The Quick Version
1. The iPad is the most secure type of home computer you can buy.
2. It has automatic online backups built in.
4. There are different memory sizes from 16Gb to 128Gb. Get the smallest one that suits your need, they overcharge for more memory.
5. There are versions that take a SIM card, so you can get online when away from home.
6. It won't do everything that you can do on a PC or Mac, but it does all the key things for a home computer.
iPad - Overview
I have heard it said that when people win big on the Lottery one of the first things they do is buy everyone in the family an iPad. People love their iPads! This product has the highest user satisfaction ratings of anything on the market. You would be hard pushed to get higher ratings if you invented a machine that prints free money and gave excellent back rubs at the same time. Just ask around friends and family.
Why are people so bonkers for this machine? Several things, I think a lot of the emotional reaction is the feeling of quality. The hardware is very well made, the software is carefully thought out and designed by people who paid attention in art school. It's like a fine watch, you look at pictures and it's nice, but hold it and the design is so exquisite you can't help but want it.
There is nothing on the market that's better than iPad for security. All those tales from friends of their PCs getting infected, or the news stories you see of millions of computers being scammed, all gone. None of that applies to an iPad.
People look at me in amazement when I say do your online banking on the iPad not on your Windows Laptop. You can see them thinking "but that can't be safer. It's smaller, it must be less powerful, it doesn't have any anti-virus software, how can it be safer?". But it is. It's safer because the security was designed in from the ground up. With a system like Windows it was added on long after the system went to market, which is how an entire criminal industry has evolved to take advantage of Windows.
iPad has a first class backup system in the form of iCloud Backup. Every time you take a picture or install an app or change a setting, that information is being sent back to the Apple mothership. When you lose your phone, break it, or get it stolen, you buy a new one, sign in with your Apple ID and the magic pixies put everything onto your new device as if nothing had happened. It's not just good, it's shockingly good.
If you've ever had a hard drive fail on your laptop, if you left the thing in a taxi or meant to back it up and never quite got around to it, you will know how cool an automatic online backup is. It's not just the files that get backed up and restored with iCloud, it's all the settings as well. It really sets you right back to where you were as if you had never lost your device. Magic.
However, nothing is perfect and there are two downsides to iCloud:
You can switch it off. I have never see anybody turn off iCloud Backup with the clear knowledge of what they were doing, but I have seen people do it because they were fiddling with the settings and didn't really know what iCloud was or thought it was something else, so they switched it off. Chrome OS doesn't have this problem, there's no way to switch off the backup except by disconnecting from the Internet.
I have seen people repeatedly getting messages saying their backup was full and not doing anything about it. That becomes a problem when it's time to restore, because not all your stuff is there. It's easy enough to fix, you just subscribe to a bigger storage plan, which is cheap.
iCloud backup is very good, but it's only fair that I mention that it's not perfect, because it does come up in the field.
Backups are all very well in theory, but does it work in practice? I can say hand on heart, yes! I personally have done numerous recoveries on iOS for clients who have lost, had stolen, broken iPhones/iPads/iPod Touches and in all cases they bought a new one, signed in and everything was there. It works.
I would like to be able to say that you can do everything on an iPad that you could do on Windows or Mac, but it's not the case. However, the important thing is you can do all the things that most people want to do with a home computer. A very common scenario I see over and over is folks with iPads keep a Windows laptop to do the last few tasks they think they cannot do on the iPad (typically: print, edit a Word document and use a full sized keyboard for writing longer text). I then show them how to do these three things on the iPad and the Windows laptop never gets switched on again. Have a read of The Key Trade Off to understand how this functionality debate all works.
There are a lot of different iPad models, hence the surprising length of this section, which you would think I could cover in a single line of text (get the black one), but no. The one that fits the needs of the most people is an iPad Air 2 16Gb Wi-Fi only at (US $513 - UK £352).
