5 Tools to Turn an iPad into a Notebook PC Alternative

By James A. Martin | Posted September 08, 2010

Want to transform your iPad tablet into a notebook computer? You could follow the lead of Japanese blogger, who gutted an old Apple iBook G3 laptop and replaced its screen with an iPad. Then again, that seems like a whole lot of work. But the quirky retrofit speaks to a larger trend: that iPad owners are increasingly seeing Apple's eye-catching tablet as a viable notebook computer alternative.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the trend, noting that a Chicago law firm now offers access to its internal computing resources to "more than 50 iPad-toting attorneys, and anticipates issuing iPads as an alternative to laptops as soon as next year."

There are several key benefits to using your iPad as a notebook pc alternative. For one thing, the iPad battery can last 10 hours or more on a charge, more than most laptops and netbooks. The iPad weighs only 1.5 pounds, while most laptops and netbooks weigh anywhere from 2.5 pounds and up. And the 3G iPad models include built-in access to mobile broadband without the need to get locked into a one- or two-year contract.

Make no mistake: an iPad has some inherent disadvantages when compared to notebook computers or netbooks. Apple's iOS 4, the iPad's operating system, famously doesn't support Flash, which can limit how you experience some web sites. As of the moment, the iPad doesn't support multitasking, though that and other features (such as wireless printing) are promised as a free OS upgrade in November. And the iPad has no webcam and no real option for adding one.

Caveats aside, traveling with an iPad instead of a laptop can be liberating -- if you equip your iPad with the right mobile tools. Here are the top five services, apps and accessories that will turn your iPad into an essential part of your small business technology arsenal.

1. AT&T 3G Data Plan

An iPad with 3G and Wi-Fi connectivity is ideal for mobile professionals. You can get online anywhere there's 3G coverage to check email, surf the Web, watch YouTube videos, and such. The iPad 3G data plans are reasonably priced, at $15 per month for up to 250MB of data and $25 monthly for up to 2GB. And as I mentioned, there's no contract.

I've used the $15 monthly 3G service on my iPad for two months now and can't imagine living without it. As a result, I'm using my iPhone 3GS's unlimited data plan a lot less, so I recently gave up the $30 monthly unlimited plan for AT&T's $15 monthly plan for up to 200GB of data. (AT&T recently discontinued the unlimited data plan for iPhones but allowed those who had it to keep it indefinitely.)

If you bought one of the Wi-Fi-only iPads, you might consider selling yours on eBay or Amazon and getting a 3G iPad instead (which cost $629 and up).

Alternatively, you could buy Virgin Mobile's MiFi 2200 mobile hotspot device, which lets you connect up to five Wi-Fi devices to the Internet using a 3G mobile broadband connection on Sprint's 3G network. While the device costs $150, Virgin Mobile doesn't lock you into a contract, unlike most other service providers who offer the MiFi. Along with the device's upfront cost, Virgin charges you $10 for 100MB of data (which expires in 10 days) or $40 per month for unlimited data.

2. Apple's iPad Camera Connection Kit

The iPad Camera Connection Kit ($29) is designed to give you two options for importing photos and videos from digital cameras. But what Apple doesn't tell you is that the kit can connect other USB devices to the iPad, which lacks its own USB port.

For example, using the connection kit, you can connect USB keyboards to the iPad for more comfortable typing; more on that in a moment. You can also attach USB microphone/headsets which, when used with an iPad audio recording app, can turn your iPad into a podcast studio.

3. A USB Keyboard

The iPad has an onscreen keyboard, and it's perfectly usable, especially in landscape mode. But typing on the keyboard for more than, say, 10 minutes at a time is a bit painful.

You've got options, fortunately -- though one of the best options isn't officially supported by Apple.

There are two Apple keyboards the iPad officially works with. One is Apple's Wireless Keyboard ($69), which connects to the iPad via Bluetooth. (Third-party Bluetooth keyboards also work with the iPad.)

But here's the catch: Many airlines don't allow the use of Bluetooth devices in flight. So if you're on a cross-country or international flight with lots of work to do, you're limited to iPad's virtual keyboard.

The other option is Apple's iPad Keyboard Dock ($69), which, as its name implies, combines an iPad recharging dock with a full-size keyboard. But I don't recommend flying with this keyboard, either. Three reasons: The keyboard dock's stand that supports the iPad juts upward, making it awkward to pack. At 1.3 pounds, it weighs nearly as much as the iPad. And you can't adjust the tilt of the iPad when it's in the dock. So if the person in the coach-cabin airplane seat in front of you suddenly reclines, you might end up having to balance the iPad and dock on your lap -- a suboptimal experience if there ever was one.

