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New iPads make a strong back-to-school appeal. I’m still not sold.

Apple’s iPadOS software update lets fingers do many complicated computer tasks. But students deserve a computer that does it all.

The Post's Geoffrey A. Fowler guides you through the iPad finger yoga that makes the tablets function more like a laptop. (Video: James Cornsilk, Geoffrey Fowler/The Washington Post, Photo: James Pace-Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

Laptop or iPad? Back-to-school decisions have gotten more complicated since the days I had to choose a Trapper Keeper and No. 2 pencil set. Computers are now the most important classroom tools. But in 2019, what even counts as a computer?

This fall, iPads are making their strongest appeal yet to shed a lightweight image and earn the job of full-on computer. Apple now sells a very speedy iPad, the 10.5-inch iPad Air, with a keyboard case for $660. And even the $330 basic models are about to get a productivity boost from Apple’s first dedicated tablet software update, called iPadOS. Colleges including Ohio State and the University of Kentucky are equipping all freshmen not with Macs, but iPads.

Is it time to think differently? First, ask yourself whether you’ll be able to do more and better work — and be ready for whatever life might throw your way — with a laptop. Students and even professionals ought to maximize their money with a computer that can do it all.

But the definition of “all” is fast changing. You can now do many remarkably laptopy things with an iPad, including proper text editing, organizing files and plugging in external drives. We’ve reached an inflection point: For many common computing tasks, the divide between iPads and laptops is more generational than functional.

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For the past week, I’ve been working and living primarily off a public beta version of iPadOS, which Apple will make available in a few weeks to iPads stretching back to 2014’s iPad Air 2. My experiment went better than when I’ve tried it with past-generation iPads.

Still, there was a learning curve. Without a mouse or trackpad, iPadOS invents some not-always-intuitive finger moves to complete computer tasks. Call it iPad yoga: Breathe deeply before you try the three-finger double pinch required to “cut.”

Over the past decade, tech reviewers like me — usually, people whose first computers came with a mouse — have been complaining that iPads can’t replace laptops. Meanwhile, though, iPads have outsold Mac computers since 2013. Critic Jonathan Kim recently wrote that we’ve been asking the wrong question. He suggests a better one: Why would anybody who’s grown up using an iPad want a laptop?

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For a generation that needs computers to be productive tools as well as entertainment, iPadOS fills in some long-standing holes. But if you’re considering taking an iPad to school or work as your primary device, go into it eyes wide open about what an iPad is and is not capable of — and what’s required to get work done on a finger-first computer.

What iPads get right

The iPad’s appeal starts with portability. Most weigh about 1 pound. The slimmest new MacBook is 2.75 pounds.

And then there’s price: Compare the $500 iPad Air plus $160 keyboard offer to Apple’s entry-level laptop, the $1,100 MacBook Air. You could spend hundreds less on a Chromebook or Windows laptop, but for many students a cheaper Apple computer that automatically syncs up with an iPhone is a draw.

For the Ohio and Kentucky officials who are going all-in on iPads, there was another important appeal: technology that a wide range of students already know how to use. Everyone is already expert in operating a touch-screen smartphone. “The iPad levels the playing field,” Kirsten Turner, Kentucky’s associate provost for academic and student affairs, told me. “This is how our students interact and acquire information.”

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For the past few years, the albatross around the iPad’s neck has been software that treated a powerful device like an oversized iPhone. iPadOS breaking off from iOS signals an important fork in the road. It comes with a zillion tweaks: a spot for informational widgets on the home screen, a keyboard you can resize and move around, and support for custom fonts.

A few of these changes raised the bar for the kind of work I could get done with my iPad:

  • Safari, Apple’s Web browser, is no longer a feeble “mobile” experience that defaults to scaled-down versions of sites. It now loads the version of sites you’d get on a laptop, replacing your mouse pointer with your finger. This is a big deal for people who use Web applications. One example: Google Docs, collaborative office software I used to write this column, is more fully functional in iPadOS Safari than even Google’s anemic app.
  • Files, the iPad’s equivalent to the Finder on a Mac, finally lives up to its name. It’s not quite as intuitive as a “Desktop” and “Trash” can, but a section called “On My iPad” lets you add, nest and move around folders and files to your heart’s content. It can even zip and unzip compressed files. And if you plug in a memory card (via a dongle adapter) or an external hard drive (on the iPad Pro models equipped with a USB-C connector), their contents pop up as regular files and folders, too.
  • Multitasking, which iPads have had for a few years, loses some past limitations. Now you can run two of the same app side by side, which is helpful for doing research and writing. And you can also keep a stack of apps that float on top of whatever you’re doing, in what’s called “slide over” mode. Flick through them to check in on news, messages or music.

