Test Lab: iPad as travel tool

Courtesy myuibe/Flickr

Last week I reached out to you to send me your questions about how well an iPad works as a travel tool. I headed down to New Orleans for the French Quarter Festival with husband and baby, toting my iPhone and an iPad. No laptop, no guidebooks—just a light and slim day bag big enough to fit the device. Here's how it scored.

The flight test (A): Before setting off, I downloaded a number of apps, videos, and news readers that would help keep me, my husband, and my 17-month-old entertained on the flight. I got Scrabble ($10), the New York Times Editors' Choice (free), USA Today for iPad (free), ABC Player (free), Twitterrific for iPad (free), an Elmo video from iTunes ($9.99), and a series of celebrity Sesame Street podcasts (free).

Elmo took up a good 20 minutes of the 3-hour flight time. And then, once my daughter fell asleep, I happily read the day's New York Times—stunningly sharp pictures and all, in full layout—without crinkling paper and waking her up.

The street test (D): Top of mind to us all, including reader Jason, was whether the iPad works as an on-the-go travel device. "Does pulling it out on a street corner make you a target for crime like a big visitor's map or guidebook might?" Considering that we happened to walk right by the New Orleans shooting, minutes after it happened, I wasn't incredibly inclined to pull my shiny new toy on the street. But also, since I have the first generation iPad, only Wi-Fi enabled (the version with 3G comes out later this month), I would be at the mercy of a wireless signal and walking around like a fool holding it up searching for a strong signal.

Sorry Jason, I had to go with my gut on this one. I never felt comfortable enough. But more importantly, I didn't really see the need to. Instead, my handy iPhone was my go-to when we were trying to figure out whether we needed to sort out which direction to turn to get to Café du Monde.

The in-room surfing test (B+): The iPad has stunning surfing potential. But once again, you're really at the mercy of your signal. When it's good, it's great; I've begun to surf on it primarily at home, instead of using a laptop. It's just that fast. We were staying at the Omni Royal, and I was sure to sign up in advance for Omni's Select Guest loyalty program, which grants members complimentary Wi-Fi—skipping the $10 daily fee that nonmembers pay.

It was supereasy to connect the iPad with the Wi-Fi signal, and the first day, I happily read the day's news, emailed from both work and personal accounts far easier than on my iPhone, looked up a menu at a restaurant, plotted out turn-by-turn walking directions to sites, and figured out the day's weather. Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi was down the next day, so I ended up turning to my iPhone.

The flight check-in test (F): I'm a big fan of checking in for a flight before heading to the airport, and I tried to do so from the iPad. No go. After a minute or two of waiting for a page to load, I found out why: JetBlue's site uses Adobe Flash, an unsupported technology on the iPad. If that doesn't say it all, I don't know what does.

The verdict: iPad is unparalleled as an in-room entertainment, reading, and research device for travelers. But when it comes to using a real on-the-go tool, I'll happily leave my big slim iPad friendly bag at home, and just slip my iPhone in my pocket.

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