If you're a frequent long-distance flyer, a USB keyboard -- connected to your iPad via the iPad Camera Connection Kit -- is your best bet for in-flight use. Not all USB keyboards will work, however. For example, I tried using Apple's USB keyboard ($49) with the iPad without luck. The iPad error message informed me that "the attached accessory uses too much power," most likely because the keyboard includes 2 USB ports for powering peripherals.

Look for a compact, basic USB keyboard that lacks backlit keys, USB ports, or any other extra features that might draw power. One such keyboard is the USB Matias Folding Keyboard ($70; Amazon sells the keyboard for about $41.)

The company recommends using the Mac version of the keyboard with the iPad. In my tests, the keyboard worked well with my iPad, for the most part. My iPad went into auto-lock (sleep) mode after I stepped away for a few minutes, and when I returned, the iPad no longer recognized the keyboard.

I had to reboot the iPad to get it to accept the keyboard again. This didn't happen every time the iPad went into auto-lock mode, however. And you can probably avoid this problem by setting auto-lock to 'never.' This tells the the iPad not to go into sleep mode, though you'll want to turn on auto-lock mode again after you're done using the keyboard to prevent undue battery drain.

Heads up: You'll still receive an iPad error message -- multiple times, I'm afraid, when using "unsupported" devices such as a USB keyboard. The message states "the attached USB device is not supported." Simply click to dismiss the message.

4. A Dropbox Account

For your iPad to be a worthy rival to your laptop, you need easy access to the files on your laptop's (or desktop's) hard drive. That's where Dropbox comes in.

Dropbox is a free iPad app for syncing files across multiple devices and in the cloud. First, you create a Dropbox account (you get 2GB of storage for free) and a Dropbox folder on your main computer. Then, the files in your Dropbox folder are automatically copied to and synced with the Dropbox folder on your other computers, as long as those PCs and Macs are connected to the Internet.

In addition, your Dropbox files are stored in the cloud, and you can access them using the Dropbox app on your iPad (or iPhone) when those devices are connected to the Internet. You can also access your Dropbox files using DataViz's Documents To Go Premium iPad app ($15), which I'll describe in the next section.

The Dropbox iPad app provides read-only access to your files. To make edits on an iPad, you can choose to open a selected Dropbox file in a program like the iPad versions of Apple's Pages ($10; for text documents), Numbers ($10; for spreadsheets), or Keynote ($10; for presentations), or in Documents To Go Premium, which supports text, spreadsheet, presentations and other file types.

Another heads up: If the plane or train you'll be traveling on lacks Wi-Fi, you'll need to access and open any files on your iPad that you plan to work before you leave. Once you've opened a file in Pages, Numbers, Keynote, or Documents To Go, you can save a local version of it to your iPad.

5. Documents To Go Premium

Documents To Go has made it possible for handheld owners -- going back to the days of PDAs -- to view and edit Microsoft Office documents on their devices. The Documents To Go Premium iPad app carries on the tradition. It's an essential app for anyone who works a lot in Word and Excel and wants to replace their laptop with an iPad.

Documents To Go Premium plays well with Dropbox (and other online services such as Google Docs). It enables you to access all your Dropbox files on an iPad, as well as edit the files and save them back to your Dropbox account (where they're automatically synced with your computers).

The process is fairly seamless, though there are some downsides. Navigating between folders within your Dropbox folder in Documents To Go Premium can be slow and confusing.

Also, though Documents To Go Premium offers PowerPoint editing, it's a fairly clunky process. You can't edit slides in slide view; you must switch to a text editing view. Plus, you give up a lot of controls, such as the capability to move graphics around and change font size.

If you've got a lot of PowerPoint work to do on your trip, Keynote on the iPad is a much better option. You can save your finished slide decks as Keynote or PDF files. While Keynote on the iPad imports PowerPoint files, it doesn't currently export files back to PowerPoint, however.

The Wrap Up

There are a number of steps to take and services and apps to buy to trick out your iPad as a laptop alternative. And as mentioned earlier, if you've got a lot of heavy-duty PowerPoint work to do, you're probably better off with your laptop. Still, I've made two trips now with my iPad instead of a laptop, and except for a few minor inconveniences -- the inability to scroll through a pop-up menu on Facebook, for instance -- I was glad I did.

James A. Martin is the author of Traveler 2.0, a mobile technology blog, and has written about mobile computing since the mid 1990s.

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