Why “iPad or laptop?” is the wrong question for knowledge workers

Should you buy an iPad or laptop? Although iPads have become a frequent sight on university campuses, many are still unsure what role the iPad has in our professional lives: Will it replace conventional laptops? Or is it a toy for procrastination and media consumption? In my opinion, both sides of the argument got it totally wrong. For professor and students alike, the question is not about whether iPad or laptop will become the dominant tool, but how both can be integrated into a seamless workflow.

ipad or laptop? Think twice, use both.

To better understand the “iPad or laptop” debate, it might be helpful to first consider one particular influential position on the iPad in academia. If you ever have googled for “ipad academics”, chances are good that you came across Alex Golub’s 2010 post The iPad for Academics. More recently, Golub published an update to his original post, in which he reflects on the iPad in academia two years in.

Oh this is off-topic, but I can’t resist making a shameless plug: Can we all agree that academiPad should be number one in google? Please help with your time (even with as little as 5 seconds) to make academiPad the go-to resource for everybody in academia.

Back to Golub’s posts: These are good articles in the sense that they are written by someone who has first-hand experience with both the iPad and academic life. However, these articles and their comments perpetuate an enduring misconception about the iPad by asking what device, iPad or laptop, is the better tool for academics. There are two versions of this debate:


Version 1: Macs are for content production, iPads are for content consumption

Golub points out in his 2012 article that the iPad “is for consumption, not production”. By extension, full-fledged laptop or desktop computers are suitable for content production.

This myth is easy to bust, as there are plenty of apps out there that make the iPad a great tool for content production: You can edit videos, tweak photos, and sketch drawings. Not academic enough? Okay, how about conceptualizing ideas, managing tasks, long-term planning, and writing?

Granted, especially for writing longer documents, it is helpful to use an external keyboard. There is nothing wrong with that! In fact, the same is true for laptop computers, unless of course you like back pain. When it comes to the ergonomics of writing, the “iPad or laptop debate” is therefore misplaced.

On the other hand, a 64 GB iPad (WiFi only) with external keyboard is about the same price as the 11 inch MacBook Air. So shouldn’t you go with the Air in the first place? With these thoughts we are already drifting into the second version of the false choice between iPad or laptop.


Version 2: The iPad will / cannot replace laptop and desktop computers

While some people are excited to replace the laptop with the iPad, Golub is terrified by the idea that people ditch their laptop computers for the iPad:

“I see [iPads] everywhere on campus, and I wonder to myself: Are my students really getting through college without a laptop? Frankly, the idea seems horrifying to me.”

And it is not only the lack of tactile feedback while typing that horrifies Golub and other critics (which can be easily fixed with an external keyboard). It is also that the iPad can’t do real multitasking, because only one application can be open at any time:

“Who can do serious academic work one window at a time? Not me, not any more — and I’m not going back.”

In my opinion, these concerns that the iPad will do something it cannot (or shall not) do – that is, replacing laptop computers – are based on a misunderstanding of what the iPad and the Post-PC Era really is.


The iPad: A third, or rather fourth device?

When he introduced the iPad in 2010, Steve Jobs directed extra energy towards the front reflector of his reality distortion field to convince the crowd that there is space for a third device between the Mac and the iPhone: the iPad.

iPad as a third device between iPhone and laptopThe whole idea of this part of the keynote address in 2010 was that the iPad can peacefully co-exist between the smaller sized phone and powerful laptop computers.

However, from back in 2010 until today, commentators like Golub misinterpret the launch of the iPad by asking the wrong question:

“The crucial question for academics is: What in our current arsenal will the iPad replace?”

I am sorry, but this is NOT the crucial question for academics.

Deciding between an iPad or laptop might be important for the light user: somebody who uses computers mainly for browsing the web, chatting with friends, writing emails, watching videos, and hanging out on facebook can replace his or her laptop with an iPad. While this might sound like the typical undergraduate student to some, limiting undergrads to these activities is an upsetting cliché.


“iPad or laptop?” is the wrong question for knowledge workers

Professors, Post-Docs, graduate students, and undergraduate students are all people who make their (present and future) living by creatively dealing with a vast amount of information. And for this task, we need to intelligently use all the tools that are available to us.

For people in university and college, the crucial question is therefore not what device will be replaced by the iPad. The crucial question is how all devices can be integrated into a seamless workflow.


Take reading as an example: Golub is correct in praising the iPad as a device for reading PDFs, books, news, blogs, and everything else on the web. However, the real art lies in being able to access your readings and all annotations you have made across your devices.

PDF management systems like Papers and Sente are a great example of how the iPad and the Mac (and even Windows PCs) can be seamlessly integrated with each other. You might have read and annotated a journal article on your iPad, but you can still review your notes and highlights on the Mac during the writing process.

Talking about it, writing is another example: Distraction free writing apps like Byword and iA Writer have Mac and iPad apps that are integrated with each other via the cloud. You can start writing in your office, and continue right from where you left on your commute home (please don’t do this while you are driving yourself, though).

These apps reject the “iPad or laptop” approach and instead embrace the ecosystem that is created between the iPad, the Mac, and sometimes the iPhone. The next iteration of the Mac OS, Mountain Lion, will also deepen the integration between the Mac with the iPad through improvements in iCloud and other sharing features.

Allow me to repeat: For academics or any other knowledge worker, the core question is not what device will be replaced by the iPad, but how the iPad is integrated with all your other devices in a workflow that is as seamless as possible.

