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From volcanoes to Third World schoolchildren: Why I chose the iPad 2

Last week, I posted two stories about my iPad 2's big trip to Guatemala for I4U and TechEye. The articles -- mainly the pictures, if I'm honest -- provoked a larger reader response than I'm used to dealing with. Most of the comments and emails came from female fans, excited by my rugged handsomeness. But many came from doubters -- people with a reflexive negative reaction towards any Apple product.

First off, I'll provide a dram of personal background: the iPad 2 is the first Apple product I've ever purchased. I'm not a fanboy, and I've written some very nasty things about Apple that have been read by a few million folks. So I didn't come into this experiment with an eye on providing Apple with some free PR.

Not everyone simply accused me of being an Apple fanboy. Reader "Tom" on TechEye brought up an interesting point ... and made a butt joke.

"Another article by someone who thinks an expensive toy that can do the sort of things we've been able to do on computers for a long long long long time is somehow newsworthy may just result in an article on 'First iPad found by proctologist'."

No, Tom and all my caps-happy friends on the internet, a traditional laptop computer was not capable of the tasks I highlighted in my article. I brought my laptop to Guatemala as my job requires frequent Photoshopping. But it wasn't the machine I carried around town to sniff for Wi-Fi, and none of my fellow café goers cared to use it for their morning email.

I'm sure novelty was part of the iPad's popularity, but simplicity had far more to do with it. If you've used an iPhone, you can use an iPad. If you've never used an iPhone, or any other device at all for that matter, the iPad is still fairly intuitive. Apple went to great pains to carve out features and wrested control away from users in order to make iOS simple.

Not visually stunning. Not powerful or all that versatile, but simple. I was at MWC and CES this year. I've played with almost every Android tablet out there, and none of them are this easy to use. The iPad 2 may not be enough to keep the serious hardware nerd entertained, but it does the job for hyperactive children and middle-aged missionaries who barely understand their laptops.

"The same article could have been written about any thin/light PC. I have to wonder if the author was just a bit too thrilled to have an iPad2... was it perhaps a gratuity from Mr. Jobs?"

I've traveled with netbooks and CULVs before. Anything with a screen much smaller than 10" becomes a pain in the ass to use. And those keyboards are wildly uncomfortable for extended typing. The iPad 2 isn't exactly a joy to write with, but a large touchscreen is way more fun to browse and game on than a cramped netbook screen and a USB mouse.

More to the point, a touchscreen is much easier for the tech-illiterate to engage with. The kids we worked with had effectively zero experience with computers. Even if I'd loaded a Spanish-language version of Windows onto a netbook, they'd have had no idea what to do with it. The iPad required very little prompting, though.

You tap a bubble and it pops. You strum a guitar string and it makes a noise. You pull back on the slingshot and send a bird flying through the air. Kids get direct cause and effect. The iPad engaged them immediately and kept their attention for a sizeable chunk of time. Part of that is down to the hardware and UI, but most of that magic was in the apps. And Android tablets are a long ways away from catching up in that area.

Of course, most travelers don't need to entertain rooms of Guatemalan children very often. So why not use a netbook, as TUAW commenter Jason seems to advise?

"I'd say 70% of travellers to Central America bring netbooks with them, but there are a surprising number of MacBooks and MacBook Pros among the "buena onda," long-haul backpacker crowd. They handle DVDs for entertainment and USB 3G modems for connecting to regional cell networks. The only people with iPads fly business class, spend only a couple battery cycles, and stay at hotels that cost more than $15 a night."

If you're looking at a travel netbook or ultralight, you have a few options. Go with a dirt-cheap $300 model that doesn't work very fast and isn't comfortable to use, spend around $500 on a nicer model that is way faster but just as uncomfortable, or throw down $1000+ on something really fancy.

Any option you pick is going to weigh more than an iPad, take up more space than an iPad, and probably be more prone to damage as well. Most cheap netbooks have 3-cell batteries, and even the nicer ones are hard pressed to break 10 hours of functional life. My laptop can equal the iPad 2 in longevity, but it cost me $800 plus $120 for the extra battery.

An iPad 2 is $499. It can do everything the average person needs to do on a computer, with the added bonus of keeping you or your kids entertained on long plane flights. It'll last the length of a flight from Texas to Spain, and it weighs about as much as a couple of thick books. With a hard case and a screen protector, it is tough enough to handle anything someone as (or less) crazy than I can throw at it.

Robert Evans is a writer for I4U News and TechEye

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