One Year Later, the iPad Is Still My Favorite Computer

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Harry McCracken /

Back in December of last year, I reported on one of the most unexpected things that had ever happened to me as a user of gadgets. I’d begun using an iPad 2 with a ZaggFolio keyboard case as my primary computer. I found that I really liked it — and that for me, at least, the conventional wisdom that iPads were only truly useful for consumption, not creation, was seriously out of whack with reality.

As I explained in that story, I had my iPad-first epiphany during a trip I made to Berlin to attend the IFA tech conference. IFA 2012 is going on even as I speak, so it’s official: I’ve been doing this for a year.

Back when I started, the notion that an iPad could largely replace a conventional computer was, um, a tad unusual. Some of the people who read my story, in fact, seemed to maintain that it was impossible, or at least that I was a moron for doing so. As one commenter put it: “This article is irresponsible. The iPad 2 is still an accessory to your REAL computer. To say that an iPad can replace your primary computing device is misleading and false.”

(MORE: Coming Soon: 15 Interesting Phones, Tablets and Hybrids)

My fellow tech journalists were more polite about the whole thing. But as I said at the time, none of them rushed to join me. They said that the Zagg keyboard wasn’t comfy enough for them, or that the iPad’s screen was too small, or that the apps were too wimpy. I was having a great time, but I felt like an outlier, and I thought it might stay that way.

That was then. This is now — and even though just a few months have passed, an awful lot has changed. I still run into doubting Thomases — one commenter recently informed me that my case for the iPad as a content-creation machine was “thinner than prison soup” — but I also have plenty of company.

Mac guru Andy Ihnatko, for instance, is mostly using an iPad with an Apple wireless keyboard, and calls himself a charter member of the post-PC Generation. Not only is reporter Casey Newton happy with his iPad and ZaggFolio, but he says I provided the inspiration.

And a few months ago, I attended a meeting of the national board of the American Society of Business Press Editors where four of 13 attendees were toting iPads with external keyboards. I don’t think any of them would describe themselves as hardcore geeks or lovers of bleeding-edge technology; they were doing it because they found it useful.

I’m pretty sure it’s not just journalists who are using iPads as computers. I see people doing it in airplanes. I’ve seen them doing it on the subway. When I’m out and about, strangers run up to ask me about my keyboard. Something’s happening here, and it’s happening quickly — and so I thought I’d update you on my experiences as of the one-year mark.

Would you mind if I continued on by interviewing myself?

So are you still using your iPad for most of the things you do?

Oh, yes. After a year of this, I have no desire to go back. I’m not trying to ditch conventional PCs; they’re better for some stuff. I also don’t insist that what I’m doing is for everyone. (If using a tablet like a laptop doesn’t make sense to you, I’m pretty sure you’d be unhappy doing it.) But for me, this is the best way to work most of the time.

Remind me again what the benefits are?

These are the five key ones:

  1. Battery life. I can head out in the morning with a fully-charged iPad and use it into the evening without babysitting the battery gauge or hunting for a power outlet. Generally speaking, I don’t bother to take a power adapter with me, a move which would be unthinkable with a notebook. (I do admit that I’ve bought a Powerbag, a clever little bag with a built-in battery and charging cables for multiple devices — I sometimes use it when I travel or when I need to use the iPad for more than nine or 10 hours at a time.)
  2. Simplicity.The iPad doesn’t do as many things as a Windows PC or a Mac — and much of the time, that’s a feature, not a bug. I like not having to wrangle windows; I like not having to hunt through dozens or hundreds of features; I like not having to stress out much over security issues; I like completely unified software updates.
  3. General robustness.The iPad isn’t 100% rock-sold; apps do crash from time to time, and I encounter occasional glitches I can solve with a reboot. But in my experience, it’s far less susceptible to odd behavior than any conventional computer. The more reliable the device, the more time I can spend doing whatever I’m trying to do.
  4. Embedded Internet.Being able to turn on the iPad and get online with no additional steps is a huge boon to my productivity, and worth every nickel I pay to Verizon. On-board broadband is still a fairly rare feature with Windows laptops, and it isn’t available on any Mac.
  5. Portability. I tuck the iPad under my arm, go out for the day and pretty much forget I have it with me. The iPad-and-keyboard setup also works fine in even the most impossibly cramped airplane seat. (I once wrote a time-sensitive story while riding the Tokyo subway.) It’s true that something like an 11″ MacBook Air would be in the same ballpark, but only if you don’t count the power brick which you’ll almost certainly want to take everywhere.

What percentage of the time are you on the iPad?

