Practically everyone has a smartphone, but not everyone has a traditional personal computer. Many folks find they don’t need one, but what if even people who did need a PC could just use their smartphone or tablet as a replacement?
Mobile Performance Is Shockingly Good Now
You may have heard some people say that Moore’s Law is dead, referring to the slowdown and possible end of the rapid increase in performance when it comes to CPUs found in desktop and laptop computers. While that’s debatable, indeed these CPUs have long ago stopped making major leaps in performance that are meaningful to most users.
For people who do general productivity work (e.g. Microsoft 365), browse the web, or media consumption, there’s very little practical difference between a $500 Windows Ultrabook, a $999 MacBook Air, or a $3000 gaming laptop. In other words, there’s a certain “good enough” threshold where there’s sufficient processor performance for the vast majority of users. We crossed that point ages ago.
One place Moore’s Law doesn’t seem quite so dead is in mobile processing power. Over the last ten to twenty years the CPUs and GPU in mobile phones and tablets have experienced a meteoric rise in performance, and they too have blasted past that “good enough” performance level as their desktop counterparts.
For example, Apple’s A15 Bionic CPU, found in the iPhone, has CPU cores that trade blows with desktop CPUs like the AMD Ryzen 5950X, according to one AnandTech analysis. That’s at the high end of smartphone processor technology, but even mid-range Android phones have more than enough processing power to handle the daily desktop computing tasks most people need.
The main limitation is the smartphone or tablet form factor. A small touch screen just isn’t suited to the kinds of work we use laptops and desktop PCs for.
The Best Accessories to Make Your Phone a PC
You need the right accessories to liberate all that horsepower from a tiny phone. All modern smartphones and tablets have Bluetooth technology, and both Android and iOS/iPadOS support mouse and keyboard input. Except for iPhones and some iPads, USB-C has become the new connection standard. So connecting USB peripherals (with the help of a USB-C dock) is an excellent way to turn your phone or tablet into a desktop computer.
Connect your monitor, mouse, speakers, keyboard, and power cable to the dock and then plug the dock into your device. In most cases, that’s all you have to do, though we’ll talk about the actual user experience shortly.
For tablets in particular, it’s now common to get keyboard and trackpad cases, some even with laptop-style hinges. These types of accessories make your tablet feel more like a laptop when you want to do serious work. Both iOS and Android have good multitasking support these days with the ability to simultaneously have multiple apps on screen.
It’s also worth pointing out that phones and tablets are generally compatible with external storage devices such as USB thumb drives and hard drives. Although for some hard drives, you’ll need to provide additional power since the phone itself can’t supply enough through its port.
Smartphones and Tablets Have Desktop Modes Now
While a desktop mode is still an upcoming feature of stock Android as of this article’s publication, several Android phone and tablet makers have introduced their own “desktop modes” to their phones.
The most notable example here is Samsung’s DeX. DeX provides a mouse-driven interface very much like Windows or macOS. It can generally be triggered in two different ways. First, if you connect your Samsung phone or tablet to an external monitor, you’ll be asked if you want to initiate DeX. If you say yes, you’ll see the DeX desktop appear on the external screen. You can use a real mouse and keyboard, or you can use your phone’s screen as a mouse touchpad.
On certain Samsung tablets, you can switch to DeX mode on the tablet’s own screen by toggling the feature from the Android app shade. This basically turns your tablet into a laptop.
While Apple hasn’t given its iPads a full macOS-like interface, multitasking has been steadily improving, and certain recent iPads now have a feature called Stage Manager. This lets you use apps on the iPad in a way that’s closer to using windowed apps on a Mac.
With the release of iPadOS 16.2, supported iPads can now be used with an external display as an extended display. In other words, you can have different apps running on the internal and external displays thanks to Stage Manager.
The Big Problem Is Still Mobile Software
While smartphones and tablets may have enough processing power and desktop-like interfaces, the biggest obstacle remains the actual applications. For one thing, most mobile apps are not designed to be used with a mouse or to have a resizable window. Just ask anyone who has used iOS apps on Apple Silicon Macs how frustrating this can be.
Many developers are updating or developing their apps to work well in both modes, but for now, it’s often a struggle.
A related issue is whether there’s a version of your favorite software from your desktop system that for your phone or tablet. Lately, it’s become more common for some programs, such as Da Vinci Resolve and Adobe Photoshop, to have mobile and desktop versions that are essentially equivalent, but that’s still the exception.
In other cases, the mobile app is limited in ways that don’t matter that much. For example, the mobile versions of Microsoft 365 apps are still powerful enough to cover the vast majority of users.
If most of what you do happens in a browser, however, then you may be closer to ditching your desktop than you might think. Mobile browsers are every bit as capable as desktop browsers.
In the end, if you really are considering using a docked tablet or phone as your full-time desktop computer, the most important thing to do is audit the software that you currently use at your desk and decide whether there’s an adequate mobile version or an alternative app that does the same thing. If a phone or tablet can cover all your current desktop use cases, and you don’t need more performance than mobile processors offer, why not take the leap?
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