Questions like “can an iPad replace my laptop?” are often asked. iPads are pretty powerful machines and the availability of a huge selection of apps makes them an attractive option. While some believe it’s definitely possible, others think tablets aren’t quite there yet.

My everyday machine is a 2019 MacBook Pro. It’s a proper workhorse for my daily tasks – audio recording/editing, coding, preparing presentations, documents, spreadsheets, etc, as well as the usual work communications stuff. Recently, an iPad Air (5th Generation M1 chip – review) became part of my technological arsenal. In May, I had a work trip coming up which would involve three flights and numerous bus and train journeys. Travelling as light as possible was a priority. While abroad, it would be mostly Office and communications applications I’d use – did I need to bring the MacBook? Perhaps the iPad could replace the laptop for a limited time? 

My trip involved travelling from Ireland to Toronto, attending and presenting at an academic conference. After that, I’d be heading south to cross the Canadian/US border at Niagara Falls to join an Erasmus+ meeting in New York State. I’d have a weekend to myself in New York City afterwards, before flying home early the following week. I was pretty certain I could do all this on the iPad, so why not put it to the test?

Crossing at Niagara Falls. I swear Superman just flew by …

The most striking thing about the iPad (with the Magic keyboard) is just how light it weighs and how little space it takes up. I’ve read some criticisms of the device with respect to portability, but those just don’t resonate with me. The Magic Keyboard itself is very comfortable for typing and greatly increases the usability of the machine. I didn’t really use the trackpad much, but I could imagine plenty of situations where it’d be handy (e.g. Photoshop). The USB-C interface was brilliant, and in my opinion, Apple should retire the Lightning port across its entire device lineup. Via a dongle, I was easily able to connect a bog-standard USB memory stick for copying files. I didn’t use it to connect to an external HDMI monitor, but it’s not difficulty to see how that would extremely useful.

The iPad fit neatly onto the tray of the Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Toronto. It was effortless to carry around in my backpack once I landed and very easy to whip out for a bit of work at any desk or table at a café. It didn’t look out of place on a bar top either! The battery life was excellent and simple to charge via mains electricity, USB ports or a battery pack.

A neat little machine

In terms of applications, I was mainly using: 

  • Outlook for emails 
  • the various applications in the Microsoft Office365 suite 
  • Keynote for my presentation at the conference
  • Slack/Teams for communications
  • WordPress for some minor website editing 

Since all my files are saved on either OneDrive or Dropbox, I didn’t face any storage issues. For browsing, Safari is my go-to app, and the likes of YouTube, Disney+, etc were handy for a bit of entertainment. On the flight over, I started playing the addictive strategy game Into The Breach. I know the game is years old, but I never had time to play it before. Into The Breach has become my new just-one-more-turn obsession and I’ll be damned if I don’t condemn The Vek to oblivion!

At the conference, the iPad was perfect for taking notes, editing my presentation and keeping in touch with colleagues in SETU. Once I travelled to New York, it handled the Erasmus+ meeting easily (again taking notes, writing documents, etc). One morning in New York, I had to attend an online exam meeting from SETU. The session was at 6.30am New York time. This was too early for the office I could access, but I found a beautiful spot on the grounds of Columbia University, connected to the global Eduroam network and easily joined the Teams session. The split-screen feature on iPadOS was perfect for this situation, with Teams on one half of the screen and the ability to mark up PDFs with the Apple Pencil on the other. My backdrop was the Columbia library – famous among nerds like me as the location from the start of Ghostbusters.

I ain’t afraid of no ghost …

Nearly 20 years ago, I travelled quite extensively around continental Europe as I worked on EU-funded research projects. Back then, a ridiculously large Dell laptop was my everyday machine. It was quite powerful in terms of processing – but absolutely USELESS in terms of portability. It was too large for an airplane seat tray, barely fit in my backpack and weighed a tonne (^ not an actual tonne). To say that devices have become more portable in the intervening period would be an understatement! Back then, WiFi connectivity was still a novelty and battery life was rubbish. There’s a Grand Canyon of a difference between using an iPad Air in 2023 and that Dell machine in the mid noughties. (not ragging on Dell – their newer machines are obviously much more portable, but that’s my point of reference.)

Circling back around to find out if the initial question – could the iPad permanently replace my laptop? Well, not entirely – for audio recording/editing*, I can’t see my workflows transferring easily to the iPad. Applications like Xcode, VSCode and Android Studio aren’t available for the iPad. However, when it comes to “light” work, the iPad was an absolute joy. Unless specific software is necessary, I can’t imagine myself ever travelling with a laptop again. I hate to be overly gushing about a piece of technology, but Apple have really hit a sweet spot with this machine. If you have the budget and the need, the iPad Air (5th Gen) with the Magic Keyboard is a smashing bit of kit.

Now, I’ll just have another quick round of Into The Breach …

* Apple have recently announced an iPadOS version of Logic X and the initial reviews are quite positive, so what do I know?! I haven’t tried it yet.