The iPad: A Student’s New Computer?

The newly refreshed Macbook Air is the best laptop Apple has ever devised for students. Even the lowest end model, with its paltry (by current standards) 2GB of RAM, would be fine for most students I know. Add the Air’s ridiculously fast SSD into the mix, and you’ve got a seriously slick machine.

But wait, what other Apple product is impossibly thin, has flash-based storage, and is super fast? The iPad, of course.

In many ways, the iPad seems unstoppable: its stable of professional, beautifully designed apps grows by the day, its iOS operating system gets more efficient and productive with every update, and its hardware is way ahead of competitors.

At half the price of the MacBook Air, the iPad suddenly seems like a more than capable option for a cash-strapped student. But could it really serve as a student’s only computer?

Narrowing the Gap

“How could the iPad’s simplistic software even come close to matching the capability of a laptop?” the skeptics ask. While this is an understandable position, the debate usually ends there. I would prefer to give the iPad a closer examination.

After all, it must be doing something right if it has outsold the Mac in the past fiscal quarter, and has had some of its central innovations ported back to OS X.

Some of Lion's new features were clearly drawn from iOS.

Some of Lion's new features were clearly drawn from iOS.

In a market where distracting, bloated user interfaces are the norm, Apple is making a statement: simplicity, in the right context, can actually lead to increased productivity.

Perhaps, as the poster child for simplistic computing, the iPad is perfectly suited for fulfilling the average consumer’s computing needs, and may perform some tasks more fluidly than even a MacBook Air.

The Elephants in the Room

But if the iPad is to be the right choice for a student, its simplicity should not, under any circumstances, reduce efficiency. On this front, the major barriers to using an iPad as a student’s only computer are its lack of a file system and the difficulties associated with printing.

From my experience, Dropbox is the best workaround for these issues.

At school, I access all my documents on my iPad using Dropbox

At school, I access all my documents on my iPad using Dropbox.

I save all my school documents within Dropbox, and use apps that have support for the service built-in. This way, any documents and notes I create are automatically synced (or, less ideally, manually exported) to DropBox. I can then pick them up on a school computer or my MacBook in order to print them.

This is by no means a perfect solution, because it often requires an extra step before completing a task. But it is an essential service if you want any of the workflows I describe below to function properly.

A Student’s Needs

Without further ado, let’s see how the iPad handles a student’s major responsibilities.

1. Note Taking

For people who like typing their notes, the iPad may be better than a laptop. It’s easier to bring to class than an Air, and is faster at accessing note-taking apps on startup. Plus, it’s less distracting in the classroom because it does not have a fold-out monitor.

Of course, you could opt for a bluetooth keyboard for taking notes. But while I do think a keyboard is essential for writing papers (see below), it negates the whole point of a distraction-free digital note-taking experience. Plus, it would take longer to set up in a pinch if the keyboard isn’t already paired. The on-screen keyboard takes a little getting used to, but overall it’s quite good.

There is a plethora of excellent apps available for note-taking, but my current favorite is Notability. The app organizes your notes into “notebooks” (which are effectively folders), boasts a dead-simple outlining system, and allows you to export your notes to Dropbox.

Notability: my current favorite note-taking app

Notability: my current favorite note-taking app.

There are even apps that allow you to write notes by hand – either with a finger or a stylus. I contemplated such a set-up myself, but have heard that the current offerings for iPad styluses are mainly designed for art, not writing. If I am wrong, I would love to hear about it in the comments.

2. Paper Writing

There are also some excellent writing apps for the iPad that boast beautifully minimalist writing environments. I currently bounce between iA Writer and WriteRoom because of their elegant menu systems, customized keyboards with easy access to special characters, and perfect Dropbox support.

I wrote most of this article in WriteRoom

I wrote most of this article in WriteRoom.

A bluetooth keyboard is a good investment if you plan on writing on the iPad for long periods of time. With a keyboard, the iPad becomes a beautiful, focused writing machine. Although Lion now has fullscreen apps, it’s still much easier to stay on task with an iPad because it’s harder to switch to Facebook or Angry Birds (think of the difference between command + tab and reaching over to press a button twice and you’ll see what I mean).

For this reason, writing linearly, without pausing to go back and fix a paragraph, works very well. But the iPad isn’t as efficient as a laptop if you’re the kind of writer who constantly jumps to different parts of your document. Because the iPad doesn’t use a mouse, you have to clumsily reach forward and touch the screen in order to navigate.

I could see this not being an issue for some, but I know I would be frustrated with anything that gets in between me and my swiftly approaching paper deadline.

