Why and how I’d use an iPad and similar tablets

Instead of pontificating on whether or not the iPad is a failure or how it will change computing forever, I thought that I would spend some time thinking about how I would actually use an iPad or similar tablet.

1. My commute to work and walking around the city

  • Doing work on the train — I do work on my Marc train trips to and from Union Station. I don’t do any heavy duty work. I’m mostly checking my e-mail and responding to messages before I arrive at work and getting a jump on our social media for the day (on the way home, I mostly concentrate on Twitter, Facebook and our own social network, RarePlanet.org). My Macbook + Verizon MiFi works pretty well, but there are some issues with the setup, mostly related to size and form factor.
  • Weight — The iPad weighs in at just 1.5 lbs. That’s a big deal for people who live in urban areas and take computing devices around with them on a daily basis. My Macbook weighs 5.2 lbs. and while that may not seem like a lot if you throw your laptop in a bag and then into your car, it is a big deal if you do a lot of walking. When I’m in my office in Arlington, I usually walk at least 5 miles a day. I don’t always have my Macbook with me the entire time, but weight does become a concern. A device as light as 1.5 pounds would be something that I’d consider taking a lot of places with me. On weekends, I could see going to a coffee house with a iPad and sitting around and reading it like a newspaper. I do not bring my Macbook with me when I go to Starbucks on weekends. Back to weight, even a 10.1-inch netbook (the closet screen size to an iPad) weighs in at 2.9 lbs. I’d much rather take something half the weight of a netbook around with me, especially as something I just throw into a bag and go.
  • Size — Along the lines of weight, size is an important consideration for many. My laptop barely fits in my messenger bag. Instead I usually take a larger book bag because I can fit other things like a power cord, lunch, papers, etc in it comfortably. A netbook would solve this issue, but the weight is still rather high, but more importantly the form factor of a notebook/netbook kind of sucks for on the go.
  • Form factor — One of the main reasons I have resisted the urge to get a netbook is the form factor. It’s not just the size of my Macbook that is an issue but also the form factor. Much like how broadsheet newspapers such as The New York Times are awkward to use on public transportation, so is anything with a clamshell design that all current notebooks and netbooks offer. On a bigger commuter train, one can get by with a clamshell notebook, but on the subway, it’s just not worth it. I almost always shut my laptop down as I’m getting of the Marc and don’t turn it back on until I get on the Marc at night. Using it on the DC metro system is just too much of a hassle. A smaller, lighter, non-clamshell iPad, on the other hand, could be something that I use all the time on the DC Metro. It’s something that I could hold in one hand, that doesn’t require my elbows to be poking into people next to me like I would be doing if I were using a notebook or netbook and it starts up lightening fast.
  • Start up and shutdown time — The iPad boots up in 10 seconds, and Google is promising very quick start up times for their Chrome OS. Start up time matters when you’re talking about a device that you’ll just pick up and use whenever. If I’m taking a 10-15 minute subway ride, I don’t want to bother starting up my computer. The same can be said of a laptop sitting near a couch that is turned off. If the hope is for tablets to be something that people just pick up and use on a whim like a magazine — but with the ability to surf the Web, play video games, etc — it has to be so quick and easy to start up that one doesn’t even half second thoughts about using it.
  • Battery life — This is paramount for any tablet. Any tablet that gets 3-4 hours of battery life won’t be particularly useful. Book reading is out of the window immediately, and it is really a hassle to always have to be charging a device or near an outlet. If the idea is to hold a tablet like a book, it can’t spend most of its time tethered to a power outlet like laptops currently do. There are days when I don’t carry my Macbook power cord with me (and I later regret this), but there are many days when I do if I think I might need more than 3-4 hours of battery life. Unless I’m traveling, it appears the iPad could get through an entire day of use without needing a recharge. This is big. Below I mention some uses that I could see for the iPad (such as a PDF reader for work) that would be less useful if this device had poor battery life. Ultimately, if you’re traveling around over the course of a day, carrying around and using a device like the iPad, battery life is going to be really important. A power cord is just one more thing to carry in an already crowded and heavy bag.