OK, let's decode what that lengthy title means, so you have half a chance if you want to order a different configuration:
Types of iPad
Firstly "iPad Air 2", that's the latest version of the iPad, introduced in September 2014. It differs from earlier iPads in that it is thinner and lighter, hence the name Air. That lightness is nice to have because you hold this device like a book or a magazine and your arm will get tired if you hold the heavier tablets for long enough.
The confusing thing is if you search for iPads on Amazon you will see all sorts of different models listed, right back to version 1 iPads (first released in 2010). Some of these will be a lot cheaper, should you buy one and save yourself lots of lovely money to spend on fancy liquor and fast women (or men)? Probably not. But if you really do need to save every last penny, go for a used iPad 4th Generation (about US $270 - UK £220).
Size of iPads
Apple also sell a mini iPad, which they rather creatively called the iPad Mini (US $512 - UK £289). The iPad Mini doesn't suit everyone. Certainly if your eyesight is ageing get the bigger one. But the smaller size means it is often referred to as the handbag (or manbag) iPad. It's just so portable (ok it's not pocket size portable, unless you wear some very odd trousers, you would use a smartphone for pockets, but the mini is bag portable). It's really an excellent machine and certainly a small object of desire.
Apple have a habit of keeping the old model of a product still on sale when they launch the new one. And they have done exactly that with the iPad Mini, but in fact they have kept the last 2 models on sale. This is a good deal (US $280 - UK £219). This is the retina version, which means it has a nice screen. There is a slightly cheaper version without a retina screen, but you want to avoid that. The small difference in price is not worth the big drop in screen quality.
OK, so that's the Mini, now what about a Maxi? At the time I write these words, there is a lot of speculation that Apple will release an iPad Plus with a larger 12" screen some time in 2015, but that's just informed speculation. It will be interesting to see what such a device is like, it might be a bit heavy to hold for any length of time, or maybe it will be glorious. We'll see.
You can get iPads with different internal memory capacities from 16Gb all the way up to 128Gb. How do you choose? For most folks the answer is get the 16Gb.
Most folks don't need the even larger sizes (and Apple do charge silly amounts of extra cash for more storage), but where that extra memory comes in handy is if you want to load up a lot of content and then go offline (disconnect from the Internet). An example would be a businessman who flies a lot (hey that used to be me). He can load a lot of HD movies onto his iPad (I used to have a bag full of cassettes with audio books, it was a while ago now!) and watch them on the plane with no connection to the Internet. A high def video can take up to about 4Gb, so the extra storage would come in handy for such a person.
Other things that take storage are things like music, pictures, and apps (especially some of the flashy looking games). But remember, you don't have to have everything on the iPad all the time, you can leave things in the cloud. For example, you can buy a movie in the iTunes store and download it to the iPad. You watch it on your next trip to that exotic island in the sun. Then you delete it from the iPad to make space for the next one. However, it's still in the store and Apple have a note you bought it, so you can download it again any time without having to pay again. You can do the same sort of thing with all the content.
Wi-Fi and Cellular
When we started this rampage of explanation we were decoding what it meant to say "iPad Air 2 16Gb Wi-Fi only". Now we have got to the last bit, the "Wi-Fi only". The way most folks use an iPad (or indeed most computers these days) is to have a router from their Internet Service Provider somewhere in the house that sends out a radio signal. Modern devices like an iPad know how to talk to that router over the radio waves and use that signal to get onto the Internet.
However, what happens when you step outside of your house and into the scary world out there? Well if you are on the patio nothing much, it carries on working. But go far enough away (a house or few) and you will get outside of the range of your router and not be able to connect to the Internet. Now what are you going to do? One answer is to look for a Wi-Fi hot spot (a fancy name for a router that the owner lets lots of people use). If you go on holiday, even to the back of beyond, most hotels have a Wi-Fi hotspot. If you are out and about, coffee shops, restaurants and all sorts of other places offer Wi-Fi, often for free to attract customers. But some places don't have it. Then what are you going to do?
