Can An iPad Really Replace a PC?

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The iPad changed everything. With at least 15 million units sold so far, Apple clearly dominates the growing tablet market. And all the hype has definitely got the attention of businesses and executives, particularly thanks to Apple ads touting the iPad as a productivity tool. In fact, in a recent ChangeWave survey, 7 percent of business IT buyers said they currently provide employees with tablets, with another 14 percent reporting purchases of slates to be imminent.

Of those 7 percent currently using tablets for work, 38 percent are using them to replace their laptop and 69 percent are very satisfied with the iPad.

The numbers make a pretty compelling argument for trading in your laptop for an iPad, but how well does the tablet handle day-to-day computing tasks? I set out on an experiment, using the iPad to do nearly all of my work for one week. Find out how I fared.


I started with a simple task: writing and posting to a blog using the iPad. We use WordPress at, so I downloaded the official WordPress app and signed in. Like most users with a self-hosted WordPress installed, we’ve added plug-ins for extra functionality. I discovered that I couldn’t access such features as PollDaddy and AutoLinker from within the app, so I signed into the blog via Safari instead. Here I could enter data into the extra fields on our Create Post page. However, I only had access to the basic HTML editor, not the rich text editor.

I also discovered that the WYSIWYG engine runs on Flash. Though this wasn’t a huge problem, the iPad’s lack of Flash support became an issue when I discovered that I couldn’t upload any images. In order to add a photo to a post, I had to save my draft, open it in the app, add the image, save again, and then go back to the browser and place the image where I wanted it. The dedicated WordPress app wouldn’t let me place images, informing me that it would put them at the bottom of my post when I published.

Back in the browser, I discovered that when I’d saved the draft in the WordPress app, it erased all of the quotation marks, apostrophes, and carets from my entire post. Plus, the app duplicated all of the text in the post between the last paragraph and the one above it. After cleaning all this up, I discovered one last thing I couldn’t do in the browser: scroll through my long list of product categories. I had to go back to the app for that. Total time to post from beginning to end: 1.5 hours. Terrible.

Grade: F


The iPad comes with a handy Notes app for creating short memos. However, if you want to export the text, you have one choice from within the app: e-mail as text. So I went in search of something more robust.

First, I downloaded Evernote (free), which helpfully syncs notes to the cloud and to other devices, making it easy to move between different environments. Evernote’s capabilities are still somewhat basic, especially compared to the desktop version. I wanted something with support for both typed and handwritten notes.

Note Taker HD ($4.99) is a much more robust app that supports typed and handwritten notes, highlighting and drawing, PDF import, plus Evernote and PDF export. It also works with AirPrint. Using this app in combination with a Pogo Sketch stylus ($14.95) and the Zaggmate keyboard ($99.99) made me feel a lot more productive.

Grade: A-

Creating and Editing Documents

Working with documents on the iPad requires a decent office suite. Unfortunately, there is no single suite of apps that can serve as a complete replacement for the one on your desktop. Apple’s $9.99 iWork apps—Pages, Numbers, and Keynote—have a slick UI and are easy to use, but they have a tendency to mangle formatting, especially when collaborating or moving documents between the iPad and a computer. Documents To Go Premium ($16.99) makes collaboration easy by syncing with Dropbox, Google Docs, SugarSync, and more. This suite is better with Word doc formatting, but advanced PowerPoint slides sometimes just break. Quickoffice Connect Mobile Suite ($9.99) recently added PowerPoint support and power editing tools, but it doesn’t allow printing from the app.

Printing your documents from the iPad is not always a simple task. Apple’s AirPrint functionality finally arrived with the iOS 4.2 update, but is limited to compatible printers. It also requires either an existing wireless network that both the iPad and printer can connect to or a computer as an intermediary. At press time, there were 17 AirPrint-capable models available from HP. Note that not all apps are AirPrint-ready.

Grade: B-

File Management

Unlike a Mac or PC, the iPad doesn’t have a central file system that users can access. That means working on the tablet requires a change in the way you think about files, and this resulted in frustration. On a computer, accessing a list of all your files is as simple as clicking on one your drives. On the iPad, each app has access to a file subset associated with it in some way. The Photos app can only see images, the Notes app can only see notes. Files downloaded via a syncing service such as DropBox or SugarSync are visible from within the app, but not from an office app. And you can’t attach files to outgoing e-mails from within the Mail app.

To access files in different, compatible programs, you’ll have to use the “Open With...” command. Tap the icon that looks like an arrow inside of a rectangle and a list of options will appear, usually including “Open With...” At times a default app will appear on the subsequent menu. However, if you have multiple apps that can open or edit a given file, you can choose from a list. Often when you open the file with the correct app, the app will be able to find the file internally and you won’t need to go through the “Open With” dance again.

