The Perfect Mobile Device Doesn’t Exist


Mobile technology has advanced at a breakneck pace the past few years. We’ve seen the rise of the notebook, the launch of the netbook and the mass adoption of the smartphone. There have been many handheld devices that put a full computer in the palm of the hand. Smartphones are powerful computers in their own right. All of these advances have fueled the search for the perfect mobile device. The appearance of the iPad (s aapl) led many to proclaim the perfect mobile device had finally arrived. Guess what? There is no perfect mobile device, and there never will be.

That’s a pretty harsh statement, but I believe an accurate one. Mobile technology is by nature a very personal thing. When something is personal by design, it becomes different things to different people. That’s the very nature of something personal. What is revolutionary to one person may be simply evolutionary, or even a step backwards, to another. What works for some won’t necessarily work for others.

I have covered handheld devices for a long time, and this coverage often produces strong reactions to those exposed to it. It is common to see knee-jerk reactions to articles about a given gadget along the lines of “why would you use that for task X?”. These reactions are typical given the personal nature of the technology. A particular gadget may be the best solution for some, but fall short for others. There are so many factors in determining how useful a gadget might be for an individual, and it’s the total package that makes or breaks the utility a single device can bring to each of us.

The appearance of the iPad has evoked emotional reactions from many along these lines. Almost every article you see written about using the iPad for a particular task is met with strong reactions from readers. Those reactions are often along the line of “why not use gadget Y for that task, as it’s better than the iPad.” This is a good response, as the iPad is not the best tool for many tasks compared to other types of devices.

I have seen the same reaction to almost every mobile gadget I’ve written about, and the fact is there are many factors to consider. If the goal is simply to use the best device for every single task that might be undertaken, then we should all use the most powerful notebook computer we can find. That would certainly be the best tool for any job. But these are often expensive, and not very easy to carry around.

There are many factors in play with mobile devices that determine the utility each provides to the individual. Portability is a big factor; while a 19-inch powerful notebook would be the best tool for any given task, it’s certainly not easy to carry around in a mobile scenario. Price is a big consideration too — that’s why netbooks have been well received. We don’t all have thousands to drop on a single tool, and often affordability is a determinant of adoption.

For others battery life plays a significant role in whether a particular gadget is a good fit or not. The individual’s work needs are the drivers that tell if a given device (or device form factor) is a proper fit. That giant notebook would certainly fail in this area.

What, then, is the best tool for a given job? The tool that is with you when you need to do the task. That’s the simple truth when it comes to mobile technology. It doesn’t matter if that big, powerful laptop will tackle any job at hand if it’s too big to carry everywhere. The same applies to many mobile gadgets. If they are too difficult to bring along, they can’t provide much benefit.

By the same token, it’s not a good plan to force compromise in our work by solely adopting a mobile device that is too restricted. The argument that gadget X is a better fit for a given task is often a good one. If a certain type of device better serves the tasks most commonly undertaken, then that’s the type to use. But that doesn’t mean that other types of devices aren’t useful for others. Mobile technology requires we keep an open mind, as everyone’s needs are different. It’s that personal thing again.

It is important to understand when a certain type of device, iPad or other, can do a certain task in a pinch. While other gadgets will be better at performing the task, if the “compromised” device is at hand, then that’s the better tool. When I write about using gadgets, the goal is to point out what can and cannot be done with them. It’s not to state that everyone should adopt this particular gadget — it’s to point out how the device can be used if needed. I think that is useful information.

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Agreed. We’er not clones. We don’t have the same background and way of doing things. What works for me may not work for you.


I caught on to this over the last few years.

It started with the Dell Axim X50v-a device that I found that, with the right software, could basically handle anything I would have done on a laptop, and then some. It had to, because I couldn’t afford a laptop/notebook, much less a Tablet PC.

But as I accumulated devices later on, I soon found that one size did not fit all. The X50v had a GPU and fast CPU for great gaming potential, but the controls weren’t there. The screen was rather small, and the VGA-out didn’t help at all when it came to resolution. The resistive digitizer kept acting up on me, and even when it worked, it still lacked the precision and pressure sensitivity of a Wacom pen.

