I’ve been (almost) exclusively on the iPad + keyboard combo for nearly two weeks now. How’s it going? I’m glad you asked.

A couple years back, in the midst of the nine or ten month netbook craze, I picked up a cheap MSI netbook. I tried to use it for work, but it was just too damn small. The keyboard was cramped and applications written for screens that were at least 12″ were nightmares to use on the 9″ screen. The screen was dim and, despite its size, was also heavier than the keyboard and was prone to tipping over. After a few months of struggling with its limitations, I sold it and went back to using a full-sized laptop.

That experience was in the back of my mind as I began this experiment. Sure, the iPad can do a lot of great things, but would its limitations prevent me from using it full-time?

At least so far, the answer is no. And I believe the big difference is how iOS applications are built to take advantage of the device’s screen.

On the netbook, there was never enough real estate. I was always squinting, struggling to resize windows so I could get all the information I needed. And while I feel I’m pretty adaptive to different keyboards, the keys on it were so crowded and so small that I could never get comfortable with it. Perhaps that’s the key word in what I was looking for: comfort. Can I see what I need to see? Can my fingers do what comes naturally on a keyboard or are they getting tied up and slowing me down?

On the iPad vision isn’t a problem. Text is bigger, bolder, and brighter than on the netbook. Applications are designed to fill every pixel of screen space, and thus are perfectly proportioned for easy readability. The keyboard on my Zaggfolio isn’t full-sized, but it is big enough that my fingers have room to move. Unlike the netbook, there is space between the keys, so even if you don’t hit a key squarely, you still have a margin for error.

For fun stuff, there are plenty of ways to get things done on the iPad. My concern was could I do the tasks necessary to file a story.
As with the Mac, I’m a bit of a text editor whore on the iPad. I have a folder full of text apps, and honestly, I don’t have a favorite yet. Some are better for when I write for the blog, in which I use a language called Markdown. Others are better for writing that doesn’t need to be converted to HTML, and I’ll probably use those more when I use the iPad for work. Depending on how you look at it, that’s either a blessing or a curse. I have many options for different needs. But there also isn’t one, go-to app that does everything I want. But for $1-5 an app, it doesn’t break the bank to experiment.

It’s taken some work, but I’ve moved the spreadsheets I used for stats on the Mac over to Numbers for iOS. This is where we run into the one area I’m concerned about when it comes time to cover an event on the iPad. On the Mac, I can tile windows, having a spreadsheet underneath two text windows while I put together my box score and story. That’s not possible in iOS. It’s going to take some adjustment to get used to that, and I imagine there will come a night when I’m pushing deadline and get frustrated by constantly having to switch between applications.

Which brings up the iPad’s biggest shortcoming. While iOS supports ‘multitasking’, it does so in a clunky manner that can best be described as quasi-multitasking. Or half-assed multitasking, maybe. Other mobile operating systems have come up with better ways to flip between apps you’re using, so I can hope that the engineers at Apple are working on something for the next major release of iOS. I can work with the current method but I would love something that was faster, easier, and more intuitive. Adding support for the Command-Tab shortcut from the Mac OS would be ideal.

Another area where iOS needs work is on how it supports external keyboards. It’s great that you can connet to any Bluetooth keyboard and get to work. But not all the shortcuts from the Mac OS will work in iOS. For someone like me that uses a lot of shortcuts, that slows me down as I hunt for the manual way to recreate what I used to do with a couple keystrokes. I would expect that keyboard support will get more robust as iOS evolves, but I also imagine some things that we’re used to on a Mac will never work on iOS.

That’s the great lesson from all of this. Any time you switch computer devices, you’re going to have to make adjustments. Whether you’re switching from a desktop to laptop, Vista to Windows 7, PC to Mac, etc., you’re going to have to learn some new tricks. That’s even more pronounced on the iPad. It will take patience and a lot of trial-and-error to get a new system that you are comfortable with.

For my needs, the iPad works as a MacBook replacement. I can still store gigabytes of data on the family computer and just take what is essential on my iPad. I can create text files, post to my blog, peruse newsfeeds, read and respond to email, and browse the web as I’ve done on the Mac for years. Adding an external keyboard makes all of this so much easier, adding some of the utility of a traditional laptop. While I have run into some difficulties, none of them have prevented me from doing what I want and need to do. And I’ve tried to remind myself that there are trade-offs in this experiment. I’m giving up some functions I was used to but gaining things like extreme portability, insane battery life, lower replacement cost, and a whole new area of use.

After several weeks of use I’m comfortable having only an iPad for my main computing device. Friday night I covered a softball game and had no trouble filing my story afterwards. I hope the process is as smooth in the fall when I go back to using my spreadsheets to build football box scores.

I even had a reverse confusion moment when helping my wife on her MacBook. I was trying to launch an application, and rather than use the trackpad to click on the app’s icon, I reached up and tapped the screen. I did it three times before I realized why it wasn’t responding. It seems as though the muscle memory changes are sticking.

The next time you are in the market for a computer, I can recommend the iPad to just about anyone who doesn’t have to do intense photo editing, design, or video editing. Park your old computer on a desk with an external hard drive to hold all your music, movies, and pictures and then turn it over to the kids for hours of Monkeyquest and Club Penguin fun. Get yourself an iPad and an external keyboard and you’ll never look back.