What Does a Tablet PC Do?

By Aaron Parson

Back when even a basic cell phone was a luxury, personal digital assistants provided a mobile platform to edit documents and keep track of appointments. Today, smartphones and tablets have taken over the role of PDAs. These devices not only support basic file editing but run millions of games and applications. Although sometimes called tablet PCs, most tablets function more like smartphones with large screens than they do laptop or desktop computers.

Tablet Apps and Features

Like smartphones, most tablets run either iOS, in the case of the iPad, or Android, as on the various Nexus, Galaxy Tab and Kindle Fire models. Tablets can run almost any smartphone app, as well as apps designed specifically for a tablet's larger screen. The ability to install new apps and perform multiple functions differentiates tablets from single-purpose devices: A tablet can play music like an MP3 player, present e-books like an e-reader and run games like a portable console. Although you can choose from a huge range of tablet apps, most tablets don't run the same programs as your desktop computer.

Windows Tablets

A few models of tablets, most notably Microsoft's Surface series, run versions of Windows. The Surface Pro runs a full copy of Windows -- just like a desktop or laptop computer -- allowing it to open any Windows program. The regular Surface runs Windows RT and only supports apps sold through the Windows Store.

Tablet Hardware

Tablets offer a lighter, slimmer alternative to traditional laptop computers while providing larger screens than smartphones, with most tablets measuring about 7 to 10 inches. Unlike laptops, tablets rely on on-screen keyboards, though most support add-on keyboards connected either by Bluetooth or to a docking port. Some tablets, including the Surface and the Asus Transformer, offer keyboards that attach like covers, turning the tablet into a laptoplike clamshell. The ability to connect other peripherals varies by model. For example, Android supports many USB devices, but many Android tablets don't offer a USB port without a separate attachment, and some tablet manufacturers disable the feature. One peripheral you don't need to worry about is the camera. Regardless of operating system, almost every tablet includes a built-in camera for taking still shots and recording video.

Tablet Connectivity

Even though tablets work similarly to smartphones, they lack one major smartphone component -- the phone itself. Most tablets cannot place or receive calls over a cellular network, but as a workaround, apps such as Skype, Google Hangouts or Vonage Extensions can make calls using an Internet connection. Some tablets offer a cellular connection to browse the Internet -- and require a data plan -- while others lack this feature. Regardless of cellular Internet support, all tablets can go online through a Wi-Fi connection.