For the past week or so, I have been testing a sleek, light, silver-and-black tablet computer called an iPad. After spending hours and hours with it, I believe this beautiful new touch-screen device from Apple has the potential to change portable computing profoundly, and to challenge the primacy of the laptop. It could even help, eventually, to propel the finger-driven, multitouch user interface ahead of the mouse-driven interface that has prevailed for decades.
But first, it will have to prove that it really can replace the laptop or netbook for enough common tasks, enough of the time, to make it a viable alternative. And that may not be easy, because previous tablet computers have failed to catch on in the mass market, and the iPad lacks some of the features—such as a physical keyboard, a Webcam, USB ports and multitasking—that most laptop or netbook users have come to expect.
If people see the iPad mainly as an extra device to carry around, it will likely have limited appeal. If, however, they see it as a way to replace heavier, bulkier computers much of the time—for Web surfing, email, social-networking, video- and photo-viewing, gaming, music and even some light content creation—it could be a game changer the way Apple's iPhone has been.
The iPad is much more than an e-book or digital periodical reader, though it does those tasks brilliantly, better in my view than the Amazon Kindle. And it's far more than just a big iPhone, even though it uses the same easy-to-master interface, and Apple says it runs nearly all of the 150,000 apps that work on the iPhone.
It's qualitatively different, a whole new type of computer that, through a simple interface, can run more-sophisticated, PC-like software than a phone does, and whose large screen allows much more functionality when compared with a phone's. But, because the iPad is a new type of computer, you have to feel it, to use it, to fully understand it and decide if it is for you, or whether, say, a netbook might do better.
So I've been using my test iPad heavily day and night, instead of my trusty laptops most of the time. As I got deeper into it, I found the iPad a pleasure to use, and had less and less interest in cracking open my heavier ThinkPad or MacBook. I probably used the laptops about 20 percent as often as normal, reserving them mainly for writing or editing longer documents, or viewing Web videos in Adobe's Flash technology, which the iPad doesn't support, despite its wide popularity online.
My verdict is that, while it has compromises and drawbacks, the iPad can indeed replace a laptop for most data communication, content consumption and even limited content creation, a lot of the time. But it all depends on how you use your computer.