Android tablets offer better mobility than laptops — but they lack dedicated hardware and software geared toward productivity. Fortunately, it’s not hard reconfiguring Android with productivity customizations. It just requires some software tweaks and a keyboard.
This article covers the essential software and hardware for turning your tablet into a laptop-like portable computer. There’s already several tablets designed specifically for laptop-like productivity, like the Remix and the Surface. There’s even an app that offers a desktop-like interface. Fortunately, Android’s flexibility allows tablets to behave like laptops. With the right apps and hardware, it can even outperform laptops in certain respects.
We’re taking a look at both the hardware and software side of tablet productivity. First up is hardware.
What Hardware Turns a Tablet Into a Laptop?
I recommend using Bluetooth because of issues with the wired alternative to Bluetooth. The big problem with On-the-Go (what’s OTG?) is that it’s not on all devices and puts a noticeable dent in your battery life, relative to its wireless sibling: Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (LE). Because Bluetooth LE keyboards aren’t common, the best option: a universal Bluetooth 3.0 keyboard folio.
Hardware and Software for Your Mobile Office
Out of all the accessories out there, the most useful is a keyboard, which makes a tablet more like a Surface. Android includes support for keyboard shortcuts in Chrome and in other apps. The default number of shortcuts compares favorably even with Windows. For example, cut is still CTRL+X.
Tablets generally come in sizes ranging between 7 and 10 inches.
- 7-8 inches: SUPERNIGHT universal tablet portfolio keyboard — $25.99 via Amazon
- 9-10 inches: Kyasi universal folio case — $30.55 via Amazon
Unfortunately, all of the universal keyboards that I’ve seen so far only support Bluetooth 3.0. Bluetooth 4.0 keyboards are more common among Apple’s iPad range and the HTC Nexus 9 (our Nexus 9 review).
While mice are useful, they’re not necessary, as the tablet’s touchscreen makes a mouse redundant. However, if you absolutely need a mouse, here are a few cheap mice:
- HP Touch to Pair NFC mouse — $15.97 via Amazon
- Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Mouse — $27.89 via Amazon
- EEEKit 3-in-1 mouse — $11.80 via Amazon
For those of you looking to transcribe handwritten notes: There’s the upcoming Livescribe 3 smartpen, which is currently in beta (for Android). Another handy piece of kit: Miracast adapters (what’s Miracast?), which allow users to wirelessly mirror, or copy, your tablet’s screen onto a much larger display via HDMI.
- Livescribe 3 — $129.95 via Amazon
- NetGear PTV3000 Miracast adapter — $49.99 via Amazon
- Stylus Pen — $10.95 via Amazon
Out of all the peripherals on today’s market, I recommend a Bluetooth wireless gamepad. A lot of older games that were designed for consoles have no problems adjusting to an Android designed gamepad.
There are a lot of gamepads on today’s market and not much to differentiate between one another. I recommend whatever offers the cheapest option (the Red Samurai has worked well for us). Keep in mind that the upcoming Steam Controller is rumored to include Bluetooth support, meaning it might work with Android.
- Red Samurai gamepad — $4.97 via GameStop
If your tablet doesn’t include noise-cancelling, or you just want privacy during calls, the best option is a Bluetooth headset. Bluetooth headsets can range from horrible to amazing.
Generally speaking, features like bone-conduction, noise-cancelling, NFC, and Bluetooth 4.0 are among the most prized features of a good headset. For music-lovers, look for A2DP (a streaming audio method).
- JETech universal Bluetooth headset — $24.95 via Amazon
Storing Media Files
You can increase the onboard storage of most tablets with a microSD card. Because of Google’s opposition to SD cards (and SD card unreliability), many smartphones and tablets ditched their microSD card slots.
Devices falling into this category possess two options for more storage: Network storage and OTG memory cards. Network storage can be added using an app that permits access to storage attached to your network (NAS). However, if you don’t have a NAS handy, the best option is an OTG memory card. Be aware that not all Android devices support OTG (although most newer smartphones do).
Kingston sells relatively cheap storage devices via Amazon. These include a microUSB and a regular USB adapter, allowing you to transfer files from a desktop onto the drive. It’s also plug-and-play, so after copying files, you can then stick it onto your Android device and start moving files around. Or you can leave it attached (which I don’t recommend).