3. Researching

Speaking of clumsy navigation interfaces, researching is quite difficult on an iPad given the limited functionality of the device’s multitasking system. Mission Control and Spaces on a Macbook Air allow student researchers much more flexibility in how they organize their windows, thus increasing efficiency.

In addition, the variety of bibliography generators at the disposal of Mac users is not available on the iPad, making it difficult to write a research paper based on your notes. And as far as I know, there is no way to create footnotes or endnotes on the iPad. Again, if I’m wrong, please let me know in the comments.

Of course, it would be possible to type out the content of your research paper and then add citations on a school computer, but that doesn’t solve the problems the iPad has with researching. And no student I know would ever want to depend on a school computer to finish assignments.

Bottom line, if you frequently have to complete research projects at school, the iPad as your only computer is not going to work out very well.

4. Reading

Reviewing documents on the iPad is an absolute delight. Upon purchase, my iPad quickly became my go-to device for reading PDF’s, highlighting key lines (with a finger!), and referring to passages in class. All you need is access to a school computer to upload files to your Dropbox account, and you’re good to go.

The key app for using the iPad in this way is UPAD, which lets you highlight PDF’s with your finger and export your annotated documents. I also use GoodReader to move PDF’s from my Dropbox folder to UPAD, because the Dropbox app, for whatever reason, doesn’t offer UPAD as an export option.

Using UPAD, I can highlight class readings with my finger.

Using UPAD, I can highlight class readings with my finger.

As for novels, I prefer having hard copies since I’m an English major and frequently make notes in the margins. I just find this method easier than trying to get Apple’s iBooks app to annotate the way I want it to.

I don’t have as much familiarity with textbooks, but Amazon’s newly-announced textbook rental plan seems like a great solution when coupled with the iPad’s Kindle app. From what I can tell, you can rent textbooks for much cheaper prices, and for any amount of time you desire. For some students, such a system could make up for the iPad’s cost within the span of just a few semesters.

5. Studying

I’ve never studied for a test using an iPad, particularly since I haven’t had to take many tests at school. But if the excellent reading and note-taking capabilities of the iPad are any indication, the device is likely an excellent study companion. Its portability, and the ease with which you can share the screen with a friend, makes the iPad ideal for study groups.

And for the flash-card junkies out there, Evernote seems to have a great solution as long as you have a smart cover with your iPad. Evernote Peek allows you to partially lift the smart cover to view clues from the notes you take within Evernote, and lifting the whole cover reveals the answers.

Concluding Thoughts

So, does the iPad actually work as a student’s only computer? It really depends on what kind of student you are.

If you mostly find yourself taking notes, reading, and studying, and don’t have frequent writing assignments, then the iPad could actually work. But if you have to constantly conduct research and write long papers, it’s probably not the best option.

Will a MacBook Air therefore be the best choice for the majority of students? Probably. But the iPad has made unbelievable strides in the past two years, and is truly redefining the way we interact with and think about computers – both in the classroom and in the wider world.

Perhaps the next generation of computer users won’t be constrained by our underlying assumptions about how a computer should work, and wouldn’t even think twice about depending on a tablet device. And by then, who knows what the iPad could be capable of.


  • Chris

    I would take a look at Adonit.net they have a new stylus called the Jot and Jot-Pro which look fairly promising. I used the Boxwave stylus last semester with Noterize and Note Taker HD. The stylus worked quite well and the apps had some nice features like pdf/power point importing from dropbox.

    • Alex Wilkinson

      I just heard about the Jots! They do look pretty cool…maybe I’ll give one of them a shot and write about the results. And I’ll consider the Boxwave too…would love to be able to take digital handwritten notes, since I never took to typing my notes. Thanks for the suggestions!

  • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

    Great article! I thought I’d chime in with my experience as BsIT senior. I’ve done tons of homework on my iPad, including writing full term papers and submitting them without touching a normal computer. In fact, I’m studying online from Florida Institute of Technology while I live in Thailand, and I have done quizzes on the iPad before, too.

    Here’s the apps that made it work great:

    - iCab Mobile – it’s easily the most advanced browser on the iPad, and you can upload files from it, which lets you submit homework, too.

    - Pages (and Numbers/Keynote if you need spreadsheets/PowerPoints) – it’s a full-featured word processor, and you can make documents laid out just like your professors want. 8.5×11, 1in margins, 12pt Times New Roman, double-spaced, headers and footers: it’s all there. And you can export in .doc and .pdf format, too. I’ve written several term papers directly from it.

    - Simplenote – It’s my favorite notes app on any platform, and makes it easy to keep your notes synced, simply.

