Hands on: iPad or laptop on business trips?

Is an iPad or laptop the better choice for a business trip? We took both out for a ride.

Over the past 15 years I have never been on a business trip without a laptop. Is an iPad really ready to take its place today?

My first presentation at a technical conference dates back to 1999. At that time I was the only one using Powerpoint slides. I had to haul a digital projector with me as very few companies or hotels had them for rent. The technical equipment alone accounted for more than 7 kg of luggage. A pain to move around and hard to believe from today's point of view.

We've come a long way since then - projectors and large monitors can be found everywhere and are commonplace. And an iPad is attempting to replace my laptop, bringing the total weight of technical equipment I carry with me on a business trip down to 700 grams plus a few cables and maybe the power adaptor.

Still, I was unsure whether an iPad would be enough. What limitations would the device incur?

First the obvious: Many things business travellers need are standard tasks for the device. Mobile internet and eMail, contacts, calendars, reading PDFs or finding the way to the next restaurant are core functions of the device.

But what about presentations? An iPad can drive monitors up to 720p (1280x720 pixels). My favorite presentation software Keynote is available too. So, I launched the app store, bought that app - only to discover disappointing issues: The iPad Keynote app showed issues importing slides from my Mac. Our corporate font was replaced by a default font and not all table features we use turned out to be supported, e.g. lists within a table cell. Furthermore, all slides were scaled down to 1024x768, the devices native screen resolution. Skipping over slides or changing their order works flawlessly, though. If you are aware of the the limitations, that might still be enough.

There are workarounds for some of the issues encountered. The "custom font" issue can be resolved provided you are willing to accept a "jailbreak". Numerous internet sites describe how to do that. A similarly non-elegant solution can be applied to the table issue. Replace the affected table with a PDF image of it. Of course, not editable, not nice but at least not as questionable as the jailbreak. Only the slide size issue remains unresolved - Keynote seems to be limited to 1024x768 - at least for now.

The mentioned limitations are for sure annoying, yet the low weight is often still more intriguing. On the other hand, an iPad is not enough for me when it comes to editing slides or creating new ones. The brilliant multitouch UI cannot compete with the ergonomics and precision of my Mac's UI for such a task.

I sincerely hope that Apple addresses some of these limitations with iOS 5 and future Keynote versions. For the time being, I will keep my laptop as a necessary alternative. Or is that what Apple has in mind...?

P.S. You could also export the entire presentation to PDF and show it in full screen mode. Personally, I wouldn't recommend that, though. In my tests, PDFs exported from Keynote did not always display properly on the iPad and lacked the images on the slides. The same PDF worked okay on the Mac. The second argument against using PDFs is that you cannot use any animations or page transition effects.