Hmm. About two-thirds of the time. Most of the rest of the time, I use either a MacBook Pro (owned by my employer, TIME) or my own 13″ MacBook Air. Or, sometimes, a Lenovo ThinkPad running Windows 7.

Wait, you’re backsliding. Last year, you said you were using the iPad 80% of the time.

Well, I was. But when I wrote that story, I was working as an independent blogger, and I didn’t have an office. I don’t even have a work space at home. I just took the iPad/Zagg everywhere, and anywhere I could find a chair became my office.

When I signed up to work for TIME in February of this year, the fringe benefits included a snazzy office in San Francisco and the aforementioned MacBook Pro as my official work computer. When you’re sitting at a desk and have a computer plugged into power and Ethernet, the iPad loses some of its edge: You might as well use the machine with the larger screen.

In theory at least. Even though the MacBook Pro is theoretically faster than the iPad, it’s more prone to getting bogged down by piggy applications (*coughcough* Outlook) and troublemakers such as Adobe Flash. So I often use the iPad even when I’m sitting in my office. Like, for instance, now.

One other note: When I travel, I bring a laptop with me maybe 50% of the time. But I don’t always get around to using it.

What do you use a laptop for?

Serious graphics projects, for which full-strength Photoshop is still the best tool. I do plenty of graphics on the iPad, too, usually in the tablet version of Photoshop and including some fairly ambitious jobs. But I can do more sophisticated, precise work on a Mac or PC, and I can do it faster.

When I do web-development projects, such as putting together new WordPress sites, I usually work on a computer, although I’ve also done it on the iPad. I also use QuickBooks on my MacBook Air, but that may be more out of laziness than anything else; I could probably switch to QuickBooks Online on the iPad if I put my mind to it.

For some tasks, such as putting together presentations, it’s kind of a toss-up. I might do it on a computer, and I might do it on the iPad. But there’s nothing I do on a regular basis which is simply impossible to accomplish on the iPad.

Surely it’s harder to work on the iPad now that you’re working for a big fancy outfit like TIME?

Nope. Most of what I write — including this article — still goes into WordPress, the blogging platform we use at TIME. (It’s the same one we used at the stand-alone version of Technologizer.) I do about 98% of the required work in the splendid iPad blogging program Blogsy, and finish it off with WordPress’s own web-based tools in Safari.

When I write for TIME’s dead-tree edition, I compose my stories in Apple’s Pages word processor. Then at the last moment, I export the file to Word format so my coworkers can read it in Microsoft Office on their Macs. They’re none the wiser.

Which apps do you use?

Dozens of them. I’ve already mentioned Blogsy, Pages and Photoshop. Other essentials include Calendars, Dropbox, FastZip, Flipboard, Gtasks, iCab,, Instapaper, Keynote, Kindle, Paper, Procreate, Rdio, TripIt, Tweetbot and TuneIn. I keep adding to my toolbox, and some of the apps –most notably Blogsy — are getting better at a dizzying pace.

You keep saying “iPad.” Can we assume that you’ve upgraded from the iPad 2 to the new iPad?

Yes, but only recently. After reviewing the new model when it was released, I waited a while, then picked up a black one with 64GB of storage and Verizon LTE. I’m happy with it — in part for the super-high-resolution Retina display, but even more so for the LTE wireless broadband, which, at its best, feels zippier than my cable modem at home. And being able to use the iPad as a wireless hotspot for other devices, at no additional cost, is a significant plus.

The new iPad is slightly thicker and heavier than its predecessor, but I’ve never noticed any difference as I’ve toted it around town. I have found, however, that the battery life feels a tad shorter than that of the iPad 2. That’s an unscientific impression, and your experience could vary. And even if it is slightly briefer, it’s still better than what I’d get from any laptop I was likely to carry.

Are you still using the ZaggFolio keyboard?

Not at the moment. I keep hopping back and forth between it, Logitech’s Ultrathin Keyboard Cover and Logitech’s Solar Keyboard Folio. I like them all a lot, but don’t find any of them to be perfect.

Right now, the Solar Folio is my daily driver: I like the fact that it never needs recharging, and it’s relatively thin while still protecting the iPad on both sides. (The Zagg makes for a chunkier rig.) The Solar Folio’s only major downside other than the price ($129.99) is the unaccountably illegible reddish color which Logitech chose for the Fn-key functions on the keycaps.

Then there’s Brydge, the Kickstarter project which does its darndest to turn an iPad into a mini-MacBook. I backed it on Kickstarter in May and have been impatiently waiting for mine ever since.

Is it tough to jump back and forth between the keyboard and the touchscreen?

I’ve been doing this long enough that I don’t give it much thought. I definitely don’t pine for a mouse or trackpad.

The lack of unfettered access to the file system must just kill you.

