Distant Touring With The iPad

An iPad is a bulky device, relative to a phone. How well does it perform as a piece of kit on a bike tour? Well, that answer is bound to be a bit subjective. Here are my own impressions.

I used mine extensively when traveling in Australia. My local host Celia took me to a phone store where I got a month-to-month data-only SIM for the iPad. So for 25 bucks, I was able to use the 3G in the iPad all through Australia, including Tasmania.

I used it every day, multiple times a day. I used it to find motels and restaurants, read local news, chat with people on AIM, make reservations and book tickets, send email trip updates from cafes, look at my environment in satellite and street view, etc. It’s even got Skype on it, which is MUCH cheaper for international calls to the folks back home. When the battery was low I could (slowly) charge it using the same adapter I used for the phone, saving a bit of weight.

In restaurants it was a conversation starter. I used it to show people photos from back home. Played a little jazz on it when I was relaxing. I used it with Celia to co-plan my outings the day before, since it was big enough for both of us to see and easily poke at the same time.

I placed the iPad in a saddlebag on the bicycle. Whenever I wanted to know where I was, what was around me, where I needed to go, et cetera, I had to go through a short routine: I stopped, walked around to the back of the bike, fetched the iPad from the bag, and used it while standing there over the rear tire. When I was done I packed it away and got back on the bike. Not a big deal, as long as I don’t have to refer to it often, and as long as I’m in a low-crime environment.

(I had an iPhone on the handlebars but it was for the wrong kind of network, so I couldn’t buy a SIM for it in Australia. The only reason I brought it at all was to use it as a music player while riding.)

The one thing that held me back when using the iPad was that I couldn’t immediately call ahead to the hotels I found that didn’t offer digital reservations. I’m pretty sure some cleverness with Skype would have solved that problem.

So, would I travel with an iPad in the future? After all of these use cases you’d think my answer would be an instant “yes”, but here’s the thing: If I bring a laptop, and I already have a phone with a data plan to tether it, then I just don’t need the iPad. … And I am a huge nerd, so a laptop is probably a given for almost all long journeys.

It’s worth noting one more difference between an iPad and a laptop: You stand a chance of charging the iPad with a solar panel. You could conceivably go camping in the woods for a couple of weeks, and use your iPad the whole time, while the laptop would die after a day or two. But on the other hand, when you’re on a bike trip, you’re on roads – and where there are roads, there is almost always electricity nearby. You’d have to be a very particular individual on a very particular bicycle trip – say, a gadget hound meandering through Kazakhstan – for that to shift the balance.

If I had a phone but could not bring a laptop, would I want to bring the iPad?

That’s a more interesting question. Different people have different ways of navigating or documenting their travel, and personally, I’m used to having a laptop, and would still want to do all the things I usually do with it. Most of those activities are difficult or uncomfortable on a phone screen.

With the iPad along I could:

  • Import and store photos from my camera without filling up my phone.
  • Edit and organize those photos more easily than on the phone.
  • Type journal entries and emails, and chat using instant messaging, a lot more comfortably and quickly than on the phone.
  • Research my route a bit more comfortably. (Any notes and screenshots I take will sync over to the phone.)
  • Relax by watching movies and TV shows a lot more comfortably than on the phone.
  • Conduct video chats more comfortably.

In summary, it’s mostly a matter of comfort. Is that level of comfort worth the extra one pound that the latest iPad weighs? For me, the answer is yes. For others, perhaps not.

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