Apple iPad: good for business as well as pleasure?

This month, I’m writing a column on the Apple iPad – literally: I’m trying to write all 2,800 or so words on one and I’ll let you know by the end of this article whether I made it.

Apple iPad: good for business as well as pleasure?

You’re probably wondering why on earth I’d do this – surely the iPad is just a rich kid’s toy, a coffee-table gadget for gaming and the odd bit of web surfing, and this column is supposed to be about business tools?

I’m not sure whether this is simply excess demand or whether Apple has found some legal way around the anti-price-fixing regulations

That’s what I thought when it was launched, but then I started to encounter people using it for business. First were a couple of technical journo colleagues who started packing iPads rather than laptops for trips to the US. Then I started receiving emails from PC Pro readers about using iPads for business – some think it’s the ideal device for meeting notes, others for showing clients designs (it’s better than a projector or large monitor: clients seem to appreciate the work more when they can hold it themselves). I’ve also started to see iPads among train commuters, and even spotted a couple in some of my clients’ offices. I just had to test whether my preconceived prejudice against the iPad was wrong.

Let’s start with the purchasing process, and which model to buy. The iPad comes in six configurations, three memory sizes (16, 32 or 64GB), and with either Wi-Fi only or Wi-Fi+3G. It would have been sensible to buy the 16 or 32GB (plenty of space unless you’re toting loads of movies) and Wi-Fi-only version because I’m going to use it mostly in my office or at home, and when I do venture outside I can use a PAYG MiFi dongle from 3, an inexpensive way to grab a 3G signal and feed it to a Wi-Fi-only device. But of course, I’m a gadget fan: I wanted the top-of-the-range 64GB model with 3G too, which costs £699 from an official Apple store.

I’m pretty good at sniffing out bargains, however, so I went off to see what deals I could find. But apart from a couple of no-name vendors, I’d never heard of selling US import devices for about £15 off – almost everyone else was selling them at the full £699 RRP.

I’m not sure whether this is simply excess demand or whether Apple has found some legal way around the anti-price-fixing regulations. My hunch is the former, because not only is everyone selling at RRP, they’re also refusing to accept money-off voucher codes for iPad sales: I became really bored of finding “£50 off over £500” coupons only to read “excludes iPad” in the small print. In the end, the best I could manage was 3% cashback via Quidco, on a reserve-and-collect purchase from my local PC World. Oh well, £17 is better than nothing.

What did surprise me was how eBay is full of people offering iPads for way over list price, sometimes at a premium of £150 or more. I don’t think many of them are actually selling, but it’s a sure sign that the iPad is still a hot item.

In the box

So having procured my device, what’s it like to use? Well, the initial experience is very Apple indeed: the packaging is minimal, but not as minimal as the user manual. I say “manual” but it’s actually a piece of thin card, with a picture on one side showing where the buttons are and details of where to download iTunes on the other. If you’ve ever used an iPhone, though, you’ll feel at home. The notable differences are that the iPad still runs version 3 of Apple’s phone OS, so there’s no multitasking or folder support and, unless you download something such as Truphone, you can’t make voicecalls since its SIM card is for data only.

And that SIM card is interesting. Like the iPhone 4 it employs a micro-SIM, which is much smaller than a traditional mobile phone SIM. Most iPad shops will try to sell you a new data contract for your device – the bloke at PC World actually tried to sell me data, insurance, a case, and an off-device backup solution. However, if you have an old data-enabled SIM laying around, perhaps one that you use for occasional PAYG calls, you can trim it down to work in the iPad because the electrical connections are physically in the same place, and the parts you cut away don’t contain anything electronic.

It’s possible to cut down a SIM to micro-SIM size using nothing more than a sturdy pair of scissors (I’ve done a couple without any problem), but a safer bet is to head off to eBay where for about £10 you can pick up a micro-SIM cutter. These look a bit like staplers, and punch a nicely formed micro-SIM out of a normal SIM. These tools often come bundled with a couple of adapters, so you can continue to use this circumcised SIM in your normal phone.

Considering its huge screen, the iPad achieves phenomenal battery life: a couple of hours’ worth of intensive game playing, especially Wi-Fi-connected games, will completely kill the battery of most popular smartphones, but the same session on a fully charged iPad will probably leave the charge level at around 75%.

This accounts for the heavier-than-you’d-expect weight of the device – the back of it is crammed full of battery. But this big battery needs a big charge to keep it topped up, and the USB ports fitted on many PCs aren’t man enough for this job, so when you plug in your iPad you’ll see a “Not Charging” message at the top of the screen. Actually, I think it’s fibbing and it does charge, very slowly (especially when the screen is off). However, some recent PCs and many Macs now come with macho USB ports that can pump out the full current required by the iPad.

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