How to Know If You Should Buy an iPad

Back when the iPad was first announced, I wrote a column where I speculated on how well the iPad might squeeze in between an iPhone on the one end and a MacBook on the other. Now that the iPad has been released, and I’ve actually had the chance to work with device, I want to revisit this topic.

If you haven’t already purchased an iPad, you’re probably considering getting one. But before you plunk down $500 or more dollars, you want to know: “Is it worth it for me? Do I really need it? Will I really use it?”

To answer these questions, start by considering what hardware you currently own. Here are some common possibilities:

I have an old MacBook. I want to sell it and get an iPad instead, making the iPad the only computing device I own.

If that’s your goal, I’d hold off on buying an iPad for now. Otherwise, you’re in for trouble. You’ll discover this the moment you turn on the iPad: all you will get is a screen requesting that you connect the iPad to iTunes on a Mac or PC. Remember that MacBook you sold? You’ll be wanting it back about now.

Even after you get your iPad up and running, there are basic functions that will require that you also have another computer. Syncing with iTunes to back up your data is one example. Printing is a second big one. The iPad is mainly a content consuming device; you can’t yet do serious content creation with it.

There is the hypothetical grandmother that supposedly can get by with just an iPad. Her son brings his MacBook Pro when he visits, doing any required syncing or printing. In reality, I believe there are very few, if any, grandmothers that fit this description. Even if they exist, they are not seeking advice by reading this column. So I’ll ignore them.

Someday, you may be able to backup all of your iPad data to the Internet cloud, such as to MobileMe. You also may be able to easily share all the data on your iPad, including apps, with other users. You may be able to save Web pages in Safari without needing third-party software. You may even be able to attach USB peripherals to your iPad without going through the Dock (although that’s a longer stretch). When that day comes, an iPad can be your only computer. But that day is not yet here.

I have an iMac and planned to get a MacBook as well. I am now thinking of getting an iPad instead of a MacBook.

The first thing you should do is read the previous section. Make sure you understand the limitations of the iPad. It may be that you can live with these limitations because you are content to use your iMac whenever the iPad cannot handle a given task. And you won’t absolutely need to do these tasks while traveling. If so, the iPad is a possibility for you.

But is it more than a possibility? Is it actually preferable to a MacBook in these situations? In the majority of cases, I would say yes. If you plan to use a laptop primarily for the tasks that the iPad handles well, such as Web surfing, email and games, and if you don’t mind having a smaller screen, you’ll revel in the convenience of the iPad. It’s lighter, its battery lasts longer, and it’s more fun to use.

I have both an iMac and a MacBook. I am thinking of getting an iPad as well.

This is a bit tricky. It would be hard to argue that you “need” an iPad. Just about anything you need to do with a computer, you can do with what you already own. It becomes more of a question of convenience, as well as how much you want access to all the iPad apps that you can’t run on your Mac hardware.

Sure, it will be fun to casually leave the iPad on your coffee table, ready to grab for Google lookups while you’re watching TV. Or you may just want to catch up on the latest news. While you could do these things with a laptop, the iPad does a much better job of playing this role. It encourages handing it around to others and fiddling with it in a way that the more “serious” MacBook does not. As I noted on Twitter the other day, the iPad is certainly not better than a MacBook in every respect. But it handles some tasks in a better way. Searching Google and reading news articles are a couple of these tasks.

The iPad may be a category of device unto itself, but there is no law that says you have to own a device for every category that exists, as much as Apple might wish that Congress pass such a law. Still, if you can afford an iPad and can envision using it separate from your laptop, go for it.

I’ve decided that an iPad is for me. Should I get one now or wait for the second generation?

Get it now. The iPad is not your typical 1.0 device. It uses the same operating system as the iPhone and iPod touch. Almost all the kinks that would normally need to be worked out with new hardware and software, have already been worked out on these other devices.

True, there may be some new iPad-specific features that need fixing. But these will almost all be software-based and will likely be fixed for free (or at a minimal charge) in the next iPhone OS updates for the iPad — just as is now done with iPhone and iPod touch updates.

One possible exception: If money is tight and you can afford the time to wait (that is, you won’t have to buy some other laptop device in the interim), you might want to wait until the next generation of iPad hardware is released. It will certainly have worthwhile improvements, just as the iPhone 3G was much better than the original iPhone. Still, you’ll likely have to wait about a year, which can seem like forever. If you get an iPad now, you could sell it next year for a decent price and get the second generation one at only a minimal extra cost. For me, this is the better choice.

One more thing: How does owning an iPhone (or iPod touch) affect all of this?

So far, my answers have been limited to considering an iPad purchase based on what Mac hardware you currently own. I’ve not considered whether or not you also own an iPhone or iPod touch. Let’s do so now.

Suppose you own both a MacBook Pro and an iPhone, do you also need an iPad? No. If you also own an iMac, even more emphatically no. In these cases, the only real extra that the iPad provides is the ability to run iPad-optimized apps that you cannot run on any of your other hardware. This is not a big extra at this point. With the hardware you already own, you can already do just about everything else.

You may similarly ask: “I carry my iPhone around with me all the time. I use it for email and appointments and contacts. It works well enough for Web surfing. Why would I also want to carry around a much larger device that largely duplicates these functions?” There is no compelling need to do so.

However, if you sometimes carry around your MacBook in addition to your iPhone, you might want to consider leaving your MacBook permanently at home and going with an iPad when you’re on the go. Or, if you have the trifecta of an iMac, MacBook and iPhone, you might trade in your MacBook for an iPad. All of this assumes you are the type of user, as discussed above, who can easily get by with an iPad rather than a MacBook when necessary.

Bottom line: At this early stage of the iPad’s evolution, buying one is more of a “want” than a “need.” But it can be a very compelling want (as I describe in my previous column). If you want an iPad, and can afford it, I am betting you won’t regret the purchase.