Our iPad use experiment
November 18, 2010
Lately, all the Apple talk has been around the MacBook Air’s ability to serve as one’s primary computer, but we say that’s not going far enough. When the iPad was released, we embarked on a revolutionary experiment: replace our 17” MacBook Pro with a 3G iPad, and see if the much smaller, sleeker device had the oomph to serve our needs.
Of course, there’s a mandatory disclaimer behind this experiment:
1) We bought the 64GB iPad in an effort to alleviate as many storage concerns as possible.
2) A Mac Mini server was purchased alongside the iPad to further address storage concerns for our media, and to serve as a means to update and backup our iOS devices. (As a bonus, the Mini, in lieu of an Apple TV, acts as our media server; the Mini is generally headless, though we use our 46” LCD television as an output device when watching Internet-based video in our living room.)
3) The iPad is our home computer; we typically use company-owned computers during business hours.
4) We no longer actively develop code, or have other requirements that would limit us to a particular software suite or IDE.
That may sound like a lot of “buts,” yet it makes us a fairly typical computer user. We spend most of our computer time split between surfing the web and writing text, with the rest of our computer use consisting of entertainment (e.g. games and videos) or dabbling in content management/creation. A good chunk of this computing time is done strictly in our house, which means our office, living room, occasionally the kitchen, and when weather permits, our patio. We also like to take our computer on trips, and since we don’t have a business computer for business trips, we take our personal computer along for personal entertainment/tasks.
The disclaimer, realized.
To further allay the concerns some readers have with the four-point disclaimer we noted above, we admit that we played it somewhat safe when embarking on this journey. That is to say, in practice, we could have gone with less purchases as a safety net.
For one, the 64GB iPad was overkill; for many months, we didn’t come close to filling even half of this capacity. This is partially due to the fact that we don’t use our iPad as a music-playing device outside of, say, Pandora, which means we don’t need to use up storage space for a vast mp3 collection. The few mp3s we do maintain, we keep on our iPhone, which, among other things, serves as our iPod.
We do keep movies on our iPad, however. We have a select few reference videos that we’ve ripped and keep synced via iTunes, and before most trips, we rip a couple videos to watch while traveling. The brunt of our storage use is from apps, however, of which games probably take up the most space.
In reality, we could easily get by with a 32GB iPad. The 64GB merely lets us be less disciplined with juggling media. And, when on vacation, when we use the camera connection kit to offload raw images from our digital camera, that extra space can come in handy, as we don’t need to juggle around extra SD cards.
Two, dumping our 17” MacBook Pro meant we technically had room in our lives for a Mac Mini server, which we’d been considering for some time. The purchase itself was overkill, we admit. For the purpose of acting as an iTunes portal for backing up and syncing our iOS devices, we could just have kept the 17” MacBook Pro on a shelf and used it specifically for this purpose. So too, could we have purchased many a used Mac for same.
The Mac Mini solution, instead, was made because we desperately wanted to experiment with a media server hooked up to our television. Going the Mini server route was because we didn’t want to deal with external drives, and the server version came with extra storage capacity, which at the time of purchase, made sense since we had well over 500GB of files saved from the last 10 years of computing. Sadly, a Time Capsule failure (we used the drive networking feature) meant that we lost all our files thanks to not having redundant backups. So by the time we had our iPad in hand, even the capacity of an old MacBook Air would have been sufficient.
The lesson here isn’t just that redundant backups are good, but that for people considering duplicating our iPad experiment, a much less capable Mac can be used if all one wants to do is sync iOS devices with iTunes.
Three, we’re not getting away with running fancy apps on work computers; even in the office, there’s little reason that we couldn’t get away with using an iPad for most computing tasks. We simply clarify as a matter of full disclosure, not because the iPad is incapable of providing the necessary tools for our job.
While the iPad itself is core to the experience, just as one might purchase peripherals and accessories for a notebook computer, the iPad is not without its complimentary needs.
