Lots of people are wondering whether a touch-based tablet computer that doesn’t have a physical keyboard or run a traditional operating system can replace their laptops on the road. So I decided to find out.
Earlier this month, my wife and I took a 10-day working vacation to Paris, and for the first time in many years, I decided to go away for a week or more without a laptop. Instead, I resolved to rely on only an Apple iPad tablet, my smartphone and a small digital camera.
The idea wasn’t to test the iPad per se as a laptop replacement, but to try it as a proxy for the whole wave of touch-controlled slates beginning to roll out, or planned in coming months, from companies such as Dell, Samsung, and others. All of these products will be vying to replace the laptop, at least some of the time, and in some scenarios.
So, what happened? Well, for me, the experiment was a pleasant success. With a few exceptions, I got everything done that I would have done with a laptop. Yet I toted a lot less weight, enjoyed much better battery life, and had a computer that started up instantly whenever I reached for it. I also was able to combine the functions of a comfortable e-reader with those of a laptop.
Available for rent at the Eiffel Tower: iPads preloaded with a guide to the site.
And I wasn’t alone. In our very small hotel, I noticed each morning at breakfast a handful of other travelers who appeared with their own iPads, perhaps to read the news from home, or to catch up on business matters before a day of touring. Even a small laptop wouldn’t have comfortably fit on the tiny tables in the hotel’s breakfast room.
The iPad also popped up in an unexpected place in Paris. I was surprised to find that you could rent one at the Eiffel Tower, preloaded with a visitor’s guide to the monument that is the very symbol of the city.
But I am not issuing a clarion call to dump your laptop and travel only with a tablet. It depends on the nature of your work, the nature of the trip, and the demands of your employer, customers and others. I suspect that, for many people on many trips, a tablet would more than suffice. But, for others, a tablet wouldn’t cut it. For them, the extra expense, and extra weight, may not be worth it on the road.
Also, my experiment wasn’t conducted on a full-fledged business trip. I call it a “working” vacation because, although I wasn’t writing columns or testing new products, I felt a strong need to remain in touch with some work matters. (Yes, I know this can be viewed as a pathetic example of poor work/life balance, but I’m hardly the only one afflicted with it.)
So, I devoted part of each day to wading through hundreds of emails, reading and reviewing documents, keeping up with work-related news on websites and social networks, and doing other non-vacation chores. The iPad had no trouble coping with these tasks. It was a no-hassle experience.
But I wasn’t producing long documents, using specialized company software, creating and delivering presentations, or doing some of the other things typical on business trips that might have required a laptop, or been more easily done on one.
A Writer’s Work
In my own case, I know I could write a column like this on an iPad, or on one of the forthcoming tablets that will use Google’s Android operating system—even without one of the accessory keyboards. And some people do just that. But I am not yet ready to rely solely on the iPad for my longer writing, because, at least until the iPad gets full multi-tasking later this fall, it’s still easier to quickly switch between my notes and other relevant documents, and the column I’m writing, on a laptop.
Still, on this mixed-purpose trip, the tablet came through with flying colors.
I chose to use it only in the hotel, at the beginning or end of the day, just as I normally would with a laptop. This was partly because the hotel had free Wi-Fi, and partly because my smartphone was sufficient for quick checking of email and websites while walking around the city. However, if you prefer to keep an iPad with you at all times and you have one with 3G cellular capability, AT&T does offer an international plan that would let it work on the street.
During the trip, I read or skimmed thousands of emails, and reviewed and made editing suggestions on a colleague’s column. I perused documents in PDF and Microsoft Office formats, using both the iPad’s built-in document viewers and a handful of productivity apps, including Apple’s iWorks suite, Quickoffice, GoodReader, and DocumentsToGo. You can do similar things on a smartphone, but not with the comfort of a tablet’s larger screen.
Syncing With Home
At one point, I needed to consult a document on a computer back home. It was no problem. I merely used the iPad version of SugarSync, a backup and synchronizing service, to find and fetch the file.
Using the iPad’s browser and other apps, I was also able to watch several business-related and sports videos, like I do with a laptop on the road.
I also used the iPad to research and plan vacation tasks, with its Web browser, Google and Wikipedia apps, and mapping app. At the end of each day, I backed up the pictures from my camera to the iPad, as is my custom with a laptop, using Apple’s optional $29 camera connection kit.
There were only two things I wanted to do but couldn’t because I had an iPad rather than a laptop. In one case, where a Word document contained a lot of revision comments, I couldn’t get any of the productivity apps on my tablet to display these. In another, I couldn’t help a colleague test Apple’s new Ping social network, because, ironically, you can only set up a Ping account on a regular computer.
I could have used the hotel’s business-center computer to do these things, but, as I was on vacation, I didn’t bother. I did use the center’s computer to retrieve and print my airline boarding documents for the trip home, something I would have done even if I’d had a laptop.
Overall, my attempt to substitute a tablet for a laptop was a big success, and I’d do it again for a short trip or working vacation. As tablets get better, this will only become easier. For instance, Microsoft is working on a touch-based tablet version of Windows that could make the slates even better laptop replacements.
But again, this all depends on your own needs and habits. In fact, a few days after my successful Paris experience with the iPad, I found myself in an airport again. A woman at the gate noticed I had the iPad, said she was dying to ditch her laptop on the road, and asked if I thought the tablet could do the trick.
After determining she was a chief financial officer who created large spreadsheets, I advised her against the switch. Yes, you can create spreadsheets on an iPad, but I doubted she’d be happy doing so without a built-in physical keyboard, familiar programs and the processing power of her laptop.