I found myself DIVERGING, not converging. GBA/DS/PSP w/CFW for portable gaming (possibly multimedia), hx4700 for PIM, multimedia, and a pocket-size Web terminal, and TC1100 (E-295C later) for working with Office docs, writing in OneNote, drawing things in art apps, and running the occasional PC game that wouldn’t stress the hardware. (Oh, and there’s my LX350, but I only put up with carrying it around because it’s my cell phone and I can’t afford to replace it.)

Also of note is that I still have a desktop, and still continue to make heavy use of it. Why? When you don’t have to deal with the inherent constraints of mobility (size, power consumption, heat output), you can get a far more powerful computer at a lower price. All of those PC games out there aren’t getting any less demanding, and there are other intensive content creation apps out there that would benefit from the desktop’s raw performance advantage. I’ve also often had my desktop on secondary duty as a file server through Windows network file sharing, seeing as I can cram the tower full of large 3.5″ hard drives as much as my wallet allows.

For these reasons and more, I don’t think a “perfect” mobile device will ever exist.

Brian S Hall

What will I have first?
That submarine car I’ve longed for since I was a child? Or, the “perfect mobile device”?

I better get at least one.



Use PDF Annotator to edit something like that on your TC4200 tablet – it’s awesome!


Absolutely ironic that this article was written! I just struggled through editing a research poster from one of my graduate students using my new iPad. Not for the faint of heart. The iPad is very much how Apple positioned it: for consuming content. It is not so much for creating or critiquing content. I tried my tablet, but I only have my 5 year old TC4200 at home and frankly it wasn’t up to the task due to some odd screen inconsistencies and the large footprint of the file. I could have printed out the document and edited by pen, but then I’d have to scan it and then try to send back a massive colour file. I opted to try the iPad. Not so smooth.

So, the timing of your article James could not have been better. And I’m not even mobile per se!


I believe there is a perfect mobile device, yet to exist, that will take its cues from the PC world of old.

Imagine a thing that fits in your pocket (or on your wrist or necklace if you prefer). It contains your personal data, terabytes of it, augmented with whatever you have out in the “cloud”.

The device becomes whatever you allow it to become using your PAN (personal area network). Think wireless peripherals that enable things to happen, all the while the thing in your pocket is your PAN storage, and, profile if you will.

Wireless 19″ screen , 60″ screen or 3.7″ screen – your personal choice. Soft keyboard or hardware keyboard – your choice. Endlessly customisable and totally personal.

It annoys me that no one has come close to making this device despite billions and billions and billions of R&D dollars spent every year.

I rambled more about it here

John in Norway

I actually already have the 2 perfect mobile devices for me (Kohjinsha SC3 and Nokia E90). However, the problem I have is that I’m always thinking that something else might be better. If I could try devices for a couple of weeks and then return them because they’re not as good as the ones I already have, I could save a fortune. For instance, I’ve just bought a Nokia N97 Mini for a few dollars on a really cheap 12 month contract. While it does have some good points there’s no way it’s going to replace my E90. I knew this going in, of course, but I just couldn’t resist such a good offer!


I know you’ve done a post like this before, but the list is forever changing, and I was wondering, if you could create your perfect device, right now, what would it be james?

I’d like to hear from other people too, I’ll follow up this comment with my perfect device when I have more time later today. =)


let me reword that… I mean what would your ideal mobile device be?


This is a excellent article. The operative word you wrote is “perfect” and (religious or otherwise) “nobody is perfect.”
Thus perfection never be re/created. As noted in most comments here, what’s perfect for one is not for another. However we can have near perfect for the many, though in that situation I generally find the price/cost to be imperfect.


I think my 4-year-old daughter’s iPhone 3GS has got to be an almost perfect device. She dropped it in her cereal bowl (completely submerged in a milkly sugary liquid) the other day while she was hard at work on her facebook account. After washing it with some wet towels and letting it dry it still works. Note however that she now uses her iPad more than her iPhone so maybe the iPad is indeed the “Perfect Mobile Device” at this point in time.

Cron Job

The iPad is as near-Perfect as you can get to with an actual shipping product that you can purchase today.
Once they add a few goodies (i.e. camera, multitasking, sd) it should be crowned the “Perfect Mobile Device” and as such should be awarded a trophy from JKontheRun during its webcast award ceremony to be held next year.