- Kingston 16GB OTG USB drive — $8.99 via Amazon
- Kingston 32GB OTG USB drive — $14.99 via Amazon
- Kingston 64GB OTG USB drive — $26.95 via Amazon
Some users might prefer a desktop-like experience for their tablet. Some, but not all, tablets offer a docking station. Docks allow users to easily get screen mirroring on a larger display. Unfortunately, docks are proprietary to individual devices, and the most common is for Samsung Galaxy Devices.
- Samsung Galaxy Dock — $99.99 via Samsung
What Software Turns a Tablet into a Laptop?
Android’s app library includes great solutions for mobile office productivity, Web browsing, news reading, gaming, remote desktop, telecommunications, and photo editing. I’ve picked some of my favorites when working from a tablet.
Mobile Office Productivity
Students, teachers, and analysts — almost anyone who writes as a part of their job — will benefit from being able to turn Android into a mobile productivity platform. The key component — aside from a keyboard — is the document software. The best apps aren’t just stand-alone word processors. They’re entire office suites, intended to handle a range of document types, from PDFs to presentation slides.
The top three office suites are probably OfficeSuite 8, Microsoft’s Office for Mobile, and Google’s Quickoffice. Of these, OfficeSuite 8 offers the best features and usability — it comes with a fairly high price tag, at $9.99 for the full version. Both Microsoft Office for Mobile and Quickoffice are both free, though. And then there’s WPS Office, which is one of the best free office programs out there.
- OfficeSuite 8: Offers cloud integration (Dropbox, among others), top-tier word processing tools, and more.
- Quickoffice: Offers Google Drive integration and a simplified interface, which scales well with different sized screens.
- Microsoft Office for Mobile: Offers OneDrive integration and cross-compatibility with the desktop versions of Microsoft Office. Relatively low device compatibility.
- Microsoft Word: Microsoft also offers a nearly complete version of Microsoft Word for tablets. It’s one of the best text editors I’ve ever used.
- LibreOffice: It’s not the best, but LibreOffice finally added an editor mode for its beta-stage Android app. If you need an open source alternative, here it is.
- WPS Office: Completely free and with a rich feature suite.
There’s a great deal of text editors for Android. Finding the one that meets your needs is just a matter of experimentation.
Presentations for Android
If you do use Microsoft’s mobile version of its Office software, you get access to a unique presentation tool — Microsoft Remote. This app lets users remotely control a presentation. Just install the app on both an Android device and a Windows computer, and you can use your tablet as the remote control.
Some smart TVs can wirelessly receive the video output from an Android device. Alternatively, if you don’t have a smart TV, it’s possible to use a Miracast adapter to output video to a projector or a television, if it has HDMI.
- Microsoft Remote: Lets users control their presentations using their phone or tablet as a remote.
Granted, the app is only useful if you use your tablet alongside a Windows device.
The two best note-taking apps are Google Keep and Evernote. They both double as receipt generators and hand-held scanners as well. Keep in mind that both also perform OCR (as mentioned earlier).
- Evernote: Great at everything note-related.
- Google Keep: A powerful, elegant, and sophisticated note-taking application.
As a lightweight document processing beast, a tablet (or smartphone) can even beat out a laptop in a major area: It can function as a document scanner with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) when combined with Evernote (our guide to Evernote).
OCR makes scanned documents searchable through Evernote. Simply taking a picture using your tablet’s camera will convert a receipt or paper into text, while backing it up. This is a killer productivity feature not typically available on laptops. However, if you want a desktop OCR, we’ve covered three ways to use OCR.
Does your job require a great deal of redundant, typed expressions? Do you interact with spreadsheets often? One of the greatest productivity tools on the desktop is now available on mobile: PhraseExpress. We’ve covered 5 uses for PhraseExpress — and it’s just as indispensable on mobile. Combined with a keyboard, it’s not that much different from the desktop interface.
- PhraseExpress: Phrase Express includes auto correction along with text expansion support.
A cornerstone of any laptop productivity configuration: Multi-window management (MWM). MWM lets users switch between programs. It either displays two different apps in split-screen or can juggle between multiple apps. On desktop systems, this is a must-have feature.
A shortcoming of Android is its inferior windows management relative to Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. A handful of third party apps (like Tiny Apps) can tap into Android’s ability to draw apps on top of other apps — known as “screen overlay”. However, Screen Overlay isn’t available on older versions of Android (4.1 and below). It’s also prone to crashes, which can cause a complete loss of data on over-drawn apps.
