The iPad has been heralded as a great device to travel with, more portable than a laptop, more powerful than your smartphone.
But is it really?
We recently took a trip to Northern California, and we brought the office iPad along for the ride.
We live in Brooklyn and we went to Palo Alto. Those are two of the densest populations of Apple enthusiasts on the planet, so our trip was no doubt fairly representative of the iPad travel experience.
To make it through three days away from home, we packed:
- Our personal computer, a Sony Vaio, for actual computing.*
- Our work computer, a Mac, because we can't afford Photoshop.
- The iPhone.
- A digital camera, not pictured for obvious reasons, but represented by the massive pack of batteries we needed to keep it running.
And, of course, the iPad.
* Why not just do everything on the work computer? Because using Macs all day crushes our will to live.
Everything you've heard about the iPad's long battery life is true, and it is wonderful.
This is the one advantage the iPad has over the devices on both sides of it -- smartphones and laptops. It crushes both of them.
We're used to picking our spots to use our computers on long flights. Unless you're flying nonstop to Australia, that isn't going to be a problem on the iPad.
We never plug our iPhone or iPod into a wall; connecting it to a computer is just as easy and is something you need to do from time to time anyway.
That's what we expected to do with the iPad, so we didn't think to pack a power cord. Unfortunately, the iPad only recharges when connected to a fairly new Mac, bad news for a guy travelling with a new PC and an old Mac. This meant a trip to the Palo Alto Apple Store for a new cord.
It's pretty bulky compared to a simple USB. That's not a huge deal because of the battery life, but the last thing I need is more space and weight in my bag given over to electronics.
Using most laptops in the air is a pain, because there simply isn't enough space.
The iPad is easy to take out and put away, fits easily in your lap or on the tray table. Not having to flip anything open is a huge boost, too. And if you're working on something you don't want the person next to you to see, it's much easier to turn away. (We were sitting next to a Googler on our return flight, so you never know.)
Watching a movie on a plane (or under similar circumstances) is the ideal use for the iPad.
That's what we expected to find, but it was still a pleasant surprise when we first watched something. To be sure, this is no way to appreciate great cinematography, but it's a far cry from the sad, eye-straining futility of watching video on your iPhone.
The down side is getting video to watch. Airline wifi, at least the version available on our flight (American Airlines), is fairly primitive, nowhere near Netflix ready. For a Netflix user, iTunes 'rental' prices are painful, and we didn't feel it was appropriate to load an office gadget with pirated material.
It took a long time, but we were able to load some YouTube videos. As you can see, the Wu-Tang Clan look (and sound!) terrific on the iPad.
When I wasn't actually on the plane, I didn't have much use for the iPad.
The iPad's bulk advantage over a laptop makes it much nicer to use in cramped conditions, as on a plane, but it isn't really any easier to move around with. I tried walking around with it briefly, but it was a total non-starter.
The size difference between a laptop and an iPad becomes pretty meaningless, because this is a binary issue: either you need to have a bag with you, or you don't. Tablets might prove to be terrific for women who carry fairly large handbags, but we don't own or plan to own anything that does fit the iPad but doesn't fit a computer.
There are tons of great iPhone apps and iPad apps to help you travel.
We expected to perform a lot of these tasks -- checking our flight status, looking up a place to eat in the terminal, etc. -- with the iPad, since we prefer the larger screen, and, hey, we were carrying an iPad.
But it didn't work out that way. It's part of the nature of travel that these are tasks you tend to perform on the move, often literally. A gadget you can pull out of your pocket and use with one hand, if necessary while walking, is infinitely more convenient.
We're not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing about having an iPad, but one of the most salient features of the iPad experience is that strangers constantly want to talk to you about it.
That's something that will no doubt change as tablets become more common, but for now, misanthropes beware: people will come up to you and ask for a review.
If you have trouble meeting new people, maybe that's a great perk.
Having an iPad with you on a trip is a lot nicer than not having one. But having $500 is even nicer.
There are situations in which the iPad is absolutely wonderful; we found being on a plane is definitely one of them. But even there, it is an extra gadget, not a replacement -- we still needed our laptop so we could get some actual writing done.
Some day when tablets are cheaper and we're richer, we will no doubt buy one, and it will be great for travelling. But if you don't have a lot of disposable income, we wouldn't put this on your short list of things to buy for your travels.