Thoughts on the iPad vs. MacBook

I mentioned the other day on Twitter that I’ve decided to give up trying to use my iPad as my sole machine when travelling… just doesn’t cut it. It was a comment that seemed to pick up a bit of interest (in terms of @mentions), so I thought it might be worth documenting why. More details over the fold…

I got the (1st gen) iPad for a couple of reasons — to learn about the differences between it and the iPhone from an interaction perspetive (as a designer of services that for mobile devices that was an important consideration), to trial it as a mobile device for the frequent uni trips to Melbourne that I do, and to trial it as a media device at home. After buying it, I’ve also considered how it might be used as a presentation and support device for client meetings.

My friend Michael forewarned me that it wasn’t suitable as a laptop replacement — that it was a bit of an “in between” device — so I went in with my eyes open. However, I was hopeful that even with the obvious limitations that I would be able to get by without having to take my laptop with me on many occasions.

I’ve since attempted to go “laptop free” on a couple of occasions, and by and large I’ve been left wanting. I’ve found that whenever I do so, I end up with a backlog of tasks that I have to follow-up when I get back to my “real” computer.

When I want to go laptop free and rely on the iPad I find I’m hit with a double-whammy:

  1. I have to plan a lot in advance to make sure that I have everything I need and how I’m going to use it to do what I need to do;
  2. I have to think about all the “work-arounds” I’m going to have to use to complete common tasks, that should be a lot simpler.

And if I don’t pre-emptively work all those things out, I’m often caught out when I’m on the road.

Probably the biggest single issue I’ve found is the lack of a true file system. The Dropbox app is essential in this regard (I would be completely lost without it), but even with this there’s a lot that I can’t do. For example, you can’t do something as basic as email a file to someone (you can email a link from Dropbox, but that opens up that file to the public to do so). And you can’t attach files to a web-form from Dropbox, or upload to Basecamp etc. from the iPad, making it very difficult to do what should be a simple task.

To provide an illustrative example of why this is a PITA — if I have a PDF I want to read and annotate, I have to:

  • Make sure I copy the document to my Dropbox on my laptop (and sync to the server)
  • Download the document using the Dropbox iPad app or iAnnotate PDF app
  • If I open in Dropbox, I have to “Open with…” to get the file into iAnnotate PDF
  • I can then read and annotate the document (albeit with a subset of the annotation features available in Preview, the simple PDF viewer/editor provided with Mac OS X)
  • I have to then “flatten” the PDF in iAnnotate PDF ready for sharing (the annotation format of iAnnotate is not natively/completely compatible with that in Preview or Acrobat)
  • If I’ve opened in iAnnotate PDF using the in-built Dropbox functionality, I can choose to save back to Dropbox directly (however, as the file has been downloaded by iAnnotate PDF, if I move the file in Dropbox this change is not reflected in iAnnotate PDF)
  • If I opened via the Dropbox app, or I want to save the document with a different name (e.g. to keep the original and marked up versions as separate files), I have to email it to myself for downloading back to Dropbox when I’m back at my main computer (as I can’t simply “Save” the document to Dropbox)

If that sounds cumbersome, that’s because it is. And this is a very simple operation, probably a couple of seconds, on the laptop that requires a couple of minutes of wrangling on the iPad.

And more often than not you can’t save a file back to Dropbox if you need to make an edit — while a number of applications that I use (like iA Writer and iAnnotate PDF) have Dropbox integration, the implementations often leave a bit to be desired and I find I end up having to email myself stuff all the time. If you want to save a PDF of webpage or other document, you can’t.

My good friend Kristian asked if the up-coming release of the iPad’s operating system, iOS5 would address some of my concerns. From what I’ve read, though, this core issue is not likely to be resolved.

Editing text in web apps is a terrible experience — simple things like the Safari browser doesn’t provide swipe-scroll for text areas. This means that in practice I have to copy text from the textbox into iA Writer (which is much nicer for editing text), do the edit, then copy the text back to the text area. This applies as much for editing a blog post to a wiki to a Basecamp Writeboard (the collaborative document editing tool within Basecamp).

Other apps like Things for iPad, my chosen Todo application, are yet to introduce cloud-based sync, which means I have to sync before I leave and once I get back when my iPad is on the same wifi network as my laptop. Cloud sync is coming to Things, but it’s still a few months off. This isn’t the iPad’s fault, but still an issue in practice.

Apps like Outpost (for Basecamp) don’t support Writeboards, which means having to switch to a browser for this one task (only to experience that textbox editing issue I mentioned earlier). It’s also then cumbersome to get the Writeboard address to paste into an email/Basecamp message. The WordPress app has a terrible text editor that doesn’t support HTML very well. The default Apple keyboard is interminable for editing HTML (try accessing the < and > characters to write a simple tag in a text editor on the iPad). And switching between apps, for example to copy & paste content from one to the other, is quite cumbersome also.

The promise of Keynote for iPad is quite strong. But as it doesn’t support anything but a small number of pre-defined fonts, I’d need to reformat all of our corporate template-based presentations to use a standard font to work on the iPad. And even then the process to get Keynote files into the iPad, via iTunes, is cumbersome (and very manual). Getting screenshots and other images into Keynote, and the lack of grids/rulers etc. also mean that editing content in Keynote will always be a limited affair.

This has meant that more often than not I end up having to take my laptop either instead or as well as my iPad. So, after one trip too many of being caught out without the tools I needed to get the job done, I’m going to stop trying to make the iPad do what it doesn’t, and instead I’m going to switch to a MacBook Air as my primary machine (probably the 13″). It has the lightness of the iPad, but with all the features and functionality I need.

Don’t get me wrong, I do like the iPad for what it does well. It is my device of choice for reading PDFs and longer formatted documents — with both the laptop and iPad at hand, I’ll grab the iPad to do that kind of reading. I adore the Reeder and Pulse for RSS. Viewing photos (from iPhoto) is also great. I love the form-factor and lightness/portability. It is nice to use on a train for viewing/reading content. In essence, it’s a fantastic media consumption device — great for watching videos, quickly checking emails (and perhaps writing a quick reply, which is slightly nicer on the iPad than it is on the iPhone, but not by much).

I’ve seen folks like Kevin Crouse and Andrew Perry use it quite effectively as a primary device, so I think with good planning and exploration to work out work-arounds and changes to usage habits it can become a laptop replacement. But in my experience and circumstance, it simply doesn’t work for me.

  • Yep, I hear you. One development that is looking like it will tip in favour of the ‘iPad as primary device’ is the fact that my work is now trialling virtual desktop over citrix (I’m in the pilot group). I’ve been playing with this on my iPhone and my Mac at home and am amazed at how many of the ‘heavy lifting’ tasks I can get done through the citrix environment (access to enterprise apps, intranets, etc, as well as access to a full email client and filesystem with standard desktop apps like Word, PowerPoint and Excel). Of course, I’m still hanging out for the next iPad release …or rather, hanging out for the next *announcement* to decide whether I wait or not.

    …mind you, I guess all of the above would still be do-able (and possibly more so) on a MacBook Air. Decisions, decisions…

  • It does depend on what type of work you do but I get the distinct feeling many of the people I see trying to use an iPad as their primary ‘production’ device are really suffering for their art – they are the digital equivalent of a pair of stilettos. It looks shit hot but not very practical…

    I have an iPad2 and it is very convenient and the ultimate consumption device, but up against my MBP with an SSD in it, there’s no comparison for when I need to get ‘real’ work done. For traveling I think an 11″ Air would be the duck’s guts, especially now they have Thunderbolt.

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