New laptop vs. iPad: What would work best?
August 26, 2012 12:15 AM   Subscribe

My MacBook is starting to die on me. I've been thinking about my options for a new computer. The thought crossed my mind the other day, "Why don't I just get an iPad to replace my laptop and call it a day?" But I have a few questions, mostly pertaining to being a writer with an iPad.

I don't use my laptop for much more than browsing the Internet and reading articles. I'll occasionally play a game or two (Starcraft 2, most recently) but that's a rare occurrence (and PC gaming doesn't interest me much at all). In that respect, I think a tablet would definitely be the right choice.

However, what I do use my laptop for most is writing and not blog posts or anything like that. I write creative nonfiction. I write lots of long essays, I'm working on two books right now, and I do a lot of research for both my essays and my books. One of the big plusses of the laptop is having the screen space and the software to help keep all of that organized.

The typing is a non-issue since I've used the bluetooth keyboards and found them to be pretty decent. But managing my writing is a big concern. I'm betting there are apps to handle that kind of thing which would make it easier, but I don't know that for sure. Anything y'all can inform me about that could help sway my decision?

The major caveat of an iPad versus a laptop is that I'm already on the computer way too much. I waste a ton of time. Now, I'd like to think that with an iPad, I'd be somewhat more productive, what with the ease of reading news articles, books (I've got a busted Kindle with books tied to it that'd be nice to pick up again), and that sort of thing on the iPad's screen and form factor versus that of a laptop. It'd also discourage me from wasting all my time watching movies and TV shows on my computer since I'd have a smaller hard drive. But maybe that's not the case either. Any input on the productivity factor?
posted by Modica to Technology (25 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I purchased my iPad for grad school so I could take notes and complete papers in class. Once I bought a keyboard case to go with it, I'd say my productivity skyrocketed because I always had it with me and was always working on one thing or another. Pages ($10) for iOS works super well for all my writing needs, but I know a lot of people use Evernote and other apps to manage their writing, too. I say get an iPad with 3G (something I lack that diminishes my productivity) and go forth with your laptopless life. :)

And watching movies and tv shows and reading Kindle books and all that is super enjoyable too. Just saying.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:22 AM on August 26, 2012

If you want to use cool writing-related applications like Scrivener or Devonthink or Voodoopad or Zotero or Mendeley, you should get a laptop. If you ever want to use an external monitor, you'll want a laptop. If you want to be able to smoothly multitask, get a laptop.

In short, no question, hands down, get a laptop. An ipad should not be your primary computer if you are going to do serious writing work.

I don't think that getting a smaller hard drive is going to prevent anyone from wasting time. If you want to waste time, you will find a way.
posted by shivohum at 12:22 AM on August 26, 2012 [11 favorites]

I am a writer; on my iPad, I use Pages and Dropbox and stuff like that to (attempt to) type as if I were using Word on a desktop.

Note: It is quite possible that I'm doing things wrong, and there's a more efficient way of doing things. But these are the reasons why I don't really use my iPad for the purpose specified. If it takes me this long to figure out a better solution, maybe this isn't the best idea.

I'm not clear on how you think reading news articles, etc. will work on an iPad. But from the way I have to switch back and forth while looking up crossword clues on the iPad, and the way I know I look up articles while simultaneously writing/referring back to them on the desktop, I don't think the iPad will be great for you. You can't multitask like you're used to.

Re: Pages and Dropbox, etc., it doesn't work like Word or similar. The sharing isn't that great. You can pull things out of Dropbox, but then you have to save them as a completely separate document. You can store them in the cloud, but when you're trying to access them from a desktop, it's a little weird -- you're still going through a web interface.

Also, there's some weird thing where the capitalization is weird in Pages, but it's been so long since doing that with my keyboard, it may be easier than I'm remembering.

Honestly, when you consider that you'd need a Bluetooth keyboard (which will drain the battery like wow) and probably a mouse or mouse substitute as well, you'd be way better off just going for a small MacBook Air.