Problems can arise when apps aren’t programmed to communicate well with each other. In my testing, either an app didn’t show up on the list you can use to open a file, or the app had no option for sending files elsewhere.

Grade: D

Photo and Video Editing

The iPad is great for consuming media, but what about creating and editing it? It’s not quite as easy to manage and edit family photos or cobble together a home movie on the iPad as it is on a computer. The first limitation I came across in photo management is that there’s no way to create or edit photo albums on the iPad itself, even when transferring images with the Camera Connection Kit. You need to connect to iTunes on your PC.

For photo editing, there are a slew of free and paid apps available. For simple tasks such as cropping, rotating, or adding a fun filter, Photoshop Express does the job and is easy to use. However, if you need to perform more advanced editing (such as getting rid of red eyes) or work with large, RAW files, Photogene ($3.99) is a better choice. This app offers functionality similar to what you’d find in a mid-level editing suite for the desktop: color correction, enhancements, and retouching. However, both of these apps draw from your photo albums by default and don’t look elsewhere for files. I was able to send a photo from SugarSync to Photogene, but the app crashed twice while attempting to open the image.

Since I had success editing short videos with the iMovie app on the iPhone 4, I wanted to try it on the iPad. Too bad there’s no iMovie for this tablet (yet), and I couldn’t even install the iPhone version of the program. Instead, I downloaded ReelDirector ($1.99). This app offered simple but powerful editing tools, transitions, text, and even cropping. Plus, ReelDirector can use music from iTunes as your movie’s score. Once again, though, I had a problem opening files; the app couldn’t see all of the video files on my iPad—even when they were compatible formats.

Grade: C+

Verdict & Final Grade

Hardware-wise, the iPad can handle many of the same tasks as a netbook or even a pricier laptop. And with the addition of a few accessories, it can be a decent productivity tool. The real problem I encountered in my adventure is software-based. In many cases, iPad apps aren’t as robust as their desktop counterparts, and they don’t talk to each other as much as I’d like. And due to limitations of iOS in key areas such as file management, the iPad just isn’t ready to be your sole PC. ■

Overall Grade: C


Categories Grade
Blogging F
Note-Taking A-
Creating &  Editing Documents B-
File Management D
Photo 7 Video Editing C+
Overall Grade C
Add a comment
  • Randy T Says:

    This was a good read for those of us who don't have iPads. I haven't needed one thus far. With long battery life being the only exception, my subnotebook still does everything i wanted it to do.

    On the other hand, i can easily see this device as 'the pc' for non tech savvy people. The flash issue is a problem today, but as the web transition to flash-less media streams, it won't be as big of an issue.

  • Mike Says:

    It's not reasonable to think the iPad could ever replace a desktop or laptop for heavy duty PC users. You could also argue that most laptops wouldn't cut it for high end user's either (unless you want to lug around a 15lb behemoth which kinda defeats the purpose). We should recognize the iPad or the Xoom for it's place ... somewhere when you need something more than your smartphone but less than your desktop/laptop.

  • Paul Says:

    The iPad or any other tablet for that matter is great for consuming media and single application use. For instance its great for e-mailing, browsing the web and watching videos and music. But for productivity the big handicap is the lack of a keyboard. If ones PC use is limited to the former then great otherwise it is limiting. I don't see tablets replacing a desktop PC at the moment but converge into a hybid device that will replace the laptop. As the network infrastructure gets better and more cloud based applications are offered then it will perhaps replace the desktop PC.

  • Therese Says:

    Great review. there is much I like about the iPad, but in terms of productivity it falls short. You would expect that you should at least be able to take notes. There are good apps, but try finding a really good stylus. Interesting that Apple patented one in 2008,but has not manufactured it. This leads me to believe they don't really want customers to make this into a productivity tool.

    Also, I can't stand the need to connect to itunes through my computer to do the simplest things - like setting up albums, backing up files. Haven't tried printing yet, but even with AirPrint, it looks like it is a mess.``

  • Tryde Says:

    Checklist of what I do at work :
    - Eclipse / Visual studio development : No apps will ever do that
    - Reading, writing, printing of docs with several thousands pages : ipad will probably die
    - ethernet-only network : ipad fails
    - UML modeling with code generation : any app ?
    - Subversion source control client : any app ?
    - complex excel sheets with lots of macro : would it work ?

    So, PC replacement ? Very far from it.

  • Laurange Says:

    You compare a pc with a decade of apps development to a device/os less than a year young.
    The lack of keyboard is by essence a feature of an only touch device.
    I agree for the files system, it's ok on the iphone but it's frustrating on the ipad, we would like to do more.
    But you mainly complain about limited apps like WP, it'll come with the proven success of the ipad, developpers will grab this new platform and its new gestures.

