Keyboards are to journalists what coal-picks are to miners – an essential tool of our daily work. We use our keyboards to email our contacts, unearth facts and create articles. We type therefore we are.

Parting a journalist from their physical keyboard is therefore ill-advised, to say the least – and yet Apple’s iPad tablet suggests it’s possible for people to get by with a touchscreen alone.

So can I really trade in my laptop and work just as productively on an iPad? Or will a virtual keyboard turn my working day into a world of pain?

There’s only one way to find out: I decided to put it to the test, swapping my main work PC for an iPad.

iPad vs laptop

My ye olde laptop vs Apple’s iPad: any resemblance is purely superficial…
(Photo credit: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

So how did it go?

Email

Getting Microsoft Exchange email on the iPad is straightforward provided you have all your login details to hand and know the server address and domain name.

The iPad’s email app is very easy to use, with a two-pane view in landscape mode and a stripped down feature set.

However, Apple’s email focus appears to be on simplifying the whole experience – with more attention paid to graphical flourishes, such as making emails resemble paper notes when marking multiple mails for deletion – rather than on offering sophisticated features for users who need to sort through a lot of mail.

The email app is missing lots of office-friendly functions such as the ability to flag important emails or sort mails by size, for example – essential for managing my limited inbox storage.

The email program also lacks the option to attach files to emails – a notable omission. Apparently, there are third-party apps that do exist to add additional attachment functionality, or you can opt for the more simple copy-and-paste option and stick text and images directly into the body of the email.

You’ll also find your work emails bear the suffix: ‘Sent from my iPad’ – something you may or may not want to declare by default.

Email on the iPad

The iPad’s stripped-down email experience
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

And what of typing the emails themselves?

Composing emails using an iPad is less fiddly than on a touchscreen handset such as the iPhone, owing to its generously proportioned virtual keyboard (see below).

However, the layout of the virtual keyboard is a bugbear, with the various characters spread across three screens, the first of which is mostly reserved for Qwerty letters. To access less-popular characters, users will be continually cycling through to the second or third screen – apostrophes, for instance, are on screen two. A minor annoyance perhaps but one that certainly slows me down.

While scrolling using a flick of the finger is marginally faster than using a mouse or touchpad, the resulting productivity gain is alas minimal.

VPN

My next move is to get the iPad on the VPN so I can access our content management system (CMS).

I start with a pre-emptive IM to tech support which points me in the direction of the in-house wiki and a ‘how to guide’ for VPN access via iPhones. Our resident IT support guru is reasonably confident this will do the trick.

VPN configuration on iPad

Configuring the VPN on the iPad
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

He’s right: after delving into the iPad’s settings – and remembering to not just save the settings but also turn the VPN on – I’m good to go…

CMS

I was expecting our content management system to cause serious headaches for the iPad, being as it’s proprietary software awash with scrollable content boxes and fiddly drop-down menus.

The iPad however deals surprisingly well with the majority of these unlovely menu layouts.

The main content box – where the body text of articles appears – is less happy, however, with the text stretching way out to the right-hand side of the screen. As a result, I have to do a lot of swiping left and right as I type, in order to review and edit my story.

Scrolling to the bottom of some of the boxed menus can also be fiddly – at one point I have to guess that I need to use two fingers on the screen at the same time: one to select the particular menu box on the page, the other to swipe up and down within it to scroll through its contents.

Oxymoronically enough, it’s fiddly yet intuitive since my hazarded guess meets with success.

Typing directly into CMS causes a few more gremlins: despite the iPad’s ample 9.7-inch display, if you’re using it in landscape mode the virtual keyboard hogs half the screen’s real-estate, meaning typing and editing can still feel rather claustrophobic – especially as the keyboard obscures the cursor if you click on any text in the bottom half of the screen.

Entering HTML into stories also presents a problem as it requires triangular brackets.

Each time I need to type < or > on the iPad, I have to cycle to the third virtual keyboard – an irritating break in the typing flow. There may be an app out there that lets users customise the layout of the virtual keyboards but that’s something I’d have to spend time hunting for.

Another irritation is autocorrect – a ‘feature’ of Safari that can cause spelling-based mayhem when typing in CMS – is an acquired taste and there’s no obvious setting to turn it off.

But for me the main annoyance at this point is the lack of a mouse or other precision navigation aid. Why do you need a mouse when you have a whole capacitive touchscreen at your fingertips, you may ask?

The problem is that the iPad’s touchscreen is great for some things, such as zooming in and out by pinching the screen, but finger gestures are not as precise a tool as a mouse pointer is. When attempting to clean up after erroneous autocorrect – ‘urea’ rather than ‘URL’ was one amusing example – the touchscreen experience can get very frustrating indeed.

To accurately position the cursor where I want it in a paragraph I have to zoom in first and then tap – a clumsy way to work compared to the precision of a mouse click. The addition of an optical nav-pad or roller ball – like the one found on the Android-based G1 smartphone – would resolve this usability issue, but Apple’s philosophy of having just one physical button on the front of the device means additional navigation aids are unlikely to appear on future iPad iterations.

Comfort and ergonomics

There are other aspects to the experience of working on the iPad that makes it less immersive than Apple’s “magical” marketing hype would have us believe.

Lying the iPad down on a flat surface means its highly polished screen acts as a mirror, reflecting light and making it difficult for me to see the virtual keys.

Typing on the iPad

Typing on an iPad using Apple’s case as a stand
(Photo credit: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

Of course, there are various cases and stands for the iPad to help avoid this problem: Apple’s official case can position the screen at a 45 degree angle for inputting text or 85 degrees for video viewing, for example.

