The iPad as a Laptop Replacement- Part One

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This is certainly ground that has been covered in MANY articles, both before and after the release of the new 10.5” and 12.9” iPad Pros, and for plenty of reason. Apple’s marketing has placed the iPad Pro squarely in the conversation as a primary computing device, and encouraged this kind of examination. However, because the conversations tend to center around those of us in the Apple blogosphere and the tech community at large think, they usually focus on the iPad as a laptop replacement for US as “power users,” rather than more typical users.

The catch there is that many in the tech community are looking for more power and flexibility in their main computing device. I am no exception to this, as I pretty aptly fit Steve Jobs’ old statement that some users will always need “trucks.” My profession demands that I use a higher-end Windows laptop so that I can run specialized estimating, programming, and engineering software that our business depends on, and use this software in the field and on the go.

A Perfect Compliment

However, one thing I discovered several years ago was that an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard can also become an enormously powerful tool, even if it can’t be your primary machine. Around 2011, I was using an iPad 2 paired up with a ZAGGfolio keyboard case.

I was using an older Windows 7 Dell laptop at the time that happened to be my last machine with a spinning-disk hard drive. It was fine for what I needed for work at the time, but it certainly didn’t boot fast, was fairly large and heavy, and the battery life was starting to slip. What I found was that it was easier to handle light tasks, such as email, basic browsing, document viewing, and my tech writing on my iPad. The fact that it was instant on, had great battery life, and handled all of the above tasks very efficiently made it the perfect compliment to an older machine. Even for a “power user,” the iPad 2 had some real utility beyond just gaming and content consumption.

However, that same iPad 2 with iOS 4, and then later on 5, still had some significant limitations that held it back from being great as a laptop replacement. AirPrint had been released in iOS 4.2 in 2010, but few printers supported it at that point. There was also very limited support for the Dock Connector to USB and SD Card accessories beyond cameras and photos alone. Also, the built-in Cloud file support and App Extensibility that we take for granted now was still a few years off, making some workflows a real challenge. Without jailbreaking, which often added instability, it was difficult for a power user to get nearly enough done with just an iPad at that time. A role as a good compliment was as far as it went.

Time and Tech March On

Once I started using a laptop with an SSD a couple of years later, I found that I had less need for an iPad to speed things along at work. I still loved the device, but with a laptop that could boot up and be ready to use in 5-8 seconds, I had a machine that could really do it all, and do it fast. My iPad was still handy for work, at times, but it was no longer something that I carried with me everyday. In fact, after coming to this conclusion, I dumped my heavy and battery-hungry iPad 3 and downsized to the new iPad Mini.

While I was happy with the Mini for a while, I found that I missed the utility of a Bluetooth keyboard case. I owned and reviewed a few for the Mini, but ultimately, the screen was just too small for me to do anything but consume content. A lot of people used to say that was all the iPad was ever good for, but that wasn’t good enough for me. I still liked pushing the envelope and using it for production tasks that made sense.

iPad Iteration

Apple kept iterating on the iPad, as we saw the lighter and more powerful Air and Air 2, and successive updates of the Mini that bumped its internals. However, other than the Air 2’s slim-down, the form factors largely remained unchanged and started to seem, dare I say it, a little stale. Unfortunately for Apple, the sales numbers started to reflect that.

I had always been a fan of the platform, but times and priorities change, and I ended up going the same way. After a brief period with the iPad Air after it was released, I decided to sell it and use the money for other things. Between a bit of stagnation and the increasing size of the iPhone, my experience evidently became typical as sales fell off of a cliff.

The Law of Averages

One thing to remember is that iPad sales didn’t just go down because of people like me who left the platform. They also dropped because satisfied users held onto their devices, and those devices often lasted for years. Sometimes its hard for someone like myself to comprehend that more typical users would refrain from upgrading, even when they have an opportunity to do so. However, that’s the same way that I would regard a computer purchase today- as a tool first and toy second. The majority of users look at the iPad the same way.

The talk of iPads legitimately replacing laptops really started in earnest after the release of the first iPad Pro. However, there is a story that goes back further for some more typical would-be home computer users. Both my Father and my Mother-in-Law made the move away from traditional Windows computer to iPads before many would have thought that to be realistic.

