Is Apple's iPad any good for working on the go? We put the slate PC to the test on a five-day business trip

Apple's iPad will go on pre-order in the UK next week, and it's an under statement to say its highly anticipated.

The US was the first country to get its hands on the slate PC just over a month ago. In that time Apple has shifted one million of the devices.

I, myself am one of those one million that got an iPad.

I can do 90 percent of the computing tasks I need to do on the iPad.

I can use the web, check email, use Twitter and Facebook, and, most important, write.

Theoretically, I should be able to use it as my only computer for a short time.

As an experiment, I decided to see if I could use the iPad as a laptop replacement. Not forever - just while travelling.

I know the device isn't intended to replace a full-blown laptop, but that's what experimentation is all about, right?

NEXT PAGE: Weaknesses

  1. We put Apple's slate PC to the test
  2. Weaknesses
  3. Strange tools, missing apps
  4. Strengths
  5. Great for the hotel room

Is Apple's iPad any good for working on the go? We put the slate PC to the test on a five-day business trip

Weaknesses

While the idea of using my iPad on my business trip was exciting, it didn't take me long to hit some stumbling blocks.

Document incompatibility
My client asked me to put together a PowerPoint presentation for a meeting I'd be attending on the trip.

In theory, that should have been no problem: Keynote on the iPad, a presentation application, works with PowerPoint slide shows, and I should have been able to connect the iPad to a projector using the iPad VGA adapter and give my presentation.

That's the theory. In practice, it didn't work out.

My client sent me a PowerPoint deck to use as a template, asking me to design my presentation using the colours, fonts and formats that were in that deck.

But the template proved to be incompatible with the iPad.

It used the Dingbats font for some graphics, but the iPad doesn't support that font.

To preserve the formatting, I had to create the presentation using Keynote on my iMac and then borrow a laptop while at my destination to give the presentation.

I found out about the PowerPoint problem one business day before my trip started.

So the iPad experiment was a failure before it began. Before I even got on the plane, I knew I'd have to use a laptop some of the time.

Internet incompatibility
The client company and I used Google Wave as a backchannel discussion tool during our all-day meetings.

That was fun, and productive too. But Wave doesn't run on the iPad; it requires Chrome, Firefox or desktop Safari.

So I had to use my borrowed laptop to participate in the Wave.

I found the iPad's lack of Flash support to be a problem.

This is ironic, because it hadn't been a problem for me before the trip.

Sure, the lack of Flash support prevents me from playing a lot of online games and watching many online videos, but there are plenty of other games and videos that are iPad-compatible.

If I can't watch the video of the cat falling off the pool table, I'll watch the video of the cat falling off the coffee table.

However, the lack of Flash support was a problem for me on this trip, because I needed to post a blog that used Flash, specifically this one, which contains a Flash-based embedded MP3 player.

I needed to check to be sure the MP3 player worked after I published the blog.

To do that, I had to go down to my hotel business center and pay for five minutes to check the blog on one of the hotel's PCs.

And, frustratingly, when I got back to my home office the following week, I discovered the Flash on that blog still didn't work.

NEXT PAGE: Strange tools, missing apps

  1. We put Apple's slate PC to the test
  2. Weaknesses
  3. Strange tools, missing apps
  4. Strengths
  5. Great for the hotel room

Is Apple's iPad any good for working on the go? We put the slate PC to the test on a five-day business trip

Strange tool, missing apps
But the main problem I had with the iPad was that it wasn't the tool I'm accustomed to using.

I kept getting tripped up while performing everyday tasks. Here are a few examples:

  • The iPad doesn't have a file system like the Mac, where you save documents from different applications in a single pile.
    Instead, you mostly save documents inside the particular app that created them - Pages documents in Pages, for example - with some limited sharing between apps.
    It's a completely different way of storing and managing documents, and it takes some getting used to for people who are accustomed to doing things on a desktop computer.
  • In the iPad's web browser, you can't open a whole folder of bookmarks all at once like you can with desktop browsers.
  • When I do online banking or shopping, I like to save PDFs of receipts to my desktop. You can't save PDFs on the iPad.

More important, I have about a dozen applications on the iMac that I use all day, every day, to get things done.

Many, like Textmate, aren't available on the iPad. Others, like Things, are available but they work differently.

I do most of my work in plain text files. Before my trip, I wasn't able to find a decent text editor for the iPad.

There is one now - Simplenote for the iPad shipped in the US on April 26 - but that didn't help while I was travelling.

