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Could I really ditch my laptop for an iPad?

As tablets get more powerful, some people are asking if they really need to use their laptops for blogging or other work-related tasks. CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers some advice on whether you can really replace your laptop with an iPad.

Tablets are getting more and more advanced, but can they really replace a laptop when it comes to getting things done?

That's a question that's been hotly debated since the iPad first popularized the tablet product category. In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer my opinion on whether the iPad or any other tablet is up to the task of replacing a laptop for work. I also explain why it's a not a good idea to ditch your cell phone in lieu of your new tablet.

iPad as laptop replacement? Not yet.

Dear Maggie,
I've been thinking about getting the iPad. However, I hear mixed things about its productivity power. If I bought an external keyboard to go along with it, how well can the iPad handle word processing, blogging, etc? I'm also interested in basic photo and film editing. Would using iPhoto and iMovie on the iPad suffice.

I already have a pretty powerful laptop PC, so I don't see the point of getting another laptop like the Air. I like iOS better than OSX, and I think the iPad makes a lot of sense for me in many ways, but I want to be sure that it can handle some of the other basic productivity.

Finally, do you think I'm best off with the iPad versus waiting for something like the Microsoft Surface? I know the iPad can integrate with SkyDrive, OneNote, and some other Microsoft applications, so I'm wondering if getting a Windows specific tablet is necessary if the iPad can handle most of that.

CAT "Confused about Tablets"

Dear CAT "Confused about Tablets",
I think the current generation of tablets, the iPad included, are much more about consuming content than they are about creating it. So in general, I wouldn't recommend the iPad or any other tablet for someone who wants to use it to blog everyday.

Zaggmate has a business-oriented accessory for the iPad, a protective cover along with bluetooth keyboard and stand that give the iPad a more laptop-like feel. James Martin/CNET

If you're looking to browse through a magazine or look up a few Web sites while sitting on the couch watching TV, or if you want to watch a couple of movies on your flight from New York to San Francisco, then the iPad is a terrific device. And if that's the primary reason for owning the tablet, go for it. You can do some blogging and photo editing, but a laptop or desktop computer are still better options for these activities.

There are some apps that can help improve the blogging experience on an iPad. Some commonly used blogging apps include WordPress and Blogsy.

The Blogsy app supports a variety of blogging platforms, including WordPress, Blogger, Posterous, TypePad, MovableType, Drupal, Joomla, and IBM Connections. You can type right in the app and it formats the text and allows you to upload it from the iPad to your blog. You can also insert pictures and video from YouTube to your blog via the Blogsy app. But this functionality may not be compatible with every blogging platform.

You may also want to add some basic word processing apps to the iPad too, so you can write the blog in a separate app before posting via a blog app. Evernote has a free app, which will allow you to type text and sync it to other devices. So this way you can start writing a post on your iPad and finish it later on your computer.

There are also some word processing apps that cost money. For example, there's Pages, which costs about $10. There's also Simplenote, which is free in its basic form and with enhanced features costs about $20.

If you want to edit and add photos, there are apps that can take care of that, too. You can use the iPad Camera Connection kit, which costs around $29 to import photos you've taken on an iPhone or a DLSR. And then you can use the iPad photo editor to crop and enhance the pictures.

There are also photo editing apps you can purchase to help you do this. For example, there's Snapspeed, which costs about $5. It has more advanced image enhancements tools. Additionally, there's also Apple's iMovie app that can be used for simple editing of video, which you can then post to your blog.

But even with a wireless keypad and all these different apps, I don't see the iPad as a true replacement for a laptop when it comes to getting work done. My CNET Reviews colleague Scott Stein, who reviews laptops and Apple products, such as the iPad, agrees with me.

He said that if you can find some apps that work with the blog platform you use, using your iPad to blog can be "surprisingly adequate...but you're giving up a ton of flexibility, and you're living on terms provided by apps or websites. You have to photo edit in an app, video edit in an app, etc etc."

Scott further explained that in most instances, it may not be worth it.

"A regular computer with a trackpad would avoid these pitfalls," he told me. "I've blogged via our CMS, but it isn't pretty. And you can't upload photos easily (though that will be amended a bit in iOS 6)."

As for the Microsoft Surface tablets expected in the fall, the company has clearly stated that the Surface is a device for people who want to get things done. The Touch Cover and Type Cover accessories that add a soft or physical keyboard is an innovative addition to the tablet market. The iPad can support Bluetooth keyboards and cases, but it doesn't support a touchpad or mouse. The Surface will.

