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Do students need tablets?

An iPad or Galaxy Tab may seem like the perfect study companion to many students in 2012, but I'd argue that they are not yet up to the task.

When I was a boy, buying supplies before starting the school year involved choosing a shade of tartan pencil case and grabbing a multi-pack of Bic biros. When my dad was a boy, school involved walking 10 miles through the snow without shoes, apparently. These days, back-to-school preparations seem to be a lot more high tech, and in 2012 it's highly likely many soon-to-be studying students are considering picking up an iPad or Android tablet to slip into their backpacks. Though I can see the appeal in this approach, I'd caution against it.

Not that there isn't a lot to love about the tablet-style of computers, especially the iPad. With 60,000 iPad-specific apps available (at last count) and over half a million iOS apps in total, there is a lot of educational potential on that platform. Apple's iTunes U service is phenomenal in its scope — offering access to lectures and course resources from universities around the world — that it is almost worth picking up an iPad for, if it wasn't also available through any PC or laptop as well.

Apple's iPad 2 (Credit: Apple)

In fact, this is the crux of my argument. Like the old song says, "anything you can I do, I can do better", and I'm sure you'll find this is also true of the argument between a laptop and a tablet. There are tons and tons of apps for iOS and Android tablets, but anything you can do in an app you can do, and do better, with software on a PC or through the more powerful browsers available for Windows and OS X.

But at the end of the day, apps are only half of the educational equation. Apps equal consumable content, and while tablets excel as a format for consuming content, they are seriously lacking when it comes to creating content. Students take notes, write essays, compose theses, design images, build web pages, edit music and movies, and so on, and the chance of you performing these tasks successfully diminishes when you attempt them on a tablet. Even if you have an app that says it can accomplish any one of these tasks, the smaller display, the touchscreen controls and the lack of a physical keyboard will hold you back.

Ultrabook laptops and Apple's MacBook Air really challenge the tablet market for students, offering a huge boost in performance while closing the gap on the difference in size and weight between a laptop and a tablet. Where an iPad 2 weighs about 650 grams, an 11-inch MacBook Air weighs less than double this, at 1.08kg. A MacBook Air also comes with USB connectivity, a full-sized keyboard and a higher resolution display on top of its more powerful processing capabilities.

There's no doubt that an iPad 2 or Samsung Galaxy Tab make lustworthy accessories for students, but if you really want to knuckle down and work hard at school you should give tablets a miss, for now.