Can an iPad replace your laptop?

In Tech Consulting by Steve Wilkinson16 Comments


That is a question I have been considering, not too long after the announcement of Apple’s new iPad product-line. Initially, I had been in the camp hoping the new tablet would be some kind of OSX device. While I would still love to see such a device, it is also apparent that one would sacrifice battery life even if it were considerably slower than my current laptop. Slower I could deal with, less battery life I can not. iPhone OS was clearly the way to go for a device of this size/weight.

First a bit of a review:

The iPad has some distinct advantages. First, it leads to much longer battery life. Apple is stating 10 hours of Web surfing or watching video. I’m guessing that if you’re doing less intensive stuff it will go considerably longer. However, 10 hours is enough for most people to be able to charge over-night and not have to worry about lugging a power-brick and cord (like laptop users must). That saves more weight.

Second, this thing is small and light:

  • Height: 9.56 inches (242.8 mm)
  • Width: 7.47 inches (189.7 mm)
  • Depth: 0.5 inch (13.4 mm)
  • Weight: 1.5 pounds (0.68 kg)

I probably don’t need to say much more about this. We all want to lug less weight around with us. My current laptop (2006 MacBook Pro) weighs in at like 6.7 pounds when I include the power-brick (that’s the smaller one now available,the original would push it over 7 pounds) and cord. Even if I add an external Bluetooth keyboard for the iPad (about 14 ounces), I’d still be under 2.5 pounds (which is still less than a MacBook Air).

Then there is stuff like instant on/off. You push the power button… it’s ready to go, push it again, it’s ready to be put away. Believe it or not, this makes a big difference when you’re on the go and want to just take down a quick note or look something up. Similar is not having to open it up and find a place to set it down. Imagine trying to look something up on your laptop while standing on a train or bus, hanging onto the bar with one hand. I can easily do this with my iPod Touch, and I’d guess I could with the iPad without too much more trouble. It would require some gymnastics with a laptop. But these things are also handy when in a more casual meeting where everyone doesn’t have the laptops out and setup, and then you need some info or to jot a note down. A laptop is much more hassle and disruptive to the flow of things. I also like having the ability to use a virtual keyboard or real one (and when I say real one, I’m not talking about an undersized one you’d find on a netbook). The touch interface is excellent for these situations as well.

There are a few downsides:

– CPU power – Obviously, it doesn’t have the computing power of a laptop.

– Interface – It doesn’t have all the connectors like USB and ethernet (though it has WiFi and optional cellular data).

– Storage – It doesn’t have the storage capacity of a laptop with a hard-drive.

– Camera – They left the web-cam off which would be nice for video-conferencing. (I’m going to guess the 2nd generation will, if you can wait that long.)

– Multi-tasking – It doesn’t have full OSX-like (or Windows-like) multi-tasking…. yet. But, even so, really think about what you need that for when doing mobile type stuff. I mainly want to have IM open while doing something else… it can do that. Or, listen to music while I work on other stuff… it can do that. Have a VoIP call open while I look something up… can’t do, yet. I’m hoping they will open up the multi-tasking a bit to allow this to happen, and I think Jobs has already alluded to their doing so. But, that isn’t a deal-killer for me.

Other reported downsides (or disappointments) and my responses:

– No hand-writing recognition – I just don’t get this one. I assume these people have never used it and just think it would be cool or useful. I suppose for a few it could, but to the rest… learn to type! There is no way a person could handwrite such that it could be recognized at a rate anywhere near what someone could type… even on a virtual keyboard, let alone a real one.

– lack of 4G – I guess this is valid, though I’m thinking of taking that external anyway with something like a MiFi or Overdrive unless the plan is VERY cheap (in Canada). I also don’t want a plan for each device, and with MiFi, I could use any device (as well as others with me) on one plan. I also save the additional cost of the 3G model then.

– lack of Flash – I don’t want to get into this one too much. There is a big political aspect to it, and I think Apple is trying to push web standards over stuff like Flash (which I agree with them on). However, there is also a very practical side. Flash sucks! Battery, but also in its instability.

But, can it replace a laptop?

First, I need to make it clear that for most people, this will be a ‘second computer’. It isn’t going to replace the OSX or Windows desktop, for example. I’m talking about laptops for mobile work here.

The real answer to this question is going to be different for everyone. If you need to do things like Photoshop, CAD, etc. while you’re mobile, than obviously not very likely (though there will undoubtedly be those kinds of apps eventually… but unlikely for serious work). I suspect, though, that most people will be able to cover the kinds of things they do with the iPad. What does a typical person do anyway? Check their calendar and make appointments, address book, surf, e-mail, instant message, maybe VoIP. They use word processing, take notes (in class or meetings), spreadsheet, and presentations. The iPad can do all these things. I know when I learned that it has video out, and the ability to present Keynote presentations, I was pretty sold!

What I recommend is that you start making a list of things you do while you’re mobile, and especially note things you ever find yourself doing that you wouldn’t be able to do on the iPad, or things which would be difficult to do on it. Maybe rank them as to how important it is, or if it was something you think you’d seldom have to do or have to do a lot. This way you can make a clear decision when it is released. You may well find some show-stopper, but I have not yet.

The iPad also has some other benefits, even around home. Have you ever tried to use a laptop while laying in bed? This thing will allows me to read books or surf the Web in very relaxed locations a laptop just won’t. A laptop isn’t that nice at the park or a beach… though it will remain to be seen how the screen does in those environments (that might be the one big Kindle advantage for e-books). This is really geeky, but I was thinking it would even fit into our recipe holder on the kitchen counter… try that with a laptop!

I also think it would be nice for families that currently have more than one computer. You could have a desktop with multiple accounts for the heavy-lifting, and then iPads (which are cheaper than laptops) for individual use so desktop-time isn’t always being fought over.

Ultimately, it might be harder to decide what to do with your iPhone or iPod Touch than your laptop. I think I would still need to take my iPod touch along, as the iPad won’t make a good iPod in a lot of ways. It won’t just fit into my pocket and be easily accessible for my music playing like the iPod is. I take my iPod to the grocery store, for example, and the iPad would be just too much for that. But, it also seems a bit silly and redundant to have both.