Can an iPad Replace a Laptop? Hands-on Review

I wrote almost this entire column using an iPad which partially answered my biggest question about the device. Can it replace a laptop PC? So far, the answer is a qualified yes.
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I wrote almost this entire column using an iPad which partially answered my biggest question about the device. Can it replace a laptop PC? So far, the answer is a qualified yes. (Scroll to end for my Sunday morning update on why that yes is "qualified.")

As a writer and radio commentator, I wanted to see if I could use this device for my work.

I knew that the screen would be big enough and that the processor would be adequate for word processing but I wasn't sure about the software or the ability to type on the device. Sure the onscreen keyboard is bigger than what you get with an iPhone or iPod touch, but it's still not adequate for touch typists who want to use it to write long documents.

Bluetooth keyboard

Fortunately, Apple thought of that by offering an optional doc and keyboard but, unfortunately, that keyboard wasn't available on launch day. What is available, however, is a $69 Apple Bluetooth keyboard that I'm using to write this review, using Apple's $9.99 Pages word processing program that I downloaded from the iTunes store.

As with any new piece of hardware and software, it took me a little while to get used to working in Pages on the iPad but, it was very little time -- less than five minutes. While I haven't mastered this entire program, I found it pretty easy to get started.

One of my biggest concerns was whether the Bluetooth keyboard and the software would be able to keep up with my typing. Having been weaned on a typewriter at a very young age, I'm a pretty fast touch typist and there were some programs in the early days of personal computing that couldn't keep up. That's definitely not a problem. Together the iPad, Pages and the Bluetooth keyboard are more than fast enough.

I found Pages to be reasonably intuitive, but a couple of times I had to refer to an Apple web page for help. Unfortunately, because the iPad doesn't support multitasking, I couldn't do that on the iPad and work on the document at the same time so I cheated by accessing the page on my PC.

It was that web page that helped me figure out how to export the document as a Microsoft Word file and email it to myself. Because Pages doesn't have a traditional Mac or Windows-like menu, figuring out how to use some features is actually less intuitive than it might be on a typical computer software product though, to be fair, this is also the case with recent versions of Microsoft Word (and other Office applications) for Windows and Mac. I wound up using my PC to print out and file this story, but it was written on the iPad.

Clearly, if it's easy to write a relatively long document like this, the keyboard also makes it easy to do other tasks such as typing in a web address or typing an email message. Of course, you can do this type of lightweight typing with the on-screen keyboard, especially if you turn the device on its side (in landscape mode) so that the size of alphabetic keys are roughly 85% of a normal keyboard. But aside from being a bit smaller, the layout isn't the same as a "real" keyboard because you have to press a key to bring up numbers or special symbols, slowing you down a bit. There is also the issue of typing on glass vs. a physical keyboard. Most of us are accustomed to the physical feedback we get from pressing keys.

Kids may grow up learning to type on glass
Having said that, I think that people who spend a lot of time with the virtual keyboard will find it comfortable and when I put away my Bluetooth keyboard and started typing on the screen, I did better than I expected, though I was still slower and made more mistakes then with the physical keyboard. Nevertheless, I wouldn't be surprised to see a generation of kids who grow up with devices like this actually prefer typing on glass to typing on a physical keyboard. Older folks like me really need to put aside our own prejudices when it comes to adapting to technology. After all, even without smart phones, there are young people who can text faster than some adults can type.

Network radio broadcast recorded on iPad

Aside from typing, the other issues when it comes to replacing a laptop are software and peripherals. Even before it came out, the iPad was already attracting a lot of attention from software developers and it's only a matter of time before we see some pretty sophisticated applications that start to rival the diversity available today on PCs and Macs. For example, as a radio journalist I need to be able to record and edit audio and assumed that would require me to keep carrying my laptop. But CBS News Executive Producer Charlie Kaye proved that it's possible to use an iPad, even with its less than perfect internal microphone, to record audio for broadcast. He did just that with his new iPad then emailed it to CBS News which played it on national radio. A $6 iPhone program, VC Audio Pro, lets you both record and edit audio on an iPad as well as an iPhone and a iPod touch with an external microphone that was designed for the iPhone but also works on the iPad. You can listen to Kaye's broadcast and a subsequent test recording he sent me using an external microphone. The one with the external microphone is truly is broadcast quality. And the reason my voice on the broadcast sounds bad, is because I was using a cell phone.

Peripherals are a problem because Apple didn't include a standard USB port which PC and Mac users can use to add external hard drives, off-the-shelf keyboards and mice, external displays and many other accessories. I'm sure that wasn't an oversight by Apple because by not allowing people to use existing hardware, they create a market for specialize hardware from themselves or third party developers that they get to control or at least vet. The same is true with software that - as of now - can only be installed via the App store or via iTunes which gives Apple total control over what people can do with this device. I find that regrettable but one advantage is that it can cut down on malicious software.

Testing Kindle for iPad
And speaking of replacing devices, the iPad might take a bite out of Amazon's Kindle sales. Apple has its own iBook bookstore but Amazon was smart enough to release a Kindle App for the iPad that I used today to read a couple of pages from one of the books I purchased for the Kindle. Frankly, the experience is better than I expected. The Kindle's paper-like screen has its advantages (including very long battery life and visibility in bright sunlight) but reading a book on an IPad (or an iPhone or iPhone touch) is still a pretty good experience, especially for children's books which can come to life via video embedded in the text.

Based on a few hours with the iPad, I'm convinced that devices like it have potential to replace laptops when it comes to consuming information, but the lack of Flash support is certainly an issue when it comes to consumption. Despite my excellent experience with Pages and the Bluetooth keyboard, it's not quite ready to replace laptops for production. But the device has only been on the market for a matter of hours. If it winds up stimulating an enormous ecosystem of software and peripherals, it will certainly grow into an extremely versatile device. And, just as with the iPhone, expect to see some worthy competition. Already there is talk about a Google powered tablet PC and Microsoft, which pioneered Windows-powered tablets, has got to be thinking of how it can create a streamlined tablet PC to compete with the iPad.

Update on Sunday Morning
After reading some of the comments, it's clear to me that some people have misinterpreted a bit of what I wrote. I'll take responsibility for that, but to clarify, one of the reason's I started out with a "qualified" yes is because I do not think that this device is ready to replace a laptop for all users. The iPad isn't for everyone, but I know a lot of people who only use their laptops for web surfing and email. Some might use a spreadsheet now and then and some might also use them for presentations. For all of these functions, the iPad can already do the job. I'm not giving up my laptop for a lot of reasons. First, I do use a wide range of software and peripherals and want as much choice as possible. And I definitely need multitasking. Also I prefer having the keyboard there all the time and having the keyboard built-in makes it easier to use from a lap. Hence the name laptop. I also like having a pointing device in addition to a touch screen. The iPad needs a stand that props it up in landscape mode, but that will be solved via accessories. And, like a lot of people who commented, I have problems with Apple's closed system when it comes to software and peripherals. Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing what Google and others come up with as an alternative to the iPad.

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