Let’s start with the most basic of needs for getting new media onto an iPad, as the lack of disc drive is a huge red flag for most people considering an iPad-only lifestyle: in order to get videos onto an iPad, they need to be in iTunes, and in order to get them into iTunes, they need to be downloaded or ripped. The former method doesn’t need much explanation, but the latter requires an optical disc drive. This isn’t an issue for most people who have a Mac or PC for iTunes use, but in our case, about four of five months into our project, we went out and bought a Superdrive for ripping DVDs (since the Mini server doesn’t come with a disc drive). From here, the process is obvious, but since we went the (mostly) headless route, what did we do when the TV was in use, and we wanted to use the Mini?
Enter iTeleport, a fantastic VNC client for all iOS devices. iTeleport is what we use both at home and on-the-go to access our Mini. It’s what we use to manage iTunes and sync devices, as well as running, say, RipIt for adding media to iTunes. Basically, if the TV is in use, we use iTeleport to simulate our Mini’s monitor, so we can do what we need to in order to support our iOS devices (e.g. managing peer-to-peer clients like Transmission, and basic iPhoto management tasks). If you have a Mac you’re using for iTunes that already has a monitor, then you don’t need a iTeleport, but it’s still a handy utility regardless.
Another obvious hurdle out-of-box was the lack of a physical keyboard. We didn’t anticipate that the software keyboard would be as useable as it is (it’s remarkably good once you’re used to it), but for longer writing sessions, we knew we’d want a physical keyboard, too. For us, the Apple bluetooth keyboard fits the bill. It’s only slightly taller than the iPad itself, which is about perfect for sitting on our lap while we type away, and it’s not too large to take along when we’re traveling. We use the basic iPad dock for propping the iPad up in portrait mode for when we type, and this works splendidly in most environments. Per our earlier post, setup time is quick and easy, too.
We don’t keep the iPad in a case, though when not in use, we pop it in a Saddleback sleeve so it doesn’t get beaten up in our satchel. Thus far, we’ve found no immediate need for the six-foot power extension cable that Apple sells, though we can picture a need for it in certain environments.
With this three-piece office ensemble (iPad, dock, and keyboard), and iTeleport, we’re perfectly able to perform most every task we need to at home and on the road.
The changing of the lifestyle.
The biggest difference with our computer use after going iPad-only is that traveling is more enjoyable. Schlepping around our 17” MacBook Pro was a pain in the ass, but with how much smaller and lighter the iPad is, we’ve downsized our briefcase considerably. And, since we have the option of leaving the keyboard and dock at home, we can travel even lighter on short trips when we don’t expect to have much time for writing.
This easier ability to take our iPad on the road means we take it with us more often than we did our MacBook. (Mind you, we keep mentioning our old 17” MacBook Pro, but the same held true for the 15” MacBook Pro we had before it.) We wouldn’t have considered taking a notebook computer along on a camping trip, or most day trips, but the iPad is a great travel companion.
And with a battery life of some 10 hours, we don’t even worry about packing a power cord along for most day trips, either. The small footprint of the iPad also means it enters our kitchen more often, say, for looking up recipes. (And yes, it’s great for surfing the web from the shitter, too.)
But perhaps the biggest advantage to the iPad other than the small footprint is the 3G capability. Many have said they’ve heard people regretting a non-3G iPad purchase, but never someone regretting spending the extra money on 3G capability. For the extra dime, the option of 3G access is great, especially since 3G users aren’t on a contract, and can opt-in one month at a time.
About the only downside for new iPad buyers regarding 3G is that the unlimited data plan is no longer available. Since we use wifi at home and at Starbucks, the first couple months of use meant that we didn’t use that much 3G data, so we briefly dropped down to a lower plan. Given our use pattern, however, we occasionally spike: during a couple days of heavy 3G use when we were away from home and had no free wifi available, we burned through the capped data plan, and had to jump back to the unlimited plan. (We could have doubled up on the capped plan, but at that rate, why bother?) Maybe that’s not a huge problem for most people’s use, and arguably doubling-up on a capped plan may suit most people’s needs when such spikes happen, but it’s still something worth noting.
