With all of the news with the new iPad, some people might be asking the question: should I get an iPad or a laptop? The answer, of course, is yes…depending on your computer needs. Most people seem to over-estimate their computer needs (read: me) thus paying over $1000 for a laptop, when a cheaper one would have worked just the same. Thus enter the glorious world of the mobile tablet. It costs around $500, ultra-portable, amazing battery life, and most importantly, looks cool. The question remains: would an iPad work just as well as a laptop?

Last week I attended the SITE conference in Austin, Texas. It was a fantastic conference and there were many great projects and presentations, but I used this time to also conduct an experiment: instead of taking a laptop, I took just a iPad.

In truth, I was quite nervous about trying this experiment. I have a few research projects I’m trying to get off the ground, and when conducting a literature review, it’s easy to download a bunch of articles for reading later. Since the iPad is not a traditional computer, it doesn’t have a “downloads” folder, so it’s hard to keep track of your documents. Aside from that, I just needed to do normal tasks.

So, how was using an iPad as a laptop?

I’ll give you the answer now: worked great (mostly)! Buuuuut, keep in mind it wasn’t as simple as that. After all, an iPad is not a “true” laptop so there are limitations. Several times I had to go through multiple applications to access the particular file I needed, but at least there was a way.

Good

I was able to do all of the basic things a normal laptop would be able to do. Access my music (Pandora and music player), YouTube, general browsing, check email, update Twitter and Facebook, write notes (including this blog post!), and check the weather.

Also, along with announcement of the new iPad, Apple released iOS 5.1 and I was able to successfully update my iPhone and iPad, without a computer.

Bad

Because I’m in school, I have to read a ton of academic articles. Downloading them and getting them into my notation application was a challenge. I ended up downloading files to Dropbox (free), then importing them into Notability ($0.99) to make my notations. I wish that process was cleaner, but it is what it is. I don’t think this would be an issue for everyday use.

Typing on the iPad is a bit of a “thing”. It’s certainly easy with a little practice, but I take a ton of notes and typing quickly on the iPad is just too difficult. Plus, when the keyboard appears, half of the screen real-estate is gone. I say all that to say I use a bluetooth keyboard when I know I’m going to be typing a lot. I use Kensington bluetooth keyboard, which I got on Black Friday for $39.99. Good luck finding one for that price. (Currently $55 on Amazon

What my iPad looked like most of the week…

Ugly

My iPad is wifi-only, which is normally not an issue. I was connected through wireless a large majority of the time. The hotel wireless was awful though, which limited me. This isn’t so much a con against the iPad (because I believe a laptop would have had similar difficulties), but had I had an iPad 3G or new iPad, I would have been able to do much more.

No Microsoft Word; big problem. This one issue prevents the iPad from being a true laptop replacement. It’s still the best application to write documents, and no matter how hard Apple tries to push Pages ($9.99), it is no Microsoft Word. While not writing over the conference didn’t hurt me too bad, it would have been very difficult if it would have been necessary. (And yes, I do know about CloudOn (free), but it’s actually done through a bit of trickery. Try and use it without Internet. You’ll discover it doesn’t work and that’s because you are using a virtual machine that is running Microsoft Word. Potentially, there is a major privacy concern with that setup and I don’t want to take the chance.)

Final Verdict: Worked well; lack of Microsoft Word prevents it from being a true replacement

Not only did I discover I could do almost everything, it was incredibly convenient and portable. Right now, iOS is the best mobile operating system and the competition isn’t even close (though Windows 8 might give it a run for its money). The lack of Microsoft Word (and Excel and PowerPoint) prevent the iPad from being a true laptop replacement, but for normal, everyday usage, this is about as good as you can get. If you are on the fence about getting an iPad, if you already have a computer, I say go for it. If this will be your only computer and you are in school (thus needing to write a ton of documents), invest in a laptop.