iPad on the road

In a recent post, I stated my intent of purchasing an iPad2 as soon as it would become available in Canada, and expounded why I deem it as the optimal portable computing device for someone in my line of work. In particular, I see it as a superior solution to a “conventional” laptop/notebook computer, including the ultra-light MacBook Air.
I have owned my iPad for one month now, and have had the chance of testing it “on the road”, namely in the very conditions that prompted me to consider its purchase in the first place.
What is my verdict ? Does the iPad deliver on its promise, do what I expected, or am I disappointed ? Can it really replace a regular laptop in most circumstances, as I opined when I first wrote my piece a few months ago, or does it miss some crucial features ?
Bottom line: Am I happy with my choice ? Would I recommend it to my least despicable enemy ?

In a word:yes [0]. I am very happy with it, and can comfortably predict getting a lot out of this little, unencumbering and almost unnoticeable gadget, which I can always easily carry with me, tucked away inside an ordinary cardboard document folder.
At the same time, this has undeniably a lot to do with my specific type of usage, which may not be what someone else has in mind. Moreover, to confirm that no amount of reading and thinking about something can ever replace actual hands-on experience, I have become (more) aware of some specific features of the iPad, that may be seen as drawbacks and/or limitations by those who at some point might have cultivated the notion of it as a possible full replacement for a notebook computer — it is not, no question about it.
For all practical purposes, however, and in a number of relevant cases, it will perform just as well, while enjoying distinct advantages over an ordinary laptop [1].

I outline my impressions below, describing first those tasks which the iPad cannot do (well), and for which a full notebook is still a better choice (if those are the primary tasks that one wishes to accomplish). I shall then illustrate those features which, in my view, give it an edge over a notebook for general purpose, “on the road” computing.
Indeed, I intend to focus this review on those aspects of the iPad that are relevant to its utilization as a portable device, i.e., one to be used primarily away from home or the office — e.g., at the airport, on the plane, the train, in a hotel room, at a conference, and so on.
I shall not discuss at all the iPad as a book reading tool, for example, even though that is how I have been enjoying it the most thus far — something that I did not initially expect and was not among the (many) reasons I had for purchasing the iPad in the first place.

Not a real computer
Whether that makes a big difference in the end or not is a separate issue, but it is a simple fact that the iPad is not a “regular” personal computer. If what one needs is a device that will closely emulate a desktop PC, the iPad won’t cut it, simple as that.
I am not even talking about the fact that it does not have a mouse or a regular keyboard, because in my opinion in the end these are not very serious shortcomings in practice.
What do I mean, then, when I say that it is not a PC ? Let me be very concrete.

For one thing, the iPad does not have a filesystem; there is no obvious or simple way of creating folders, or directories. Files created by a given application are “owned” by that application, and can only be accessed through it. Sharing files with other computers is possible but not straightforward; in my case, since I am a MobileMe subscriber, I can share files using iDisk, but that is not an option available by default to iPad buyers.
Alternatively, one needs to use iTunes, or (ugh) e-mail. The iPad does not have USB ports, which makes it necessary for one to purchase an adapter, in order for one to use things like memory sticks. If one is looking at doing a lot of file sharing between the iPad and other machines, then this is clearly something to think about.

It is also imperative to keep in mind that the iPad is practically useless if no wireless internet connection is available. For, the iPad does not have an Ethernet jack, and if you are like me you dislike carrying around a bunch of adapters. It is probably reasonably safe, nowadays, to assume that some form of wireless network will exist wherever one has to travel to for work-related reasons (at least in North America — it is not a safe assumption in Europe, in my experience). Furthermore, as long as one stays within the territory covered by one’s plan, one can access the Internet on the iPad through the same wireless network providing mobile telephony, although not for free (and charges can be quite high). There will be situations, however, in which the absence of an Ethernet jack will be a problem, and one should definitely try and make sure ahead of time that one’s iPad will be usable.

Another fundamental difference between the iPad and a laptop computer, is that the iPad’s screen only displays one task at a time, i.e., it is not possible to visualize simultaneously more than one application. This renders some simple operations, such as cutting and pasting text from the web browser to email, fairly clumsy (albeit it is possible, since the iPad’s operating system does support a basic form of multitasking). Generally speaking, one will find oneself taking longer to perform basic tasks which on an ordinary laptop are straightforward, and this is a simple consequence of the fact that the iPad is technically closer in many respects to a cellular phone than to a PC.

Software is, of course, another sticky issue.
There is a lot of “fun stuff” all right (yes, even Facebook), but when it comes to those applications that are actually, um, useful to people who do the kind if work that I do, then the situation is not particularly encouraging. Only if you are (like me) wedded to native Apple applications, will you pretty much be able to duplicate the functionality of your laptop (within the limitations discussed above). Microsoft‘s popular Office suite is not available, and it is not clear to me, at this time, whether it will ever be.
Electronic mail and web browsing are possible and quite satisfactory (personally, I think that the e-mail reader is excellent and should suit everyone’s needs) but here too one must be, to a certain degree, comfortable with native Apple applications, such as Safari, for one won’t be generally able to install one’s favorite PC applications, use a different web browser or e-mail client (at least at this time and as far as I can tell — there are exceptions, of course).

