On the Road with My iPad

Well, I am at Chicago's O'Hare, waiting for my flight to Stockholm, Sweden, where I'll be giving a presentation on trends and concepts in mobile computing. The plan is that I'll woo the audience by whipping out my new iPad and do a long Keynote presentation using it. In theory, I should have no problems. I usually take the MacBook as my main computer, but this time it came along as backup to the iPad. How did that work out for me? Amazingly well!

Of the many hours I used a computer during this whirlwind trip, it was 95 percent iPad and 5 percent MacBook. The only time I really used the MacBook was while waiting for a connection in Chicago. I had problems with connectivity during my four-hour layover at Chicago's O'Hare's International Terminal. I have a 3G version of the iPad, but couldn't get a useable connection to AT&T's network. I wasn't even able to get e-mail or use the AT&T Mark the Spot app (free, app2.me/2543) to notify AT&T about the problem. There's always Wi-Fi, right? O'Hare's Wi-Fi service is provided by Boingo, and I do have a Boingo account. Unfortunately, Boingo wants you to log in using its downloaded application. One's available for the iPhone/iPad, but I hadn't downloaded it before hand and couldn't do it now because… I couldn't get online! In the end, I had to use my MacBook. (I mean, honestly! What good is the iPad if you have to schlep along a big old MacBook?)

Instant conversation starter in Sweden

The iPad was not yet available in Sweden when I arrived in Stockholm, and it was an instant conversation starter wherever I took it. The most asked question was, "How well does it work?" My consistent answer was, "Wondrously well!"

In addition to the iPhone's small screen, the thing that always kept me from considering it a computer substitute was Safari. Sure, the iPhone version works reasonably well, but there's just too much scrolling and too many sites that redirect you to their dumbed-down "mobile site," whether you want to go there or not. There's none of that on the iPad.

I did miss multitasking. Like most people, I'm used to having numerous windows open, switching between them quickly, copying information back and forth between them, etc. Having to open and close apps all the time is not a real big deal, but it definitely interrupts workflow.

While I was in Stockholm, I stayed at the brand-new Elite Hotel Marina Tower. It's a wonderful venue for conferences and a great place to stay if you're visiting Stockholm. But they blew it when the set up their Wi-Fi system. You do get three hours of free Wi-Fi, but they hand you login information on small, Chinese-fortune-cookie-sized snippets of paper with loooong, complex user logins and passwords. Entering those on the iPad was no fun. In addition, their system was designed for laptops, not iPads. When you logged on, it displayed a little window that showed the amount of usage time you had left and let you log out. Unfortunately, the log-out did not work on the iPad. I could not log out and stop the counter when I was finished checking my e-mail. Consequently, I used up my free time quickly and had to buy more (overpriced) Wi-Fi access time and get another loooong login and password. Note to those in the hospitality industry: Wi-Fi should be free, and business-oriented hotels should make life easier for their guests—not harder!

Making a presentation in Stockholm

The conference organizers asked me to submit my presentation beforehand in Microsoft PowerPoint format. Unfortunately, I had created it using the Mac version of Keynote, Apple's equivalent of PowerPoint. Keynote has an export function that will convert presentations to PowerPoint format; unfortunately, the results aren't always pretty. However, the conversion to the iPad version of Keynote ($9.99, app2.me/2481) worked almost flawlessly. In the end, I decided to do the presentation entirely from my iPad using Keynote and a Dock Connector-to-VGA Adapter for iPad I purchased from Best Buy for $29.99.

Keynote for the iPad looks almost identical to the original Mac version. The only differences I noticed were that my 3D graphics where converted into 2D, and the iPad version of the app could not select a small part of a larger QuickTime file. (I had to crop the portion of the file I wanted to use.)

When the moment of truth finally came, all I had to do was start Keynote, plug the iPad into the projector's VGA cable with the iPad Dock-to-VGA adapter, and bingo, the presentation showed up on the big projection screen. The iPad version doesn't have the playback options of the full Mac OS version of Keynote. For one thing, you don't see the slide itself on the iPad's screen; only icons labeled with the slide number. Moving between slides was easy; a simple flick of the finger does the trick. A bit of stage fright made my hands moist, which the iPad's capacitive screen did not like, but I still managed with a firmer touch.

