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Can an iPad replace a laptop on a business trip?

A recent trip to Asia offered a good opportunity to explore whether I could realistically leave my laptop at home. The results were mixed.

A recent multiple-city speaking tour in Asia gave me the opportunity to gain some real-world insight into traveling with an iPad rather than my usual laptop and Kindle.

The business part of the trip was something of a whirlwind and then I was taking vacation for about a week. So I figured that if I weren't going to be creating or editing documents, I might as well keep my luggage as light as possible.

My experience was mixed.

On the positive side, the iPad is a great device for watching video and playing casual games. Crammed into an economy seat on a plane, the iPad is a much, much better video platform than a laptop, which can be hard to open at a comfortable angle and runs out of juice relatively quickly.

Traveling light is hard to do. Josh Janssen (Flickr/CC)

If there's a downside to video on the iPad, it's getting the content onto the device. It's straightforward to purchase TV shows and movies through iTunes, of course. But manually ripping, converting, and transferring DVDs is time-consuming and messy relative to the straightforward process of ripping them directly to a laptop and viewing them with DVD player software.

The iPad also serves as a credible e-book reader. It has some plusses and minuses compared with a Kindle or another e-paper-based reader, but I find it more than satisfactory. So long as I have the iPad with me, I certainly don't feel a need to bring a dedicated e-book reader as well.

Before getting into the issues I experienced, I do want to emphasize one point. My intent here is not to critique a tablet for, essentially, not being a laptop. They are different devices for different purposes and they make trade-offs accordingly. Rather, I want to offer my experience using an iPad in a setting where I would normally take a full-blown computer.

My experience was that in a business setting, it's far too easy to run into a situation where you can't really do what you need to do on a tablet. For example, when I was unexpectedly scheduled for a Webcast, I had to borrow a PC because the required Java plug-in couldn't run in Safari on the iPad.

In another instance, I would have shown a few slides during an interview had my usual laptop been available. Given that various applications let you display and even edit certain file formats on the iPad, this needn't have been an insurmountable problem. However, it's another case where some advance planning may be needed and not everything ultimately will be possible.

Another nit I encountered was that, in a couple places, wired Ethernet connections were available but no Wi-Fi and therefore I had no way to connect an iPad to the network. You can deal with this particular limitation by carrying an Airport Express to create a wireless network to which the iPad can then connect, but at some point carrying supplemental workaround gadgetry sort of defeats the purpose of going lightweight.

Had the entire trip been personal, none of this would have particularly mattered. E-mail, social media, and browsing every day or two would be plenty and any tablet can handle that just fine--as indeed can my phone for the most part. But, in a business setting, you're working against the expectation that you have a laptop handy and can use it to perform the myriad unexpected tasks that arise.

A tablet can indeed handle a variety of routine business jobs but there are also many things, too many, that it cannot do. As a result, I'm inclined to chalk this trip up as more of a learning experience than a particularly successful experiment.