    And, depending on what you’re studying, that just might cover everything you need. I still use my PC (or now my Mac Mini…) for tons of stuff, but the iPad is way more useful than most people would think.

    • Alex Wilkinson

      Thanks for the response! I will definitely check out iCab Mobile, that sounds great.

      I also obsessively use Simplenote—I forgot to mention in my article that I use that app to do research by pasting in library call numbers from my mac and then accessing them on my iPad while I look for my books.

      As for Pages, that’s one of the first writing apps I got and I do really like it—I wrote part of a short story in it—but reliable, real-time syncing of my documents ended up being more important to me. I’ll definitely take another look at it once iCloud comes out. Do you know if you can write footnotes in Pages?

      Also, I’ve read some of your articles on the site. Great stuff!

      • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

        You can write footnotes in Pages, but there’s no automatic way to format and link them. However, you can create normal headers and footers, including ones with, say, your essay title and automatic page numbers. There’s also the option for page breaks. Since I generally don’t use any documentation tools to help make my references pages, it’s perfect for me. In fact, I’m working on an 8-10 page essay in Pages right now ;)

        • http://alexwilkinson.me Alex Wilkinson

          I suspected as much. Maybe I’ll try writing my next English paper on Pages for iPad!

  • Pavel

    It depends a lot on what the student actually … studies. It can definitely replace a lot we (as I’m a student) do during University and help keep things more organised. For example, no more paper and pen, books, notes all over the place, direct access to internet on the same device, etc.

    However, paper and pen is priceless when doing quick sketches, diagrams, etc as it enables fast prototyping. On the iPad you would only do the (close to) finite thing, before you submit it for example. And I imagine that to take a fair amount of time – compared to paper/pen and scanning :)

    If you send me over an iPad (2 preferably) I’m more than willing to give it a go during my next Uni year and make a full report on it ;)

  • JoeBin

    I think the iPad is getting there. At this point the iPad couldn’t be the sole device for a student in design or any other major that requires intensive graphics work. It’s still more efficient to keep multiple windows in view when working on research projects.

    • http://alexwilkinson.me Alex Wilkinson

      What you and Pavel are saying makes a lot of sense. I can understand intensive graphics work probably never being feasible on the iPad, but have one of you tried using a stylus for sketching? A stylus likely wouldn’t create final draft material but it could be an interesting way to go.

  • doug

    Being picky, but, hey, I’m an editor. “PDF’s” is incorrect; should be PDFs, as in:

    “Johnny emailed seven PDFs (or, better, “PDF documents”) to his teacher.” Apostrophes either mean possession or contraction, neither of which you intended here. Keep up the great articles.

    • Alex Wilkinson

      Yeah, I was torn about that. I feel like I read somewhere that it is technically correct to use apostrophes for plural acronyms, but maybe I was wrong about that. PDFs without the apostrophe looks better anyway!

  • Rob

    Does anyone know how to write guided notes on an iPad. For example, I would have the presentation projecting on my screen and the kids would fill in the blanks for a premade guided notes packet. Is it possible to send each student the guided notes and then they can add the missing information, highlight, and then send it to their dropbox? Thanks!

  • FelixT

    In my opinion there is never enough screen real estate while working. I’ve been using the iPad now for about 5 months and it’s the best device for annotating documents, no doubt. But as soon as I actually started learning for exams I always found myself dragging my MacBook pro with me or accessing my documents from the cloud on an other device parallel to the iPad.
    The small screen is just not enough (for me) when having to compare a few thing with each other. That’s why I also don’t understand how the small screens of the MacBook airs can be used in real productive environment.

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  • DWMichelson

    The Bamboo stylus (for IPad) and Noteshelf APP is unbeatable….(paste anything scanned or copied [using 2 button copy routine on IPad]) in conjunction with Dropbox.

  • http://gustavoguichard.com Gustavo Guichard

    I was enjoying my iPad till the day I had to upload my CV when applying for a job. The lack of the upload input just pisses me out. Despite of that, the iPad is the future.

  • http://laggoun.com Loubna

    I’m currently studying Economics, so when I’m not manually taking notes, I like to use the iPad. I used to take my MacBook (late 2008 model) with me, but it quickly became painful because I’m like 1 hour / 1 hour and half away from campus, and I go there by train and bus. This is why I bought an iPad, that was a huge relief for my back, it doesn’t take a lot of space in my bag, it has Pages, I use Dropbox for syncing my files, and I don’t have battery problems. I don’t bring my MacBook anymore unless I really need it.

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