    The same question next year ?

  • Jesse B Andersen Says:

    From my experience the iPad could not replace my computer. I owned it and then sold it.

    With an iPad I cannot run Photoshop CS4, or Sony Vegas to edit 1080p HD video, how about file management? nope.

    I don't think the iPad was meant to be a PC replacement... but they do cross over in certain functions.

  • Earliest Adopter Says:

    The lack of a true file system on the iPad makes it impossible to use for true productivity in my humble opinion. Maybe when we get to true cloud computing in a few years.

  • Alex Nicol Says:

    The i[Pad is like you say limited,yet millions have been sold.I do not own an iPad.

  • SUZANNE Says:

    it depends on what you definition of YOUR ONLY PC and what you DO on your only PC. on my MAIN pc, i use WORD, EXCEL, the internet, my email account (yahoo), facebook, itunes, etc. in that respect, i find the ipad quite limited. for example, the itunes has limited applications on the ipad. also, you CANNOT view ANYTHING that uses FLASH (ADOBE).
    on its own, i find the keyboard too tight. i know you can use a wireless keyboard, but i did not get the ipad to complicate my life, but to simplify or at least to help it.
    in terms of language, i am trilingual and i often switch from french to english to spanish when i type. i know you can change the keyboard from one language to another, but it is NOT a regular keyboard with the accents. i therefore do NOT use the accents / special characters when i type in another language OR i do it on my REAL pc when i get home.
    SO, for all those reasons (and a few others), the IPAD is NOT my main PC, but i love it just the same. for me a MAIN PC stays at home. the ipad was a compromise between a laptop and my blackberry.

  • Millie Biggs Says:

    I travel about once a month and bought the ipad to use on those out of town trips. I loved the iPad when I first got it but I have become more and more frustrated with it's performance. I spend a lot of my day on the internet, composing and editing documents, spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations. When I use my iPad at home or on the road, the lack of flash is a real handicap; many sites are unusable. I can't access Microsoft's "cloud". As for office productivity, I don't have the time to screw around with it - I have paid for three office suites and two PDF apps in the hopes that one would be reasonably easy, but not one is. The iPad is great for email, games, music, casual reading and fun apps; there are several good calendar and task apps that sync with Google and my office. It is a very expensive toy. I've started taking my ipad and my net book on trips -together they work well. I'm waiting for some of the new Android tablets. I will probably switch just to have a better Internet experience.

  • Aibal Says:

    With the iPad, you're starting with a fun, casual computing device, then seeing how far you can push it in the direction of a workstation. And why wouldn't you want to? Its battery life, form factor, UI, etc. is a dream, but it's lacking the apps right now (like a great wordpress app) to take it there for serious workers. Will that likely change in 2011? I don't see why not. Plus, there's always jailbreaking for more control.

    Also, when we talk about the iPad replacing the PC, I do think some people lose the context of the comparison. The iPad (in its current incarnation) will always have just a 9.7" screen and no mouse or keyboard. It's like buying a motorbike and complaining that you can't drive your family around.

  • blah34 Says:

    Man, creating/typing a blog or document on an iPad is even more terrible than composing an SMS in a Cellphone with a numerical keypad.

  • Pat Gaunt Says:

    The price of the device has also been completely ignored, the final verdict states that

    'the iPad can handle many of the same tasks as a netbook or even a pricier laptop. And with the addition of a few accessories, it can be a decent productivity tool.'

    The accessories used in this review cost over $100 (the keyboard alone was $99.99) which in fact takes the price of the iPad well above that of a netbook and even into the price range of some fairly decent laptops meaning the iPad really isn't that good considering price to performance.

    Overall though the review was good and seemed fairly unbiased, the iPad does do well with simple tasks but for now I think it remains as a peripheral device.

  • TinkerTenor Says:

    Genius idea for an article, and definitely helpful although my expectations were rather low to begin with. I bet my mother would be ok using one of these as her PC, but she'd definitely want a keyboard so that adds to the cost and sort of defeats the point cost and size-wise. I'm surprised about the lack of an iMovie for iPad app still. To justify the price, I still feel the way I did when this thig was announced: base it's OS on Leopard and we'll talk. Otherwise it's just a really, really expensive toy.

  • Tommy Lewis Says:

    This guy is missing the most important thing that should be discussed...the office suite programs. The biggest brick wall I hit using the iPad is in using spreadsheets. The apps that currently exist to handle spreadsheets are laughable at best. They are a hassle to work the functions that they have and the available functions are minimal. They've really got to work on this issue because it's very important if they want to be a major player in the business world.

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