The surfing of the web.
Most people we talk to about going iPad-only bring up Flash as soon as internet use is mentioned. We consider this practically a dead issue and won’t rehash the anti-Flash sentiments in detail, but regardless of what sites are still using it today, the fact remains that Flash eats battery life like nothing else, and every mobile implementation of Flash offers a poor experience. With HTML5 being supported by most sites (like YouTube), it won’t be long before Flash is a footnote in web history, much like the blink tag of yesteryear.
That said, have we been frustrated on occasion that certain legacy sites don’t offer non-Flash versions? Yes, and in these cases, we either move on to the next site, or rely on iTeleport to give us a Flash version via our Mini. But as time moves on, we rely on this latter procedure less and less, in great part because developers are realizing that non-Flash alternatives need to exist. In fact, we’re contemplating removing the Flash plugin from our Mini altogether at this point, as we’re that confident that we don’t need Flash in our web-surfing lives.
Overall, the web-surfing experience on the iPad is fantastic. We don’t need to zoom around on a page like we do with the iPhone, and about the only common annoyance is dealing with web forms, which aren’t as quick to navigate as on a traditional computer, especially when the on-screen keyboard is used and cuts off a drop-down box (rendering it smaller, not obscuring options). Certain web pages also are not iPad-friendly, such as Facebook, which either remove options (Facebook chat, for example) or have broken functionality (Facebook photo uploads). Fortunately, there are apps for some of these issues (like third-party Facebook apps that enable chat and file uploads), but the inability to upload files via a basic web form on, say, an online forum, can be very irksome if you rely on such functionality.
The only other complaint we have will be addressed in iOS 4.2, and that’s conducting text searches in web content.
Given the iPad’s form factor, surfing the web in bed, or on the couch, or wherever else, is simply a more intimate experience that having a keyboard and mouse between you and the internet. If anything, web browsing is where tablets shine much brighter than conventional computers.
The writing of the text.
We’ve already covered writing on the iPad to some degree, but let’s rehash: the software keyboard works well for basic tasks, like taking brief notes, filling in web forms, et al. And, it works well in both landscape and portrait modes; though a lot of people criticize the software keyboard in portrait mode, we’ve found that it works about as well as the landscape keyboard on the iPhone, with the only minor downside being the weight of the iPad being a tad awkward if used for more than a few minutes.
Touch-typing on the software keyboard is also possible in landscape mode, and only becomes better when the auto-correct feature is turned off; mis-types that result in whole words we don’t want turns out to be far more annoying than simply back-spacing and making corrections. But for slow typers, the auto-correct feature can be handy.
For anyone who wants to seriously write on the iPad, however, a hardware keyboard is a must. There are now several, foldable keyboards on the market that open to full-size, and these may be better for travel, but the small, Apple bluetooth keyboard has worked for us so far. For home users, the camera connection kit allows a USB keyboard to be used so you don’t need to worry about keyboard battery life, but this hasn’t been a huge issue for us with our bluetooth keyboard. Still, the option is there (though you couldn’t have the iPad hooked up to a wall outlet in this scenario).
Just as with web pages, one annoyance when writing is not having a quick find/replace option. Perhaps as apps start to standardize more, we’ll see something like this evolve, but keyboard shortcuts are a no-go for most writing apps, so there is a slight speed advantage for those who are used to writing on a traditional computer. (We’ve found the lack of a page up/down shortcut particularly annoying, as we now have to scroll with touch gestures which means taking our hands off the keyboard.)
These slight issues aside, we’ve welcomed the simplicity that iPad writing apps offer. We purchased Pages from the get-go, but tend to use even simpler writing apps, as we don’t regularly mark up our text.
