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Why my iPad can't replace my laptop: It's the trackpad

What's holding back an iPad with a keyboard from replacing my laptop? The answer's simple, and it's utterly necessary.

The HP Folio 13 next to the iPad 2 with ZaggFolio attached.
Scott Stein/CNET

I'll let you in on a little secret: I haven't been thrilled with any iPad keyboard case solution, despite testing and reviewing about half a dozen of them.

Sure, some of them are excellent products. Still, I don't find them essential. This is why I don't use my iPad during mission-critical trips to trade shows and live-blogged events. This is why I don't use my iPad as a laptop replacement. Not entirely. Not yet.

I agree with a lot of what Harry McCracken refers to in his experience with his iPad and the ZaggFolio keyboard case. Ideally, having such an ultraportable, flexible device with a long battery life would be a perfect travel tool. For me, however, that perfect tool hasn't materialized yet.

I'd love to have some sort of evolved hybrid of an iPad and a MacBook Air. I've been dreaming of it for a while, actually. Apple's clearly leaning toward a fusion of sorts between iOS and Mac OS X. Lion was the first step. iOS gets a bit more advanced every year, taking baby steps toward being a true operating system for hard-core computing tasks.

There are several reasons it won't work right now, and the biggest by far is the good old-fashioned trackpad--or lack of it.

Apple's Magic Trackpad. Why not add iOS support? Scott Stein/CNET

Adding a keyboard to an iPad, like the Logitech/Zagg Keyboard Case for iPad 2, solves the problem of text entry. That's great for when you have to write a long essay, or are working on a chunk of your Great American Novel, or just want to jot down some notes. It's not so great when you have to edit a document, or create a blog post with embedded links, or do simultaneous Web research and writing. To do anything more than text entry and a few other commands, you'll have to reach up and touch the iPad's screen, which isn't exactly ergonomic or time-efficient when you have the iPad propped up and a keyboard attached. In fact, it's downright awkward.

This is why touch-screen laptops haven't taken off. No one wants to touch a screen while typing on a keyboard. I want a trackpad when I work, or even a mouse. Touching the screen makes no sense in "laptop" mode. I'd rather use the iPad as a straight-up tablet, which brings me back full circle and defeats the purpose of the keyboard.

Asus Transformer Prime: the secret is the touch pad. Josh Miller/CNET

Android devices already have touch-pad support: the Asus Transformer Prime's touch pad is the part that makes it a potentially capable laptop alternative. It can't just be hardware, though. Apple's iOS would need to smartly involve touch control for a trackpad at all levels, so that iOS laptop users could swipe and tap their way to apps, or navigate Web pages, or cut and paste text with ease. The software would need to work as magically and effortlessly as many of Apple's silky smooth hardware/software interfaces. Otherwise, most people would ignore the "iOS laptop" solution, and simply use an iPad or a MacBook Air.

Maybe iOS 6 could incorporate trackpad (or alternative input) support. I'd love that. I hope it happens. But I'm not sure it will.

At the moment, no iPad keyboard case--no matter how sexy--can replace the experience of working on a laptop. Woe to those who think it does. I could go grocery shopping on a bicycle, but it doesn't mean it's as easy as using a car. Just because one can adopt a solution doesn't mean most people should...or would.

Maybe we'll see a solution this year that moves the iPad closer to a laptop, but we'll probably need that trackpad to do it.