Hey, that isn’t a question. Anyhow, I’ve found it more of an occasional nuisance than a headache. Between iCloud, the clipboard, file attachments, the Camera Roll and the “Open in” feature, I can get the documents and other stuff I want in and out of the apps I use. But I do wish there was a way to pull files off a thumb drive: When someone gives one to me, which happens quite often, it’s barely more useful than a floppy disk.

Well, the lack of full-blown multitasking can’t be good. Can it?

It hasn’t proven to be a serious problem. I can tap my way from app to app as quickly as I can move between programs on a garden-variety computer. But there are a few cases in which more multitasking capabilities would be welcome: It would be nice if more types of apps had more freedom to download and upload in the background, for example.

Why won’t you admit that you can only use the iPad for real work because you’re a writer?

I didn’t expect this self-interview to get so combative. But if you’re so sure that the iPad can’t be used for other creative expression, you might want to take it up with people like Cynthia Wick and Glen Mulcahy.

How do you print?

I don’t! I have an aging HP OfficeJet printer which doesn’t support Apple’s AirPrint technology or HP’s ePrint. The next time I buy a new printer, I’ll get one which makes it easy to print from an iPad. But I’m trying to think of instances in which I wanted to print and couldn’t, and no examples are coming to mind.

Speaking of peripherals, I use a nifty portable scanner called Doxie Go to scan paper “into” my iPad. More specifically, Doxie can send paper documents directly to Evernote — no computer involved — which means that they’re instantly available in Evernote on the iPad.

What could Apple do to make your life easier?

Let’s see. I wish that Safari’s “Add to Home Screen” feature, which lets you create an icon for a web page so you can launch it with one tap, was a full-blown Single-Site Browser option akin to Fluid for OS X, so you could treat web apps more like native apps. (Instead, it sends you to a tab within Safari.)

I’d also like a more cohesive way to deal with all my apps and all their settings and files as one giant lump of bits. It should be possible to back up everything with one tap, and restore it with one tap. But as far as I can tell, you can’t do that — either with iTunes or iCloud. Every time I set up a new iPad, I fumble my way through the process.

As long as I’m asking for things: I’d love more space. If there was a 128GB iPad, or even a 256GB model, I’d probably buy it. I want everything with me all the time — photos, music, movies, PDFs and a whole lot more. More and more, my iPad is replacing not only my PC, but also my library and my TV.

Anything else you need?

Gmail, which I depend upon as much as any single productivity tool I use, isn’t a terribly satisfying experience on the iPad:

  • Apple’s Mail app is fine, except it doesn’t give you seamless and reliable access to all the mail on the server.
  • Google’s own Gmail app is a major disappointment — it supports only one account and doesn’t deal well with messages with links in them.
  • The browser-based version of Gmail is great, but I’d rather use a self-contained app.
  • There are various third-party Gmail solutions, but all the ones I’ve tried have technical glitches, usability problems or both.

Basically, I’d be thrilled if there was anything as good as the Gmail app for Android. Maybe the creators of Sparrow, who are now part of the Gmail team, will make it happen.

So will you switch to Microsoft’s Surface once it’s available on October 26?

Like everyone else who cares about this stuff, I’m intrigued by Microsoft’s Windows 8 tablet. With its keyboard cover and general emphasis on productivity, it seems to be aimed at people like me. However, its most obvious theoretical selling point — the fact that it includes more-or-length-full-strength Microsoft Office — isn’t inherently exciting to me; I can use CloudOn or OnLive to use Office on an iPad right now, and do so only sporadically. As with any other new hardware platform, I think Surface will ultimately thrive or flop based on the overall quality of its apps, so I’m rooting for Windows 8 to be a hit.

How about Asus’s Transformer Infinity tablet, which provides a detachable keyboard?

It too looks interesting. But the selection of Android tablet apps remains skimpy, and the Transformer’s battery life falls short of the iPad. And it isn’t available with embedded broadband. I’m glad it exists; I’m not sure why I’d choose it over the iPad.

Any final thoughts for people who aren’t convinced what you’re doing makes sense?

Sure — I’ve stopped caring! We live in a remarkable era for users of computing devices. You can choose to use a hulking desktop PC with two or three humongous monitors as your primary computer. You can use an iMac or one of its Windows knockoffs. You can use a big laptop or a dinky one or something in between. Or you can use an iPad, as I’ve been doing for a year.  Or something else, like a Chromebook. Or some combination of two or more of the above.

If  you find that confounding or irritating — something to be explained away rather than welcomed — I’m not offended. But I do feel sorry for you.

MORE: Ask Techland: iPad with a Keyboard or MacBook Air for an Adult Student?

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