On the road with the iPad: Can you leave the laptop home?

Apple's iPad is put to the test on a five-day business trip

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Strange tool, missing apps

But the main problem I had with the iPad was that it wasn't the tool I'm accustomed to using. I kept getting tripped up while performing everyday tasks. Here are a few examples:

  • The iPad doesn't have a file system like the Mac, where you save documents from different applications in a single pile. Instead, you mostly save documents inside the particular app that created them -- Pages documents in Pages, for example -- with some limited sharing between apps. It's a completely different way of storing and managing documents, and it takes some getting used to for people who are accustomed to doing things on a desktop computer.
  • In the iPad's Web browser, you can't open a whole folder of bookmarks all at once like you can with desktop browsers.
  • When I do online banking or shopping, I like to save PDFs of receipts to my desktop. You can't save PDFs on the iPad.

More important, I have about a dozen applications on the iMac that I use all day, every day, to get things done. Many, like Textmate, aren't available on the iPad. Others, like Things, are available but they work differently.

I do most of my work in plain text files. Before my trip, I wasn't able to find a decent text editor for the iPad. There is one now -- Simplenote for the iPad shipped April 26 -- but that didn't help while I was traveling.

Most users have similarly indispensable tools that they use every day on their main computer but that aren't available on the iPad. All five days I was relying on the iPad, I found myself reaching for programs and keyboard shortcuts that didn't exist on that machine.

And the syncing! The syncing will drive you crazy. I used Dropbox and a thumb drive to make sure I had all the documents I needed with me. Getting all of that configured took hours before I left. Hopefully, that's a one-time effort -- next time I go on a trip, all of that will have already been configured -- but I wouldn't have had to do it at all if I'd had a notebook computer as my main computer.

Strengths

Using the iPad as my main computer wasn't all bad. The device has its strengths too.

Lightweight and convenient at airports and in the air

The iPad weighs just 1.5 pounds, and it's smaller than a legal pad. In comparison, the 15-inch MacBook Pro is 3.75 times heavier than the iPad, and it's bigger and bulkier too.

The iPad is easy to carry through the airport. Because it's so small and light, and starts up immediately, it's easy to just whip it out and do a little work when you have a few minutes of downtime. With a notebook computer, you have to find a place to sit and wait for it to boot up, but with the iPad, you're good to go in seconds.

The iPad is more comfortable than a laptop to use at the airport. I've never really liked balancing a notebook on my lap, but with an iPad, it seems natural. It also fits on the tray table at your airplane seat much more easily than a full-size laptop does.

Also, when it's time to shut down and put away your electronic devices, you can do that in less than a second with the iPad.

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