Most users have similarly indispensable tools that they use every day on their main computer but that aren't available on the iPad.

All five days I was relying on the iPad, I found myself reaching for programs and keyboard shortcuts that didn't exist on that machine.

And the syncing! The syncing will drive you crazy.

I used Dropbox and a thumb drive to make sure I had all the documents I needed with me. Getting all of that configured took hours before I left.

Hopefully, that's a one-time effort - next time I go on a trip, all of that will have already been configured - but I wouldn't have had to do it at all if I'd had a laptop computer as my main computer.

NEXT PAGE: Strengths

  1. We put Apple's slate PC to the test
  2. Weaknesses
  3. Strange tools, missing apps
  4. Strengths
  5. Great for the hotel room

Is Apple's iPad any good for working on the go? We put the slate PC to the test on a five-day business trip

Strengths

Using the iPad as my main computer wasn't all bad. The device has its strengths too.

Lightweight and convenient at airports and in the air
The iPad weighs just over half a kilo, and it's smaller than a large A4 notepad.

In comparison, the 15in MacBook Pro is 3.75 times heavier than the iPad, and it's bigger and bulkier too.

The iPad is easy to carry through the airport.

Because it's so small and light, and starts up immediately, it's easy to just whip it out and do a little work when you have a few minutes of downtime.

With a laptop computer, you have to find a place to sit and wait for it to boot up, but with the iPad, you're good to go in seconds.

The iPad is more comfortable than a laptop to use at the airport. I've never really liked balancing a notebook on my lap, but with an iPad, it seems natural.

It also fits on the tray table at your airplane seat much more easily than a full-size laptop does.

Also, when it's time to shut down and put away your electronic devices, you can do that in less than a second with the iPad.

Fantastic battery life and reliable connectivity
My travel took me halfway across the country, from San Diego to Iowa.

After 11 hours of hard (but not continuous) use on the trip out, including watching quite a bit of video, my iPad's battery still had a 36 percent charge on it.

A laptop computer would have been completely dead in half that time.

Although I don't have 3G connectivity on my iPad - I didn't find connectivity to be a problem.

I spent just about all of my time using the iPad on the trip in offices, hotels and airports, where you can count on finding Wi-Fi.

Still, I do recommend that if you want an iPad and haven't gotten one already, opt for the 3G model. But even us Wi-Fi-only users will be happy.

Amazingly, I was able to watch an entire streaming movie on Netflix on the plane ride home, using onboard Wi-Fi.

It was a Delta flight, and the 90 minute movie paused only twice, for a few seconds each time.

NEXT PAGE: Great for the hotel room

  1. We put Apple's slate PC to the test
  2. Weaknesses
  3. Strange tools, missing apps
  4. Strengths
  5. Great for the hotel room

Is Apple's iPad any good for working on the go? We put the slate PC to the test on a five-day business trip

Great for the hotel room
The iPad is much more comfortable than a laptop to use in a hotel room.

I've always hated working at hotel desks. The desk is always the wrong height, and I find sitting there for a long time to be depressing, maybe because the desk is always in front of a mirror and I spend hours staring at my own ugly mug.

With the iPad, it was easy to work sitting on the hotel room couch or propped up in bed. I think I was more productive because I was more comfortable.

The on-screen keyboard on the iPad was fine for tapping out a paragraph or so.

I used the Apple Wireless Keyboard a couple of times for longer writing stretches.

It's worth making room in your suitcase for this Bluetooth keyboard; it's small and light and it worked great - just as good as writing on the big iMac at home.

And the iPad really shone late at night, when it was time to read an e-book or watch some videos before retiring.

Conclusions

And so my little experiment concluded.

On the plus side, the iPad proved to be a lightweight powerhouse, useful in situations where a notebook computer is impractical.

On the minus side, it simply lacked the tools and versatility I needed to be able to rely on it as my only computer.

The iPad is no substitute for a laptop for even a few days - although I'm optimistic I can get by with just the iPad on short trips of one night or just a day.

I don't blame the iPad for the problems. I was trying to use it in a way it isn't meant to be used.

It's not a stand-alone computer; it's a companion to your main computer. If you want to do any serious work, you need a laptop or a desktop computer.

But the iPad is great for what it is - a tool to be used when accessing a laptop or desktop is impossible or inconvenient.

See also: 12 ways to improve the Apple iPad

  1. We put Apple's slate PC to the test
  2. Weaknesses
  3. Strange tools, missing apps
  4. Strengths
  5. Great for the hotel room