A week with only an iPad

Steve Paris
11 February, 2011
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Steve Jobs was quoted as comparing today’s computers (both Macs and PCs) to trucks – powerful devices capable of doing anything you need them to do – and the iPads as cars, smaller, less intimidating, easier to handle, not as versatile but more suitable for most people’s needs. How accurate is this comparison? Could the iPad be used as your sole computer today? This is what we’ve attempted to find out – by spending a week with only an iPad for work and for play.

The iPad is a phenomenon: it’s been on sale for less than a year but people are already buying more of them than Macs. The fact that it’s meant to be a companion to your main computer is highlighted by the necessity to sync it to iTunes when you first switch it on. However, once this action has been performed, you don’t have to connect it again. You wouldn’t be able to back it up, but aside from that, an iPad need never see another computer again.

So, if you were to use an iPad as your sole computing device, what would you need it to do? Everyone’s requirements are different, but by and large, there should be a way for you to write and print letters, send and receive emails, browse the web, create and manage a blog, load, adjust and share photos, edit home movies, make music and play games.

If the iPad could achieve all of the above with a degree of success, the days of large, bulky personal computers would really be numbered. Let’s look at each in turn.

Note to self
You can use an iPad for basic note taking thanks to the Notes application, but you can also purchase the three programs that comprise the iWork suite straight from the App Store. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you’re getting the same functionality as their Mac counterparts: there are many features missing from each piece of software.

This app can work as a basic word processor, but your options are very limited

The most glaring are a limited number of fonts with no possibility of adding more, word count limitations (you can see how many words a documents has, but you can’t select a particular section and check how many are contained within it), and no image editing capabilities.

But you can create word-processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations with the greatest of ease, all by dragging objects around the screen with your fingers. If your needs are simple and all you want to do is write a letter or design a simple newsletter, you should have no trouble adapting.

Organisational nightmare
There is, however, one major drawback which highlights the fact that Apple doesn’t yet consider these programs as capable of dealing with rigorous usage: there is no way to organise your documents within the application – which is the only place you can view and access them in the first place. You can’t organise them into folders, there isn’t even a search field to help you locate a document quickly. Instead, you have to swipe from document to document until you find the one you want. If you end up with more than 20 files, this system becomes incredibly frustrating.

The best thing about these apps, though, is the fact that there is no need to save anything you do: the iPad takes care of that for you so you can focus on writing, editing and designing.

With the release of the new version of the iPad’s operating system – iOS 4.2 – you can now print directly from that device without ever having to send a file to a traditional computer, as you had to until now. This is a major step forward, but it’s currently limited: the only way you can do this is with a handful of HP printers which support the new ePrint protocol.

If you have one of those, AirPrint will immediately detect it on your network and you’ll be able to print with just a few taps. The process is effortless and quite fantastic. The cheapest ePrint printer costs less than $160, which may not be ideal if you’re not in the market for a new printer, but this situation isn’t too far removed from the original iMac and its new, little-known, USB ports. Finding a compatible printer back then was a challenge too, but things have changed somewhat since those times.

With AirPrint, you can connect to a compatible printer via WiFi

A spot of browsing
So printing and general office duties are covered, as long as there isn’t too much to do. But what about emailing and web browsing?

The iPad excels at those especially, once again, with the release of iOS 4.2 and the introduction of a universal inbox. This is most useful if you’re working with multiple email addresses. You can see all your new messages from one location, rather than having to continuously select a different account each time a new email arrives. It also shares one of the best features from the iPhone and iPod touch: even with the screen switched off and the device asleep, it will download new messages for you which is quite a timesaver. On a traditional computer, you’d have to wake it up, wait for it to connect to your network then check your server for new messages. With the iPad, as soon as you unlock it, you’ll know instantly how many new emails have arrived.

As for browsing the web, it’s inconvenient that the iPad’s version of Safari limits you to nine pages open at any one time. Thankfully, other browsers can be purchased from the App Store.