All in the Family

My Dad already had an iPhone in 2013, but had used my iPad Mini several times and really liked the combo of portability and a screen that was larger that the one on his phone. He also had a laptop computer that was on its last legs, and was making a decision on what to replace it with. He actually ended up taking both my Mini and a Samsung Chromebook off my hands within a few months of each other. I actually upgraded to a more powerful Acer Chromebook, and was getting ready to move to the iPad Air when it released. That was almost four years ago, and he still uses both devices every day to browse the web, read email, check Facebook, etc. He got an AirPrint compatible printer, and there’s very little that he needs or wants to do that he can’t at this point.

My Father actually ended up buying an inexpensive Windows laptop a couple of years later, but I can count on one hand the number of times he boots it up per month. I think he talked himself into thinking he needed it, but once he got it, he realized that he didn’t. My kids go next door and use it more than he does. He also still had the older laptop that had died. My oldest son has turned into a computer tinkerer, and actually got that machine breathing again. He first loaded Linux, and then re-loaded Windows on it and showed it to him. My Dad just gave it to him, since he didn’t need it. I can say one thing definitely about this arrangement- I get far fewer “tech support” calls from next door now than I did over 4 years ago, and my Dad is much happier with how easy his devices are to use.

As for my Mother-in-Law, she is actually less computer savvy than my Father is, so I used to get regular calls about her Windows laptops over the years. She could boot them up and handle the basics, but troubleshooting and adding new peripherals was always a challenge, as such tasks are for many people. There’s a reason the geek Squad exists. It took her a little longer to make the switch to an iPad 2 because she and my wife used to play online computer games on a network that still required Java. However, once they moved on from that, the way became clear. When her last laptop finally bit the dust and she asked me, I recommended that she make the move.

We did have to iron out some issues for her. Before she started shooting all her pictures on her iPhone, she needed a way to deal with her camera pictures. I set her up with an adapter for her SD Card. While she doesn’t have an AirPrint printer, when we upgraded a couple of years ago, we took her our older WiFi printer. Even though it lacked AirPrint, it did have a solid iOS app available that allowed users to directly communicate with it via WiFi and print pictures and basic documents.

She has been using the iPad 2 for over three years, and while it has a couple of dings and has started to slow down, she still prefers it to a Windows laptop. Like my Father, she mostly browses, uses social media and messaging, and plays games. Also like with my Father, I rarely get calls with questions anymore. The iPad 2 is intuitive, it doesn’t break down, and she doesn’t have any problems operating it, or her iPhone.

While I’m not adverse to helping my family or friends with their devices (I actually volunteer to do it often), what makes me happy about the stability that my Father and Mother-in-Law have enjoyed is that THEY are happy. They each have devices that meet their needs and handle what they need them to do. Since they are both using older devices, it’s probably getting about that time to think about upgrading. However, for the time being, their iPads keep on keeping on and everyone is happy.

I realize that these are just anecdotal experiences of mine. However, I know there are plenty of other out there. I’ve heard several other tech writers and podcasters who have mentioned moving their parents or other family over to iPads as primary computing devices with great success. For those who don’t have needs beyond the basics of computing for home use, a standard iOS tablet, such as the current iPad Mini 4 or newer low-cost iPad, should still do the trick.

In the next installment, I’ll venture into more familiar and modern territory with the iPad Pro, based on my own experiences with it over the last two years, and more recently, my experience with how iOS 11 adds to that. Until then, I would love to hear your iPad stories. Do you use a “non-Pro” iPad as a primary computing device? Have you set up a friend or family member with one? If either is the case, I would love to hear what the experience has been like. Let me know in the Comments section below, on Flipboard, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog.


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2 thoughts on “The iPad as a Laptop Replacement- Part One”

    1. I think all of our mechanical, plumbing, and sheet metal estimators use Excel for estimating, so I’m sure that would work just fine on an iPad.

      In Building Automation, you often tend to use specialized tools from your vendor that has all of their parts and helps with prints and submittal. We have a suite of software that handles all of that and more. I think they are working on some tablet tools for the future, but I don’t expect to see them in the field for a while, and I doubt they will cover everything when they do.

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