How the iPad 2 Became My Favorite Computer

Can the iPad replace a PC?

Ever since Apple announced its tablet nearly two years ago, the Internet has been awash in discussion of this question. Most of it has had a pretty theoretical feel and has gravitated towards conventional wisdom. A piece by Gotta Be Mobile’s Will Shanklin comes to the typical conclusions:

Whether you can replace your laptop with an iPad is going to depend on what your needs are. In early 2010, casual computer users could arguably replace a laptop with an iPad. Now it’s a no-brainer. When it comes to content consumption, a tablet is lighter, more portable, more comfortable, and more personal.

If part of your life involves creating professional-level content, tablets still have a long way to go before becoming your primary device. They don’t qualify now, and they won’t next year. Customers aren’t used to spending more than $10 for most tablet apps, so those consumer expectations could slow the march in this direction too.

The answer, therefore, hasn’t changed too much in a year. Tablets are moving in a “primary computing” direction, but they aren’t exactly sprinting. Maybe we’ll check back next year to see if the “tablets are for content consumption, notebooks are for content creation” cliche has changed. Right now it’s as true as ever.

I respectfully disagree with Shanklin. I think it’s possible to use an iPad as one’s primary device for professional-level content creation. Actually, scratch that. I’m positive it’s possible -- because I’ve been doing it for the past three months, and I’ve been having a really good time.

My iPad 2 and ZaggFolio, in the press room at IFA in Berlin, September 2011.

This hasn’t been one of those experiments-for-the-sake-of-experimentation in which someone temporarily forsakes a PC for another device in order to write about the experience (like, say, this). No, I’ve been using the iPad for my daily activities–running Technologizer, writing for TIME, CNET, and AllBusiness.com, and more -- because I find it to be the preferable tool in multiple respects. I’ve been using it about 80 percent of the time, and using my MacBook Air about 20 percent of the time. I have no desire to go back.

If this startles you, I understand. It seems to startle most folks who notice I’m doing it. I’m startled myself. Or at least I was at first -- at this point, I’ve been doing it long enough that I forget there’s anything unusual about it until someone reminds me.

Add a Keyboard

It all started in August. I read Walt Mossberg’s review of four portable Bluetooth keyboards for the iPad 2 at All Things D and was intrigued -- especially by the ZaggFolio, which cleverly builds a truly notebook-like keyboard into an attractive case. So I bought one. The ZaggFolio changed the way I use my iPad, and that changed my life.

Without the ZaggFolio, I used the iPad mostly for reading and light productivity. I’d happily type brief e-mails on it, but never anything as long as a meaty blog post or article. But Zagg’s no-compromise keyboard made typing every bit as comfy as it is on a notebook. All of a sudden I could write hundreds of words on the iPad. Or thousands of them.

(Side note: The ZaggFolio I bought was part of an early production run that was defective -- its clasp didn’t shut securely. And after a few weeks, one of its keys fell off. I ended up replacing it with the “Logitech Keyboard Case by Zagg for iPad 2,” which puts a similar keyboard in a low-profile tray that doubles as a protector for the iPad 2′s screen. I prefer both of these models to rivals such as the Adonit Writer which don’t match the full-sized, full-travel goodness of Zagg’s designs.)

Blogsy, my go-to iPad blogging app.

Of course, having a nice keyboard for an iPad doesn’t instantly turn it into a pleasing laptop replacement. You’re typing into a radically different set of apps than are available on a notebook. Once I got the ZaggFolio, I had to figure out how to blog, edit photos, and perform other tasks I do every day.

I was just getting started with this challenge when I hopped on a plane to fly to Berlin, where I was attending the IFA electronics show. I took my iPad 2, the ZaggFolio, and my MacBook Air. It was during this trip that the iPad became my primary computing device, even though I was still learning how to be productive with it.

And it was one specific thing about the iPad that made it so useful on the trip: I could use it for ten hours at a pop without worrying about plugging it in.

I can’t overemphasize how important this is to my particular workdays. Even when I’m not traveling, I spend a lot of time bopping around San Francisco and the Bay Area, attending conferences, visiting tech companies, working out of hotel lobbies, and generally having spotty access to power outlets. With the Air, or almost any other portable computer I’ve ever used, I’m lucky to get three or four hours of life out of a charge, and therefore have to bring my power brick and obsess about plugging in whenever possible. It’s an enormous hassle, and sometimes I simply run out of juice.

With the iPad, I didn’t even bother to bring the power adapter to the IFA show: I worked all day, going online as much as I wanted, without fully draining the battery. I ended up only using the MacBook Air in my hotel room.

Beyond the jaw-droppingly good battery life, my iPad 2 has one other hardware attribute that’s a huge upgrade over the Air: It has AT&T wireless broadband built in. There are PCs with embedded wireless, of course, but not Macs. And even though I’ve used both the Air and iPads with Mi-Fi mobile routers in the past, I like the built-in wireless on my particular iPad much, much better than any external connectivity solution. I don’t have to worry about toting another device (or draining my phone’s battery, as I would if I tethered it to the iPad). I don’t have to futz with Wi-Fi hotspots. I’m just online -- and it makes me so much more productive that I don’t object a bit to paying AT&T for the service. (I even happily forked over a stiff fee for international roaming in Berlin and during a later trip I took to Tokyo.)

Okay: The Zagg keyboards are good. The iPad’s battery life is good. Its built-in broadband is good. I quickly discovered yet another simple joy of using the iPad as a blogging/writing tool: Its utter predictability and simplicity.