Do you agree? If yes, I have something to retweet for you (thanks!):



What is the Post-PC Era?

The Post-PC Era is therefore not the time in which we stop using PCs, much in the same way in which Post-Modernism is not a time we live in after the Modern Era ended. It is only the time in which the PC has lost its once dominant position.

The PC is not the hub any longer that connects our devices (a strategy that Apple pushed with the introduction of the iPod over 10 years ago). And increasingly, it is not even the place we store our information and files any longer. These functions are taken more and more over by the cloud (iCoud, Dropbox, Sugarsync, and the individual services by Sente, ByWord, iA Writer, Wunderlist, Mindnode, Rdio, and many others).

Full-fledged computers, as well as the iPad, are just devices which we can use according to what makes most sense. Just as the PC did not stop us from using pen and paper any longer, the iPad won’t stop us from using the PC. It is not about “iPad or laptop”, but all about “iPad and laptop”.

Sometimes, a task like writing makes most sense on a laptop or desktop computer (e.g., when you are drawing from a lot of different sources like webpages or journal articles that are open in their own window). At other times, writing in the one-window environment of the iPad might be rather liberating than restricting, as it lets you focus on the task at hand (e.g., when free-writing).


Don’t write off your paper notebook either

The iPad also won’t stop us from using pen and paper. Wait a moment! What about the whole industry of apps and styli that transform the iPad into a digital sketchbook? Yes, these attempts of recreating handwritten notes and sketches on the iPad have gotten a lot better over the past two years (and I will write more about notebook apps and my favorite stylus on academiPad soon).

But again, it is not about that the iPad will finally replace pen and paper, but that we are using pen & paper at some occasions and stylus & iPad at others. Analogue workflows are not dead, but can enhance our digital workflows if they are well integrated with their digital counterparts.

I believe that for academics and other knowledge workers, the iPad is therefore not a replacement of the PC or pen & paper. It is not even the third device between phone and laptop / desktop computer. The iPad is actually a fourth device next to phones, laptops / desktops, and pen & paper, and we are using all of them for content consumption, organization and creation

While the three digital devices are becoming well integrated with each other via cloud services, the real next challenge is, in my opinion, how we are going to integrate our digital and analogue workflows with each other.


What does this all mean for you?

If you were hoping to permanently ditch your laptop and only use an iPad in college or for your research, I am sorry to disappoint you. The iPad was never meant to do that. If you want or can only afford one device for your years in college, I would suggest to go with a laptop computer first.

However, if you have enough cash on your side to buy a Mac and an iPad, your main goal is to integrate both devices as closely as possible with each other. Integrating your workflow is a big topic here at academiPad, so be sure to join our free updates via email or RSS.

How are you integrating your digital devices with each other, or even your digital with your analogue workflow? Please share your ideas in the comments.

Disclaimer: This post has been solely written by Jo. Please consider sharing this article if you found it useful.

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  1. Richard W says:

    Excellent post. i have recently been wrestling with the dilemma of iPad v laptop v desktop. I’m currently a computer science grad student, and have spent the majority of my time developing code on a laptop. I have recently completed my computational models, and have transferred all of the code to a high-performance computing cluster. The experiments (using this code) can be run through an iPad using a Terminal app, and even if the experiments fall over/fail, the iPad is a good enough tool to enable me to clear down the mess and get the experiments back up and running again – I wouldn’t wish to use the iPad for developing code however!

    I’m about to start writing my PhD thesis, and have toyed with the idea of writing using Pages and Numbers. Although it is very difficult to get the detailed format of the page layouts correct when creating a document with mathematical formulae and embedded diagrams fromscratch on the iPad. For now I’ll stick with a laptop and/or desktop – especially as I use LaTeX to write large documents and academic papers.

    The iPad is a great tool to read documents on the go, especially academic papers, working documents like grant proposals, and to surf the web. Indeed, many of my colleagues have been able to go paper-free regarding academic articles for the last couple of years. I still like the feel of physical paper for large articles, like review papers, so print these out, for reading on a long train journey, but read the small stuff on the iPad.

    So, what will I do regarding iPad v laptop v desktop? I will soon start a Post Doc position, and initially thought I may be able to ditch the laptop and just use an iPad. As I will continue to work as a programmer, I’m now not sure this will be viable. I agree with your post, that the iPad should be used as another piece of tech, that can be integrated into the way that we all work. My intent is to drop the desktop; keep a laptop for coding and developing final proofs of documents – and use an external keyboard and large external screen to optimise productivity in the office, and reduce back ache! I will also keepmthe iPad, but use this for what I believe it does best – content consumption, content creation for draft documents, administration of experiments running on a high-performance computing cluster, etc, etc

    • Jo says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Richard. I agree that coding would be difficult on an iPad, since important keys such as <> and / are hidden away a little. It seems like coding is a great example where the iPad gets to its limits, but it sounds interesting how you have arrived at your solution (computing cluster).

      I also agree on your preference over laptop vs. desktop. For people who don’t travel a lot a desktop computer is a good idea. However, I don’t think I will get one, I am quite happy with hooking up my laptop to an external screen as you describe. I am having this setup right now. Its more screen estate, better posture, and in general I think that a screen lasts longer than a computer. From this perspective, I rather have this setting instead of an all-in-one computer such as the iMac – although I definitely think that it looks very nicely designed.

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