Can an iPad Replace a Laptop? (2011 edition)

It’s easy to forget now, but when the first iPad was announced in early 2010, there was much uncertaintly surrounding Apple’s new product. One of the big questions was whether it served as a laptop replacement.

I have an iPhone, and I have a laptop – why do I need something in between?

Now that we’ve all had well over a year with the iPad (and a growing pool of other tablets), it’s time to revisit this. Has anything changed?

One thing we know is that it didn’t take long for consumers to warm up to the idea of owning a tablet. Apple sold 14.8 million of them in 2010, and is targeting 40 million iPads sold in 2011. Customers have obviously found uses.

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Casual Use

We know that tablets are great for casual computing tasks. Simple functions that are mildly enjoyable on a notebook or PC become comfortable and personal on a tablet.

Scanning news feeds, browsing the web, emailing, reading an eBook, connecting on Facebook, tweeting… for these casual tasks, there’s nothing quite like kicking back on the couch with iPad in hand.

image: eyexd.com

The iPad is also quickly becoming a viable gaming console. While not everyone likes controlling a console-style game with HUD touchscreen controls, people are getting used to it. Standout titles like Infinity Blade, 9mm (and the other ten billion Gameloft console clones), and Dead Space are showing that the iPad can do a lot more than play casual classics like Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies.

So at this point, what reasons do you have to own a laptop in addition to (or instead of) a tablet?

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When the iPad launched, the saying went that “it’s for content consumption,” and that PC’s and notebooks were for “content creation.” As many strides as the iPad has made, our examination found that the future hasn’t arrived as quickly as some thought it would.

Professional Use

While simple content creation is becoming increasingly possible on the iPad, the same can’t be said for advanced creation.

Sure, you hear the occasional story of an artist creating their latest track entirely on an iPad. Music videos have been shot on iPhones and edited on iPads. But those are just headline bait – and far from the norm at this point.

Writers

For writers, a tablet simply will not do.

Sure, you can use a bluetooth keyboard with the iPad to type more easily, but where are you typing? If you can afford to do all of your writing in the iWork Pages app, then perhaps the iPad could work. But once you add a second accessory to the mix, wouldn’t a laptop be easier?

For bloggers (or other writers who use a web-based portal for submitting work), sites like WordPress aren’t optimized when opened on a tablet. A great iOS app called Blogsy duplicates much of the full WordPress functionality, but it’s still no substitute for direct input on the full website. The iPad, at this point, is nothing more than a novel backup tool for most pro writers.

In the next five "Sex & the City" sequels, it isn't likely Carrie Bradshaw will be switching to an iPad. (image: tgdaily.com)

Graphic Artists/Designers

When it comes to professional-level photo editing, a high-end notebook is a Harvard graduate, and the iPad is a first-grader. A touch-screen interface has the potential to (one day) deliver advanced photo editing and graphic design with a level of personal connection that desktops and laptops can’t achieve. But that’s still far off in the future.

Probably the most advanced photo-tweaking app on iOS, Photoforge 2, doesn’t even remotely hold a candle to Photoshop Elements (which itself is a watered-down consumer version of professional Photoshop). While the app adds support for “layers,” this is a far cry from the intuitive handling of layers that Photoshop users are accustomed to. Being able to select portions of a photo is essential when dealing with layers, and this app makes it awkward and cumbersome. It’s a promising start, but not anything any professional (in his right mind) would even consider using.

Filmmakers/Video Editors

The iPad fares much better for video editing than it does for photo editing, as the excellent iOS port of iMovie is more intuitive than most PC video editing programs. But when you’re talking about advanced editing, there’s still no replacement for a good laptop (particularly a MacBook with Final Cut Pro 7 installed).

(image: magictorch.com)

Aside from a watered-down feature set, probably the biggest obstacle to pro video editing on the iPad is the importing of video content. If any professional tried to take video with the iPad 2’s camera, he should be sent to Bellevue. Sure, you can sync media via a camera connection kit, but not all cameras are compatible.

Musicians/Sound Engineers

Garage Band for iPad is a great addition, but – again – it’s miles away from replacing expensive professional-level apps like Pro Tools, Cubease, or Apple’s Logic Studio. It’s arguable whether it can replace Garage Band on a MacBook for casual users, but it doesn’t come close to working for more high-end musical needs.

Other Professionals

If you remove niche creative professionals from the equation, the areas that you’re left with are where the iPad is rapidly making a splash. Many pros can, believe it or not, possibly find a tablet to be more advantageous than a laptop.

Office employees who need to roam from department-to-department while performing various tasks could find a tablet to fit the bill. This area has the potential to really blow up in the next few years as mid-grade tablet prices come down, and specific software for these needs becomes more prevalent.

Medical professionals could also find tablets to be a big plus. Nurses can use an iPad to check in a patient and log preliminary tests. Doctors could check patient records and examine X-rays using slates.

(base image: hughlaurie.de)

Retail or customer service agents, delivery people, and real estate agents… these are all examples of other fields that can potentially use a tablet’s portability and touchscreen interface over a full notebook.

These fields have the most potential for professional tablet use, but even they are slow to make the transition.

Tablets’ Biggest Limits

Storage space is one of the biggest current limitations of tablets. If we’re talking about iPads, you’re looking at 64GB tops. This could work for casual users, but for more advanced needs it’s out of the question. Some people would run out of space in a few days, using it as their primary device.

The lack of a physical keyboard can create problems for various activities. Bluetooth keyboards and a variety of other creative accessories and add-ons can be used, but when carrying a second piece of hardware becomes necessary to get full functionality, how advantageous is it to have a tablet?

Additionally, only certain video formats are going to be supported on an iPad. If dealing with a variety of video formats is something you do (professionally or personally) – you can’t just sit back and hope that it will be in a format supported by your tablet. You need a notebook.

Software compatibility is another huge thorn in the side of tablets. After hearing “there’s an app for that” so many times, it’s easy to forget that most of those apps are relatively simple, and meant for casual activities.

Can it Replace My Laptop?

Don't do it!!

Whether you can replace your laptop with an iPad is going to depend on what your needs are. In early 2010, casual computer users could arguably replace a laptop with an iPad. Now it’s a no-brainer. When it comes to content consumption, a tablet is lighter, more portable, more comfortable, and more personal.

If part of your life involves creating professional-level content, tablets still have a long way to go before becoming your primary device. They don’t qualify now, and they won’t next year. Customers aren’t used to spending more than $10 for most tablet apps, so those consumer expectations could slow the march in this direction too.

The answer, therefore, hasn’t changed too much in a year. Tablets are moving in a “primary computing” direction, but they aren’t exactly sprinting. Maybe we’ll check back next year to see if the “tablets are for content consumption, notebooks are for content creation” cliche has changed. Right now it’s as true as ever.

Have any of you traded in your laptop and gone the “all tablet” route? If so, have you run into any roadblocks, or is it smooth sailing? Do let us know down below.