The Ups and Downs of Replacing a Notebook with an iPad

As I set off on a two week trip to Europe and the Caucuses, the reality of traveling without a notebook hit me in the Washington DC Dulles Airport when I checked my rather light carry-on. My notebook had been left behind in the rush to leave! Having traveled with a computer since the original Compaq luggable, I knew the trip was going to require some planning. Getting my computer, as a last minute effort, was out of the question so something else would need to be done.

The options I had were few:

  • Buy a new computer when I arrived
  • Get an iPad
  • Do nothing

The first one was ruled out quickly for two reasons: I have no need for another notebook at the office. In addition, the value of a computer is not so much for itself but the applications loaded on it. Trying to load applications while consumed with work efforts on the road was both impractical and impossible because some were only available in the office. The last option was rejected – something was needed. That left getting another iPad as I already have one.

I arrived in Barcelona for a conference a day in advance which allowed time to get an iPad and set it up. On arrival it was off to an Apple store and one was found in a large shopping mall. Apple store employees were helpful in resolving two issues: getting the iPad to register when I had no USB drive on a computer and setting up the iPad to work in English.

The Apple hardware was the same as one would get in the US except for the keyboard. When the iPad was setup for US English the keyboard mapped into this configuration but of course the printing on the keys remained that of the Spanish keyboard. There is one drawback of the Apple keyboard – it is poorly suited for travel as there is no way to protect the keys from the rigors of getting crushed in the luggage. This is the advantage of the Zaggmate keyboard which combines a case and keyboard.

Back in the hotel room I was left with making the iPad an acceptable solution. The most important function was writing and sending out a daily report. Apple’s Pages was selected. Google docs was considered but rejected do to its inability to work off-line on the iPad. Pages is just a simple touch based word processor. It has several drawbacks:

  • Rearward single character delete (backspace) is not supported
  • Doing corrections suffers from not being able to do precise text pointing like a mouse. Getting to the specific location can be difficult with large finger tips. Precision requires screen magnification which must then go back to normal to type again. Further, touch granularity is only to the word level. Yes, there is a magnify glass which provides some flexibility but this does not correct the issue above
  • The onscreen keyboard has no single space forward and back keys
  • Help is only available online
  • Some functions are not available, such as offsetting a block of text to the right, only tab

From an efficiency standpoint a keyboard is essential for writing. Given the limitations outlined above I consider Pages a 70% solution for my writing style. However, given my situation this was good enough.

iPad lacks an exposed file system. From a user’s perspective the device has no files but the one you are currently working on in that app. When it comes to file storage using the cloud, which is embedded in many apps, this suffers from the lack of a consistent interface and file architecture. In my exploration this is a marginal solution. There are apps, such as EverNote, which exploit its partial cloud solution for free, and provide a paid premium subscription to get more features. One should not have to pay for a file system, be it a cloud or not.

Given that my PC was still in the office getting access to it was critical. The virtual desktop application Jump was selected based on its ratings. Once set up this worked well. The one problem is that one must have a gmail account to use it. Jump also has screen size limitations that restricted what it would allow the iPad to display on the screen, yet one computer has a 2560 X 1600 display. Overall, putting a PC screen on the iPad allowed many tasks to be done that would have been impossible. The speed of the operations on the remote machine was directly related to the connectivity and frequently this was annoying due to the poor WiFi. However, since there was no alternative it worked.

On travel many pictures are taken and these can be downloaded to the iPad. A shortfall is that they cannot be organized into folders which then again should be moved to another device. There is an app for this called Photo-Sort but it was not tried in the short time available.

Connectivity is normally taken for granted. With the WiFi version of the iPad this is the only way to connect. On this trip, four hotels that I stayed at only provided wired connections in the rooms. Normally this is greeted with glee as WiFi is invariably less reliable than wired. The iPad is very much a cloud client. As a standalone device, for my needs, it suffers significantly.

It is hardly a negative for the iPad, but my experience during this trip was that the quality of the WiFi connection was good to terrible. Most notably the lack of a consistent connection was frustrating when the connectivity would drop in and out. In most cases it was not a signal level issue but either an outbound network or local saturation issue.

Frequently there was the need to capture this screen. In particular this applied to getting information from the browser. We only found one application which did this and the user reviews were poor. What is needed is a screen capture app that will work anytime, that is, with any application. The iOS may not permit this given the way its multitasking is structured.

In addition to writing reports while on travel, presentations are frequently created. This is clearly an area outside of the current domain of the iPad.

One task which the iPad did not do well on, is fax creation and transmission. On the PC I use RapidFax and it bridges the Internet to fax well. But nothing as effective was seen as an iPad application. This is another example where communicating between multiple applications with a file system is taken for granted, but the iPad fails.

Much has been made about the consumption productivity divide on tablet devices. The logic goes that the tablet form factor is a consumption device and only can a full PC, be it Microsoft Windows or Apple, can be a productivity device. This short experiment has shown that the tablet, in the iPad, is more than just for consumption. I was able to accomplish many of the normal PC operations I do while on travel. But the iPad does fall short. The critical issue is the lack an exposed file system. There are likely good reasons not to do this and platform security is a major one. But the tablet form factor needs the ability for applications to communicate together more than simple messages and that means the exchange of files. A cloud-based file system has promise but today’s implementation across many apps we looked at suffers.

I was frankly surprised at the lack of useful solutions in the app store. Having 300,000 applications means nothing when looking for a quality and robust screen capture app or a fax app.

Given the crisis I was in, the iPad saved the day. It also has important advantages over a PC. These include:

  • Superb form factor
  • Long operating life
  • It can do functions not suited to the PC such as eBooks

The iPad will travel with me in the future. However, there is no attachment to the device only what it can do. If better tablets emerge they could displace it. This is just the pace of technology. There is little doubt that the tablet will erode the position of the notebook as a mobility device. This crisis demonstrated that I could make do with a product which has been in the market less than a year, a significant accomplishment.

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