Can the iPad Replace a Budget Laptop?

As the GTG (Go To Guy) for my family and friends for IT help and advice, I'm often asked what the best laptop is for a certain amount of money.

In years gone by, I would scour the internet, trying to find the best available product for this limited budget, usually landing a half decent Acer or Asus machine with an adequate price to spec to quality ratio.

However, recently, this has become harder to do. I can't put my finger on exactly why but I have a feeling that it's the combination of becoming a Mac user (Macbook Air 13), the continuing global financial crises reducing budgets and the splurge of generic, low quality machines at the lower price points of the marketplace.

It has become exceptionally hard to recommend any of these machines. I feel their quality is questionable and doubt their ability to maintain either performance or build over time. They're not especially portable, often quite bulky in their design and their specs, whilst adequate, don't present a good enough user experience.

The Needs of the User

On my latest quest, I have been tasked with a £400 budget (I figure I can push this up to £500) to get a system for a student, the following functions must be achievable:

  • Creation and editing of word documents
  • Playing of music
  • Viewing photos and pictures
  • Accessing and using the internet
  • General email, twitter and Facebook access

Most small laptops will be able to handle these tasks. They have been able to for years now. So my impulse is to begin thinking about user enjoyment and interaction, areas much neglected by the generic waves of Windows laptops.

This may change with the interaction of Windows 8 RT but, for now, we live in the world we live in.

Immediately, I'm drawn towards the iPad. It's cheap, it can complete all of these functions and it provides amazing battery life, portability and user interaction. It doesn't need maintenance and technological prowess and it is, even though now ubiquitous, still a desirable object with strong resale values.

There is, however, a niggling feeling that I'm just drinking the cool-aid, seeing the £400 target and falling into Apple's reality distortion field. So I decided to see if it's reasonable to prescribe the iPad as a realistic alternative to splashing the cash on a Windows (or Linux, if that's the way you roll) laptop.

The Setup

For the sake of this mission and utilising the budget available, I propose the 16gb iPad (£399), a standard Smart Cover (£35) and the Apple bluetooth keyboard (£57). All in, this equates to £491. As a student, this could be reduced by the utilisation of Apple's student discount but, without knowing the specifics of the proposed user, I'll ignore this factor for now.

Alternatively, the Apple keyboard could be replaced with another make and the remaining cash be put towards boosting the storage to 32gb.

Indeed, the Asus Transformer Pad TF300T is an attractive proposition but I consider Android a step too close to the Windows realm of maintenance*.

This is a simple, minimalistic set-up. Unbelievably good display, simple interface and the ability to use a keyboard with the laptop, placed in position using the smart-case. Indeed, when out and about, the user has the option of taking the keyboard with them or simply using the on-screen keyboard.

* I own and use a HTC Desire HD with Ice Cold Sandwich.

Creation and Editing of Word Documents

There are now many options are available for using the iPad as a .doc creator. The user can use Google Drive, saving documents as .doc files and keeping the file in the cloud. They can purchase Pages and use Apple's alternative.

Indeed, there is an app that I use, CloudOn, that uses a remote connection to a machine using Microsoft Office. It's not perfect but it's a very good alternative and supports Dropbox, meaning all of your documents can be stored in the cloud.

Music

In the UK, there are two main options for accessing a vast array of music on an iPad without eating through the limited capacity on the iPad. These are iTunes Match and Spotify. I use both but understand that the proposed user will be unwilling to pay for both of these services.

Thus, with Spotify's new iPad app, I would recommend that they sign up for this, meaning that they will never have to pay for music and can, instead, have access to a vast library of music, both past and present, streamable or available offline.

Indeed, if you want to express the inner musician inside of you, Garage Band can sort you out.

Viewing Photos and Pictures

There are a vast array of providers that want to host your photos and allow you to make amendments to them. I'll presume there is no hardcore DSL usage with this user and state that the iPad can handle any photos you want to throw at it. Utilising iCloud (iPhone user), Facebook, Dropbox or any of the many hosting services, this couldn't be easier on the iPad.

Accessing and Using the Internet

With the iPad's amazing screen, using the internet has never been more feasible on such a small screen. The resolution is better than my Macbook Air and, with smooth pinch to zoom and the inclusion of reader in the Safari browser (neglecting solutions such as Pocket and Instapaper), there's no reason why you won't be browsing the web using this device.

In fact, for many reasons, the web-browsing on the iPad is easy, better and more enjoyable than on a laptop.

General email, Facebook and Twitter

With the ability to download free apps for GMail, Facebook and Twitter, these are all par for the course for an iPad user, with notifications keeping you up to date with what's happening in your social circles. Good luck getting that sort of functionality.

Drawbacks

Storage

The amount of native storage is definitely a drawback. Indeed, many users seem put off by the lack of storage on the iPad. But, if you control the amount of large games you have stored (Infinity Blade, Galaxy on Fire 2 etc) and utilise the cloud, you can easily get by with a reasonable amount of space free.

You won't be able to archive your photos, music and video on the device however there's nothing stopping you getting a NAS solution to "dock" with whenever you're around the house.

Connectivity

With so much of the storage and content of your machine living in the cloud, internet connectivity becomes a lifeblood for working. If you've got no internet connection, you're on your own, able to only access content stored on your iPad.

This doesn't seem as much of a hindrance as it would a few years ago, though, with most mobile devices allowing tethering and, if yours doesn't, a mifi device can be purchased for as little as £85, allowing 3G speeds over 3's mobile networks (there are different carrier variations of this).

Summary

In summary, whenever I'm asked what laptop someone can purchase under £849 (the price of a Macbook Air), I am going to point them in the direction of the iPad. It's a killer product in the non-professional space and provides many benefits not listed in the above (FaceTime, Evernote, podcasts, games etc).

However, it also covers the basis of general productivity and, with the addition of a bluetooth keyboard, can be a genuine portable work machine. Heck, I've even started programming on mine and, whilst it's my preferred way of doing it, for general HTML update or tinker it is genuinely usable.

So, what do you think? Do you use an iPad as a laptop replacement? Is it feasible to use an iPad as a main machine for the general public and for "non-techie" users?