Blogging is a different matter. WordPress is available for the iPad as a free application, and as long as you’ve set up your site on a traditional computer, you can update and amend it from the iPad with ease – most of the time. It has its quirks but at least it’s working, which is not something that can be said for iWeb, since Apple hasn’t created a program that would connect you to your iWeb sites from any of its iOS devices.

It’s a complete puzzle as to why this hasn’t happened yet and this means that if you’ve built your website using Apple’s own program, you’ll be unable to do anything with it on your iPad.

Creative constraints
All the photos that you’ve got in iPhoto on your Mac can be transferred to the iPad via iTunes, so this is an excellent starting point. You can also move photos from a camera directly to the iPad, thanks to the £26 Camera Connection Kit.

This comes in two parts and lets you either connect your camera via USB or simply insert its Flash card. This connection even works with your iPhone or iPod touch, letting you transfer photos and videos taken with that device effortlessly. Unfortunately, that’s the limit of the Photos app: you can’t create new albums or events, or even move photos between existing albums or events. You also can’t adjust images.

You can connect your iPod or iPhone to an iPad and transfer your photos

Thankfully, a large number of creative programs have been made by third-party developers. Such is the thriving marketplace that is the App Store that more software crops up every day. One such new arrival is TouchUp ($3.99) This program allows you to apply effects to your photos and have fun with your images, somewhat making up for the complete absence of iPhoto on the iPad, but it doesn’t help the device’s organisational shortcomings.

What about your videos? Although a basic version of iMovie exists on the iPhone and iPod touch, it isn’t compatible with the iPad. There’s a program called ReelDirector ($2.49) that will allow you to edit any footage contained within your Photos library. It has many more options than what iMovie has to offer, but you’re essentially limited to working with video taken from your stills camera or iPhone and iPod touch. Dedicated camcorders aren’t compatible with the Camera Connection Kit, so if filmmaking is your thing, sadly, the iPad won’t be.

Making music is a different matter entirely. Again, there’s no way you can match the strength and versatility of programs like Logic to ProTools, but you actually have many more options open to you for creating and recording music on an iPad than you do for movie editing.

Music Studio ($17.99), for instance, is incredibly powerful, giving you a choice of 40 instruments with the possibility of purchasing more. There are other apps that take music-making to a whole new level, allowing you to use an iPad in a way that would be impossible with a traditional computer. Programs like Smule’s Magic Fiddle ($1.19), for instance, lets you use your iPad as an actual fiddle. So when it comes to music, you may not miss your larger computer all that much.

TouchUp is a great app and goes a long way to replace iPhoto

Time out
And when it’s time to unwind, you can relax with one of hundreds of available games, which have either been designed with the iPad in mind, or those that work on the iPhone but can be increased in size to fill the iPad’s screen. Most games are perfectly playable in this way, and in fact, when it comes to casual gaming, the iPad is hard to beat, especially when you consider how few games are available on the Mac and how many exist for a device that is less than one year old.

iPad alone?
The inclusion of multitasking since the release of iOS 4.2 makes the iPad a much more useful tool, but on the whole, thinking of using it as your sole computer isn’t quite feasible for most people, at least not yet. Currently, some things will frustrate you after using it exclusively for a few days, like mediocre file management in iWork and other apps, limited to non-existent search capabilities within apps and the total and mysterious absence of the iLife suite to name but three. But these limitations are really software-based, meaning that they can all be solved in time without having to purchase a new device.

Whether this will happen or not is up to Apple and its developers. If your needs are simple, you could use an iPad for most of your computing needs, but professional and high-end users will have to wait a little longer before they can consider leaving their trucks behind.

Steve Paris’ diary of a week the the iPad

Shutting down my Mac this morning and saying goodbye to it for a week. My iPad is as up to date as possible with the latest version of the system software (iOS 4.2.1), along with all the latest versions of the apps I plan on using for the next week. Of course, getting more will be a trivial matter since I can access the App Store directly from the iPad.