That's where the cellular comes in. For every model of iPad we have talked about there is another model just the same, except it has the facility to drop in a SIM card (these models always cost more). These have an additional radio that knows how to talk to the local phone towers, just like your phone does. That means as long as you can get a phone signal, you can get online. Of course to get this you have to pay a monthly fee to a mobile carrier for the SIM card, on top of the cost of the iPad.
There is a sneaky way to get online without paying for an extra SIM card (this is how I do it), but it doesn't work for everybody. Many modern smartphones can pretend to be a Wi-Fi hotspot (I do it with an iPhone). They send out a signal that looks just like your router at home. Your iPad (or anything else that talks Wi-Fi) can connect to this. The phone then uses its SIM card to get the messages out to the Internet. It works the same as putting a SIM card in your iPad, but you don't have to pay for the more expensive iPad and you don't have to pay for the second SIM card. The only problem is, carriers can block it from working. There is no technical reason to block it, they just want to sell you another SIM card. They're not nice people (but you knew that anyway). You will need to find out if your particular carrier blocks it. The name for this sort of thing is "tethering".
Whilst we are on the subject of phone carriers not being nice: International Roaming. Although your SIM card will probably work when you take it to other countries, you probably don't want to use it. Why? Because the carriers can charge spectacular amounts of money for getting data when you are in a different country. Some unfortunate people have run up bills in the thousands of dollars doing such things, so you never want to use this facility without checking with your carrier exactly how much they will charge for the country in question. Sometimes they have special package deals, but never assume. Most folks traveling internationally use hotel Wi-Fi. You probably won't get any extra value from a cellular iPad if international travel is your focus.
Most folks using the iPad as a home computer don't need cellular, Wi-Fi only is fine, which is why they sell an awful lot more of those. However, if you are on the road a lot (in your home country), that cellular option can be a wondrous thing.
What to buy?
So how to summarise all those options? It's just what I said at the start, for most people the iPad Air 2 16Gb Wi-Fi only (US $513 - UK £352) is the one to go for. That's their big seller. If you want a smaller one grab an iPad Mini 3 (US $512 - UK £289). If you want an insane amount of storage space, iPad Air 128GB Wi-Fi Only (US $746 - UK £519) and if you want to go out in a blaze of glory, the iPad Air 128GB Cellular (US $895 - UK £525) is the tip-top toppity top-of-the-range, but that's just showing off.
What's wrong with choosing an iPad?
I wouldn't choose an iPad if the way you want to use the computer is to sit at a desk for a long time and write a novel or edit spreadsheets. It will do those things, it's just not the optimum machine for it. For that I would go for a big screen with a mouse and keyboard, like a Chromebase or maybe an iMac.
However, that's not the principal way most people use home computers. It's much more common to be reading your emails, googling that thing you saw on TV and are curious about, putting a comment on Facebook. It's a much less formulaic affair than someone sitting in a office for 8 hours banging away at the machine. With an iPad you don't have to go to a special room to use it and wait for it to boot up. It can be snoozing on the coffee table, ready at a moments notice. You can catch up with the latest news in bed or surf on the loo (now that is informal).
The other reason an iPad might not be the right choice is if you have to have a particular piece of software that doesn't run on iPad, but read The Key Trade Off before making that decision. It actually might not be the limitation you think.
An iPad will work straight out of the box, but there are a few things that you might choose to add on:
For all their good points, iPads are delicate little flowers that often get broken. The problem is people drop them and smash the glass. It's worth getting a nice robust case, especially one that protects the corners (don't waste your time with the "smart cover" they sell in the Apple store, it doesn't protect the corners and is ridiculously expensive for a flippy flappy bit of tat [I'm not a big fan, in case you were unsure]).
Amazon has a vast selection of different cases from the elegant (US $65 - UK £35) to near bullet proof (US £35 - UK £30) - (good if you have kids, or are so clumsy you could make a circus act out of it). Or you could just go for the cheap but good enough (US $11 - UK £10). The options are endless.
