Under the Radar

Should You Consider the iPad?

I got my hands on one of Apple's new iPad tablet computers to find out if it can replace a laptop. This is the first in a series of posts where I'll look into what the iPad can (and can't) do.

I'll be testing the 32GB Wi-Fi + 3G model, which sits right in the middle of the iPad product line. It's got twice as much storage as the 16GB Wi-Fi-only basic model (the only one available at the highly publicized $499 price) and adds the $130 3G wireless option. Retail price for this model is $729 before you add on the $99 extended service plan. I usually shy away from paying for service plans on electronics, but I've always found that Apple plans more than pay for themselves over the life of their computers.

I also picked up the $40 Incase Grip Protective Cover, a rubber sleeve that has contoured rails on each end designed for give gamers a better grip and a boomerang stand for upright viewing of the iPad. I plan to pick up the $29 iPad Camera Connection Kit once Apple has them back in stock, so the total initial cost of the hardware after tax is pushing $1000.

Public debate about Apple products often mirrors the most toxic cable-tv political dialog, with both faithful supporters and hardcore detractors accusing the other side of stupidity and bad intentions. Of course, the truth is both more complicated and less intense than the charges and counter-charges you see on most tech blogs.

The good news is that the iPad is screamingly fast and has incredible battery life, easily matching the 10-hours-per-charge claims made by Apple. Of course, reaching those goals has required some compromises. The iPad uses a custom-designed 1Ghz A4 low-power processor and features only 256MB of RAM. That's less than half the chip speed and 1/16th of the memory of most current laptops, so the battery life comes at a cost.

The iPad uses the iPhone OS, an operating system written and controlled by Apple to maximize the performance of its hardware. To get all that speed and longetivity, you give up access to a lot of programs that desktop users and web designers have long taken for granted.

Most controversial is Apple's lack of support for Adobe Flash, the multimedia software used to power a lot of the video on the web and a huge percentage of the browser-based games. YouTube has already made all its video available for the iPad and most other video sites will rewrite their code over time, but you're probably out of luck if you play Flash games online.

The iPad will never be able to do the advanced photo manipulation of Photoshop, the high-end video editing of Final Cut Pro, the digital music recording of Pro Tools (or even GarageBand) or the video file conversion of Handbrake. If you need to use those programs on the road, the iPad won't be a laptop replacement for you.

But what about everyone else? I'm going to try to see if  I can write for and manage a blog using only the iPad.  I'm going to travel without a laptop and find out what the iPad can and can't do with no backup computer. We'll check out games and entertainment options and whether an iPad can replace your iPod or your Kindle.

Here's the tech that I'm using now and want to see if the iPad can replace: a 2.2 GHz Macbook Pro (with bluetooth keyboard and external monitor in the office), a 16GB iPhone 3G and an almost-full 160GB iPod classic. I also use a VPN connection to control a PC running Windows XP as part of my editing duties for the Military.com's Off Duty entertainment news, but the iPad won't help with that. The point is that I use both a Mac & a Windows PC every day, so I'll be approaching the iPad as someone who uses both major OS platforms.

If you've got questions or suggestions about the iPad or specific apps, email me at jbarber@military-inc.com and I'll try to get an answer while I'm trying this thing out.

My laptop weighs six pounds and the battery life isn't reliable enough for me to leave the two-pound power brick at home, so I'm really hoping a 1 1/2 pound iPad is going to work for me.

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