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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Fantastic battery life and reliable connectivity

My travel took me halfway across the country, from San Diego to Iowa. After 11 hours of hard (but not continuous) use on the trip out, including watching quite a bit of video, my iPad's battery still had a 36% charge on it. A notebook computer would have been completely dead in half that time.

Although I don't have 3G connectivity on my iPad -- the Wi-Fi + 3G model came out just yesterday -- I didn't find connectivity to be a problem. I spent just about all of my time using the iPad on the trip in offices, hotels and airports, where you can count on finding Wi-Fi.

Still, I do recommend that if you want an iPad and haven't gotten one already, opt for the 3G model. It costs only $130 more than the Wi-Fi model (starting price, $629 for the Wi-Fi + 3G iPad) and you can get connectivity from AT&T starting at $15 per month, with no contract required. If you don't use the 3G, you don't have to pay the monthly fee. Think of the $130 surcharge as connectivity insurance.

But even us Wi-Fi-only users will be happy. Amazingly, I was able to watch an entire streaming movie on Netflix on the plane ride home, using onboard Wi-Fi. It was a Delta flight, and the 90-minute movie paused only twice, for a few seconds each time. (The movie, by the way, was The Man From Earth; I highly recommend it.)

Great for the hotel room

The iPad is much more comfortable than a notebook to use in a hotel room. I've always hated working at hotel desks. The desk is always the wrong height, and I find sitting there for a long time to be depressing, maybe because the desk is always in front of a mirror and I spend hours staring at my own ugly mug.

With the iPad, it was easy to work sitting on the hotel room couch or propped up in bed. I think I was more productive because I was more comfortable.

The on-screen keyboard on the iPad was fine for tapping out a paragraph or so. I used the Apple Wireless Keyboard a couple of times for longer writing stretches. It's worth making room in your suitcase for this Bluetooth keyboard; it's small and light and it worked great -- just as good as writing on the big iMac at home.

And the iPad really shone late at night, when it was time to read an e-book or watch some videos before retiring. I watched the pilot episode of The Rockford Files on the Netflix app, and also an episode of Cougartown on the ABC Player.

Conclusions

And so my little experiment concluded. On the plus side, the iPad proved to be a lightweight powerhouse, useful in situations where a notebook computer is impractical.

On the minus side, it simply lacked the tools and versatility I needed to be able to rely on it as my only computer. The iPad is no substitute for a laptop for even a few days -- although I'm optimistic I can get by with just the iPad on short trips of one night or just a day.

I don't blame the iPad for the problems. I was trying to use it in a way it isn't meant to be used. It's not a stand-alone computer; it's a companion to your main computer. If you want to do any serious work, you need a laptop or a desktop computer. But the iPad is great for what it is -- a tool to be used when accessing a notebook or desktop is impossible or inconvenient.

I'm ordering a MacBook Pro this week.

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media marketing consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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