To be fair, we’re not power spreadsheet users either, so Numbers works fine for us, as likely would most other spreadsheet apps on the AppStore. It has a slightly higher learning curve for beginners than, say, Excel, but it’s nothing a half hour of tinkering won’t solve. If anything, office apps on the iPad feel manageable, whereas Microsoft Office can often feel monumental (in a bad way) comparatively.
We mentioned earlier the simplicity of the iPad dock as a stand, and if a table or desk is around, this setup works fantastic. If anything, you can get by with much less tabletop space than you could with a notebook, since a wireless keyboard can easily sit on your lap (being more ergonomic to boot).
That said, things become a tad more complicated if you’re not sitting in a chair in front of a desk. Take, for example, a situation where you want to write a few pages in the park, under a tree. Your keyboard can sit on your lap, but how do you prop your iPad up? You can throw something together with whatever you have around you (a jacket, for example, can become a makeshift support), but the ideal situation is a case that will support the iPad at an ideal viewing angle and not shift. With a notebook, the keyboard is the stand, but with the iPad, you have to buy a case that holds the iPad accordingly. We can’t comment on whether or not the iPad keyboard dock fills this need, but we’ve seen various other cases that seem better suited for this task.
Ultimately, the iPad is an excellent all-around writing tool, and should be plenty adequate for most people’s needs, to include students and professionals. Trickier things become as the need for more robust layout options arise. Folks in the design industry, for example, will likely want very specific software products to fulfill this niche, and until such apps arrive, they will continue to rely on traditional computing solutions. (This is akin to graphics professionals still needing a machine with Photoshop, while the layman can easily get away with one of the many lightweight Photoshop-like apps in the AppStore.)
For everyone else, however, the vast array of writing apps in the AppStore, to include writing apps for hand-written notes and apps integrating audio capture, should suffice for most any need.
The blogging of the thoughts.
So general writing on the iPad works well, but what about, specifically, blogging? Considering that most of the non-professional writing we do ends up online in some form or another, we hoped that the iPad would address this need well. As it turns out, blogging via the iPad is easy once one gets a decent methodology in place.
On our MacBook, we relied heavily on Skitch for grabbing and editing graphics from the web for use in blog posts. On the iPad, we have to manually download a web graphic, else perform a screen-capture. We then open the file in our graphics app of choice, crop, edit, and re-save. We now have a graphic that we can’t simply upload via a web form, and that’s a shame. (The default WordPress admin interface doesn’t lend itself to file uploads from the iPad, nor is the content input box for a post resizable in Mobile Safari like it is in regular Safari. So sadly, it’s a poor interface for making new posts.)
Fortunately, since we predominantly use WordPress, there’s both a WordPress app and BlogPress (both apps with trade-offs, but that are reasonable methods for generating new blog posts). That said, in most cases, we still end up writing the actual posts in one of our writing apps, and then cut’n pasting the final draft over to the WordPress or BlogPress apps. This is where we would then handle image attachments and the like. (If we don’t want to deal with images, we often paste into WordPress via Safari.)
Admittedly, it probably takes us a little extra time to blog via the iPad than it did from our MacBook, but we argue that this is mainly because the WordPress app has shown itself buggy, and BlogPress remains limited in what it does. We’d definitely like to see a more robust blogging app, even if it’s just a more stable and refined WordPress app.
The watching of the multimedia.
The iPad is positioned as an entertainment device as much as it is a productivity device, and here, we’ve found no shortage of truth. Even though we don’t rely on the built-in iPod and Videos apps as much as others might, we’ve been pleased with the variety of video options in the AppStore. Key among these are streaming apps, like Netflix and Hulu Plus, but perhaps our top choice is Air Video, which allows us to stream video content from our Mini to the iPad on a local, or remote level. This means that video not encoded for viewing in iTunes can stream to the iPad just fine, and while Netflix and Hulu have licensing restrictions that won’t let you use them when traveling overseas, Air Video lets us watch what we want, where we want. (Plex is also great if you’re running the main Plex app on a media server like we are; it handles landscape mode nicely, and we’re starting to use this app more often now, though Air Video is still out go-to.)