Thinking that I may need to print some documents over the coming week, I got an HP ePrint printer – one of the few that are compatible with Apple’s new AirPrint feature. Setting it up was a breeze and it’s quite amazing to be able to print a letter or a photo without ever having to install a driver on the iPad. This is obviously the future and it can’t come soon enough.

I’ve also got an Elgato Netstream DTT device. With it and the EyeTV app for the iPad, I’m able to watch TV without having to turn my computer on, which is absolutely fantastic. Not all channels can be watched though as the app can’t handle HD broadcasts, but that’s not too much of a problem. If there’s nothing on, there’ll obviously be no need to rent a DVD since I’ll be able to access the iTunes Store and download whatever I feel like watching from the couch. Maybe this experiment won’t be as hard as I originally thought.

Quite impressed by my iPad’s battery life. Up until now, I’ve used it as a companion to my Mac, occasionally turning it on and off so the battery wouldn’t drain that much throughout the course of the day. Now it’s on practically all the time yet I only really need to recharge it at night. I’ve placed the charger by my bedside table so I can do some evening work should I feel like it.

I’ve spent most of today using the iPad for email and web browsing. It’s amazing how quickly my typing skills have improved on the iPad. I remember Steve Jobs saying to “just trust it” and he’s absolutely right: the auto-correction is nearly always right so there’s little need to correct a typo: I just carry on typing and by the time I hit the spacebar, my gobbledygook will have transformed itself into the words I actually meant to use.

The new universal inbox that was introduced with iOS 4.2 makes using my multiple email addresses a breeze. The only downside is that there isn’t a universal sent box. Maybe that could be added in iOS 4.3?

Web browsing isn’t as convenient as I had originally thought: only being able to have nine pages open at the same time isn’t enough, especially when the iPad is shared between other members of my household. It’s a huge hindrance.

Where’s iWeb for the iPad? I really didn’t think this through when I started, now I realise there’s no way to update my blog from the iPad. The urge to turn on my Mac is huge today because of this, but I guess it won’t kill me to post next week. Seriously Apple, not having iWeb and the rest of the iLife suite on the iPad is a big mistake.

Looking at the power of some of the other programs available on the App Store, it’s a real shame that they’re not there right now, and I’m feeling that absence greatly. If I were to use the iPad for more than one week, I’d probably consider switching to WordPress since at least there’s an app for that blogging tool, but it’s a little infuriating that Apple’s own software doesn’t work with Apple’s own device…

I think I’ve solved my online browsing problem: there are other browsers available on the App Store and a recent addition called Switch is my new best friend. With it I can set up accounts for the different members of my family, so we now each have our own nine pages, which is three times as much as I had yesterday. It crashes a little too often for my liking, but having more pages certainly outweighs this inconvenience. It’s a shame though that, just like Safari, there’s no way to do a search within a web page. I feel lost without it…

I’m missing the iLife suite again today. Just when I resigned myself to not having iWeb, I now pine for iPhoto. Yes, there’s the Photos app where all my pictures are currently stored. All the events and albums from iPhoto have been transferred over already, which is great. In addition, today, I connected my camera to my iPad using the Camera Connection Kit which works as expected and allowed me to transfer new photos from my camera.

But the main problem is that I can’t edit the aforementioned Albums and Events: the new photos are added into their own Event… and that’s that. I can’t drag some or all of them onto another event or album, I can’t rename events or albums, I can’t add comments, it’s all incredibly limiting. I can’t even adjust my images. In order to do this, I need to purchase a third-party app.

I’ve settled on TouchUp, a great new program with a very friendly interface which makes performing adjustments a lot of fun. I just wish iPhoto was there though, since TouchUp and other programs don’t handle photo management.