2. At the office

  • Notes — I usually take light notes with pen and paper in the meetings that I attend. Occasionally I need to take really detailed notes, and I’ll bring my work laptop,which is docked to a Dell docking station. It’s a bit of a hassle to undock and redock, especially since I have an external monitor hooked up to it. Undocking my laptop tends to mess up the resolutions of my monitors and causes some issues and wasted time. If I had an iPad, I’d just grab that and take it to most meetings. OmniOutliner — which many consider the gold standard in outlining programs — is coming to the iPad this year. For most meetings, that’s what I’d bring. The iPad starts up in 10 seconds and would do just fine for most note taking. If I needed to take heavy notes, I could still bring my work laptop, but otherwise a tablet makes a lot more sense. I don’t really like taking notes on pen and paper, especially since I often retype them when I get back to my desk.
  • PDFs — Like many people, I come into contact with a lot of PDFs at work. Some are from coworkers, others are guides and resources relevant to my work. So yes, I’ve printed out the most important ones and have them handy. The iPad would make a fantastic device for storing these PDFs, making them searchable and making them quite portable. My work laptop is OK, but it’s not really handy if I need to go somewhere with said PDFs. Having a smaller, lighter device that boots up much faster (my work computer with XP can take five minutes or so to boot) could be huge for office documents.

3. At home

  • Reading — I do a lot of reading of blog posts, news stories, magazine pieces, comments after stories and posts, message boards, etc, etc, etc. I either do this reading at my desktop computer in my home office or on my laptop, which is usually in the family room by the couch. Both work fine for much of my reading, but both have limitations. Laptops work fine when sitting up, but lying down with one is always an awkward experience. For longer reading, neither my laptop nor my desktop make an ideal experience. I’d much rather have something that I could lie down with. Eventually I — like just about everyone — will cancel all of my print subscriptions and go digital only. For something like The Economist, the iPad would could really be a great experience. The Economist is something that I often sit down with for hours. I’ve never done this with their Web site on my laptop, but I could see doing this on a lightweight tablet that I can hold.
  • Casually surfing the Web — Like many people in my generation, I often surf the Web, use social networks and chat while I watch TV. A laptop is fine for this, but it’s not a great couch experience. The biggest problem with the clamshell design is that it limits the different ways you can sit comfortable with it (or keep it from sliding around). A tablet would be much easier to recline or lie down with.

4. The car

  • I don’t spend much time in cars, but when I do, they are usually longer trips to either visit my family or my fiancee’s. I can count on one hand the amount of times that I have ever used a laptop while riding in a car. I have used my iPhone countless times under the same situation. I think with mobile Internet, I’d be much more likely to actually use an iPad than a laptop while in a car. This wouldn’t be a main reason that I would buy an iPad or similar tablet, but it’s something to consider.