Re: productivity, here's something else to think about: if working on an iPad makes you "cope" all the time because you've built in so many workarounds, you will be less likely to get comfortable with using it, and therefore less likely to write.
posted by Madamina at 12:26 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just realized another thing, too. Soon I'm going to start doing/having to do interviews for the books I'm working on. I have a small voice recorder I carry with me most everywhere, which saves it files to an SD card. I don't use it much now but in the near future, I'm going to be having to interview a lot of people, and I know that I'd personally find an iPad in the process to be rather distracting. The iPad has no SD card slot or USB slot, does it? So I guess that kind of axes that idea right away...
posted by Modica at 12:30 AM on August 26, 2012

The iPad records beautifully through the Voice Memos app. It actually has fantastic sound quality, near-professional. I personally use my iPhone for interviews, and it works great. I can email the resulting file (usually in 8-minute chunks), plug in headphones and transcribe directly, or transfer it by syncing.

But no, the iPad doesn't have a USB or SD card slot, which is supremely annoying.

I can't remember if you can record a voice memo while typing (some apps do multitask, like playing music, but others don't).
posted by Madamina at 12:33 AM on August 26, 2012

I had an iPad, thinking it would be enough, and it wasn't - the laptop was much easier to use for what I needed (which is a lot of writing).
posted by heyjude at 12:46 AM on August 26, 2012

You could also use Google docs and have all your writing in the cloud.
posted by amaire at 1:38 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am not a writer, but I do write a lot (email, posts). I use my iPad for most of this even though: a) I have a very portable notebook, and b) keyboards are second class input devices on the iPad, vs the screen as input.

The advantage of the iPad over a notebook is that it is super portable and runs forever on a charge. I am more likely to have it with me and use it. I am much more likely to use it even if the laptop is within reach.

So, know that it is a worse device than a laptop in some ways, and a much better one in others.

I recommend it as a laptop replacement.

My setup: Origami keyboard case / stand and Apple Wireless Keyboard.
posted by zippy at 2:00 AM on August 26, 2012

I love and use my new iPad more than I though I would but I would never want to do without my laptop for writing/working. For one thing, the screen being that much smaller means that I can see less of what I'm writing at once, which makes me lose a good overview of what I'm doing. Maybe that just takes sone getting used to but so far I miss the largerscreen when wrting or researching anything of substance. Also, in terms of productivity and procrastination: rest assured that the iPad has plenty of time sink opportunities all on its own.
posted by Ms. Next at 2:04 AM on August 26, 2012

I just proved my own point by missing some typos in my previous comment: on my latop or pc I make less of those and I spot them sooner.
posted by Ms. Next at 2:07 AM on August 26, 2012

I have an iPad and an Air; I'd never want to use the iPad as a primary computer. No external screen, no same-time multitasking, limited selection of programs, etc.
posted by katrielalex at 2:45 AM on August 26, 2012

I use an iPad as my primary mobile computer (I also have an iMac at my office). I travel a lot by air and the smaller format and longer battery time, together with the less intrusive nature of the iPad vs a laptop in meetings, give the edge to the iPad over a laptop for me - but only just. If I had to write longer pieces I'd probably get something like the MacBook Air instead.
posted by boogieboy at 3:59 AM on August 26, 2012

Get a small Macbook Air, the iPad will limit you in all sorts of ways.

Even something simple such as listening to an audio recording captured on USB while typing in [your favorite writing app] is a headache on the iPad.

Next month maybe you want to use an app like Ulysses to organize the characters in your story and you're not going to be able to.

The iPad is just not ready to be used as a primary computer, as much as I'd like it to be.
posted by wolfr at 4:11 AM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I use my iPad for 95% of my personal usage, but for professional stuff, I find it a bit limited. The screen size, especially the amount of content visible while the on screen keyboard is up, matters more than I thought it would. Having an external monitor is necessary for me. Get a MacBook Air.
posted by reddot at 4:55 AM on August 26, 2012

I have had an iPad for some time now and have been using an Air for four months.

