Slate's Farhad Manjoo answers your questions about the iPad, Foursquare, and more.

Slate's Farhad Manjoo answers your questions about the iPad, Foursquare, and more.

Slate's Farhad Manjoo answers your questions about the iPad, Foursquare, and more.

Your tech questions answered.
April 8 2010 2:17 PM

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.

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If you've got a burning tech problem you want solved, please send a note to farhad.manjoo@slate.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.

Dear Farhad,

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

Dear 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.

iPad. Click image to expand.
Apple 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.

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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.)

—Farhad

Slate V: Farhad Manjoo Lets People Test Drive His iPad

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Dear Farhad,

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.

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Foursquare is the most popular of a range of new "geolocation" start-ups. The site lets you tell people where you are as you move about town. When you visit a restaurant, bar, or pretty much any other place, you pull out your phone and "check in" to that location on Foursquare. This sends an alert to your friends and followers.

What's the point of all this? Foursquare fanatics say that the service helps foster real-life meet-ups (your old college pal could stop by if he sees that you're hanging out at a nearby club) and that it helps you learn about your city (you might discover a great restaurant because you notice that a lot of your Foursquare friends love to go there). In other words, it's great for extroverts. But if you're the type of person who crosses the street to avoid the fellow who looks like your college suitemate, you might not see the point.

What I really don't get is the "game" aspect of Foursquare. The site gives you points and other honors for certain check-in patterns—if you're the one to check in most often to a location, you become that place's Foursquare mayor. Earning this title can result in real-life discounts, but these aren't nearly generous enough to account for how obsessed some people get about becoming Foursquare mayors. This week the site announced that it would add some anti-cheating measures to "catch some of the folks that are checking in from their couches to steal mayorships." I don't like to ridicule people for the ways they like to have fun online—my own Web history is pathetic—but how bored do you have to be to resort to stealing a Foursquare mayorship? Have these people heard about television?

Whatever you think of geolocation, it might soon be unavoidable. Twitter recently added a feature that lets you broadcast your location in your tweets, and Facebook is rumored to be building a check-in system as well. Get ready for year-round mayoral campaigns wherever you go.

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—Farhad

Dear Farhad,

I have a two-story hillside home. I placed my cable modem and Wi-Fi router in a central room nestled into the hillside between the two floors, but Wi-Fi reception is very spotty. How can I improve my signal?

—Hillside Wi-Fi Blues

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Dear Hillside,

There are lots of ways to boost your wireless connection, but deciding which one to choose can be difficult. The first thing to do is look at your current router. Wi-Fi has evolved over the years, and you might get better range by switching to a newer model. You can identify your base station's age by looking at the model name—older routers will usually have the letter A, B, or G in their description (it will be called "wireless-G" router, or an "802.11B base station," for instance). If that's the case, you might see a better signal if you switch to a newer "wireless-N" router.

Note that I say you "might" see an improvement—that's because your wireless performance also depends on the device that's receiving the wireless signals. If you're using a laptop that has a wireless-B receiver, a wireless-N router isn't going to help you very much. If your computer is less than a couple years old, there's a good chance it has the latest Wi-Fi adapter; if your machine is older, you might want to buy a better adapter.

It's also possible that your house is too big or oddly shaped for one router to reach every spot. If that's the case, you could think about getting a "range extender." These devices amplify your signal in areas of your house that don't get good Wi-Fi coverage.

And if all those options fail, move.

—Farhad

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