The laptop is not going away

Among the things I am attempting on the road here in Phoenix, Arizona (well, technically Mesa, Arizona) is to take my iPad out for an extended spin. Can I really use it instead of a laptop computer for mobile computing? The answer is, “It depends on what you are trying to do.”

If what you are trying to do is something fairly complicated, like write a blog post, you will miss having a laptop. You can technically peck away using the iPad’s on screen keyboard, but your experience is likely to be like mine. You will make plenty of mistakes and spend much of your time correcting your mistakes. In short, it’s not a viable means for doing any serious writing, at least not without a little help. Which is why I bought a Bluetooth keyboard (a Rocksoul model) with me. Combined, the iPad and the keyboard weigh much less than a laptop. But even with the keyboard, it doesn’t come close to being as usable a laptop.

In short, I don’t quite see tablet computers doing away with laptop computers. To be productive, ten years from now you will still want the convenience of a laptop computer when you travel. However, if your needs are simple, substituting a tablet computer for a laptop makes a certain amount of sense.

You can keep up on email easily enough on a tablet computer, but you will find it’s like using a Blackberry in that you will find plenty of incentive to keep your emails brief. Some things are arguably a better experience on a tablet computer. The iPad comes with a stripped down version of Safari as its web browser. The experience is making me something of a Safari fan. The downside is that there are no plug-ins or extensions that I can install, which means I am assaulted by advertising that I normally block out with the adBlock extension. On the other hand, simplicity is a virtue, and Safari does certain things very elegantly on the iPad, like intelligently reloading web pages.

The iPad may be a few years old, but it is really just beginning to mature. For example, there is no decent word processor for the iPad. Reportedly, Microsoft is working to port its Office suite to the iPad, which will be welcome. Meanwhile, you basically have the built-in Note application, which is very basic. No italics or bolding are possible. For composing a blog post though, it suffices although it is hardly ideal.

The iPad’s user interface is quite elegant, but hardly ideal. Designed for the finger as its pointing device, it is easy to miss selecting the right spot to edit. A stylus would be a useful addition. My wireless keyboard comes with a delete key, but there is no backspace key, which becomes very annoying. Easy methods of emulating the top, end, page up and page down buttons are also missing. Yes, you can use your fingers instead but it is more time consuming.

On the other hand the iPad is amazingly portable. Weighing a fraction of a laptop, it is easy to transport,  doesn’t anchor your briefcase yet renders resolution similar to a desktop monitor. The seven hour battery life is often longer in practice, particularly when in airplane mode. The newest laptops, like the new Macbook, also can survive as long unplugged, so this by itself is no longer a compelling reason to own an iPad. With 4G service, if you can afford it, you also get the convenience of Internet access virtually anywhere.

I also want to use my iPad as an electronic newspaper viewer. So far, I have not found it to be quite there, unless your expectations are modest. Newspaper sites keep trying to arrange content optimally for the iPad but with the newspapers apps I have tried it is clear they still have a way to go. The Washington Post app is a pretty good attempt to make content fit on an iPad, but they still leave so much out. Comics and classified are two glaring omissions. Without them you feel like you are missing something. Instead, you get selected contents in the newspaper. Perhaps the Post is waiting for enough readers to put those features behind a paywall. I confess when that happens I might cancel my print subscription. For traveling, the Post app is good enough to sort of feel like you got the gist of the newspaper experience.

Tablet computers thus hit a sweet spot, but do not fundamentally solve the portable computing issue. Doubtless much more money will be spent trying to close the gap. Most of us will live with their annoyances compared with a laptop or desktop computer while we are mobile, but be glad to swap in real keyboards and mice (mice allowing easier fine-tuned editing) when we need to be highly productive.