Field Testing the iPad: Results!


Alright, we’re a little short of the month-long timeframe I had originally established. But having run the circuit of near-home use, some travel, conferences, etc. I think I’ve gotten close enough to have an answer – the late release of iOS 4.2 notwithstanding. So! Can the iPad be used as a laptop replacement:

Short Answer: Yes

Slightly Less Short Answer: Yes, but…

Long Answer: After the jump.

As I mentioned previously, the real question is not “Is the iPad a laptop replacement” in the same way people usually frame “Is a laptop a desktop replacement?” – meaning could I fully toss the other one. Because it just isn’t. But the question is: If I had a desktop, could I dispense with the laptop and just use an iPad for my mobile computing needs?

First up, The Rig:

For this field test, I used this as my setup:

  • 64 gig Apple iPad with 3G and WiFi ($829)
  • Apple Bluetooth Wireless Keyboard ($69)
  • Compass iPad Stand ($39.99)
  • Timbuk2 Kindle DX sleeve ($25) – there’s an iPad sized one for $5 more, but I had the Kindle DX one laying about, and it fits the iPad’s slightly smaller form factor.

Total Cost: $963

So yeah, the elephant in the room? You could easily buy a netbook for that much. Heck, you could buy a Macbook Air for that much, and they’ve gotten…very, very slender.

Except…did I use all of that? No. A resounding no.

Looking at my actual usage statistics, I could easily get away with the 16 gig Wi-Fi model, which knocks…$330 off that figure above. That’s much more in the realm of reasonability. The caveat there is that I have thankfully moved back to the land of the Starbucks, with its very, very free WiFi.

The Positives:

I’m pretty sure the iPad is the perfect conference machine. If you’re like me (and not like a colleague of mine), you won’t get much real work done while listening to talks, but it is nice to not go totally off the radar, and to have the occasional distraction to revive yourself when a session has strayed away from either your area of interest, or has gone lullingly monotone, whichever comes first. Whenever laptops come out, there is a pretty symbolic wall being put up, and a very clear signal of “I’ve stopped paying attention”. The iPad is no more distracting than glancing down at a notepad. You may be doing something else, but at least the pretense of paying attention is there.

In terms of most mobile computer use, it falls into a few clear categories: Internet, Document Creation, Document Reading and I’m Bored.

In terms of internet use, the iPad is pretty much even with a laptop for web-browsing, chatting and word processing. Even moderately heavy forum use is fine with the on-screen keyboard, and a breeze with an external keyboard. Generally, I’m satisfied.

Document creation is another question. Apple’s iWork suite of software is available for the iPad, and pretty decent – you may have some formatting issues hopping between Office and iWork, but that’s true on the desktop too. An unexpected benefit to the iPad, between multitasking being a bit of a pain and something…about it…is that it very heavily promotes focus. I’ve hammered out letters, blog posts etc. much faster than I do on my laptop in a strange tunnel of productivity. Which is cool. The downside? Can’t quite figure out what to *do* with those documents. For short trips, you sync up your device, and you’re set. But without a file system, you need an app meant to sent files in order to send files – no attaching them to an email.

The good news there is that several apps (the highly recommended GoodReader and iWork) support emailing documents from within the app. Hooray! With a little bit of planning, you should be good for all but the longest trips.

Document reading is another iPad strength. My Kindle DX lies dormant, and between iBooks, the Kindle App and GoodReader, I’ve got access to all the reading material I want. With an app called Papers – partnered with an outstanding Mac application of the same name – PDFs of essentially my entire collection of journal articles comes with me. The iPad is a pretty natural way to read documents, more natural than a laptop.

Games are…different. There are tons of games out for the iPad, but they’re decidedly different than games out for full-blown computers – notably the MMO and strategy offerings are non-existant to somewhat limited. So no World of Warcraft, Starcraft II, etc. On the other hand, a light version of Civilization, AngryBirds and Plants vs. Zombies are definitely great ways to waste time waiting for a plane. And in terms of media consumption, as with document reading, the iPad has access to iTunes, Hulu Plus and NetFlix – and feels more natural than the laptop.

The Negatives:

Alright, there are some definite drawbacks. First, the iPad is not a computer. If there isn’t an app for that, there isn’t an app for that. It lacks a file system, USB storage, and things you may very well take for granted. It is definitely a mobile extension of a desktop-based computing hub, rather than a stand-alone platform. This would make a very long trip – say two weeks at a long workshop or field visit, or going home for a break, fairly awkward if you were planning on doing alot of work.

And computationally intensive tasks – programming, statistical analysis, etc. are just non-starters. I can could on a single hand, having lost four fingers, how many times I *really* needed a laptop that could run SAS. But when I did, the iPad wouldn’t have cut it.

The setup above is also three pieces, rather than one. I’ve dropped the keyboard on the floor of the DC Metro pulling it out of my bag (thankfully not the iPad), and the stand makes TSA flip out (it looks a bit like a switchblade closed), negating the pleasure of not having to take the device out of its bag.

The Verdict:

Portability/Battery Life:  iPad

Document Reading:  iPad

Document Creation: Laptop

Entertainment: Tied

Internet: Laptop (slightly)

Unexpected/Other tasks: Laptop

My newly upgraded (with its shiny new 500gig 7200rpm drive) MacBook Pro won’t be retired for work-intensive road trips any time soon, but it definitely won’t get dragged along on one or two day trips anymore, and my next machine may very well be a desktop.

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