Can I Write a Novel on My iPad?
Slate's tech-advice column on the iPad's word-processing capabilities, the mystifying appeal of Foursquare, and more.
If you've got a burning tech problem you want solved, please send a note to email@example.com, with "I've got a tech question!" as the subject line. (Your question may be edited.) You can also read previous "Dear Farhad" columns here and here.
I'm a writer, and I've been looking for a portable machine that I can use both at home and when I travel. Should I consider an iPad? I've heard that the iPad is geared more toward the consumption of content than the production, but the fact that it is cheaper and lighter than my computer and such a great entertainment device makes it seems like a better choice to take with me on my travels. I know that Apple sells an add-on keyboard for the iPad, but is that enough to turn the touchscreen tablet into a real computer? Does it run any word-processing programs? Is it comfortable to work on?
—Looking for My Electronic Muse
Just for you, I'm conducting an experiment: I'm writing this column on an external keyboard connected to my iPad. So far, the experience is not terrible—if you're like me, fiddling with the computer (no matter how uncomfortable it might happen to be) is never the most frustrating part of writing. So, while I don't feel fully at home working on the iPad, I could certainly see myself using it if I had to.
Apple makes a $69 keyboard dock for the iPad, but because the tablet is equipped with Bluetooth, most cheap generic wireless keyboards should work with it as well. If you're looking for extreme portability, try Apple's wireless keyboard (also $69), which is just a bit taller than the iPad itself and weighs next to nothing. I'm using that keyboard right now. I'm also using Pages, the $10 word-processing app that Apple designed for the iPad.
The good news: Once you connect the keyboard, typing on the iPad works pretty much the same as typing on a desktop. The iPad responds instantly to every key, and many of the keyboard shortcuts you're used to from Windows or the Mac—commands for copy, paste, and undo, for instance—work the same on the iPad.
The trouble comes in trying to edit what you've written. The iPad won't let you add on a wireless mouse, so if you want to move your cursor to another part of the document, you've got to do it with keyboard commands or by dragging your finger on the screen. This isn't annoying, just unusual; it takes a bit of time to get used to reaching for the screen every time you'd like to revise something a few lines back.
The bigger shortcoming is the iPad's lack of multitasking and its insistence that every application run in full-screen view. (Apple just announced that multitasking will be available on the iPad in the fall.) If you need to leave your word processor to get information from another app, the iPad is a hassle. When looking up the price for the Apple keyboard above, it took me several button-presses and screen taps to get from Pages to the Web browser and back to Pages. On a laptop or desktop, I could have switched apps with a quick keyboard shortcut or just looked at one window while I typed in another. Of course, the iPad's single-mindedness might be a boon to some writers—it's not very easy to switch to IM or Twitter on this thing, so you might actually get some work done. (On the other hand, the iPad is teeming with games, so you probably won't.)
Also, I'll point out that after buying an entry-level iPad, the keyboard, and Pages, you'll be out nearly $600. The iPad's 10-hour battery lasts longer than that of most laptops, and it is a very sweet media-consumption device. But if you're looking to get some work done, I'd recommend a full-sized laptop. You can get a Windows version for less than $600. (The cheapest Mac laptop sells for about $1,000.)
Slate V: Farhad Manjoo Lets People Test Drive His iPad
I just got into Twitter, but now all my tech-savvy friends seem to have moved on to something else—Foursquare. What on earth is Foursquare? Do I need it? Is it meant to be fun? Or useful? And can you please explain to me why all my friends are suddenly announcing that they've become mayor of the corner Laundromat?
—The Mayor of Don't Have a Clue
Dear Mr. Mayor,
Don't worry, you don't need Foursquare. I don't find it particularly useful, and though some people have a lot of fun on it, I don't understand them at all. If you abstain, you'll be in good company.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell. Photograph of Apple iPad by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.