4. What about the missing stuff?

  • Won’t you miss Flash? — Yes. And no. I’m eagerly awaiting the release of Flash 10.1 on mobile devices to see how it performs. If it performs well, doesn’t suck down a lot of battery power and fits in well with how mobile devices work, I will miss it, at least in the short term until it is eventually replaced (proprietary technology is always being replaced on the Internet). But if Flash would cut the iPad’s battery life in half, I wouldn’t want it. Battery life is really important for mobile devices, tablets are much more of mobile devices than even laptops. Ten hours is the low end of what I think a tablet should get battery wise. Adobe has had a terrible track record on OS X when it comes to Flash’s performance and reliability. Simply put, it doesn’t run as well on OS X as it does on Windows. Apple doesn’t want to rely on an outside vendor, nor do they want people despairingly their products for something a third-party has created. But I’ll reserve judgement on Flash until I see it on other mobile devices this year.
  • But what about Hulu? — This is as close to a deal breaker as you can get for me. Hulu uses Flash and unlike YouTube, TED and Academic Earth, Hulu doesn’t serve up versions of their video in H.264 format that the iPhone and iPad can use. My sense is that Hulu will create a mobile friendly version of Hulu this year, unless Flash 10.1 really takes off on mobile devices (my guess is that it won’t). But Hulu is one of those experiences that can make or break a new device. All that being said, I mostly watch Hulu in 480p mode on one of my 22-inch desktop monitors. A tablet won’t be an ideal way to watch TV shows, especially ones that require the mobile Internet (I have Verizon 3G for my Macbook, and I have no faith that I could use Hulu reliably on it).
  • Don’t you already have two computers? — Well, yes, if you don’t count the two PowerMacs that aren’t hooked up right now. If I get an iPad, it would be with an eye towards selling my Macbook. My desktop with dual 22-inch monitors is a much better work environment than my Macbook (or for playing games or for watching video or etc, etc ,etc). On the go and the couch, the iPad could very well be the superior experience. The iPad isn’t a device that you can replace all your computers with, but I do believe that it can replace one.
  • So are you buying one? — I’m leaning toward yes. I believe an iPad would legitimately be a superior device to my laptop for traveling to and from work, walking around DC and surrounding communities, going to coffee shops, lounging around my apartment, in the car and while at work for certain tasks. It’s not about what the iPad can’t do for me but rather what it can do better. All that being said, I think I’ll try it before I buy it.
  • I will not be getting an iPad, mostly because I don't want to pay the price premium, but also because I am confident that if the form factor is successful (this time), PC makers or phone makers or some other entity will produce something that will do enough at a low enough price for me to both afford AND justify it. (I also think the gap between groundbreaking devices and successful knock-offs is getting shorter. One can hope, right?)
    I think tablets are a great idea, but much like half-popped popcorn, apparently the public isn't agreeing yet. Will the improvements in screens, batteries and UI/UX be enough to put them over the top? Time will tell.
    None of this is to denigrate your analysis, which I think is very good and probably points you toward buying it. I just wish that some of these all-things-Apple cheerleaders would think the device through this thoroughly, or make it apparent if they have.

    • @Pierce,

      I think the cost depends on how you plan to use it. If this is a device that you add to your existing computing and mobile life, than yes, it's not that cheap. The $499 model has the price down pretty well, but it's pretty lacking in features.

      If, however, you would replace an existing computer with this, the price seems not so bad. So, is this an addition to product or an instead of product? Time will tell.

      For me, I would most likely replace my laptop with a tablet, instead of having both. I have a desktop, a work laptop and my fiancee has a laptop. I simply would have no justification for having both a laptop and a tablet.

      I'm not so sure that you will see devices that are similar to the iPad at a much lower price point in the short term. Many analysts were surprised at how low the price point came in at. $499 for a capacitive touch screen that size with decent power and features is competitive. Obviously, in time, we'll see the prices come down.

      I'd expect to see within a few years a device like the first-gen iPad for around $299. At that price it becomes an addition-to product. It might even become a product where a family has one main computer and several iPads.

      The public will come around to tablets in time. The problem is tablets of the past didn't make sense. They were expensive (typically much more than a laptop), had poor battery life and they had very few applications that really featured touch (after all they were based on standard OSes).

      Now, am I buying the iPad? I most likely will have to read some reviews and run it through its paces before I do. I have an iPhone, but I waited until the iPhone 3G. I liked the idea of the first one, but it didn't make sense as a purchase until the 3G came out.

      I may wait until the second generation iPad comes out or I may wait until a Chrome OS tablet comes out. I was really excited by the announcement of Chrome OS last year too.

      I most likely will get one of these devices, because I am not pleased with my current mobile computing situation. I am not considering an iPad because I want the latest tech, but rather because I think it would be an upgrade over how I currently do things.

      • @Patrick

        I agree that cost, especially if we think of it in economics terms, is
        hugely dependent on planned use. For example, you ride the MARC and
        the Metro, so an iPad makes a heck of a lot more sense in your
        environment than mine. I live in San Antonio, where there is horrible
        public transportation, but traffic jams allow you to get some
        computing done if you have a mobile broadband card–we even have 4G
        rolling out! Alas, I haven't convinced the wife that a second laptop
        nor a mobile broadband card of any kind is a necessity. I would love
        to have something netbook-sized and -powered that's a tablet, has
        Bluetooth and mobile broadband built in so I can use it as a phone and
        a browser, and has video-out and keyboard connectors for when I want
        to see it and actually type.