But it's hard to say if these accessories will work as promised.

"There's a big difference between a good keyboard and touch pad and a bad one: many Netbooks weren't great productivity tools for the same reason," Scott Stein wrote in a blog post last month comparing the iPad with the Surface.

That said, Microsoft has designed its Windows 8 tablets to be full-fledged computers, running the same Windows 8 software that will run on computers. Microsoft founder and former CEO Bill Gates told journalist Charlie Rose in an interview, "You don't have to make a compromise. You can have everything you like about a tablet and everything you like about a PC all in one device. And so that should change the way people look at things."

Meanwhile, Apple's iPad runs its mobile operating system iOS. This means that these devices will never have the same power as the MacBooks running OS X. And they won't share apps.

But here's where things get confusing. Microsoft will be offering two versions of its Surface tablets. There will be a more expensive version that will be geared toward productivity, which will run Windows 8. And there will also be a less expensive version that runs a lighter, more basic OS, the Surface RT. These less expensive tablets will run only apps, much like the iPad.

So even though the Windows 8 Surface tablet may be a better device geared toward blogging and other content creation, it will likely cost a lot more. At that point, you'll have to ask yourself if it's worth spending that much money on another device, when you already have a laptop.

My advice to you is to wait a bit longer to see how this market shakes out. I don't think that the iPad is a great replacement for a laptop yet. That may change in the future, but right now, it's still a stretch. But if you'd also like to read magazines, watch video and use a whole host of other really cool apps on a tablet, then the iPad is a great device. And if that's your primary reason for wanting a tablet, then go ahead and buy one. But if you really want something to replace your laptop, you should wait.

I hope this advice was helpful. And good luck!

Can a tablet replace my cellphone?

Dear Maggie,
My husband and I are not smart phone users. We have a "dumb" cell phone, and it only gets used infrequently when one of us travels. However, we are going on a trip together, and we would like to have email access with us, as well as a phone. Can a "tablet" serve both functions?


Dear Leila,
Tablets are great for e-mailing, Web surfing, watching movies and TV shows, and reading magazines and books. And I think it's a great gadget to take with you on your vacation.

You can also use a tablet to make phone calls. But I wouldn't necessarily use it as a cell phone replacement. Here's why: Your "dumb" cell phone has a radio inside of it that allows you to access your carrier's voice network. That's how you make phone calls and receive calls. The calling feature is always on, and you'll be able to access this voice network anywhere you get a signal on your phone.

Depending on which tablet you buy and which version of that tablet you buy, you may or may not have a carrier radio in your device. For example, the Amazon Kindle Fire and Google Android Nexus 7 tablets are low-cost tablets that are Wi-Fi only. This means that they only access the Internet when you're in a Wi-Fi hotspot. This may be fine if you just want to send emails or update Facebook once a day while traveling. But it means you won't be connected to the Internet at all times. And if you're using it as a "phone" that means you won't be able to make or receive phone calls if you're outside a Wi-Fi hotspot.

By contrast, most carriers offer extensive coverage with their voice networks. And you can typically access this network almost anywhere you are in the U.S. If you're traveling abroad, you'll have to check with your carrier, but you'll likely be able to roam onto other wireless carriers' networks.

Some tablets have carrier radios built in. Apple offers both a Wi-Fi only version and cellular version of its iPad. In the U.S. market, you can get an iPad that works on AT&T's 3G/4G network and another version that works on Verizon's 3G/4G wireless network.

Even though this version of the iPad has a carrier radio in it, it's not the same kind of radio that your phone uses. These radios only accesses the carrier's data network.

You can still make phone calls using your tablet via the data network, but you'll need to install an app, such as Skype. This app uses the data network to make phone calls over the Internet. If you're making calls to other Skype users on a phone or computer, then the call is free, except for the data that you're consuming on the network while making that call. (If you have a 3G or 4G carrier enabled tablet that connects to a wireless operator's network then you'll be paying for a certain amount of megabytes or gigabytes of data.)

If you call another cellphone or landline phone using Skype, you'll have to add money to your Skype account to make those phone calls.

The bottom-line here is that the tablet isn't really a replacement for a phone. If I were you, I'd take both devices with you on vacation. Even though you may not use your "dumb" phone often, you will at least be able to make a phone call if there's an emergency. Relying solely on a voice-over-IP app, like Skype, either on a carrier-enabled tablet or on a Wi-Fi-only tablet, won't give you the same easy access to a phone that you'd have with an actual cellphone.

I hope this explanation makes sense. Enjoy your vacation. And good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.