How to use your iPad as a laptop

An iPad may not be the same as a full computer, but it's getting pretty close.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
4 min read
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It's one of the great philosophical debates of our time: Can an iPad replace a laptop? From day one, way back in 2010, we've been trying to turn Apple 's iconic tablet into a computer replacement, with mixed success.

If you're a media consumer and online reader, then it's a fairly simple transition, as long as the apps you want are available in the iOS App Store, or through the Safari web browser. If you spend most of your time writing, designing or editing, it's a more complicated situation, and at least as beholden to the right software and accessories as the iPad hardware itself.

Here's what you can do to make that iPad feel a lot more like a laptop:

Connect a keyboard

The biggest physical difference between an iPad and a laptop is that the former is a simple glass and aluminum slate, while the latter is a two-part clamshell with a hinged keyboard attached to the screen. Naturally, the first step toward making your iPad more laptop-like is finding some way to replicate that clamshell feel.

There are several styles of iPad keyboard. Some are simple standalone keyboards that sit aside your tablet, others are keyboard docks with a slot in the base that acts as a stand for the screen. But the most common version combines a keyboard with a wraparound plastic or fabric case. That's the most laptop-like of the three, but also usually the biggest and heaviest.

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iPad keyboards typically connect via Bluetooth and require power via a rechargeable battery. One other important note, there are several sizes of iPad, including two iPad Pro models, the iPad Mini and the iPad Air , plus older models which can also vary in size, so make sure you're buying the right keyboard for your iPad.

A couple of good examples to get you started include: The Logitech Create for iPad Pro, which is a streamlined case-plus-keyboard for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro (it even has a backlit keyboard), and the Belkin Qode case for iPad Air 2. Apple also makes its own line of excellent, but expensive, keyboard cases for the iPad Pro.

Add (almost) all your apps

Apple's walled garden of an app store limits what software you can install on an iPad, which is a far cry from the anything-goes world of Windows PCs. That said, iOS versions of many of the apps you'll probably want are available, and cloud-based apps, accessible through the web browser, can cover some of the remaining ground.

For word processing and office tasks, I prefer Google Docs or Microsoft 's Office Online, both of which are free and very versatile, and work with files created for Word, Excel and other common productivity apps.

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Netflix, Amazon Video, Spotify and most major media streaming services have native iOS apps, as do most of the big cable TV providers, which gives you an easy way to stream TV on your iPad-turned-laptop.

Where you might run into a problem is art and creative apps such as Photoshop. There are iOS versions of Photoshop and other Adobe software packages, but they're generally for minor tweaking and editing, and nothing at all like the traditional Windows/macOS versions. For artists, however, iOS apps like SketchBook and Photoshop Sketch offer laptop-like levels of interaction, especially when used with the excellent iPad Pro pencil stylus.

Grab a game controller

Since the first days of the iPad, we've used these as on-the-go gaming machines. And while there have been a lot of great iPad games over the years, they've mostly relied on onscreen controls, with a lot of tapping and swiping. That's great for card and puzzle games, less so for shooters and expansive role-playing games.

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It took all the way until we hit iOS 7 a few years ago for Apple to officially support gamepad-style control pads for games, similar to the ones used for PC and console gaming. Frankly, support for these devices still isn't perfect, but it's a nice way to get a more PC-like feel from iPad games. These devices generally run about $50-$100, and work on both iPhones and iPads.

Closer than ever

With all these laptop-like features and accessories, are we any closer to bridging the iPad/laptop gap? Apple certainly seems to think so, pushing the iPad Pro as a serious computer replacement in a recent series of ads.

I asked a version of this question back when the original iPad was first released in 2010, comparing it to a Netbook , a type of low-cost Windows laptop popular at the time (today's equivalent might be a Chromebook). Seven years ago, my conclusion was:

"So, with a bigger screen, more productivity apps, such as the iWork suite, and even an optional wireless keyboard, can we ditch our laptops and Netbooks for an iPad? The short answer is probably not. Based on a comparison of features of the $499 iPad and a typical $299-$499 Netbook-style laptop, there are many important ways in which the iPad is not an adequate substitute."

But today, especially with the faster, more capable iPad Pro and the excellent keyboard covers and docks available for it, plus the excellent productivity and creativity apps in the iOS app store, the iPad is a closer competitor than ever before to the classic laptop. Just don't ask for a mouse.