Tasks at Hand

When you use a Windows PC -- and, to a somewhat lesser extent, a Mac -- you get dragged down by the responsibilities and obligations of using a computer. Even if you’re very familiar with a program, you need to bob and weave your way around icons and menu items you don’t require at the moment to get to the ones you do need. Programs other than the one you’re using may vie for your attention, possibly alerting you, for instance, that they need to be updated. You might have to rummage around in folders to find documents. When you multitask between apps, you need to juggle their windows, maximizing or minimizing them as you go. If a program stalls, you’ll likely need to kill it manually.

With the iPad, all that goes away. You can devote nearly every second of your time to the task at hand, rather than babysitting a balky computer. I don’t feel like I’m “using an iPad to write.” I’m just writing. It’s a far more tranquil, focused experience than using a PC or Mac. It’s also easier to dive in, do a bit of work as time allows, then dive out -- especially since the iPad’s instant-on feature is more reliably instant than the alleged instant-on capabilities of traditional computers.

TouchDraw, a powerful iPad drawing app. (I didn't draw the hourglass in it--I imported it, and composited it with text.)

Those facts helps make up for one of the challenges of using the iPad for productivity: Many tasks are at least a bit slower or more unwieldy than with a computer, and some things that can be done with one program on a Windows PC or a Mac require several of them on the iPad. When I started using the iPad as my primary device, for example, I thought that Photoshop would be simply irreplaceable. Then I discovered that I could do about 85 percent of the things I do with Photoshop by using several iPad apps together as an ad-hoc graphics suite, including PhotoForge2, TouchDraw, and others. Photoshop remains the more powerful tool, and on the iPad, I only have access to the fonts that Apple provides. But I can apply fancy effects, layer together multiple images into a collage, and dress up type on the iPad.

(Wait, how can you match the precision of a mouse and the efficiency of a big-screen display with the iPad’s touch interface and dinky screen? Well…you can’t. But for most of my day-to-day needs I can come closer than I would have expected before I gave it a shot.)

As for writing and editing, I usually use Apple’s own Pages when I’m creating a manuscript that someone is going to expect to get as a Word document, such as stories for TIME’s dead-tree version. Pages has maybe five percent of the features of Microsoft Word, and for the type of writing I usually do…that’s a virtue! It makes it easier to concentrate: All I really need is a white screen and a word count. (I would like Find/Replace, though.)

When I’m blogging at Technologizer, I use an excellent app called Blogsy, which I prefer to the official WordPress app for iOS. (I’d be even happier if I could just use full-blown WordPress in Safari, but it doesn’t quite work.) For CNET blog posts, I use CNET’s proprietary content-management system, which runs reasonably well in Safari.

Other iPad productivity tools I use every day include the splendid mobile-browser version of Gmail and the iOS versions of theIMO.IM instant messenger and HootSuite Twitter client. I use other apps from time to time and am frequently discovering new ones; most iPads cost only a few dollars, so you can explore the wonders of the App Store without blowing much money.

It’s true that there are things that don’t work very well on the iPad. (One of them, inexplicably, is Google+ -- its iOS app is dreadful, and I have trouble with both the mobile-browser and desktop-browser versions.) There are also a few things I don’t do at all on the tablet, such as manage my WordPress installation. (For that, I run Apache, MySQL, and PHP on the MacBook Air.) But I can get most of the jobs I tackle in a normal day done -- and the longer I do this, the more efficient I get at it.

Changing Habits

At first, when I traveled out of town, I’d bring the iPad and the MacBook Air but use the iPad most of the time. Now I’ve started bringing only the iPad, unless I have specific reason to think I’ll never a full-blown computer. When I went to Chicago on a business trip last month equipped only with the tablet, it was the first time in two decades that I’d boarded an airplane for work purposes without a laptop on hand.

So would I recommend that everyone ditch their computers in favor of iPads? No, not at all.

All of this works wonderfully well for me, but that’s because of my particular circumstances: It lets me work anywhere and everywhere, without having to think about my battery or remember to bring along much in the way of cables and accessories. (I do usually tote my iPad in a little bag that has room for Apple’s SD card adapter for transferring photos from a digital camera, although I’m just as likely to shoot photos with my iPhone and e-mail them to the iPad.) Even with the added bulk of a Zagg keyboard, the iPad is the smoothest, least cumbersome mobile computing device I’ve ever used, and I rarely leave the house without it.

PhotoForge2, a neat iPad photo editor with a clever interface.

When I’m at home, however, I’m less concerned with power management and portability. Oftentimes, I use my MacBook Air instead of the iPad. But not always -- really, unless I have a specific need for a Mac app, I generally grab whatever’s handiest, and don’t give it much thought.

I know I’m still unusual. When I’m out and about and run into my fellow bloggers -- most of who have workdays at least roughly similar to mine -- they’re intrigued by my iPad-and-Zagg set-up. They ask questions. But I don’t think I’ve convinced any of them to join me. Yet.

Still, I don’t think I’m a wacko. What I’m doing is a viable option today, and it’s only going to get more appealing as tablet apps get more mature. (I’ve seen noticeable improvement to programs such as Blogsy in just the 90 days I’ve been doing this.)

Based on my first three months as a mostly-iPad person, I’m convinced that I’ve arrived in the future of computing–or a rough approximation thereof -- a little ahead of schedule. I’m glad I’m here, and I bet I have lots and lots of company soon enough.

Product mentioned in this article

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  • Apple iPad 2 family

    The iPad 2 remains a solid choice, thanks to its lower price and strong app choices.

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