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Counterpoint: The iPad is the 'third device' I'd hoped for

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"After years of watching the masses fawn over the iPad [...], I still can't ever imagine myself investing in one, let alone actually using one in place of a smartphone or laptop." So said Darren Murph on our sister site Engadget in a piece entitled, "Editorial: tablets aren't the 'third device' I'd hoped for... from a productivity standpoint, anyway." Murph focuses on the "awkwardness and limitations" of using a tablet device, and I can understand his perspective, even if I don't agree with it.

Murph emphasises that his post is all about his personal preferences; what follows is my counterpoint, built from my personal preferences and those of my fellow TUAW writers. I'm not out to put a "hit" on Murph by any means, because even though I disagree with him in this instance, I've got nothing but respect for him.

As the Guinness record-holder for "world's most prolific blogger," it's no surprise that Murph focuses on productivity tasks. I don't dispute the fact that for his particular edge case, the iPad might not be what he's looking for. But the tone of his piece kind of makes it sound like he's saying the iPad isn't suited to productivity tasks at all, that the need for a device like it is something that's "manufactured" rather than real. This sounds vaguely similar to the traditional arguments against the Mac: "Why pay that much more when I can get a PC that does the same thing for $500 less? You Apple freaks are just drinking the Kool-Aid." Plus, his assertion that he "can't ever imagine myself investing in one, let alone actually using one in place of a smartphone or laptop" sounds precariously close to the point of view of someone criticising the iPad without having used one for any appreciable length of time. Reading the rest of Murph's piece clearly shows that's not the case, but it's still a surprising viewpoint.

Murph's experience doesn't match up with my own at all. I've barely used my iPhone since getting an iPad 2, and up until the release of OS X Lion, I hardly used my Mac, either. It's only once OS X Lion made my Mac more "iPad-like" that I started using it more; before that, literally days could go by where I never even woke up my Mac.

Murph claims that "Tablets, for whatever reason, seem to defy logic when it comes to purchase rationalization in the consumer electronics realm." I disagree. My own decision to purchase an iPad came about after my Mac spent a couple weeks in the shop and I had to rely upon my iPhone as my only computer. I found that the iPhone was able to replicate much of the functionality I was getting from my Mac, but its 3.5-inch screen felt very restrictive. The derisive characterization of the iPad as "just" a big iPod touch turned out to be exactly what I needed.

"People are just buying these things in a fit of hysteria," Murph says. "Does anyone actually know why this 'third device' is such a necessity?" Sure. Here's my "purchase rationalisation." I wanted an immensely portable, light, small device with stellar battery life that I could shove into a small day pack and forget about until I needed it. I wanted an OS that was lightweight and streamlined enough to perform swiftly despite the comparatively anaemic power of the hardware it ran on. I wanted a hardware/software platform that was flexible enough to adapt to my needs, rather than me having to adapt to its needs. I wanted a device that I could carry into the kitchen, or the bathroom (yup), or on a hiking trip, or to the beach, or on a transcontinental trip, without feeling like I was throwing my back out every time I picked it up.

Murph might say that what I really wanted was a netbook or similar ultraportable, but he'd be wrong. I've used netbooks. They suck. The only advantage they hold over the iPad is the physical keyboard, but even then, the netbook keyboards I've used have made me want to throw them across the room after only a few minutes. Using a netbook also would have meant using either Windows, an OS I despise, or Linux, an OS with very poor integration with Mac OS X.

At its heart, the iPad is to OS X what the iPod was to iTunes: a condensed, ultraportable version of its bigger brother. Rather than getting a huge backpack and schlepping my giant 17" MacBook Pro everywhere like I used to, I can leave the Mac at home and take a lightweight, smaller device with me instead. Sure, my Mac is easier to type on, and photo/video editing are much easier in OS X than they are in iOS, but if I'm going on a two-week trip away from home, I can guarantee you my iPad will come along while the Mac will stay behind.

My iPad is portable in a way that my MacBook Pro never has been and never will be. I take my iPad everywhere, while my MacBook Pro, despite being a "portable" computer, hangs out in the lounge about 99% of the time. If my Mac is asleep when I need to look something up or bang out a quick email, I go for the iPad. When I want to sit down and chill rather than juggling five things at once like I do during the busier days at TUAW, I go for the iPad. When I travel, the Mac stays home and the iPad comes with me.

Murph claims that smartphones can do many of the things the iPad can do, and I don't dispute that. It's hard to think of many things that my iPad 2 can do that my iPhone 4 can't. But the extra screen real estate does help quite a bit. I type roughly 150 percent faster on my iPad than I do on my iPhone, navigating through web pages is much easier, and viewing photos or videos on the iPad's 9.7-inch screen feels much less confining than on the iPhone's comparatively tiny screen. Despite the fact that I can edit movies or photos on the iPhone, I've not done it very often precisely because the screen is so tiny -- an encumbrance I don't have to deal with on the iPad. As for writing, I wouldn't dream of writing a post this long on my iPhone, but writing it on my iPad hasn't been an issue at all.

You read that right: I composed this entire post on my iPad, from start to finish. This is far from the first one, either. If you go back through my post archives, I challenge you to figure out which posts I wrote on my Mac versus which ones I wrote on my iPad. Good luck, because I don't even remember myself.

"I also can't seem to grok the value in spending half a grand on something with a souped-up mobile OS," Murph says. This is part of the problem a lot of people have had with the iPad thus far -- the "it's just a big iPod touch" mentality. It's true that iOS doesn't have the menu- and window-driven interface of OS X or Windows, but for the kind of work I find myself doing on the iPad, I don't miss that stuff anyway. Working on the iPad feels less like a "souped-up" iPhone and more like working on a Mac that's designed to be the ultimate word in portability. True, for just a few more ounces and a few more dollars I could get an 11-inch MacBook Air, but even if I had one of those, would my wife and I use it to watch The Office in bed? Would I use it to peruse my grocery lists at the store? Would I monitor the TUAW posting queue from the middle of nowhere? Based on my historical usage, I'm going to say no.

In my case, and in the case of several of my fellow TUAW staffers, the iPad has been a powerful supplemental tool rather than an outright replacement for the Mac. And I haven't had to "invest a couple hundred in accessories to make it halfway useful," either. I contemplated getting a Bluetooth keyboard until I figured out I was typing plenty fast enough on the touchscreen -- it takes practice, but it does happen. I've had meetings with clients where I considered bringing my Mac, or debated buying the VGA adapter so I could hook my iPad into a projector, but for one-on-one meetings there really is no substitute for being able to sit next to someone and show them what's going on as it happens.

I'm not going to write War and Peace on this thing, and if I wrote as many posts as Murph does on any given day, I'd probably be all-Mac, all-the-time. But in terms of what many of us at TUAW have used it for, the iPad has turned out to be the perfect fit. It's not the ideal device for productivity tasks, but then again, neither is a "real" computer. Put the two together, however, and you've got the most powerful combination since chocolate met peanut butter.

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