world, you should be able to seamlessly switch devices. The device matters only to provide access to data and an application. The data lives in the cloud; the application is either a browser or installed app.

Choose a Chromebook when you want a keyboard and a 12″ screen. Choose an iPad to maximize mobility. Above all, choose information ecosystems that move data off inherently insecure and fragile devices and into secured, managed cloud systems. “Post-PC” devices matter. But the whole system – Internet, data, applications and devices – matters much more.

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