Can you swap your laptop with an iPad?

Tired of lugging your laptop on business trips? Imagine leaving your clunky laptop at home and getting virtually all of your work done on a slim iPad. Yes, it's possible. But you'll need adept planning, as well as some hardware, cloud services, and special apps.

With mobile apps becoming more sophisticated and cloud services making storage and data access as easy as finding an Internet connection, the iPad is proving to be a real laptop stand-in. In fact, the iPad's dramatic rise in the enterprise has some people wondering whether or not Apple's game-changing device can actually replace laptops in the future.

Let's not get carried away: Serious knowledge workers still need feature-rich apps powered by Herculean laptops unhindered by cloud computing bottlenecks. So if you work with apps that process large amounts of data or require swapping large amounts of cache data, you probably should stop reading this article.

For the rest of us, though, we really can get our work done on an iPad, at least temporarily. There are ways to get around the limitations of the iPad. "Work under the assumption that whatever you want to do, you can do it on the iPad," says Andy Ihnatko, Chicago Sun-Times tech columnist and book author, speaking at Macworld 2011 conference this week.

Much of the following advice comes from Ihnatko's session on soloing with the iPad. Here are a few tips on how to swap the laptop with an iPad:

1. Get the Right Hardware

For starters, you'll need a good carrying case for your iPad that supports various working conditions. The case should be slim and lightweight in order to maintain the sleek profile of the iPad, otherwise bring your darn laptop.

It's very important that the case turns into a stand for the iPad and offers a range of viewing angles. Many cases have only a single viewing angle, so you might run into a problem when the lighting in the room casts a glare on the screen and you can't adjust to another angle. A single angle also might not work well on, say, an airplane table when the person in front of you tilts back his chair.

Ihnatko recommends the Scosche foldIO ($49), which has multiple angles including one that optimizes typing on the virtual keyboard.

That brings us to another must-have piece of hardware: a physical keyboard. Truth is, most people can type faster and more accurately on a physical keyboard than a virtual one. If you need to create content while on the road -- more than just a long e-mail or note -- you'll want a physical keyboard.

Some cases have built-in physical keyboards, but they're often smaller to fit the width of the case. Don't constrain yourself, says Ihnatko, and get a Apple Wireless Keyboard ($69) that is the same size as the MacBook keyboard. The Apple Wireless Keyboard, which runs on 2AA batteries, isn't connected to the iPad or a case, so you can adjust the distance and angle to the iPad screen.

But the Apple Wireless Keyboard has three strikes against it. First, you can't type on the keyboard while it is in your lap because you'll be holding up the iPad, too. In this scenario, you'll have to use the virtual keyboard. Another strike is that the Apple Wireless Keyboard doesn't come with a protective carrying case.

Finally, the keyboard's "on" button often gets pushed accidentally while in a backpack or briefcase, which, in turn, signals the iPad to fire up. You don't want to arrive at your destination only to find that the iPad was on and the battery drained. In order to get around this problem, Ihnatko suggests turning off Bluetooth on the iPad when travelling.

Other hardware options, depending on your needs: Apple Camera Connection Kit ($29) for downloading images and voice recordings, and the Apple VGA Display Adapter ($29) for presentations.

2. Move Data On/Off the iPad Wisely

One of the biggest complaints about the iPad is the challenge of moving data from a PC to the iPad and vice-versa. The iPad is not an open file system; you can't copy files to it, like you can with a Flash drive.

Most people end up e-mailing files to themselves, and then opening up the file with an iPad app. This means you'll need to know in advance what files you'll be working on before heading on your business trip, as well as what iPad apps you'll need to be able to open the files and work on them. (You can also transfer files from your PC to the iPad using iTunes.)

The problem is that poor planning can result in critical files left on your PC at home. The better way to move files on and off your iPad is with cloud services, and the most popular one is called Dropbox. "Cloud storage absolutely transforms the iPad," Ihnatko says, adding that it "blurs the lines between your desktop and your iPad."

Dropbox is basically a free file folder on the Internet that appears as an app on your iPad and PC. You can access a file from any Dropbox-enabled device. Files are immediately synced to the same Dropbox account. You can also let other Dropbox account holders access your files.

3. Know the Limitations of Business iPad Apps

Getting files from your Dropbox account, though, won't do you any good unless you have an iPad app that can open them. The app also should let you work on the files. One such iPad app is QuickOffice Connect ($15), which lets you open and work on Microsoft Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides. QuickOffice integrates with various cloud services, including Dropbox.

Unfortunately, iPad apps are overly simplified. They lack the richness of their desktop counterparts, which can lead to problems on the road. For instance, QuickOffice doesn't support Word's edit tracking features that my editor uses to improve my stories.

When actually working on files, you might become frustrated at the iPad's lack of overlapping windows. When working on a presentation or document, many people conduct research on the Web at the same time, switching back and forth between the file and the Web browser. But the iPad shows only one app at a time.

Ihnatko has an interesting workaround. He uses the iPad solely for Web research and sets his Bluetooth keyboard to his iPhone where he makes changes to the document. (The iPhone also has a Dropbox app, QuickOffice app, and other word processing apps such as Elements.)

Bottom Line: Can the iPad Work for You?

Perhaps the biggest challenge iPad business travelers will face concerns printing. Apple recently added AirPrint, which lets you wirelessly print everything from photos to e-mail to documents from the iPad -- but only on a new Hewlett-Packard printer. Most business centers don't have this printer yet. So if you need to print a lot of documents on your trip, then bring your laptop.

It's important to understand the iPad's limitations and planning requirements before ditching your laptop on your next business trip. Heavy computer users, workers who depend on the full range of desktop apps, and print masters need not apply.

On the other hand, Apple hardware and cloud storage services have made the iPad a real alternative to the laptop for many people. If you are one of these lucky folks, you'll zip through airport security lines (you're not required to take the iPad out of your carry-on), whip out the iPad to get some work done thanks to its instant-on capability, and, most importantly, avoid the chiropractor because you haven't been shouldering a heavy laptop all day.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com.

Tags Applemac laptopshardware systemslaptopstablet PCs

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Tom Kaneshige

CIO (US)

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