Younger generations, especially those under about 40 years of age, have grown up in a digital world. They don’t even remember a time before the internet, or mobile phones. They have laptops, tablets and smartphones—and always have. They are confident about using them—but even they don’t know everything, and they had to learn how to stay safe online.
For older generations, the internet is a relatively new phenomenon. The world wide web went live on 6 August 1991: less than 20 years ago. And while the first smartphone was released in 1992, the smartphone as we know it did not really become mainstream until the late 2000s with the advent of the iPhone. There has been an exponential increase in use since then—but it is no wonder that some people are still only just acquiring their first smartphone.
This page is aimed at those people.
Getting Started: What You Need to Get Online
There are two main aspects to getting online:
- Suitable technology; and
- A way of accessing the internet.
Choosing suitable technology
Suitable technology for online access includes personal computers (PCs), laptops, tablets, and mobile phones.
Around the world, about half of all web traffic (internet use) is via mobile phones. However, this varies hugely by country, from almost three quarters in India and Nigeria, down to just over one-fifth in Vietnam. Smartphones have been a real game-changer in developing countries, giving first-time access to the internet to millions of users. In many Arab countries, over 95% of people now own a smartphone. But is a smartphone what you need? Or would you be better off with a tablet or laptop computer?
Nowadays, few people buy personal computers (computers with a separate processor, screen and keyboard). Instead, laptops (computers with built-in mouse and keyboard) are in general use, and their portability makes them a more sensible option for most ‘home users’.
Top Tip! External devices can make for easier use
If you are concerned that you may find a laptop keyboard too small to use, or a touchpad mouse hard to manage, you can always use a separate device.
Wireless or USB-attached keyboards and mice are widely available, and not terribly expensive.
An alternative to a laptop is a tablet: a thin, lightweight device that looks a bit like a large smartphone. Like a smartphone, it has a touchscreen that incorporates a pop-up keyboard, and usually uses a mobile operating system.
The main comparison, therefore, is between laptops, tablets and phones.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
Laptops tend to have more processing power than either phones or tablets.
Phones and tablets tend to be extremely thin, so by definition there is not as much room for cooling systems. They therefore often have different processors, which generate less heat, so need less cooling—but are also less powerful. Over time, this will also become more noticeable as your device slows down anyway.
- Tablets and phones are much more portable
Laptops can be put into a laptop bag—but a mobile phone can fit into your pocket! Both tablets and phones are much more portable than laptops. The chargers are also usually lighter and easier to carry around than a laptop charger.
Laptops have larger screens with better resolution
The resolution on phone and tablet screens is good—but even the best is not as good as the best laptops. Tablets and phones are also smaller, which can make it hard to see the screen and use the touchscreen functions, especially if you have eyesight issues.
Mobile websites often include less functionality than websites viewed on laptops
To cater for the lower processing power and smaller screens, many websites have developed specific ‘mobile’ versions or dedicated apps. These are designed to be viewed or used on mobile, so work well on a small screen. However, they may have slightly different functionality from the original website—and usually it is the app or mobile version that loses out. If a specific function on a particular website is important to you, it may be best to test it on mobile or tablet before buying.
The functions available may be very different
Tablets and phones used to run on similar systems, which had lower functionality than many laptop/PC operating systems. Some high-performing tablets now run on similar systems to laptops—but you will need to check before you buy to ensure that you are getting what you want. If you want to do lots of word processing or spreadsheets, you will be better off with a laptop. Many tablets still only have their own inbuilt (touch screen) keyboard too, so any typing will be slower.
The battery life is better on tablets and phones
Many laptops now offer around 10 hours of battery life for standard use. Tablets and phones will last much longer for similar levels of use. However, bear in mind that you are unlikely to want to use your laptop while wandering around the city—so you can usually plug it in if you need to do so. Even public transport systems now often have plugs for chargers and laptops.
The connectivity options are more flexible for phones
With a laptop or tablet, you usually have to connect to the internet via wifi. This is widely available in cafes, offices and public transport—though not always free. Your phone, however, will be able to connect to the mobile network when you’re out and about (provided you have reception and a suitable contract). For ‘always-on’ connectivity, therefore, a phone is best.
The storage capacity is greater on laptops
The space is limited in tablets and phones—and some of that limitation means that there is less storage space for your data. You can get round some of this by storing photos and other files in the cloud, and (on some models) by installing an SD card—but you have to recognise that the average laptop has significantly more storage capacity.
Laptops may be more expensive
On the face of it, the average laptop is considerably more expensive than the ‘average’ tablet or phone, though of course you can pay a lot more for any of them than the average! However, you do get what you pay for a lot of the time.
The bottom line
Fundamentally, if you want a computer for business use, including typing or spreadsheets, you will need a laptop. You will also need a laptop if you want to plug anything else in: an external mouse or keyboard, for example. Laptops are likely to be better for general use, including school or university work.
However, for entertainment, taking on holiday and simply keeping in touch, a phone or tablet will be a very good—and probably cheaper—option.
A way of accessing the internet
There are several ways to access the internet, including via a wireless router and broadband, public or password-protected wifi or through a mobile network such as 3G or 4G.
Access via a mobile network is only available through phones (and some tablets), and via a contract with a mobile provider. A mobile provider has to provide you with a SIM card to enable your phone to connect to the network. You can either pay upfront for a certain amount of use (calls, texts and mobile data), or you can arrange a ‘Pay as You Go’ contract, and only pay for what you use. Pay as You Go contracts are generally more expensive ‘per use’, and some also have a minimum monthly ‘top up’.
Inclusive, or SIM only contracts?
There are two main types of mobile contracts: inclusive, or SIM only.
- With an inclusive contract, the phone is included in the price of the contract. You therefore pay for the phone over the lifetime of the contract.
- With a SIM-only contract, you buy the phone separately, and pay only for the use over the lifetime of the contract.
It is generally cheaper to buy the phone upfront. Inclusive contracts are like any other form of loan—you have to pay for them.
Laptops, tablets and phones can all connect to the internet via wifi. You can access wifi in some shops and cafes, and sometimes on public transport too. However, the majority of your wifi use is likely to be in your own home, via your own broadband. You therefore need a broadband connection. This is also the cheapest way of connecting to the internet with a mobile phone, because it doesn’t involve any of your mobile data.
A broadband connection will require a contract with a telecoms provider such as AT&T, Verizon or Charter in the US, or Sky, Virgin or BT in the UK. The price of the contract will vary with factors such as:
- The speed of your broadband;
- Whether you also have a landline and television package with the same provider; and
- Whether you have a mobile package with the same provider.
Be aware that the quality of all these elements will also vary considerably between providers. As always, it will pay you to shop around, and particularly to seek out customer reviews on independent websites.
When choosing any sort of technology, the key is always to think about what you need and how you want to use it. That can, and will, drive your decisions—and will also help sales teams to provide useful advice about options.