The Apple iPad as a productivity tool?

When Apple announced the iPad, Steve Jobs positioned it in the space directly between the laptop and phone. That greatly interests me because there are moments in my life where my phone is too small and my laptop too large. While the iPad clearly won’t replace my phone anytime soon, my question is: Can it replace my laptop on occasion and serve as a content creation as well as content consumption tool?
A few weeks ago, I deliberately left my laptop at home for a week of heavy business travel. Instead, I relied mostly on three phones: an iPhone, a Pre and an HD2. And now I’ve been using a production iPad for the four activities that were difficult and uncomfortable on my phone. Here’s what I learned.

Text Entry and Editing: While most modern smartphones are designed with mobile email in mind, I find that they’re best used for email triage — they’re great to quickly check what’s important, what requires an urgent response, and what to delete. Emails that require long responses, however, don’t work well for me on phones. Likewise, while I’ve written in the past on small screens, editing and creating long documents on a phone is a challenge. For my tests, I used the iPad’s email client along with iWork for creating as well as editing text. The large 1024 x 768 display made a huge difference in the way I was able to work. I was pleasantly surprised by the enhanced email views which made it easier to mange and mail and how the large screen facilitated writing long email responses. The larger screen made seeing and editing documents much more pleasant. I found the onscreen keyboard acceptable for both editing and moderate text entry, but when it came to writing long documents, I found it much easier and more productive to use the iPad with either the keyboard dock or a Bluetooth keyboard. (I had no issues with using both Apple’s Bluetooth and keyboard and old Stowaway foldable keyboard.) Verdict? The iPad can be used for long document creation and editing with the onscreen keyboard — but if I’m doing it on a regular basis, I’d want an external keyboard with me.

Working With Numbers: One task for which phones have failed me time and again was attempting to read fairly large spreadsheets — I don’t even bother trying to create them. This is where the iPad’s screen came to the rescue once again. The crisp display made all the difference. I had no issues importing Excel files into iWork and seeing the data I needed at a glance. Creating the framework of a consumer survey was a breeze and I didn’t even need to resort to an external keyboard. However, Numbers doesn’t export natively to Excel, making a connection to iWork on the desktop necessary to share with Microsoft Office users. Verdict? I wouldn’t want to build a monster five year revenue projection on it, but I’d have no problem viewing or editing such a document. Numbers and the iPad mesh well, although I’m looking forward to seeing how other third party Office apps fare with Excel compatability.

Presenting: This is another difficult — or impossible, depending on the device — task to perform with a phone. Thanks to the iPad’s support for VGA-out via an added dongle that costs extra, presenting should be a non-issue, but wasn’t something I could try. Apple’s dongle wasn’t available for me to test, so this is something I’ll need to revisit in practice. One issue I did find is that while Keynote works well importing many PowerPoint presentations, it’s much like its big brother on the desktop, socomplex presentations will need tweaking – in some cases quite a bit – in order to be usable. Like Numbers, there’s also no PowerPoint export.

Battery Life: While not an activity per se, one of the challenges of replacing your laptop with a phone is battery life. No phone I’ve tried could handle the extra workload I put on it with extended email and productivity use. The iPad’s battery life is excellent. I haven’t been able to test Apple’s ten hour battery life claim directly, but I had no problem getting through full days of testing and use without a need to recharge. Given my usage, I could easily see getting through a couple of days of moderate use and at least a full day of heavy use on a single charge.
Bottom line? My first impressions of the iPad as a productivity tool are pretty good. The XGA display renders it much more usable than many netbooks and its performance proves quite capable of handling complex tasks. In addition to Office tasks I also used SketchBook Pro and PhotoGene to both create and edit graphics and photos. Both allowed a degree of sophistication not found in their iPhone counterparts.

So what’s missing? The required accessories. In order to make the iPad a real productivity tool capable of replacing your laptop, you’re going to want a Bluetooth keyboard, the VGA adapter for presenting, and a copy of iWork (or another compatible office suite). Even then, you’re still going to be missing some of the functionality that you’re only going to get on a full computer. As for me? Given the iPad’s relatively light weight, I can envision traveling with the iPad in addition to a laptop on long trips, leaving my laptop in the hotel room and using the iPad throughout the day and taking just a smartphone for evening use. For shorter trips of less than a week, my laptop’s going to stay home and the iPad will be my new travel buddy. As everyone’s case is a little different, I welcome thoughts from others as they receive their devices to let me know their use cases and productivity scenarios. While the iPad may look like a large iPod touch, in terms of computing, it’s much closer in functionality to a PC than a phone. The net result is a framework for computing for the next generation of devices. In the long run, that might be what’s most important.



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