It's possible that your existing printer might not work with an iPad. Chances are, if it's more than a few years old, it won't. When Apple did printing on the iPad they introduced a brand new standard called AirPrint and all the printer manufacturers had to run around changing their products to support it. At the time I thought that was spectacularly arrogant of Apple (you are probably thinking the same now if you have to bin a perfectly good working printer). Then I thought about all the nonsense I have had to deal with over the years with printer drivers (the software that gets installed on PCs to talk to the printer). That made me feel a lot better about a standard like AirPrint that has no set up. You just connect the printer to the network and start using it, no messing about. This is the way the industry needs to go.
If you are printing modest amounts I have had really positive experiences installing the Epson XP-410/412 (US $79 - UK £71). If you are printing more like an office then Epson's Workforce range is better (US $129 - UK £89). These printers will also work with PCs, Macs, Android devices, Smartphones and just about anything else you or anyone else in the family has. Printers are surprisingly cheap for what they are, because manufacturers hope to make their money on the ink.
The iPad has both an on screen keyboard and the ability to listen to what you say and write it down (if you have never tried that you really should, it's like something out of Harry Potter). Both of those methods of text entry are fine for most people most of the time. But some folks have a lot of text to bang into the system (like me writing this page for example) and they need an old fashioned keyboard. Of course people who know about computers will say you cannot have a keyboard on an iPad. As usual they're wrong.
Any bluetooth keyboard will work with an iPad. I normally go for cheap ones (US $11 - UK £8). There are cases with keyboards built in (US $37 - UK £30). I am not a big fan of them. I find the keyboard flaps around a lot when I am trying to use the tablet as a tablet. I prefer a separate keyboard and a stand. Although for someone who travels a lot with the iPad and wants to type on the go, they could be ideal.
If you are going to use a separate keyboard you want a simple stand to go with it. A lot of the cases have a stand built in, but I have never gotten on with them when using it this way. A few dollars gets you a stand you can leave in front of a keyboard on your desk and it's easy to drop the iPad into and remove (US $8 - UK £6)
An Apple TV is like an iPod, but without a screen. It uses your TV as its screen! It's a fun little product (US $92 - UK £69) that is a great way of getting your photos, videos, music and anything else from the iPad onto a bigger screen. You don't buy this because you need it, you buy it because it's fun.
Sorry that was soooo long. You'd think that all there is to choosing an iPad would be to say what colour you want (did I mention all the above options come in three different colours?), but in fact, there are lots of options to consider. If in doubt, grab a iPad Air 2 16Gb Wi-Fi in black (US $513 - UK £352), that will cover most things for most people.
But this is all nonsense!
The slaying of myths and misunderstandings
There's a staggering amount of misinformation and urban myth doing the rounds on the subject of home computers, often nonsense that is most definitely against your best interests. So lets prepare you for when someone "who knows about computers" comes knocking by covering the popular hogwash in advance.
The screen's too small!
Elsewhere in these pages I have made a strong case for why big screens are a good thing on computers. They make it easier to to read documents and webpages and they help you sit with good posture to avoid neck and back problems. Now I am recommending a device with a 10" screen, what an idiot!
The screen size of an iPad is rarely much of a problem, because it's like a magazine, you can simply hold it a bit closer. That's not practical with a laptop or a desktop. If you can't see, you lean in. Do that too much and you end up with a stiff neck and back.
The one time the screen size could be a problem is when you are using the iPad screen with an external keyboard, like a laptop or a desktop. Have a look at my webpage on The Tablet All-in-One to see how to connect it to a bigger screen and solve that problem.
It won't run Word and Excel!
Oh yes it will. This is such a popular urban myth that most people you meet will tell you it is so. They even say it in the Apple Store (where they should know better). In fact I got so bored explaining this is nonsense (and demonstrating it). I wrote a whole webpage just on this subject. Have a look: Word, Excel & PowerPoint.
It can't print!
