Why the iPad still can't be a true Mac replacement

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When Apple released iOS 5 back in 2011, it heralded a new “PC-Free” era for iOS devices. You could at last “cut the cord” between your Mac and iOS devices; you could activate, sync, and back up an iOS device without ever connecting it to a computer.

This led to the inevitable next question: Now that it’s possible to maintain an iPad without ever connecting it to a Mac, is it time to dump the Mac altogether? Should we be planning to sell our MacBooks and go with just an iPad?

This question has two sharply opposing answers.

The first answer is a resounding yes.

Many iPad owners already get by with just an iPad. For them, a laptop has always been overkill. All they want is a device that can handle email, the Web, and a few related tasks. With the iPad’s cellular data connection, many of these users can even bypass installing high-speed Internet/Wi-Fi in their home. These users are still in the minority, but their numbers are growing.

For a variety of professions, from real estate agents to medical professionals, the iPad is similarly sufficient—or almost so. When it comes to showing clients the latest home listings or displaying a virtual tour, the iPad’s touchscreen is a much more natural fit than a heavier laptop with its intrusive keyboard. True, some still keep a Mac on their desks, available for the few tasks that their iPad cannot handle. But when mobility is required, it’s iPad all the way.

The second answer, then, is a reluctant no.

Count me in this “no” camp. I own an iPad. And I would not easily part with it. Although I also have a Mac Pro and MacBook Pro, it’s the iPad that gets the most use on a typical day. From reading news, to finding out movie showtimes, to getting map directions, to checking my Twitter feed, to playing games, I turn to the iPad whenever I am at home but away from my desk. And, although I sometimes still want a MacBook when “on the road” (such as for talks at User Groups), the iPad is coming close to replacing my laptop even there.

It is only when I’m working in my office that my Mac Pro remains a critical part of my workflow. But that’s a significant amount of my typical day, so I have no intention of abandoning it.

Apple probably doesn’t worry too much about all of this. I expect the company is happy to cater to this dichotomy—especially if it means people wind up buying both a Mac and an iPad, rather than just one or the other.

Still, there remains a persistent undercurrent in the media predicting an eventual demise of the Mac at the hands of the iPad. Whoa! For people like me to even consider giving up their Macs altogether, some fundamental changes to the iPad would be required. At a minimum, here’s what needs to happen.

Better external storage and backup options

More than anything else, a Mac-killing iPad needs local, easily accessible external storage—for backing up and archiving data. The current top-of-the-line iPad has 128GB of storage. Even if that were adequate for all your data, how would you back it up without a Mac?

While Apple touts iCloud as an iPad backup, the company acknowledges that iCloud is best for users who don’t connect their iOS device to a Mac very frequently or “don’t own a Mac” at all. For the rest of us, the company still advises backing up via iTunes on a Mac. One important reason is that “iCloud Backup does not back up music, movies, and TV shows that you did not purchase from the iTunes Store.”

For me, that’s a lot of stuff to skip over. iTunes Match can help fill in some of these gaps, but it’s not really designed to be a backup medium.

Even if iCloud backed up everything, it still wouldn’t be sufficient. A good backup must allow you to search for and restore specific files. Suppose I accidentally deleted a document from my iPad and wanted to quickly retrieve it from my iCloud backup. There is no way to do this. You can only do a full restore.

Consider also the matter of archival storage. With my Mac, I have external drives that house many gigabytes of data, including a large collection of music, video, and photos. They add up to much more than 256GB, so there’s no way I could store all of that on an iPad, even if I were content to do so. While I rarely need to access these files, I don’t want to delete them. On the contrary, I want to be able to periodically view and edit the files. Again, doing this with an iPad is nearly impossible.

Third-party cloud solutions are not the answer. For one thing, there’s the matter of cost. Storing 500GB of data to Dropbox, for example, will set you back $500 per year. That’s more than I am willing to pay.

In any case, I wouldn’t want my only backup and archival source to be something that requires an Internet connection to access.

Increasingly popular are devices that allow for wireless drive connections. Several such alternatives were on display at Macworld/iWorld this year. These include Hyper’s iUSBport, Kanex’s meDrive, Seagate’s Wireless Plus, and Connected Data’s Transporter.

These devices all seem attractive, and each offers unique advantages. They’re especially well suited for streaming media that you don’t store on the iPad. However, they can’t serve as backup or archival alternatives. They fail as backups because you can’t clone an iPad to them, or even easily copy all of your non-iOS system data. Furthermore, in most cases, accessing data requires a special app designed to work with the device. This makes it impossible to open files from, or save files to, the device via other iPad apps.

Addressing all of these concerns would require that Apple substantially overhaul its iOS sandboxing and related restrictions. Apple has given no indication that it wants to do this. Until Apple removes these roadblocks—or third-parties find a better way around them—inadequate external storage remains a deal-breaker for going solo with an iPad.

Better support for wired peripherals

Storage may be the most critical example of the iPad’s peripheral device deficiencies, but it is far from the only one. For wired connections, you are limited to connecting only one peripheral at a time—via the iPad’s Lightning connector. And even with Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, you are limited in terms of what you can connect. Most especially, a host of USB peripherals are impossible to use with an iPad.

Similarly, you can’t switch to a larger screen by connecting a Cinema Display to an iPad, as you can do with a MacBook. You can’t do this even via AirPlay. And even if you could, the Cinema Display is not a touchscreen, limiting how effectively you could use it.

Better typing capabilities

The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover

For me, the biggest reason I still take my MacBook with me when I need to get work done on the road is simply: typing. Whenever I expect to spend quality time with a keyboard, I want something beyond the iPad’s virtual layout. Although Bluetooth iPad keyboards, such as the Zagg Folio or Logitech’s Ultrathin Keyboard Cover go a long way toward addressing my concerns, they are not entirely satisfactory. For one thing, typing is a task that almost never benefits from a touchscreen. Every time I have to use the iPad’s loupe tool, which I still do even with a physical keyboard, I mutter “fail.” And, although the iPad has excellent text processing apps, they all fall short of the capabilities of the ones I use on the Mac.

Multiple windows

One of the biggest limitations of the current version of iOS is that it cannot truly multitask. While some may prefer the simplicity and focus of “full-screen” mode (and Apple certainly promotes it), I don’t. I would much prefer to be able to view my Twitter feed at the same time as I am writing an article. And I would like to be able to copy text from one document to another with both files viewable simultaneously. While all of this is easily accomplished on a Mac, it is currently impossible to do on an iPad.

Bottom line

While these are the major limitations, numerous lesser ones may still be critical for some users. You may have essential apps on your Mac that do not exist for the iPad. You may not want your app choices to be limited only to what Apple permits in its App Store.

Still, for people who own both a desktop Mac and a laptop, I believe the day is soon approaching when most of them will give up their MacBooks for iPads. But the day when the iPad can replace every Mac is still not even on the horizon.

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