This iPad is actually quite the productivity tool as I find myself doing more work on it before 9am than most PC users do their entire day !


I disagree and agree. New Mobile devices are chosen based on how people use them relative to past devices. Once new devices are integrated into culture and business, they become the “perfect device”.

James Kendrick

I have to respectfully disagree. What is the perfect device for you many not even come close to working well for someone else with dramatically different needs.

Quentin Dewolf

the problem i always have is that my unique requirements never have the broad appeal. this means that what i want will not be built. it would be optimal if mobile devices became more modular. pieces could be mixed and matched to make more personal devices. eg i would pay more, give up battery life, and weigh more to get a discreet video card in a slate tablet variation.

James Kendrick

The trick may very well be multiple devices. While we always strive for that one device to fit all needs, sometimes that won’t work. There’s nothing wrong with using multiple devices to get the job done.

Tax Man

Right on! One of the things I like about this website is that you show us how to use mobile devices to do tasks, even if another device might be “better suited” to the task. If I’m on the go and need to complete a task with an iPad, or a netbook, or a smartphone, it is very helpful that you’ve shown me how to complete that task with the tool at hand. Like a wise man once said, “When all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.”


I agree and disagree with you. The perfect mobile device is a very personal thing. But I also wonder about the “mobile” part of it. Is a mobile device also an “outdoors” device or simply an indoors device. If transporting my laptop to and from work and leaving on the desk when I get at either destination then the 19 inch laptop might be fine. But if it is something you will have when you are walking, standing or riding a train then something else would be more useful. I like that notebooks are finally having built-in 3G so you can use them almost anywhere. But why not just go one step further and let them also make voice calls so that your laptop or netbook can be a HUGE phone with keyboard if you like. (Of course bluetooth or a headset would be a most useful in that scenario). Something like that could come close to being my perfect mobile device.

James Kendrick

You’re absolutely right. The key phrase in your well put comment is “my perfect mobile device.” Your case is unique to you, and your optimal solution is too. That’s what I am saying, you need to go with what works best for you, no matter what anyone else says.


Thanks for this, James. There’s always going to be a substantial amount of personal variation in device preference, both in terms of required features and in less-quantifiable areas like aesthetics. Fortunately, the marketplace has plenty of manufacturers to fill this space, giving consumers the choices they want.

That issue of choice is one that’s been bugging me around the iPad response. There are lots of people saying “I’d never buy an iPad,” and that’s their right, but many then follow up by saying (at least implicitly) “and you shouldn’t either.” Isn’t that my decision to make?


Are you implying that the Dell Streak/Mini5 is not going to be perfect?! I hope not ;) It is going to be my first smartphone/MID so it better be.

Mickey Segal

Although there is no ideal device since there is no perfect size for all mobility use cases, there is room for jack-of-all trades mobile devices. For example, I’d like a processor that is good at saving energy while mobile and running fast when plugged in. I’d like a screen the allows multitouch input but also allows use of a pen, and even the joint pen-touch gestures as shown at I’d like a screen that can display color or Kindle-like black on blah since my needs differ depending on battery life and ambient light. And I’d like to have the freedom of a real computer, not a Disneyland-like device in which my choices are restricted severely to comply with the vision of some corporation.

All these technologies exist to some degree. Five years from now I’d expect mobile devices to be offer more such flexibility.


James, I have to say this is the best piece you have written in a while, and I concur with your line of thought.

Best gadget sure does depend not only on personal preference (style and budget), but whether the device is fit for the task.

Case in point – I’ve used a smartphone/netbook combo now for roughly two years. Plenty who’ve seen me work have wondered how I could get so much done, and have been floored when I show them all the functionality and productivity these two gadgets offer combined.

Some have said it’s underpowered, other times it’s been overkill, but the bottom line is that it works for me, gets the job done, and I’m happy using it. I in fact no longer go out with my bigger notebook, so that says something right there.

For me the smartphone/netbook combo has proven to be the right gadget when mobile. At home, I’m back to my quad-core notebook. All three are a joy to use, but I wouldn’t substitute one for the other, or go without either one. All three serve their purpose and complement my work very well.

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