It's a question we're often asked: should I buy a laptop or an iPad. So here we'll address the relative merits of iPads and laptops. Laptops vs iPads, buy the right one for you. (Based on an original article by Jim Martin.)
Can an iPad replace your old PC or laptop? What are the limitations of the iPad? We'll answer these and more questions in this iPad vs laptops piece. You can also use this guide if you're considering another tablet as, for the most part, the same principles apply. But do remember that not all tablets are equal. For more general tablets buying advice check out our tablet reviews and Which tablet should I buy?
The iPad is not a replacement for a laptop. Tablets are good at many things, but their abilities are a subset of a laptop's. You can't, for example, burn a music CD to listen to in the car, or a DVD of your latest home movie. It isn't particularly easy to print from an iPad, either, although it is possible in some apps (you can print an email, a document or a web page if you have a compatible printer).
In short, you will still need a laptop or a PC in your life as a backup in case you find you can't do something on your iPad. But if web browsing, watching movies and Facebook are your thing you may just be okay.
Tablets: the iPad advantage
iPad vs laptop: Battery life
Chances are, your laptop needs to be plugged in most of the time as its battery lasts only an hour or two. With an iPad, you'll be freed from the mains all day, since it will last for at least eight (if not 10 or 12) hours of constant use. If you're considering an Android tablet, check the manufacturer's claimed battery life or our reviews as some tablets last for a much shorter time between charges.
There is one update to this - the latest generation of Intel 4th-generation Core processors offer much improved laptop battery life. So much so that a brand new Ultrabook could offer up to 14 hours of battery life. But this is very much the exception in the laptop world, and a new Ultrabook would likely set you back a lot more than would an iPad. See also: iPad mini vs Nexus 7 2 comparison review.
iPad vs laptop: Portability and comfort
A tablet is also much lighter and more portable than all but the most svelte (and expensive) laptop, so you really can take it everywhere with you. It's more comfortable to sit and use an iPad, it doesn't get too warm and there are no fans, unlike most laptops whose high-pitched fans can drive you to distraction.
iPad vs laptop: Instant on and connected standby
Yet another advantage is that an iPad doesn't take minutes to boot up: it's ready to go instantly, so it's quick to check email and Facebook, or the weather forecast or TV listings.
When you press the power button, it goes into standby, but remains connected to the internet so you'll hear alerts when you receive emails, Facebook messages or when other events happen. You don't have to turn it on to find out if you've missed something.
This is something that both Windows 8 and the latest Intel processors are addressing, so again the very latest, best Ultrabooks can offer something approaching the iPad's performance in this respect. But we really are talking about the exception rather than the laptop rule. See also: iPad 2 vs iPad 3 comparison review.
iPad vs laptop: Touchscreen interface
If you've not used a touchscreen much, you may well think that it can't replace a keyboard and mouse. There are certainly some elements where a keyboard and mouse are quicker, but you'd be surprised at how fast you can type on the iPad's virtual, on-screen keyboard.
If you make a mistake, the built-in auto-correct feature will likely put things right - it will even add punctuation for you. Buy the new iPad, and you'll get voice dictation so you needn't type much at all. The system doesn't require any training unlike older voice-recognition systems. You simply speak and the words (and punctuation if you dictate it) appear before your eyes. As long as you don't have a strong regional accent, accuracy is very good.
The iPad's interface is, in general, hugely intuitive. Aside from a few hidden options in apps, everything works as you expect it to, so it's easy to attach a photo you just took to an email or Facebook post, or upload a video to YouTube.
Of course some laptops come with touchscreens, but still relatively few (and in most cases you still require a keyboard and touchpad for most tasks).
iPad vs laptop: Apps
Apps is simply a new word for programs, and is short for applications. Built-in apps include a YouTube viewer, web browser, email, calendar, photo and video viewer, weather forecast, maps, notepad and reminders. Many apps, such as a calculator and timer, are freely available via the App Store.
What you don't get is a Microsoft-office equivalent, but you can download Pages (like Word), Numbers (like Excel) and Keynote (PowerPoint) for £6.99 each. Many apps, though, cost just a pound or two, including Apple's own iMovie which is great for editing videos you've taken on the built-in camera, and iPhoto, for editing photos you've taken.
There are hundreds of thousands of apps to choose between, and there's bound to be one that does the task you need. Apple's App Store is one of the most compelling reasons to choose the iPad over another tablet as developers tend to launch apps for the iPad first, then Android, and then the other operating systems. This is why it's not a great idea to buy a BlackBerry PlayBook if you like the sound of installing all these apps. Not only are they rather thin on the ground in the BlackBerry AppWorld, they're also more expensive.
iPad vs laptop: The laptop advantage
Laptop vs iPad: Storage
Buy a new laptop today, and you'll probably get a hard drive with 10 times more storage than an iPad. It's easy to add more storage, too. External hard disks are cheap, and you can buy portable versions which will slip into a bag.
The iPad has no way of adding storage, so you're effectively stuck with the capacity you buy. The smallest has 16GB, and the largest is currently 64GB. There are ways around this limit, but none are entirely satisfactory. You can sign up for a cloud storage service such as Dropbox, Google Drive or even Apple's own iCloud, but when files aren't stored locally on the iPad itself they can be slow to load or in the wrong format, so will need converting first.
Laptop vs iPad: File formats
This brings us neatly to compatibility. Laptops are great because, with the right software, they can display or play almost any file. The iPad is much more restrictive and requires videos, for example, to be in MP4 (H.264) format before they'll play. It means you might have to convert files before you can play them, which could be more hassle than you're willing to accept.
For photos and music, the iPad supports the common JPG and MP3 formats, so these aren't a problem for most people.
Transferring files to the iPad has to be done via iTunes, not Windows Explorer. This lack of drag-and-drop support is initially a bit frustrating, but it's absent for a reason: a good user experience. Filtering everything through iTunes means you won't end up in a situation where you've transferred a video, say, and you're sitting on a plane only to find that your tablet doesn't support it and you've got nothing to watch.
Which iPad should I buy?
Assuming you decide the iPad's limitations are outweighed by its advantages (which they are), you need to make a choice. In fact, three choices. See also: Apple iPad 4 review.
The first is whether you want to be able to get online when you're out and about. If you do, you'll want to buy the 4G version of the new iPad (3G for older versions). It's £100 more than the equivalent model without a micro SIM slot.
Next, you have to work out how much memory you'll need. Here, the old rule 'get the best you can afford' applies. Apple charges steeply for more memory, so the Wi-Fi only 16GB version is £80 cheaper than the 32GB model, which itself is £80 cheaper than the 64GB model.
For those who want a smaller iPad there's the iPad mini to consider. This is a 7in tablet, so it's roughly the same size as an eReader. Ideal for those who wish for a more portable iPad. See also: iPad mini review: the best 8 inch tablet around?
Black and White ipads
Finally, you'll have to choose whether to go for a black or white iPad. That's a decision we can't help you with!