Tablet PC or Smart Display: Which is right for your organization?

Four factors to help you decide between Tablet PCs and Smart Displays

When it comes to making major IT buying decisions, is the Smart Display really smarter? Or are you better off getting the full functionality of the Tablet PC? The answer: It depends on whether your employees keep close to their desks or whether they're classic hallway cruisers. Other factors include whether they’re likely to treat their tech gear like it was a priceless Mickey Mantle rookie card—or are more inclined to get sand in it while booting up on the beach.

The Tablet PC is mobile and contains all the needed nimble computing functions in its operating system. Your employees can use it at their cubicles or while riding shotgun when carpooling to the office. It runs on Windows XP Tablet PC Edition, an operating system based on the functionality of Windows XP Professional. Smart Displays, or Smart Panels, are cordless PC peripherals that were originally designed for home computer users. They can be used as a traditional monitor at home when docked and connected to a PC, or in a mobile, wireless fashion when undocked but still within range of the host Windows XP PC or wireless access point. When undocked and unconnected to a Windows XP PC, Smart Display devices will have little to no functionality. Smart Display runs on Windows CE .NET with additional Smart Display software.

Given the differences, IT professionals recently weighed in on a critical question for TechRepublic: If you’re an IT manager considering a purchase, how do you decide between Tablet PCs or Smart Displays? In the end, TechRepublic members came up with four key factors that should help you make the right decision.

1. Fully integrated mobility
If your employees have to get around with a “total package” computer, the Tablet PC is the better choice of the two, said Chris Pate, senior manager of the mobile and wireless technology team at GTSI Corp., a Chantilly, VA-based high-profile reseller for federal, state, and local government agencies. The Tablet PC is a portable computer built to support stylus-based input. It sports a lightweight form factor—often around four pounds, or, the same weight as a laptop. And it's more versatile, Pate said. "In the end, the Tablet is the way to go if you need an extension of your primary computing platform for meetings at long distances, and when you want a flexible alternative to your desktop."

David MacNeill, who assembles buyer-decision criteria for customers of reseller Micro Warehouse, often steers users toward Tablets for similar reasons. "Tablet PCs make an excellent, all-in-one mobile work machine—particularly the convertible designs with integrated, fold-away keyboards," he said. "The ideal user is what Microsoft calls a ‘corridor cruiser,’ a manager who is on the go throughout a building or campus with access to a Wi-Fi access point everywhere he or she goes. This individual frequently attends not only scheduled, but impromptu, meetings throughout the day. The ability to access documents, jot down quick meeting notes, and sketch out a chart on the Tablet without 'assuming the position' required for keyboarding is a real boon to productivity."

On the other hand, telecommuters and other in-house employees who don’t fit the “corridor cruiser” description may be better suited for the Smart Display. "Smart Displays are a stylish, comfortable, and convenient way to bring the utility of your office PC into the living room," MacNeill said. "If you find yourself frequently getting up from the couch to check your e-mail or to Google something, you are a prime candidate for a Smart Display. In a work setting, warehouse, or mailroom, managers could potentially benefit from Smart Displays, as they are lighter, more durable, and less expensive than any Tablet PC. Such workers seldom need venture far from their desktop PC, so the medium-range wireless connectivity makes sense."

2. Sensitive data-preservation needs
Smart Displays are dependent on host PCs for essentially everything they’re supposed to do. They weren’t designed to replace the desktop or the laptop PC—they were meant to complement it, says Kathy Yu, product marketing manager at Transmeta Corp., a Santa Clara, CA-based hardware, software, and systems technologies development company. "Therefore, the data viewed on the Smart Display will not be in jeopardy if you walk away from it," she said. "Environments that could take advantage of Smart Displays would be hospitals, investment firms, and potentially military areas where sensitive data security and privacy is key. Smart Displays make sure that the user data stays private with minimal data storage."

Since Tablet PCs have all the computing features of an operating system, they naturally come with the same potential security concerns you would experience with a laptop.

3. Rugged and ready
The Tablet PC can be “ruggedized,” a concept emerging as a top trend leader for a wide variety of customers. "Panasonic makes such a device, which combines the best of both worlds, offering full notebook functionality and Tablet convenience all in one," GTSI's Pate said. "This ruggedized Tablet PC can be mounted in emergency vehicles—such as police cars and fire trucks or Humvees in the desert."

In fact, Panasonic has played a prime role in the ongoing conflict in Iraq. Armed services troops took Panasonic’s Tablet PCs along while they jumped out of planes, tended to the wounded, and maneuvered over the terrain in tanks. Panasonic’s Toughbook 18 is a ruggedized Tablet and laptop product that not only can absorb physical assault and still work, but can withstand natural intrusions, such as sand, dirt, water, and whatever else a computer out in the field is subjected to. At FOSE this year, the Toughbook 18 won Best in Show. "We put these laptops in police cars, and, yes, they drive right over them too," says Jan O'Hara, a senior sales director for Panasonic.

But it’s not just about meeting the needs of emergency responders and the military. Mainstream customers are using ruggedized Tablets too. "We're doing a project with Engineering Systems Solutions (ESS) where they take our laptop products and combine them with a software application to develop a data collection interface for the U.S. Department of Agriculture," O’Hara said. "The agency's at-the-scene fresh produce inspectors need this [product] on the job."

Obviously, Smart Displays would not be able to be taken far enough away from their host PCs to be in any need of being ruggedized. If you require devices that can withstand harsh conditions far from home base, then Tablet PCs are what you need.

4. Cost
Smart Displays are lower in cost because they’re not full-featured PCs like Tablet PCs. While prices vary, Tablet PCs start at about $1,600, and Smart displays can generally be purchased for under $1,000. The relatively low price of Smart Displays, along with their increased mobility, will be a perfect match for many employees who are searching for improved range. At least that’s how Transmeta's Yu sees it. "Customers are looking for a way to extend their XP experience, giving them access to the information, applications, and services at any time, in any room," she said. "Microsoft research shows that the superuser wants to spend at least a third of his or her computing time—or about an hour a day—away from the desktop."

But for those who need access to full-featured computing far from the desktop and possibly in rugged situations, the higher costs of Tablet PCs should be worth the investment.

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