My May trip to London, Edinburgh and Ireland was planned more than a year ago, well before the iPad had peaked over my gizmo horizon. But I’m mostly — more on that later — glad I had it along. It proved to be a useful tool: to check on that pesky Icelandic ash, convert pounds to dollars, and keep in close touch with the folks back home — everything that can be done on the Internet from anywhere with a computer.
So why not just use a laptop? Because the iPad is way easier to transport and use, and let’s face it, just plain cool.
Think of the iPad as a hybrid of an iPhone and any laptop computer, both in size and function. Smaller than most laptops, it fit easily in my purse at every stop, from County Cork to County Kerry. Bigger than an iPhone, it was easier to use all the applications. But without an Internet connection it was less useful than a notebook, pencil and a map.
Wi-fi vs. 3G
When you can get it — and that’s another story — the iPad comes in two main flavors: Wi-fi and 3G. Wi-fi means it will connect to the Internet when it’s within spitting distance of a router, like in a coffee shop, hotel or someone’s home. With 3G it will connect directly to the Internet from just about anywhere. 3G is $130 more expensive than the Wi-fi version and costs $15 a month, plus roaming charges.
Wi-fi capability worked just fine for me. From the MSP airport I downloaded the Boingo.com application through my iTunes account and bought a month’s access to the Internet for $8. It was a fast, problem-free connection at Heathrow, Cork and MSP airports. According to its website, Boingo.com has access in 125,000 hotspots around the world, mostly western Europe and the United States.
My Wi-fi Internet access was free, but spotty, in other places in Europe, outside Boingo.com hotspots. It was weakest on the train but stronger in Hotel Missoni, in Edinburgh, Scotland. According to the desk clerk, half a dozen Americans had tried to connect through the hotel Wi-fi. When they couldn’t get on, the hotel called Apple to find a solution. I connected right away, but sometimes the iPad lost the connection. It also was great in my friend’s home in London, in Ireland in the Castlemaine B&B on the Dingle peninsula, as well as Ballyseede Castle, just outside Tralee.
So, Wi-fi was just fine, but 3G might have been useful when we took that wrong turn outside Killarney.
Just like the iPhone, the iPad has a maps application. It will tell you where in the world you are and draw you a map to get to somewhere else. But it only works when connected to the Internet, which it wasn’t as we navigated the narrow winding roads in Ireland.
My traveling companion, Jill Hurst, lives in London and can drive safely on the left side of the road, bless her. Fortunately, she also has a sense of direction, so when we peeled off at the wrong spot in a roundabout and headed about 10 miles in the wrong way she knew enough to check the old-fashioned paper map and go back.
“The sun never lies,” she said.
It’s the battery, stupid
Even with a good Internet connection, the iPad is useless without power. It doesn’t even make a decent door stop if the battery is dead. In its infinite wisdom, of course, Apple has made an attachment that converts the power cord to European outlets, so recharging was no problem. However, it sucks energy big time when connected to the Internet. I made the mistake of leaving the recharger in London when I went to Edinburgh. I found myself obsessing more about whether I was going to run out of battery than money.
With an Internet connection and ample battery it was a great tool. I used it to check Minnpost.com regularly to keep track of the end of the Minnesota legislative session, to check on weather in Ireland — cold and rainy — and to tweet. I also used it to call home to Minneapolis with the Skype.com application, using the iPad’s microphone. The connection — over the Internet rather than telephone lines — was sharp and clear and cost pennies. The iPad does not have a built in camera, so I couldn’t see my loved ones, but hearing their voices from across the pond was reassuring.
Before leaving on the trip I called all four Apple stores in the Twin Cities every morning for four days to see if a camera connector kit had turned up in that day’s shipment from Apple. Came up dry every time. Finally, a friend found the $30 gadget at the University of Minnesota bookstore the morning before I left. I used it to upload pictures from my 10-year-old digital camera and email them to family and friends. The iPhoto application on the iPad doesn’t have editing capability, but I survived.
Read? Watch a movie?
Before leaving Minneapolis I downloaded “It’s Complicated” (Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, and Alec Baldwin) for $4.99. I wouldn’t do it again. The download took more than an hour. Once I started watching I had to finish in 24 hours, which meant I missed the end of the movie when I fell asleep on the plane. And it was one of the options on my Delta flight.
While on the flight I finished reading “House Rules” by Jodi Picoult, which I had started on my Kindle and finished with the Kindle application on the iPad. (Fabulous book, by the way. Best she’s written, and I’ve read them all.) Then I downloaded “False Mermaid” by St. Paul author Erin Hart, a mystery with origins in Ireland that was from iBook, an iPad application.
Unfortunately, when I get home I won’t be able to finish “False Mermaid” using the Kindle. For competitive reasons that I don’t understand, Amazon.com, which sells the Kindle, allows books bought through Amazon to be read on an Apple product, but Apple doesn’t allow books bought through iBook (through iTunes) to be read on Kindle.
The iPad was a great conversation starter. It hadn’t been sold in Europe yet (May 28 is the official launch date), so people who saw me writing, listening or Internet surfing either rubbernecked to take a peek or asked about it outright. I met some charming people from all over Europe that way. Of course, I probably could have met the same folks the old fashioned way, by just asking directions.
There were times when I jotted things in my little moleskin notebook, while the iPad was tucked away in my purse at my feet as I sipped espresso at an outside cafe. Another time I found myself staring at the iPad while I Googled the Ballyseede Castle — while sitting in the castle’s drawing room, instead of looking at the castle itself. Which is one reason for leaving home without it. It can be addicting. “Put down the hand-held device and step away” can be very good advice.
But all in all, I’m glad I took it with me. Oh, and I wrote this article on the iPad somewhere over the Atlantic while on the flight back. The effort took about 35 percent of the battery. The keyboard was acceptable, but not so comfortable that I would use it to write anything longer.
Judith Yates Borger is the author of “Where’s Billie?” a Minnesota mystery available in paper and online through iBooks, Kindle and other ereaders.