I find reaching for the Air instinctively more often even when 'just reading' on the web in order to interact (such as writing this comment). Dragging out the bluetooth keyboard or typing on the glass surface is just not going to happen on a quiet Sunday morning. No question when composing emails or writing anything longer.

Time Magazine tech reporter Harry McKracken is in the minority of professional writers who does use an iPad for writing. (He's blogged about it here.) Definitely in the minority though.
posted by scooterdog at 5:10 AM on August 26, 2012

I got a Bluetooth keyboard to do the same and it's not ideal. Switching applications is inconvenient if you're used to a laptop. Even if you stay in the browser switching between tabs is frustrating. They seem to want to reload nearly every time, which makes it difficult if you're like me and keep a number of tabs open. For meeting notes and dedicated writing, though, it's a great solution.
posted by monkeymadness at 5:32 AM on August 26, 2012

I do a lot of writing and research, and the iPad is incredible for the latter, but definitely not the former.

Ipad is unbeatable for:

- Carrying dozens and dozens of books and PDFs around
- Collating notes (on PDFs or by hand) and saving them in dropbox
- Sat alongside your laptop you can easily use it to move between notes, effectively adding another layer to your multitasking
- Saving notes on the go (even better if you have an Iphone and use a note app that auto-syncs to the cloud/to your ipad)

The problem with using an iPad for writing is several fold:

- Multitasking is terrible, so split screen writing is out of the question
- Editing speed is much slower, basically because you cannot beat a mouse for speed
- The closed architecture will annoy you at some point. It's never enough to use one app for X and one app for Y. I find myself shunting files between multiple apps, simply because they all do some things well, and not everything well

My advice? Don't bother buying a new Macbook for however many thousands. It's a really good time to buy year old PC laptops, simply because of a shift in processing power. I've spoken about this on here a couple of times recently. Save yourself a bundle on a REALLY good year old laptop, and then get a cheaper (but definitely retina) iPad as well. You won't regret the decision.
posted by 0bvious at 5:40 AM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just wanted to jump in here... if anyone is concerned that the iPad has no external monitor, there are a few ways to use an external monitor. First of all, you can use the VGA Adapter to connect it to a larger computer monitor. To connect to your TV there are even more options... the Digital AV Adapter and the Apple TV.

Personally, I use and recommend the Apple TV if you want to do a lot of mirroring of your iPad. This works over your wi-fi connection, which means you can have your iPad in your lap and be able to use the touchscreen while sending exactly what you see on the iPad screen to your TV.

As some other people have touched on, you can use Pages on your iPad and if you still want to use your laptop, just use iCloud to be able to sync your documents across both devices.
posted by pontouf at 6:23 AM on August 26, 2012

I've got exactly the same setup as Zippy. I recently started using my iPad in lieu of a laptop because I have a desktop computer and needed to be able to take notes away from home. I've been experimenting with different writing apps, but am currently using WriteUp, and doing all my writing in Markdown.

For my purposes, it's just barely adequate. Anything that I need to touch the screen for slows me down a lot. If it were my only computer, it would feel really limiting. And you can waste as much time on an iPad as on any other computer.
posted by adamrice at 6:27 AM on August 26, 2012

Get an 11" Air. The iPad has clunky multitasking, no Scrivener and no file system. This last is maddening. The 11" Air, on the other hand, is a nearly perfect laptop. Small enough and light enough that you'll have no trouble carrying it with you wherever you go, but with a full size keyboard and a decent size screen and very good battery life.
posted by zanni at 6:36 AM on August 26, 2012

I do almost all of my writing and computing on an iPad. The essential pieces for me are: a case that makes a decent stand for holding it at a laptop-screen type angle; and a keyboard (I use an Apple bluetooth keyboard). I like the flexibility of being able to separate the iPad and keyboard, and I actually find it lighter and more convenient to carry both than to carry a laptop. Setting myself up at a table is also quicker and easier than getting out a laptop, in my experience.