To date, only Samsung devices natively support MWM. Fortunately, there are some apps that add this ability to Android devices — although without Samsung’s convenient split-screen capabilities.
- Tiny Apps (floating): This is the only app that permits split-screen operation. Tiny Apps lets users run widgets in the background.
- SwipePad: SwipePad lets users juggle apps, similar to MultiWindow Sidebar (mentioned below).
- Custom ROM: Some custom ROMs (what’s a custom ROM?) offer MWM by default. For example, the Dirty Unicorns custom ROM features a scrolling wheel of launchable apps.
- MultiWindow Sidebar (MWS): MWS copies Samsung’s sidebar app launcher. It’s customizable and easy to use.
Web Browsing and News Reading
To more closely emulate the tabbed browsing experience offered on the desktop, I recommend using Link Bubble (I no longer support the use of Javelin Browser, due to their developer’s abuse of Android’s permissions system). Link Bubble lets users open tabs in the background. Unfortunately, because of limitations in Android, “chat-heads” style browsers are less stable than other kinds of browsers.
- ezPDF Reader: The best PDF and eBook reader around. Unfortunately, it does not directly integrate into cloud storage.
- Montano Ebook Reader (free): Offers excellent layout and organization. This links to the ad-supported version.
- FeedMe: For RSS consumption, the best productivity-oriented RSS reader is FeedMe (not to be confused with Feedly).
- Google Play Books: The killer feature of Google Books is that you are allowed to upload your own digital books, which are then synced across all devices. The user interface is modern and clean.
- Link Bubble: Link Bubble can pop open links in the background. Because tabs load in the background, users can continue reading, saving precious time. It also has well-developed link sharing.
- Flynx: Flynx offers native ad-blocking, text reflow, speedy operation, and impressive design. Unfortunately, it suffers from a maximum limit of four open bubbles. It’s a great alternative to Link Bubble.
Gaming on Android
There are a lot of gaming apps out there. I recommend downloading the Humble Indie Bundle app, which — if you’ve ever purchased a bundle — lets you download Android apps direct from their store.
- Humble Indie Bundle App: It’s not allowed in the Play Store (because it competes with Google’s own app offerings), but you can download it for free.
For apps that run only on a desktop, you can use Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) apps like TeamViewer to get them onto Android. The performance isn’t amazing, but it gets the job done.
- TeamViewer: Allows remote control (bidirectional control) over another device, provided TeamViewer is installed.
- Microsoft Remote Desktop: If you have Windows on your laptop or desktop, you can use Microsoft’s Remote Desktop and do not need to install a third party client.
- Chrome Remote Desktop: If you’re running Chrome on your desktop, this is a simple and fast solution.
Telecommunications on a Tablet
Android also includes apps that support text-messaging, free phone calls via Internet connection, and more. Some of the standout apps include Google Hangouts, Skype, and Mightytext. Hangouts can even replace your phone or ground line.
- Google Hangouts: Hangouts allows users to send and receive both text messages and telephone calls, for free. Just follow the directions.
- Hangouts Dialer: After installing Google Hangouts, you’ll also want to install the Hangouts Dialer, which lets you make phone calls over WiFi.
- Skype: Users can send and receive text messages, but it’s a paid service if you’re contacting a non-Skype number.
- MightyText: MightyText lets users send text messages to one another over WiFi, which makes it free.
Photo Editing on Android
There are several great photo editing apps in Android. My favorites are SnapSeed and Aviary. Both allow for quick-and-dirty application of filters, captions, and cropping. Out of the two, I prefer Aviary because it more seamlessly integrates into cloud storage solutions like Dropbox.
- Aviary: More feature rich than its competitors. Aviary is both powerful and elegant.
- SnapSeed: SnapSeed is easier to use than Aviary — and almost as fully featured.
Will Tablets Replace Laptops?
At present, there’s lots of software for Android — but nothing beats the software available on Windows, Linux, and Mac. Android’s library is good enough for productivity, light gaming, and more, but it won’t be enough to replace your laptop (although it might replace your Chromebook).
I would predict that Android will eventually catch up to desktop operating systems, if not for one thing: Google doesn’t seem to want Android to catch up. I suspect that Google’s strategy now revolves around ChromeOS, which anchors users into Google’s cloud storage and computing solutions.
Does anyone else use Android as a laptop? Let us know what apps and hardware you use!