I found typing on the 45 degree slope to be a better option for avoiding problems with reflections but didn’t fancy it as a comfortable long term typing position, especially when it comes to avoiding neck or wrist ache.

While not terrible – and easier than I thought it was going to be – touch-typing on the device remains…

…less comfortable than typing on a physical keyboard. If you need to input a lot of text, a netbook or laptop is simply a better tool to get your work done.

Word processing

Typically, I’d write up my articles in Word before inputting the text into CMS. For this experiment however, I’m using Apple’s Pages for iPad – the word processing package that’s part of Apple’s iWorks office productivity suite, which was recently reworked for the iPad.

Typing on Pages is certainly superior to inputting text directly into CMS via the VPN – there’s no weird formatting issues and it’s generally a more pleasant experience.

However, I find myself unable to paste the resulting text into the CMS. While I can paste the text into Safari’s search box, I can’t paste text where I actually need it to go. This is annoying.

As a result, I have to work in CMS, leaving Pages on iPad is essentially useless to me since all our content ends up in CMS. The only other option is, once again, to go on a hunt for a third party app that plugs the paste gap – both a pain and a productivity drain.

Pages on the iPad

Apple’s Pages word processing software for the iPad
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

IM

Instant messaging is another important component of my working day – everyone in the company uses it, meaning it’s usually very easy to fire off a query to a colleague who’s out of earshot when you need a quick reply.

While there’s a Yahoo! Messenger app for iPhone, which runs on the iPad, as the tablet doesn’t yet support multitasking I’m unable to have it running in the background while I work on something else.

Consequently, my colleagues probably won’t be able to reach me via IM when I’m working on the iPad – even though I can paradoxically fire up the app and IM them when I need to.

The iPad is due to get some multitasking abilities when it gets the iOS 4.0 update in the autumn – which should mean IM will be able to run in the background. However, since multitasking has only been previewed by Apple we’ll have to wait for the actual update to be sure.

Pages on the iPad

The Yahoo! Messenger iPhone app running on the iPad
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

As it stands I am constantly having to hit the home button to exit one app in order to go back into another, and I find myself mourning the lack of the task bar found on my laptop that would enable me to instantly click between multiple apps.

Browsing web and media

Where the iPad truly come into its own is as a device for web browsing and viewing media such as videos and photos – albeit not videos that demand Flash support, something Apple CEO Steve Jobs has ruled out.

As a research aid in my day-to-day job, the iPad is a pleasant enough way to take a turn around the web and gather information – with the proviso that inputting URLs and search terms via touchscreen typing is slower and more fiddly than touch-typing on a physical keyboard.

The iPad is a great way to view PDFs, however – pinch-to-zoom and finger-based scrolling transform what is always an unlovely laptop experience into a digital walk in the park.

Viewing PDFs on the iPad

Viewing a PDF on the iPad
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

Viewing photos and flicking between photo albums on the iPad is also a real delight on the glossy, 1024×768-pixel screen. It’s not a core function of my job, but for workers who spend a lot of time viewing or presenting digital imagery, the iPad has a lot of potential.

One more thing: the tech specs for the display claim it has a “fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating” – but don’t for a minute think that…

…translates to being fingerprint-proof: a microfibre cloth is essential to keep the iPad looking presentable after a few hours’ use.

Apps and files

A key part of Apple’s genius is to market an apparently effortless – that is, simplified – device to consumers and then also sell the ability to custom-augment their gadget with paid-for apps.

The downside of the Apple ecosystem is there’s only one way to get software onto the iPad: via Apple’s iTunes App Store. By contrast, I can download new software or other files to my laptop in a variety of ways – not just from the internet but from a USB stick or micro SD card using the machine’s built-in ports.

The iPad has just two ports on it: the proprietary Apple charger/dock port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. As a tech journalist I frequently get given information on USB sticks – if I was relying only an iPad I wouldn’t be able to extract their contents.

As for iTunes, it’s not my favourite piece of software. I find it slow to load and there are now so many apps on the App Store that searching for an app with the specific functionality you require can be a daunting process. Once the correct app has been identified, however, downloading it and installing it is a doddle.

iTunes on the iPad

iTunes on the iPad
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

Portability

Unlike smartphones, the iPad’s screen is big enough to comfortably view websites yet being smaller than a laptop or netbook, it’s easier to slip in a bag, carry around and whip out when on public transport.

The iPad in a bag

The iPad – about as thick as an A4 pad
(Photo credit: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

However, for longer train journeys, when getting lots of work done is a priority, I would still choose a netbook or laptop which can easily be set up on a table or seat-back tray – turning a train seat into a fully featured remote office.

The verdict: iPad vs laptop

It’s difficult to find an office job that doesn’t involve multitasking – and that means the laptop is always going to have more to offer than the iPad.

While a touchscreen interface shines in some situations, switching to an iPad meant everyday work tasks were more convoluted or fiddly than usual and productivity took a knock with a physical keyboard removed. All too often, using the iPad felt like trying to work with one arm tied behind my back.

Apple is certainly flirting with the enterprise by reworking its iWorks productivity software for iPad, but it’s very much a casual love affair. The iPad’s heart lies elsewhere – on the sofa, the bed, the pub or kitchen table. In these environments the device comes into its own as a casual web browsing tool, a video viewer, a social device for sharing media between friends, and a gaming gadget.

I’m definitely not going to be using the iPad to write the obituary of the keyboard. For this office worker at least, there’s life in those dusty old keys yet.

keyboard

Keyboards: Simply better for productivity
(Photo credit: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)