iPad vs Laptop for Social Science Research

Changing computer technologies have irrevocably reshaped the way people communicate over the past 20 years. Just as technology has fundamentally transformed how society communicates, it is transforming the way in which research is conducted in the social sciences.   For contemporary postgraduate researchers (PGRs), it is second nature for them to employ new technologies in their research, utilising advances in computers, software and Internet technology to allow them to overcome physical boundaries in collaborating on projects by email, storing their research documents securely Online in “the cloud” and making use of voice-over-Internet Protocol services such as Skype to conduct meetings, conferences and even research interviews.  This modern researcher in the social sciences considers her or his laptop to be an indispensable tool, can typically be found with it at her or his side, and may even consider that laptop to be as indisposable as her or his left-hand.

She or he probably finds some real drawbacks though with that laptop when conducting research trips.  The cheaper the make of the laptop, and often cheap is the only option a PGR can afford, the heavier it is to lug around the world, a cumbersome bore that pulls at the back of the intrepid researcher when traveling to remote edges of the world in search of interviews and other data to fulfil the needs of her or his empirical research.  Finding a comfortable space where she or he can sit at their laptop, flipped open like a two-sided triangle, ranges from irritating to problematic, depending on the setting somewhere in the world that the research finds her- or himself.  Cradling that open-ended triangle on her or his lap, burning into their legs as that cheap device over-heats, is more than an uncomfortable nuisance.  Fitting into cramped spaces, such as the economy class of an airplane stuck in turbulence or a cross-country bus bouncing up and down the road is a discomforting bore that discourages even the most focused researcher from getting her or his work done.  Reading a research article or even the researcher’s own written document off a laptop screen is nothing but an exhausting eye-sore that disallows proper concentration or an understanding of the material.  Then, even with all of this hassle, our modern researcher usually gets only a couple hours of use out of their laptop before its rapidly declining battery health reaches the end of the tether of its stored energy, leaving her or him scrambling for an electrical outlet, or without their laptop to continue with their work at all.

With these drawbacks in mind, this researcher has decided to experiment with using an iPad2 tablet in lieu of a laptop or netbook on a research trip across Canada to see if the iPad offers an improvement.  The iPad boasts good battery life, typically offering more than six hours of normal usage even on the iPad this researcher has been using extensively for a year. It is lightweight, weighing the same as a light book even with a protective case wrapped around it.  Its screen is easy to read from, the iPad does not overheat and it can be used in almost any location, sitting comfortably on a researchers lap or in their hands.  It does not boast connectivity directly to an external USB drive, which I am attempting to get around through the use of cloud storage devices such as Drop Box and Google Docs.  The on-screen keyboard is not practical for extensive typing, meaning that I am forced to carry a separate external keyboard that connects remotely via bluetooth technology.  At this time the iPad app store boasts a variety of word-processing programs, though I still find them to be rather basic and this means that the final drafts of documents need to be put off until the researcher is at a computer with word-processing programs such as Libreoffice or Microsoft Word.

So how will it turn out?  This researcher will Blog back about his experience using only an iPad, following a three week research trip that takes him across Canada for research interviews, after which I will report on some of the strengths and weaknesses of the “iPad-only” approach.

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