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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Does the iPad Replace Your Computer?

Is the iPad a good fit for college students? Unsurprisingly, Apple says so [http://www.apple.com/students/], but they may be a wee bit biased. Conversely, a lot of parents are dubious about the prospect of buying what is so obviously (to them, at least) an expensive status symbol made mostly for entertainment and other distractions [http://dealnews.com/features/10-Reasons-Not-to-Buy-an-iPad-Instead-of-a-Laptop-for-a-College-Student/475970.html]. 

The iPad on a table in the Apple case
The iPad on a table in the Apple case (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Somewhere in the middle is the real question, which is 'How much computer do you really need?' Like our brains themselves, we often only use a small percentage of the computing power at our disposal. The irony of desktop PCs especially is that they've always been powerful enough to do all sorts of things that we don't take advantage of. And yet they tend to struggle and over complicate the few specific things that we absolutely need them to do. 

That's one of the biggest strengths of the iPad. Technically, it's underpowered compared to even a modest mainstream desktop; but it shines in exactly the right areas for many people, and for students especially. 

  • Mobility (obviously). Desktop PCs take a certain amount of space, packing and unpacking, and setting up and tearing down. It gets old pretty quickly, especially if you're making the trip between home and school more than once or twice a semester. Plus, college life is especially decentralized and mobile by its very nature. Students need something that will travel from dorm room to lecture hall, from student center to labs or field work, to any number of places (coffee shop, yes. Frat party, no). 

On the other hand, you could argue that a decent laptop or netbook is equally suited for these situations, and perhaps a bit more powerful and versatile. Not to mention the screen is probably a little safer (stuff happens, especially at college!). But otherwise, portability is a clear win for the iPad over a 'traditional' desktop.

  • Simplicity. A big strength of the iPad is its direct and user-friendly interface. It takes very little time to get perfectly comfortable with the way it works; and Apple is very good at ensuring that anything new works in a similar fashion. All too often with PCs, you tend to get hung up on figuring out how to do the things that you want to do; even the simplest things sometimes have a needlessly frustrating learning curve. This can be a major disruption to your 'flow,' whether you're trying to take notes, do research, compose a paper, produce a project, et cetera.

iPad and a Bluetooth Keyboard
iPad and a Bluetooth Keyboard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lot of this depends on the kind of person you are. If you're even a little geeky by nature, most modern PCs aren't going to throw you too many curve-balls. Although third-party developers still seem to love doing things their own (occasionally counter-intuitive) way, there's a lot more standardization than there used to be.

  • Hardware. On a similar note, it's nice to not worry about all the extra stuff that needs to plug in and work together. The iPad does away with separate monitors and keyboards and mice, and it nearly eliminates the complications of internal components; trust me, nothing's worse than a dead video card in the middle of the semester, or even worse, halfway through a term paper.With reasonable care, the iPad is a fairly durable little beast that just works, and always has all of its parts right where you need them. 

The notebook PC exception comes up again: the screen, touch-pad, and keyboard are all part of the whole, and designed to work together. But honestly, I've had enough hardware issues and mysterious breakdowns with laptops to not be too enthusiastic about this argument. The only caveat is with things like USB drives or other removable storage, which can certainly come in handy at times, and the iPad has ZERO support for.

 However, there are other ways in which the iPad won't fully replace a desktop or notebook PC. Not all students will face each of these issues, but if you're an exception, you'll REALLY wish you had an alternative. 

  •  Flash. Despite rumors of its death, Adobe Flash is still very much with us. And Apple still refuses to support it. This wouldn't be a biggie, except that some college courses involve Flash-powered web sites and apps (sometimes just to log in, which is lazy web design but it happens). 

  •  Similarly, individual course requirements may utilize a range of formats for both documents and apps. There's no use in complaining that professors have an obligation to make their materials accessible; they'll just point you toward the inconvenient public computers. 

  •  If you're studying programming (for its own sake, or for game development or network administration or any of a big handful of other related fields), you're going to need coding and compiling tools that the iPad just can't handle. 

  •  Similarly, if you're studying anything like 'serious' design such as CAD or audio/video production, you'll find that the iPad just doesn't have the horsepower, storage, or control that you'll require. 

  •  And, of course, you'll almost certainly be doing a lot of typing at college, even if your major is something non-word-heavy, you'll be faced with requirements and electives for the first year or two at least. If you're comfortable with on-screen keyboards, or willing to explore the Bluetooth options, this may not be a big issue. 

  •  Along those same lines, writing papers can be difficult enough when you have true windowed multitasking and cursor-precise editing tools (I know some people who can cut and paste quotes and links effortlessly on an iPad, but I'm not one of them) along with the typing issue, this turned out to be a deal-breaker for me personally). 

  •  If money's no object for you, then you're an exception to the vast majority of college students that ever lived. For the price of an iPad, you can pick up a more powerful PC or even a decent mainstream notebook. You'll lose some of the benefits mentioned above, but one of the things you should learn at college is that life is often about hard choices and compromise. 

Tyler is a writer for http://www.cabletv.com

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