Should college students consider buying an iPad to use in place of netbook or notebook computer? Since the release of the new Apple slate device a week ago, this question has weighed on the minds of students, parents, teachers and school administrators alike. On the surface, the iPad seems like it could be the ideal device for mobile computing on campus with features like its optional iWork office suite, an Internet-connected bookstore called iBooks which supports the commonly used DRM-free ePub format, the 160,000+ applications available via iTunes, many of which are educational in nature and, of course, access to the greatest research tool ever invented: the Web.
However, despite the iPad’s pluses, there are still some issues that students should consider before purchasing this device.
Problem #1: Wi-Fi Access (or Lack Thereof)
The iPad comes in several models, each with varying storage sizes and Internet connectivity options. At the bottom of the lineup is the $499 Wi-Fi only 16 GB iPad, the model that money-strapped students can just barely afford, if they can afford an iPad at all. But without a 3G data connection, Internet access may be limited. In fact, students may not even be able to connect to their own college’s Wi-Fi network.
For example, George Washington University’s I.T. Communications and Marketing Manager Rachel Blevins recently told a reporter at the school’s independent newspaper that the university’s wireless network would not work with the Apple iPad. The problem, explained Blevins, is “both a security and a support issue, because many of the small [personal digital assistants], smartphone, and pad systems use sign-in security, which is currently not compatible with our systems.”
What Blevins is referring to is the VPN client software currently used at the university to connect students to resources typically limited to campus use only. Although the iPad software has built-in PPTP, IPSec, Cisco VPN software many universities (and of course, businesses too, as we pointed out earlier) use SSL VPN, a more secure solution which is not supported by the iPad.
That means that students with the Wi-Fi only iPad may not be able to connect to their college’s network – often the only method of Internet access available in classrooms and other on-campus hangouts.
Update: SSL VPN support was just announced as coming in the next iPhone OS update, due out this fall.
Problem #2: Writing Papers
The iPad doesn’t come with a keyboard. Although one is available as an optional $69 accessory, the included keyboard on the iPad is a virtual, on-screen keypad. In tests, many iPad reviewers found this keyboard was surprisingly easier to type on than they expected, especially in landscape mode, but for students writing long term papers, it may still fall short. A generation from now, after kids have grown up with touchscreen technology, that may no longer be the case. But at the moment, most college students will likely prefer hardware keyboards.
Another issue: when the paper is complete, many professors still require a printout, not an electronic document. However, the iPad doesn’t include a printing function. There are a few third-party applications that offer this ability (WSJ’s Walt Mossberg recommends Print Online’s $5 app, for example), but none are as simple as a built-in technology would be. (Side note: printing support may be a feature added to the upcoming iPhone/iPad software Apple is announcing later today. Check back for an update).
Problem #3: iWork Doesn’t Work for Students?
The optional iWork applications (Pages, Sheets and Keynote) are Apple’s version of Microsoft Office’s Word, Excel and Powerpoint. However, some are already finding them difficult to use for their purposes. One example: in the tests documented here, creating files on the iPad went well, but the sync solution provided by iTunes caused issues for the reviewer.
We also noticed some problems ourselves, documented in an early review by Frederic Lardinois:
“While you can easily import and export documents (Pages and Word) by email or through iTunes, complex documents don’t always survive this move intact,” Lardinois explained. “Footnotes and endnotes, for example, are simply deleted, making Pages for the iPad almost useless for a lot of students and academics. Tables of content simply become part of the text, which means that they don’t auto-update any more.” He also noted that Pages on the iPad doesn’t offer a word count, something many college students need in order to know if their paper meets a professor’s requirements.
Finally, Apple’s document-sharing service iWork.com, while great for sharing files with other people, doesn’t function as a way to sync files between devices.
Problem #4: No USB Port
iPad’s lack of a USB port may not be an issue for some – so much of what we do now is web-based, after all. However, for college students who have become accustomed to porting their files around on keychain drives, the missing USB port requires a change in their workflow which may not fit in with their current lifestyle.
Instead of being able to plug in a portable flash drive to the iPad as they could with their Mac or PC, files can only be sent to the iPad via iTunes sync, email or web download. There are some third-party applications that can help, but again, nothing is as good as a built-in solution.
Conclusion: iPad’s a Great “In-Between” Device, But Not a Notebook Replacement
Despite these disadvantages, the iPad still has a lot to offer college students as an additional device, if not a PC replacement. For example, Blackboard’s free iPad application looks quite useful. From the app, students can check grades and assignments, add discussion board comments and blog posts and email instructors and classmates.
Plus, the iTunes Application Store has thousands of educational applications like advanced calculators, reference guides, dictionaries, note-taking apps, planners, utilities and much more.
The iPad also plays podcasts, like those offered via iTunesU, the collection of audio and video presentations created by many universities to distribute recorded lectures, films, schedules, syllabi, notes, maps and other information to students.
However, given the issues listed above, it’s clear that the iPad and its software – at least in its current form – is not able to fully replace a notebook computer. Some of the problems may be addressed in time with revisions to the device’s software, but for now the device remains a great “in-between” mobile gadget, not a next-gen notebook computer.