Josh Lund

Ditching the Laptop for a Tablet: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Some folks out there would say that a tablet can do what a computer used to, and others argue that while they are always improving in capabilities, tablets are still not occupying the same space in terms of computing power. Desktop computer sales in general have been on the decline for several years now, and tablets keep trying to further bridge the gap. As someone who spends many days testing, evaluating and re-evaluating software and hardware, this situation begs me to answer the question: can I really ditch the laptop?

Several months ago, I set out to answer this question when it was time for new technology purchases. While I’ve had an iPad for a long time, I have also had a laptop, so I have not been forced to use a tablet for higher computing functions; I just got out the computer. In order to force myself to explore the tablet further, I elected instead to purchase a desktop for the office, and an iPad Pro (with Apple Pencil) for everything else. This also coincided with the purchase of a desktop computer for home, so rather than carrying everything back and forth, I would just carry the iPad, and use a desktop at home and in office. This effectively would make the tablet the device I use for anything out of the office: mobile work on the train, meetings with faculty and staff, and workshops and presentations would all be surfaced on the iPad. An added bonus would be the roughly 5 pounds I’d shed from my backpack for the commute by not carrying the laptop.

I was a little nervous, but it has now been several months, and I am happy to report that the experience has been largely positive. I’ll detail the good, the bad, and the ugly for you now.

The Good

  • I’ve already detailed the weight advantage—my bag felt tremendously lighter on the train to and from work. This was one of the main reasons I even considered this move.
  • Having the Pencil to annotate and highlight in some programs is really nice—I can mark up documents, it makes note-taking faster in many cases, and I can mix in a diagram or drawing anywhere I’d like.
  • I’ve been using a folding Bluetooth keyboard for typing, and that has been far superior to just trying to type on the onscreen keyboard.
  • Using services like Google Drive, Box.com and Dropbox.com has allowed me to share documents between both desktops and the iPad seamlessly—I don’t need the laptop just to save certain files and work on them at home. Instead, I can load them up on the iPad, work on the train and sync when I get home. Or I can know that the file will just be waiting for me on my computer when I get home.
  • Having a serious ruggedized case on the iPad makes me feel a lot more confident carrying it around.
  • I have Reflector 2 on the desktop, and that has been great for putting my iPad screen on the computer (it’s wall-mounted). An extra bonus with Reflector has been that it’s allowed me to let faculty share their screens with my giant monitor in meetings, so we don’t have to look over each other’s shoulders.
  • Sharing documents and data between apps sometimes actually works better on the iPad.
  • Most of the time (probably 80%), I am using email, calendar, project/task management software, and instant messaging on the iPad, and it handles those functions very well.
  • Occasionally (maybe 10% of the time), I will use it to present, where the Pencil makes live annotation possible. 

The Bad

  • Despite what I hoped, I just can’t draw everywhere. There are specific programs and specific functions within those programs that will let me draw—I can’t simply put Pencil to iPad and draw away.
  • The Pencil also seems to be always on. I may not use it for a week at a time, and suddenly it will have a low battery, which makes me think it’s been trying to sync and re-sync even when I’m not using it.
  • The aforementioned Bluetooth keyboard has a bad habit of folding suddenly when it’s in my lap on the train, so it’s not that useful there. It’s also pretty small, so my big fingers make a few typos more than usual.
  • The split screen function works ok, but it’s not quite ready for prime time—it doesn’t work in every app, and sometimes when I do use it, it makes the windows so small that they are hard to interact with, even with the fine point on the Pencil. (Full disclosure: I chose the 9.7″ model for its portability, so your experience may vary if you have the larger model.)

The Ugly

  • Some functions just aren’t the same. There are some things I simply cannot do because the software doesn’t exist, or they are wonky enough or unreliable enough that there’s just no substitute for a computer. For example, Tableau, SPSS, SAS, or any other heavy analytics software isn’t going to cooperate. The versions of Microsoft Office are app versions (read: lite and pretty) rather than desktop versions, so you can’t do everything you would elsewhere. Differences abound.
  • Work performed through online sites such as blogging, article browsing, and other web applications can be hit-or-miss. There are some places on the web that just plain don’t work right, that work perfectly without incidence on any computer (including my 1990s-era homebuilt Linux machines). I’m not sure if it’s because of the lack of Flash/Java support on the iPad, or the sites themselves, but work beyond browsing isn’t always a positive experience.
  • I didn’t have as positive an experience with screencasting videos as I would have liked. While I’m aware that there are numerous iPad screencasting programs available, and I could very easily take video of myself through the iPad—it was not the inability to screencast that was the problem, but rather the setup. Unless you want your video to look like it was shot on a Steadicam, you will need a rock-solid setup to use that will put the camera in just the right place at the right angle to get a good shot of you. This sounds easy, until you consider that you also have to have the iPad at a good angle to read your slides and be able to annotate them effectively. I often find that the angles for good shooting and the angles for good interaction with the iPad are vastly different. For example, if I put it down like a keyboard and draw flat with the kickstand on my case out, I’ll get great annotations, but the camera angle is going to be a great big shot of either the bottom of my chin or my forehead. Conversely, it’s really hard to draw on it when it’s placed at a mostly upright angle like a computer monitor would be, but great for filming my face.

Takeaways

Yep, there are some things I just can’t do with the iPad that a laptop would let me do. Choosing to go this route for mobile computing meant giving up some things in favor of some others. Here’s a table of what I gave up versus what I got:

What I Gave Up What I Got
Total weight of Macbook Pro+case: ~5 pounds Total weight of iPad+Pencil+keyboard: ~1.5 pounds
Full-size (portable) keyboard
  • A truly portable keyboard
  • Bonus: I also have desktop keyboards with the luxury of a number pad, which the laptop never had.
App versions of software are lighter on features Pencil lets me annotate in many apps
Some software just isn’t available Between-app sharing works better on iPad in many cases

In the simplest terms, I have traded some computing power for portability. I knew this going in, so it’s not a big revelation. However, I’ve been on the tablet front for a long time—I had a tablet laptop in 2005 when they were just taking off—and I can honestly say that I’ve been able to do at least as many things with the iPad Pro and Pencil as I was able to do on that Gateway, and the gap is narrowing all the time. Had this not been the Pro model iPad, the gap would be wider simply due to processor power and speed, and other raw hardware factors.

Another bonus is that I can get ruggedized hardware for mobile devices that I just can’t find for laptops without buying some really spendy MIL-SPEC gear, so I can feel confident taking this stuff on adventures where a laptop would fear to tread.

All in all, I’m happy I chose to buck the trend. The tradeoffs are not insurmountable, my back thanks me, and I can adapt to changing situations easily with a kickstand case, folding keyboard and pencil. I feel like a survival expert every time I go to a meeting!

Josh Lund

About Josh Lund

Josh Lund is an Instructional Technology Consultant at DePaul, and a former teacher turned mad scientist. After completing a B.M. in Music Theory/Composition at St. Olaf College and an M.M. in Composition at Northern Illinois University, he spent six years teaching instrumental music at Elgin Academy, William Penn University, and Central College. He also worked as an active performer and clinician before returning to Illinois to complete a second master’s degree in Instructional Technology at Northern Illinois. A life straddling two different disciplines, technology and the fine arts, has led him to researching teaching technology in the collaborative arts, multimedia and recording technologies, and user interface design . He is really enjoying the fact that his job lets him play with technology tools all day and then teach others to use them. Josh still writes and performs on occasion, teaches the occasional wayward bass or guitar student, and is an avid gardener and disc golfer. He enjoys cooking, traveling, and the outdoors, particularly when his family is also involved.

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