Will the third-generation iPad finally replace your laptop?

Are any of the new features enough to make it a viable full-time laptop substitute?

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

Every new tablet, supersize smartphone, or other multifuncton device seems to give industry watchers yet another excuse to declare the traditional laptop dead, or at least on the way out.

With the new features and capabilities built into the just-announced third-gen iPad (also known as the "new iPad"), I expect a flood of reader e-mail over the next few days, asking if a revamped iPad is better investment than a new laptop.

And it's not a crazy question, even if you've thus far resisted the urge to move more and more of your computing tasks to a tablet. This was one of the most controversial debatesabout the original iPad in 2010, and just before that first-generation system hit stores, I had managed to get my hands on an early unit and weighed in on its skills as a PC replacement.

That story was called, "Is the Apple iPad a Netbook killer?" which gives you some idea of how long ago 2010 was. Back then, Netbooks--small 10 and 11-inch laptops that cost $300-$500--were all the rage, and in fact, most were less expensive than the iPad, and were much more flexible, at least in theory. At the time, I said:

By some standards, the iPad is essentially a keyboardless laptop, but by others, it's more akin to a portable media player, such as the iPod Touch...We tilted in the direction of "not a computer," and the factor that tipped the scale was Apple's use of the walled garden iPhone operating system. The iPad's lack of freedom to install basic apps and plug-ins, such as Firefox or even Flash, makes this far too limited a system to be considered a full-fledged computer.

Since then, I've mostly stood by that original assertion that the iPad is not a replacement for a personal computer. The iPad 2 added a much-needed camera, which made tasks such as posting photos on social media sites easier, and allowed for Skype (or FaceTime) video chatting, both essential parts of the PC experience. But, you're still behind that walled garden of apps, only able to purchase and use programs that have been filtered through Apple (there are some Web-based tools and virtual apps, but the HMTL5 app ecosystem never blossomed like some thought it would).

Despite this, there is a lot that the third-gen iPad can do in place of a laptop or desktop. Some tasks, such as e-mailing, consuming video, reading news Web sites and feeds, and even social media and gaming (of a certain sort), are often better experiences on the iPad than a laptop.

After the original iPad was released, I even tried using it as an on-the-go blogging tool, reporting from the annual E3 video game trade show in Los Angeles. I was able to successfully write and publish from the iPad, but several time-consuming workarounds were required. I described the experience:

The biggest problem was uploading photos to our blog tool--a message informed us when logging into the blog dashboard that Flash was needed for that. Of course, even if it did work, the iPad lacks a traditional desktop or folder system to upload from...I'm certainly far from declaring that this is the way to go for onsite reporting in the future. But, it did end up being a more workable option than I originally expected...The light weight, long battery life, and instant-on gratification of the iPad worked in its favor, as did the fact that typing manuscripts on it wasn't as painful as I imagined it would be. On the other hand, the photo-uploading workaround is a hassle.

And while it hasn't been a laptop-killer, the iPad to date has certainly been a Netbook killer, contributing to the rapid decline of that very specific category. Note that from January to April 2010, we reviewed 18 Netbook laptops. During the same period in 2011, we reviewed only five (and that was counting AMD Fusion ultraportables). For airplane trips and as a secondary computing device, the iPad did end up replacing a certain kind of low-cost laptop.

Now with the new iPad (a naming convention sure to cause much confusion in the near future), the question to ask is: Are any of the new features enough to make it a viable laptop replacement?

The high-res screen is a big step up, beating even the highest-resolution laptop screens, which top out at 1,920x1,080 pixels. And the improved camera and GPU also move the iPad closer to being an all-around utilitarian machine, but not in a way that's radically different than the previous generations.

The new iPhoto app. Donald Bell/CNET

The biggest difference may be the new and updated apps, such as iMovie or iPhoto. The iPhoto app in particular looks impressive, and like it may allow people to use their iPads as a photo management and editing tool, even if they previously needed advanced computer-based tools for that.

But beyond that, it's hard to say the third-generation iPad has moved the needle much in terms of making your laptop or desktop computer obsolete. It's certainly become a solid replacement for the smaller, secondary laptop used for travel or in the kitchen, bedroom, or den, for many people, but I don't see a big change in that perception over the iPad 2.

Perhaps someday we'll all be using tablets and slates with virtual keyboards, touch screens, and one-click app stores, but for that to happen, the iPad and other tablet contenders will have come up with a bigger generational leap than we've seen here today.