While we could probably find a way to automate the transferring of content from our TiVo to the Mini, when we’re traveling, we simply find an RSS feed for a particular torrent of a show we already pay for via FIOS, and let Transmission on the Mini download new episodes as they’re posted. Air Video is set up to scan the respective directory with new torrent downloads, and we’re good to go. Even if your source isn’t torrents (i.e. you can automate downloads from Usenet or some other source), Air Video can look in the directory where videos are downloaded to and present them to you from the other side of the world.
With iOS 4.2 and multitasking, we expect the iPad to only become better; being able to run Pandora audio streams in the background while we surf the web, or write, is something we look forward to, as we’re currently handling background audio by running Pandora on our iPhone and keeping the phone nearby.
That which remains missing.
The iPad has met most of our expectations in six months of use, though there remain several things we’d like to see improved in the iPad experience. Recognizing that some things simply won’t change based on Apple’s position on third-party apps, there are other things we’d like to see happen.
1) Tethering: The iPad currently requires a traditional computer in order to back up files, downloads, and handle iOS updates. This means that the iPad can never be the sole machine in one’s tool-bag, and that isn’t ideal. Right now, the iPad is a great travel companion, but if we were to go on a major trip lasting several months, we’d question whether not having any backups during that time-frame, or missing a key iOS update, is something we could live with.
The iPad needs a way to back itself up via an iPad-optimized version of Time Machine, which could be run on a home network or, even better, via the internet. And, the iPad needs to be able to download and install iOS updates without being tethered to a traditional computer. Once this happens, the iPad becomes a much clearer alternative to the 11” MacBook Air.
2) APIs: We’ve heard from several developers that the apps they want to make can’t be made, because Apple still has many private APIs that developers can’t use (but that Apple uses in its own iOS apps). This isn’t good for the development of more powerful and competitive iOS apps, especially when basic things like text markup become restricted to developers. (Sadly, this is preventing apps like Ulysses from receiving a solid port to iOS.)
3) Screen-sharing: We mentioned how fantastic we find iTeleport, but why isn’t there a native solution to screen-sharing via an iPad? And, wouldn’t it be nice if we had a more powerful way to stream content from a server? We’re thinking something along the lines of OnLive, only connecting a video stream between you and a Mac you already own. While iOS 4.2 will allow us to stream audio and video from one iOS device to another on an app-specific level, being able to stream a Mac desktop to an iPad would be a fantastic ability to have.
We’re not done with our experiment: we don’t plan on jumping back over to a MacBook anytime soon. Rather, we’re quite pleased with how well our iPad performs, and we’re actually more likely to replace it with another iPad well before we replace it with another notebook.
For those considering a similar experiment, jumping over to the iPad is difficult in the sense that switching from the PC to the Mac is difficult: it involves changing habits and adopting new ways of doing things. But once you start getting those new methods, then the iPad isn’t an obstacle for tasks, but a natural fit for them. The iPad isn’t perfect, mind you, but it’s already a solid platform for computing, and we only see it getting better over time. There’s a reason that the feel of the iPad is being transitioned over to OS X, which will only further help to drive iPad sales.
Yes, we sometimes get frustrated with a particular task on the iPad, because the way we know to do that task on a Mac feels easier, but those moments of frustration are less and less frequent as better apps are released, and as Apple continues to develop iOS further.
When it comes to apps, we also find ourselves thinking less and less, “We wish our iPad could do what the Mac does,” and thinking more and more, “We wish everyone used an iPad.” Why? Because more iPad users means more developers on that platform, which means better apps. And frankly, those apps on the iPad would be better.