iPads can also do some creative things that laptops cannot. Adobe showed me a preview of its coming made-for-touchscreens painting software called Fresco. With the swipe of an Apple Pencil, Fresco lets you make marks reminiscent of an oil paint brush, then switch to watercolor all on the same canvas. It made me wonder how artists ever got comfortable drawing with a mouse or digitizer tablet while looking up at a screen.

What’s missing

So what’s not to love about iPads? Despite Apple’s best efforts, iPadOS is still mobile software.

Apple is better than most companies at the subtle art of not ruining the thing we already know by adding new functions. But without a mouse or trackpad on the iPad, Apple had to invent a new gesture language — and our fingers are only so capable. (Technically, iPadOS does let you connect a mouse, but it’s designed as an accessibility mode for the disabled.)

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To “copy” text in iPadOS, you select it with one finger and then use three fingers to pinch the screen, pulling up like you were literally taking it off the screen. This is a good metaphor, but I still often end up accidentally zooming out on my screen instead. You can also do these tasks with traditional keystroke shortcuts, if you’ve got a keyboard. My iPad would be half as useful without one. (Aside from drawing, I’ve found the Apple Pencil stylus far less important.)

Multitasking is even trickier: iPadOS app windows don’t float freely like on a laptop screen, and getting them aligned as split-screens or slide-overs requires a subtle set of half swipes. Example: Pull a slide-over app to the right to make it go away — but if you pull and hold too long near the edge of the screen, it becomes a split-screen app.

Even if you figure that out, I have ergonomic concerns about iPads. A student who’s going to spend long hours writing and concentrating will do their best work sitting up straight, not lifting an arm constantly to swipe the screen or hunched over poking with a finger. (Recall the cultural freakout about bone spur “horns” caused by the tilt of the head while using touch screens?) I tried to create a better setup by plugging my iPad Pro into a big monitor, but couldn’t get comfortable touching the screen instead of a mouse.

Last, there’s a philosophical question: If you’re going to spend $660 or more on a computer, shouldn’t it be able to do … everything that’s possible from a computer?

Even with the new OS, iPads still cannot run a universe of programs that work on Macs and PCs — just websites and iOS apps, some of which are still watered-down versions of their Mac cousins. In my iPad test, I was left lunging for a laptop on a few occasions, like to create some of the images and the video I ran with this story, which required Photoshop and Premiere Pro. Another time, I needed a Mac to fix a toy that required special software to reformat its memory card, only available for MacOS and Windows. (This is not a compromise on Microsoft’s $800 Surface Pro tablets: They’re touch friendly but can also run most traditional Windows 10 applications.)

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Think about what the app gap might mean if your professor says you need to run a special program to enter data, create images or write your own software. You’re going to have to borrow someone’s real laptop. Ohio State and Kentucky administrators aren’t telling students not to bring laptops, and they acknowledge some majors are going to require more traditional machines or at least time in a computer lab.

For my money, a laptop is still a better choice than an iPad. So far, more schools and parents have taken my point of view. According to the Consumer Technology Association, 75 percent of parents of middle and high school students report that their children use laptops at least once per week for education, likely Chromebooks in many schools. But that might not last long: 80 percent of parents of elementary-school age students report that their children use tablets for education.

One theory is that as a generation becomes comfortable using iPads to do work, traditional computers will evolve into specialized “professional” devices. Laptops and desktops will be used by people who need to do computing tasks that take a lot of power or the kind of precision you get from a mouse and traditional operating system.

I don’t think most schools or employers are there yet. Until then, my back-to-school list starts with either the $1,100 MacBook Air, a $900 Dell XPS 13 or the Acer Aspire 5, available for less than $400. Still have money to spend? Put it toward a big screen to plug your laptop into, so you can sit up straight and stay focused on work.

But I’m pretty sure some day that shopping list will look as dated as my fond memory of Trapper Keepers.

Read more tech advice and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler:

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