Diving off the Channel Islands

Right on the heels of my trip to Stockholm, the iPad accompanied me on a five-day scuba diving vacation. That meant eight hours on the road each way to and from Santa Barbara, and three days on the good ship, Conception, an 80-foot dive vessel that would take me to California's Channel Islands

I contemplated using the iPad's GPS capability for the road trip part of the journey, but gave up on that idea after wrestling with one of the better-known GPS/mapping apps for the iPad. We ended up using our car's dedicated GPS unit; a Magellan with a 7-inch screen. Unfortunately, we didn't appreciate some of the "choices" it made. For example, instead of staying on the highway, it routed us through winding, up-and-down roads in a national forest. It also couldn't help us find our way around Santa Barbara's massive marina. (It displayed it as one, large, featureless rectangle.) Fortunately, iPad's Maps app did a better job with the marina.

We found the boat, stowed our gear, and met with our fellow divers. Two other parties had also brought along their iPads, so the evening before we left port was spent comparing notes and demonstrating our iPads to the other divers. It was interesting that all three iPads were protected by Apple's innocuous black portfolio case. It's perfect for protecting the iPad from damage, but it also acts as a kind of camouflage from attracting undue attention.

The iPad's usefulness diminished when we hit the water. You can't take pictures with it, and it's not easy to upload photos to it for viewing (no SD card slot) or connect peripherals to it (no standard ports). I didn't lug my MacBook Pro with me, but did bring a netbook because that's where my dive computer uploads its data via IR. I also use the netbook because it has SD card slots and other ports; I can use my SD cards and other gizmos with it.

The iPad's GPS capability might have been handy on the water, but it only works in the presence of an AT&T signal (unless you download maps before hand). The Channel Islands are only 20 miles or so off Santa Barbara, but we had difficulty getting a sufficiently strong signal to let the iPad's GPS do its thing. Fortunately, other divers with handheld GPS units were able to plot and record our course.

ConradThe iPads did see quite a bit of duty in our downtime, as gaming consoles, eBook readers, and music players. Unfortunately, the above mentioned lack of signal strength prevented us from browsing the Web or checking our e-mail.

AT&T reception was better in the car on the way home. Consequently, I spent some time catching up on e-mail, Facebook, news, etc. The iPad Maps app was functional again, and it proved a great complement to my brain-dead, onboard GPS system. However, the experience was overshadowed by the constant "lost signal" messages. I understand the limitations of cell coverage, but it quickly became very frustrating. (Verizon's attack commercials, all of a sudden, looked pretty real.)

The iPad: Don't leave home without it

My experience traveling with the iPad cemented its place on my don't-leave-home-without-it list. It's super-easy to carry and use, especially when it's resting securely in the Apple iPad (portfolio) Case ($39, apple.com/ipad/accessories). Its instant on/off capability beats the sleep/standby modes of conventional laptops by a mile. And its battery life is almost phenomenal. I read an eBook on my iPad for virtually the entire 9-hour flight from Stockholm back to Chicago; I ended the flight with 40% of the battery charge left.

I did notice a few minor problems I wanted to mention. First, though you can use the iPad while it's charging, charging the battery will take longer if you do. Second, the glossy, reflective display is a fingerprint and smudge magnet. Sure, they wipe off very easily, but you are constantly tapping and swiping the screen. In bright light the smudges are hugely noticeable and downright embarrassing.

Would I trust the iPad as my sole means of computing on the road? It depends. As I already mentioned, it was comforting to have the MacBook along on my trip to Stockholm. And although I didn't bring the MacBook with me on my diving trip, I did need to use a netbook for a number of dive-related purposes.

For now and for my needs, the iPad doesn't do it all—but does do quite a bit!

The iPad comes in handy, whether you're traveling to Sweden on business or scuba diving off California's Channel Islands.
Sept/Oct 2010
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