Oh, and I really like the fact that I can connect my iPod touch to my iPad using the same connector, and import both the photos and the videos I’ve been shooting. I wasn’t sure if it would work, but I’m very glad it does

I see a recurring trend developing: I had a bit of spare time today so I thought I’d edit some of the videos I shot on my iPod touch… but although iMovie is available on the App Store, it isn’t compatible with the iPad… why not? Editing my little home movie would be so much easier to achieve on a larger screen than having to struggle on a 8.9cm display. I’m wondering if editing on the iPod is in some way negating the “using an iPad for a week as my sole computer” idea, but what other options have I got?

Actually, there’s one: ReelDirector. This app works on both the iPod/iPhone and iPad (take note, Apple) and offers many more options than iMovie, be it when adding titles, effects or performing simple edits. It’s not as intuitive as iMovie and it feels a little clumsy to use, but maybe it’s because I’ve only had it for less than a day. In any case, this stops me from completely breaking the rules and switching my Mac on. That was a close one.

But on the whole, I’ve managed to survive an entire work week using only my iPad. Most of my time has been spent on emailing and browsing. Using Pages to write got a little frustrating as there’s no way to organise all the documents I made, so I sent them all to my iDisk, but I don’t view this as an ideal solution.

Looking forward to the weekend…

I’ve just discovered something truly annoying: there’s a universal search feature on the iPad – just like on the iPhone (by swiping to the left of the first home screen). You can use it to search for apps, people or notes you’ve taken… but you can’t use it to look for documents you’ve created in, say, Pages. Why not? I thought this would be an ideal solution to the growing proliferation of unsortable documents, but no. This applies to other documents I’ve created in other apps. It’s a massive ommission and most disappointing.

Also, it seems that apps need to be updated in order to take advantage of the new AirPrint feature: I can print from the iWork suite and the Photos app, but not from other third-party apps. I ended up saving the file to another program and printing it from there, but it could be made a little more convenient.

The one thing I’ve missed most though is the ability to back up my files. On a Mac, we’ve got Time Machine and many other options. The iPad is automatically backed up when connected to iTunes, but on its own, I feel that my work is very vulnerable – having nearly lost all my data recently when my Mac’s hard drive failed, I’m even more sensitive to this now – and I wonder if some kind of wireless backup could somehow be implemented.

Sunday is play time and this is one thing the iPad absolutely excels at. This device is great to play games on, whether on your own with strategy games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope, high-octane action arcade types like Robokill, galactic trade and exploration with Galaxy on Fire 2, online games like Trade Nations or memory games like Simon Says, to highlight just a few. I could spend hours on these…

But what I discovered is how fantastic the iPad is at replicating the traditional board games. I’ve had a fantastic time playing with my family with games like Scrabble, Small Words, Simple Hockey, WarChess, Table Checkers HD and Ludo. And best of all, most games save sessions so we can keep on playing at a later date and there are no pieces to put away or lose.

Only thing I noticed is how much faster the battery drains when playing games, but that’s something to be expected as this type of activity is quite processor-intensive – much more so than drawing or typing.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how clear and loud the iPad’s tiny speaker was. Even with all of us around it, we could still clearly hear all the sound effects from the game we were playing.

My experience this week has shown me that the iPad is begging for its version of the iLife suite. This is all the more frustrating when you consider that iMovie is available on the iPhone but not the iPad. Without an iPad version of iLife, I find it hard to imagine using it as my sole computer.

Also, Apple needs to rethink the organisational layout of its iWork suite. If you write a lot of documents, finding the one you wish to edit can be incredibly frustrating as you have to keep on swiping until you find it. This is typical of my experience when trying to conduct office tasks using the iPad, although the email interface wasn’t so bad.

Typing on the iPad keyboard isn’t nearly as bad as I expected it to be. It really is a case of just trusting it to autocorrect. And you can always plug in an alternative keyboard if you just can’t get on with the keypad.

The battery life is a definate bonus, and will see you through, as long as you don’t spend all day playing games. As an entertainment device the iPad is a reasonable replacement for your Mac, but you may find yourself missing the biggers screen.

For all it’s faults, the iPad is a relatively new device, less than one year old. It’s already incredibly impressive and can only get better. I look forward to the future.

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