Back from a week out of country, I confirmed a theory: the iPad makes a fantastic travel computer. So much so that I'm going to be selling my laptop.
For the last five years I've lived out of an Apple laptop, starting with a 12-inch Powerbook and culminating in my current first-gen unibody MacBook Pro. They've become my desktop machines, as well, although I've typically kept a Windows machine around for gaming and for general Windowsing. Sometimes I'd stitch them together with Synergy, then I found myself using my laptop and an external monitor exclusively. Recently, when I found a refurb quadcore iMac at the Apple store, I replaced my laptop and my Windows box both with a single machine and hadn't touched my MacBook Pro since.
Heading out of country to do some reporting last week, I realized that I had to make a decision: fire up the laptop again and carry all five pounds of it through multiple flights on turboprop puddle jumpers, or take a leap of faith that I could do everything I needed to do with the iPad.
I went with the iPad. I'm glad I did. It worked splendidly.
While I've complained that the iPad is about a half-pound too heavy for its role as a multi-thing around the house, compared to a laptop it's a bantamweight. Inside my sassy Commie shoulder bag, it barely even registered. (That bag was also handy for boarding passes and other sundries.)
Thanks to the vagaries of TSA policy, the iPad doesn't have to be removed from a bag during screening. That makes the screening as pleasant as a superfluous security rimming can be. I've never made it through a TSA line more efficiently.
What computing does one do on the road? My needs are admittedly more modest than many business travels. My only two critical functions are being able to write and save text and, when internet avails, check my email.
For the words, I used the iPad's built-in Notes app, which has a juvenile design, but worked perfectly well for saving a few thousand words of notes for later parsing on my home computer. For the actual typing, I brought along an Apple Bluetooth keyboard. (Something I think is about as close to design perfection as a thing can be.) There were a few moments where the keyboard seemed to flake out, strangely on a per-app basis. Notes never failed me, but the official AIM app stopped recognizing the return key after a while.
Bluetooth keyboard support still doesn't feel completely thought out on the iPad, but it suffices.
For long typing sessions, I found myself putting the keyboard on my lap while placing the iPad off to the side—sometimes not even in direct eyeshot. For longer writing, there's a sort of freedom that comes from not even looking at the screen while you type. (My friend Quinn Norton said that on longer writing jags, she sometimes uses her wireless keyboard in a completely different room from her computer, a sort of modern twist on the big-keyboard-tiny-screen experience of early laptops like the Epson HX-20, which were for years favored by some journalists even as laptops with larger screens were commonplace.)
Editing large amounts of text with lots of cutting-and-pasting might be awkward, if manageable. But for a straight-ahead input machine, the iPad did the job as expected.
I did miss the soothing phospheresque green-on-black of my beloved Writeroom text editor, though. The upcoming iPad Universal upgrade can't come soon enough.
Beyond mere typing, I had hoped to use the iPad as a backup for my photos and videos from my new Canon T2i, but the official Camera Connection Kit is nowhere to be found. I ordered one from Apple, but it is at least a month backordered. It would have been great not just to use the iPad as backup for my images, but to preview them on its larger screen. (I was even shooting video at 720p in the hope that it would be viewable without a transcode.)
Nothing about this story is inherently all that shocking. More or less I just told you: "I used an iPad." But the real-life experience hammered home how useful this form factor really is, primarily because of its ridiculously good battery life.
I went nearly 24 hours without charging my iPad, watching four hours of video, reading books for a couple of hours, getting in a few rounds of Strategery, and still had a bit less than half of my battery life left when I hit the ground three planes later. That longevity changes the experience profoundly, more than making up for the iPad's deficiencies for me. Except for editing video, there's not a single thing in my workflow that I can't do on the iPad, and I haven't even begun to experiment using VNC or other screen sharing tools to connect back to my iMac to access its "real" computing power.
Naturally, what works for me may not work for you. I'm not advocating that everyone ditch their laptops immediately. There are plenty of tasks a touch tablet just doesn't do as well as a traditional laptop. (Can someone tell me how to use Numbers for iPad without crying a little bit? Triple-clicking selective click-and-hold-for-context maybe-this-drags made my lip quiver.)
But I returned from this trip convinced that this form factor has legs. (And everything I came to appreciate about the iPad's merit as a travel computer should apply to Android and WebOS tablets, if and when those actually make it to market with a consumer-friendly level of UX refinement.) Since I have a power-guzzling traditional computer on my desktop to do all the heavy lifting when I'm home, I don't see a place for my laptop in my life right now. I had an inkling that might have been the case when I bought my iPad, but I had to take a leap of faith to be sure.
Anybody want to buy a five-pound iPad without a touchscreen? You have to take it out during airport screening and it only runs for about two hours, but its keyboard is attached.
Image: Clamcase's prototype iPad case, which turns the iPad into a convertible laptop-a-like. I'm dubious—will I have to take it out for screening?—but it's not as a ridiculous an idea as I'd once thought.
Counterpoint: "For instance, if you're using a hardware keyboard with the iPad very often, you'd probably be much better served by a MacBook Air." [Marco Ament]