Could the iPad Be My New Travel Computing Device?

Coincidentally, Apple happened to announce the new iPad on the morning that I came home after four exhausting days on the road at a trade show. These road trips are hard on my technology — and also on me as I have to lug all my technology around. So when I started reading about the iPad, my flight-fogged brain immediately wanted to know if the iPad could make the travel marathon I’d just endured any easier.

I work as editor of the trade journal Scrapbook Update, and travel several times per year to attend trade shows and other events to report on them for my readers. When I’m on the road I need to be able to access email; keep up with news and do research on the web; update and maintain my site; and upload content to various platforms such as Flickr and Facebook.

I currently haul a 13” MacBook and an iPhone, along with a dSLR, a Flip camera and various peripherals with me when I travel. After closely examining the specs on the Apple iPad, I believe that I could probably function fairly effectively on the road using the iPad as a MacBook substitute. Here’s how I reached that conclusion, and why I like the idea.

Weight: One of the biggest appeals of the iPad is how lightweight it is. While the iPad weighs only 1.6 lbs, my current white 13” Macbook weighs in at 4.7 lbs. I could save 3 lbs — or a whole two-thirds — of the weight I’ve been toting around by using the iPad while traveling instead of my MacBook. True, a protective case would add some weight to the iPad, but I already use a neoprene sleeve on my MacBook now.

Battery: According to Apple, the battery life on the iPad is ten hours when it is being used on Wi-Fi. My MacBook is rated by Apple for seven hours, but in reality is good for about four. Outlets are still hard to come by, especially on aircraft, and more battery life for my mobile computing would be useful.

3G: As I wrote recently, I have been looking for a back-up system that will give me a way to bypass our local cable company to access the Internet in emergencies. I’ve been shopping around, looking at various types of tethering and access cards for my laptop, but the price seems prohibitive for the amount of use I would get from it. The iPad’s built-in 3G at a reasonable price point with no contract seems like a great backup solution.

The 3G would have another benefit as well, in saving me money on Internet access while I’m traveling. On a trip like the one I just took, I encountered Internet access fees everywhere I went: at airports, in flight, in my hotel, and at the convention center. I had to make hard decisions about when to limit my activities to what was possible to achieve on my phone and when to pay as much as $12.95 for a “day” of access to spend possibly just a few minutes doing what I needed to do. Obviously a 3G device doesn’t help at 30,000 feet, but purchasing Wi-Fi on this most recent trip for all the places I could have used 3G would have cost me $120. Those savings add up quickly, and the always-on access would make my workflow easier while traveling. No more having to make hard decisions about where and when to pay to connect, and no more having to wrestle with connecting to unfamiliar networks.

Form Factor: This particular trip I just got home from was transcontinental, involving a five-hour flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles. A trip like that provides plenty of time to work in transit, but anyone who has ever tried to open a laptop on an airplane tray table knows that is easier said than done. With the seat in front reclined, even my 13” MacBook doesn’t want to open to a comfortable viewing angle and feels claustrophobic as I try to type with your hands trapped between the keyboard and the angled screen. The iPad’s tablet form would sit flat on the tray for typing (or at a slight angle on the accessory case) or could be propped directly on my legs.

There were admittedly a few sticking points for me in the initial description of the iPad as it applied to making it my mobile computing device. Initially, the lack of a camera seemed like a deal-breaker. Then after thinking about it, I realized that when I am mobile I only use a camera for two things: taking pictures, and to make video calls. For taking pictures, I have my iPhone and my dSLR. As for the video calls, more times than not, it seems that the bandwidth in the locations I am using WiFi at won’t support a video Skype call. So having the camera or not is moot, since I don’t have the services available to utilize it very often.

Another sticking point, initially, was the seeming lack of a way to get pictures from my camera into the device, since a major activity of mine on the road is often taking pictures and uploading them to my web site. This was solved with the announcement that one of the accessories will be a Camera Connection Kit that includes two components: an SD card reader that plugs into the iPad’s dock connector; and a Camera Connector that attaches to the dock connector, designed to let users connect their camera via USB cable. Despite its camera-specific name, it appears to be simply a USB adaptor for the dock connector, not necessarily camera-specific. If that is the case, it raises questions about what else might be able to be plugged into it, such as thumb drives containing iWork files to edit or a Flip camera to upload videos to YouTube.

I currently use Lightroom and Photoshop Elements on my MacBook to deal with photos and create web site thumbnails while I travel. But I could probably live without those by dealing only with the JPG files of my photos in iPad apps (I shoot RAW+JPG when working on the road to save time processing hundreds of RAW files when I am rushed to write a story), and by using something like the online version of Photoshop to edit the pictures.

One of the reasons that I’ve stuck with a 13” MacBook is that I need my computing to be very portable. I can barely imagine hauling a 15” MacBook around an event like I attended this past week, and could never take a 17” on the road. Yet my laptop is my primary computer, and having a larger screen would be nice. Leaving a bigger laptop at home in favor of toting an iPad when I travel would let me get that larger screen without having to worry about how portable it was.

The iPad is tempting because, looking at it, I can see the day where my computing line-up consists of three devices: iPhone, iPad and 15-17″MacBook Pro. My iPhone would be always with me. My MacBook Pro would be my primary heavy computing machine, with a large screen but still portable to move around to various places in my house or to other places in town (like for coworking). Then for being ultra-mobile, such as going to trade shows, I would have my iPad to use alongside my iPhone.

Would the iPad solve your mobile computing needs?

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