        As far as competitors go, there were a lot at CES from what I
        understand, so maybe there's hope, and I share your excitement about
        Chrome OS. Hell, if two or three extensions make it to the Chrome
        browser, I might not fire up Firefox again (until it makes a great
        leap forward in performance, at least). Also, if it's an open system I
        would be very willing to pay the same price for comparable power to an
        iPad. (I was also shocked at the iPad price point, but I don't know
        that it's going to go down much; I guess it depends on if Apple treats
        it like an iPhone, a MacBook or a Mac Mini.) Whether any of those
        others survive is a totally different story, but if you look at MP3
        players, there is hope.

        You hit the nail on the head about tablets and OSes—Windows Tablet
        Edition was a huge kludge and so very few apps could take advantage of
        the stylus that didn't overwhelm the computer. I have a Cintiq,
        Wacom's pen-and-screen display, and there are tasks in Photoshop,
        Illustrator and InDesign that I can't imagine trying to do with a
        mouse or (in my case) a trackball. But show me a sub-$2,000 tablet
        that'll run Photoshop without get-a-cuppa-coffee pauses, and I'll eat
        my hat. With mustard.

        In any case, I think waiting for the second generation, whoever the
        manufacturer, is a good idea—look at the difference in smartphones
        from the old Treos to the first Blackberries to iPhones to
        Droids/Nexuses (and the others generally moved up, but those are the
        leaders in each generation).

  • Dean

    Ok, my reasons are eerily similar to your (INCLUDING riding the MARC train to work Union Station). For me, the train ride and casual surfing are the biggest reasons I'm going to get one. However, I'll be waiting for the 3G one because I would love to have internet on the train.

    • Advantages of wifi-only iPad

      #3G iPad costs $130 more than Wifi-only version
      #I'll have to pay an early termination fee to get out of my contract with Verizon (probably around $150)
      #I can use a Mifi with any device that supports wifi, whereas I'd be tying my data to one device with a 3G ipad
      #Verizon has better national data service and gives me flexibility when I'm traveling (although AT&T is good in the DC-Baltimore area)
      #Wifi uses less power than 3G. If I use the Mifi to provide wifi, I'll get better battery life out of the iPad. Judging by the iPhone, the difference between wifi and 3G for the iPad will probably be good for several hours of battery.

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  • I agree with the fact that weight is key. That's what I looked when I compared netbooks. It's probably clever to test the keyboard. Where I disagree is about canceling all the paper based magazines: I already spend too much time in front of the screens, I'd rather quietly read the New Yorker in a paper version (and cut the cartoons I like).

    • Philoppe,

      I may end of keeping a magazine or two in print. I do enjoy reading those, and you can't really read and LCD screen in direct sunlight or in the bathtub.

      But newspapers? Those are being canceled for good. They come too often and they clutter up my apartment and most of what is in them I don't want. Plus, I do more reading of newspapers online than in print.

      For magazines like National Geographic and The Economist, I do most of my reading in print. But a National Geographic iPad app could really kick the print editions butt. They should really make an app that highlights their core strengths in photography, maps and infographic. All of those can be much more interactive on an iPad than in print.

      My Economist subscription is coming up next month. I think I'll try reading it on my iPad for a month or so and see which I prefer.

  • Philoppe,

    I may end of keeping a magazine or two in print. I do enjoy reading those, and you can't really read and LCD screen in direct sunlight or in the bathtub.

    But newspapers? Those are being canceled for good. They come too often and they clutter up my apartment and most of what is in them I don't want. Plus, I do more reading of newspapers online than in print.

    For magazines like National Geographic and The Economist, I do most of my reading in print. But a National Geographic iPad app could really kick the print editions butt. They should really make an app that highlights their core strengths in photography, maps and infographic. All of those can be much more interactive on an iPad than in print.

    My Economist subscription is coming up next month. I think I'll try reading it on my iPad for a month or so and see which I prefer.