OK, so… What do I use it for ?
Obviously, I can only speak for myself (thankfully, this is my blog).
Let me restate it as clearly as I can: to me, the iPad is mainly a traveling companion, a tool to be used primarily while on the road. So, the crucial questions to anyone considering its purchase, in my mind, are the following: How much short-term traveling do I do ? How much do I need the extended functionality offered by a desktop computer, while on the road ?
If I am gone for extended periods of time (say, more than a week — sometimes that happens), I want and need to be able to work as efficiently and easily as I do at home, and for that a good “conventional” laptop with a large screen and a regular keyboard is the way to go.
But most of the time I am gone for a dew days only, and really do not have the time or the need to engage in major tasks, such as code development (I come back to this below), which require the power and versatility offered by today’s laptop computers, often rivaling that of desktop systems.

I know for a fact that a good fraction of my few readers tend to be are geeks like me. We are happy once we get to check the status of our “jobs” (numerical calculations running on some remote computer), access our favorite web sites, read email, communicate with others by means of Skype, use our portable computing device to deliver presentations at conferences [2], and do some minimal editing (e.g., implement a finishing touch to an article, or replace the graph in our presentation with one including data generated overnight, right before we are slated to deliver our talk). That is really all that I want my portable computer to do, and I feel quite comfortable stating that the iPad can do all that adequately, at a fraction of the weight, with a much longer battery life, and being much easier to handle in all circumstances (e.g., going through security at the airport) than a conventional laptop [3].

Yeah but… I write letters or articles on the plane…
Me too. Whether the iPad allows one to do that as well as a laptop, is largely a matter of personal taste. I happen to like the iPad’s touch-screen integrated keyboard (I find it particularly convenient to use in the dark, e.g., on the plane), but I know that many don’t care for it.
There is no question that using the same application (e.g., Pages, Keynote) on the iPad is not as easy without a mouse or trackpad, and it is also true that the applications developed for the iPad are somewhat “crippled”, compared to their counterparts written for desktop systems. I do not know whether it is realistic to think of creating, say, a brand new presentation from scratch on the iPad, even for someone like me, whose stile tends to be rather sober (I do not include animations in my talks); on the other hand, as I mentioned above, making small adjustments to an existing presentation, or paper, or letter, is all quite feasible, and the advantages provided by a much longer battery life, and the fact that this thing can be used in tiny spaces, to me compensate for the above-mentioned limitations.

I did it !
I have written this lengthy blog post entirely on my iPad, with only minimal amount of cursing on my part.

Notes

[0] The reader may think that I would scarcely write a post on this subject, if I felt any differently. Well, reader, you are wrong. I would, and find a way of expressing my negative opinion, without of course admitting to have made a mistake. I would simply blame it on false and misleading advertising.

[1] In this post I am using interchangeably the words “laptop” and “notebook” to refer loosely to any kind of “traditional” portable computer, i.e., one with a cover in which the screen is integrated.

[2] Yes, the iPad can be used to give a talk. To me, this is another conditio sine qua non, i.e., I would not even have bothered buying an iPad if delivering a presentation with it were not possible. It can be connected to an ordinary VGA projector, and it does come with my favorite presentation software. Although I have in fairness encountered some glitches when trying to export presentations created on my iMac on my iPad, I think that it is fair to say that for the most part it performs just as well as an ordinary portable (laptop) computer, in this case.

[3] There is an excellent application named iSSH, which puts at the disposal of the user a remarkably complete Xterm emulator, with which one can establish a connection to a remote UNIX. While this will surely sound obscure to most, someone who does the kind of work that I do will know exactly what am talking about; in fact, something like this is essentially a must for me (I use it on my iPhone too) and would not even have considered the iPad if no similar application existed (screenshots here and here).

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4 Responses to “iPad on the road”

  1. GMP Says:

    A bit of a frivolous tangent: I can attest that my 4-year-old can play Angry Birds on iPad2 like a champ. The touch pad is a very natural interface for humans (even little ones).

    Haven’t taken it on work trips though. You are a brave man.

  2. Jonathan DuBois Says:

    Now that you’ve had it for a while, I’m curious to know how convenient you find the ipad for reading pdfs of journal articles.

    • Massimo Says:

      It’s actually excellent for that, in my opinion, these days I read articles practically only on my iPad … why, do you not like the way PDFs are rendered ? Do you use Papers ?

  3. Jonathan DuBois Says:

    I do tend to still print out many of the papers that I plan to read in full. When I do read on a computer I find it cumbersome to read if 1) the full page does not fit within the viewing area (as is the case on my netbook) 2) the text / image are too small and I am continually zooming in and out to get a better look at things 3) there is a noticeable lag when scrolling or paging through the article. I do not *yet) own and have not yet tried an ipad for this purpose so I’m curious to know how it measures up in these areas. After (rather limited) poking around online it seemed like there might be additional annoyances associated with simply getting the pdfs onto an ipad — some business about ‘converting’ to “epub” format or some such strangeness.

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