Earlier this year, I decided to try to see how much of my computing I could switch to the iPad. The things I was still doing from the desktop included money management, printing, uploading images to my blog as well as text, and e-mail management. I have found apps that make all of these things possible, including printing now that the newer iPads support it. The Blogsy app for blogging is actually my preferred way to write for my blog now.

What I haven't yet solved is e-mail management; I had filters set up that sorted e-mail into a number of folders as it came in, and the Mail app on the iPad doens't recognize new messages and give me an indicator unless they're in the InBox, so I had to abandon my filters. I haven't done much looking into whether there's a better mail app.

I would agree that where the iPad falls down is multi-tasking. Our desktop setup at home has two monitors, and I love it that I can be looking at a document in one while keeping reference materials open on the other. It's also great for the way I manage money, since I can have my credit union webpage open on one screen and my cash management spreadsheet open on the other.

Also, I am intrigued by Scrivener for a writing project I'm thinking about, but although it's supposedly been in development, there's no app for it. But that hasn't been a major problem for me.
posted by not that girl at 7:25 AM on August 26, 2012

I've tried to write on an iPad and found it acceptable for smaller projects. Pages is very good for composing letters and simple layouts. Some of the Dropbox syncing text entry apps are quite nice:

Daedalus in particular is very good for composing longer pieces of fiction or proposal as it offers a distraction-free type of environment. It supports markdown and can generate and email HTML and PDF output. It has one level of folders.

Writing Kit is very good for blog posts or research writing as it has a built in web-browser pane where you can look things up while still in your editor. Also supports markdown, as well as a follder style filesystem.

If you're blogging with WordPress, the WP app isn't fantastic but it does support image posts and minor maintenance.

So for me, the iPad is -- from a software perspective -- just fine for writing.

The issue, though, is text input: I found it impossible to have anywhere the kind of throughput on the screen that I did with a physical keyboard. I love a physical keyboard. And I schlepped around an Apple BT wireless keyboard for a while, along with the iPad and a stand, believing against my own better judgement that it was a good alternative to a laptop for writing. But it isn't.

Once you are carting around a physical keyboard, even in the form of one of those lovely Logitech keyboard covers, then you are basically at the form factor of a MacBook Air. It's just as thick and just as heavy as an Air, and costs about as much as a refurb 11" Air, if you get anything other than the base iPad.

If the iPad had some kind of fold-out or slide-out wisp-thin keyboard that didn't cover the screen, it would be just fine with the available apps. But because you'll want a real keyboard instead of the screen keyboard, it's just not adequate for hours of work.

So I can't recommend it, for full time writing, as one's only system. If you can only have one, either an iPad or an Air, and you're a writer, get the Air.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:43 AM on August 26, 2012

This exact same thing just happened to my MacBook Pro. I recommend buying a solid state hard drive (I went with this) and then paying a tech store $100 to do the install. Or do it yourself if you have the skills. It's like getting a brand-new computer for around $250.
posted by thecolor12 at 10:34 AM on August 26, 2012

Yep, Macbook Air. If you haven't played with it yet, Scrivener is a killer app for someone like you who relies on writing with research for a living. You can also consider some "distraction-free" writing software like Byword if you feel like you need a space when using the Air where you can write without getting distracted.
posted by Apropos of Something at 2:50 PM on August 26, 2012

If you want something to write on, you want something with a keyboard built in. The MacBook Air is quite compact & portable.

As noted, the best Mac deals are usually the refurbs. My present MacBook was just such a refurb, and is still chugging along happily almost 3 years later (albeit with many upgraded parts, as it was from back in good old days of 2010 when Macs were easy to upgrade).
posted by akgerber at 8:03 PM on August 26, 2012

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