Oh yes it can! Admittedly you can't print to every type of printer ever created. If you have some ancient old ink jet you won in a church raffle in 1997 it's not going to work with an iPad (so please don't call me). However, if you buy a new printer (which are surprisingly cheap US $79 - UK £71) make sure it will support "AirPrint" which is Apple's standard for printing from iPads and it will work just fine. Occasionally I come across people who find it very difficult to let go of a working printer, so they buy a Windows Laptop and take on all the risks involved in that (see Viruses & Junk Software). This, of course, is madness. Printers are cheap, security breaches are not, move on.
It can't scan!
Oh yes it can! Most of the printer manufacturers provide apps to install on the iPad that will scan from their printers. Additionally most of the modern printers will scan directly into cloud services like Email, DropBox and others, so there are plenty of ways of getting scans from the printer to the iPad.
I need a mouse and keyboard!
I get this a lot. Some people who have always used a mouse and a keyboard find it difficult to imagine being without one. Giving them a keyboard for their iPad is easy. Just grab a bluetooth keyboard, drop the iPad onto a stand and you are good to go. Keyboards are totally not an issue.
However, you can't use a mouse on an iPad, but think for a moment about what a mouse is. It's a proxy for your finger. It's a way of you pointing at the screen and saying "I want that one". In the old days someone had to invent the mouse because you could stab at the screen as much as you like and the computer would have no idea what was going on (there were no touch sensitive screens back then). The mouse had to be created to pretend to be a finger and you had to learn how to use it. Now there's nothing to learn, you just point at what you want.
Admittedly a finger is not as precise as a mouse because it's big and stubby, but software for an iPad has been designed with that in mind.
There are gazillions of smartphones and tablets in the world, they're all touch screens with no mouse and people love them. Jump in, give it a try. If you are determined not to like it, grab a Chromebase, or Chromebook. You can have a mouse on those and they are very good machines with great security and excellent backups.
It won't run my software!
Have a look at The Key Trade Off. Don't rush to count out the iPad because it won't run the exact piece of software you are accustomed to running on Windows. A little looking around and you will probably find there is something that does the same job on the iPad. It might even be better.
There's no anti-virus!
People say to me things like "I couldn't possibly go on the Internet without Norton/McAfee, I feel safe with that, it will protect me". This is ironic because at any one time we will have a workshop full of infected Windows machines, all of which will have up to date anti-virus software installed. It's not that the anti-virus software companies are doing a bad job, it's that they are standing on quicksand. The way Windows is designed makes it possible for a constant war to be waged between bad guys writing evil software and good guys trying to keep them out. This is not a one sided battle. The anti-virus software doesn't always win. If it did, that vast malicious software industry wouldn't exist, but it does and it's making serious money out of scamming people just like you.
In order for anti-virus software to work it has to really get its hooks into a system. It has to be able to monitor all the inner workings of what's going on. iPad is so locked down no app on it has that sort of access. That's great, that's exactly what we want. It makes it a desert for the bad guys, they can't get their hooks in either. So anti-virus can't run for the same reasons that it's not needed anyway. If you want the techie details have a look at the Security Hierarchy.
Your anti-virus safety blanket is a like a bit of wet kitchen paper compared to the armour plating of a system that was designed to be secure in the first place.
But you have to have a PC as well!
When the iPad was first created you had to have a PC or a Mac to plug it in to. That's just the way it was designed. A lot of people will tell you that's still the case, but it's not. Plenty of people use the iPad as their only computer and with each new release of iOS, Apple make that approach a little easier by adding in more functions to make that practical.
But I don't have a Mac!
People do say to me things like "but I haven't got a Mac" or "I have only used Windows before, I wouldn't know how to use an Apple product". An iPad is not a Mac, nor does it need a Mac. An iPad is a stand alone thing in its own right. You don't need to know how to drive a Mac (or a PC), you pick it up and start using it. It has a reputation for being about the easiest machine to use on the market. Remember those customer satisfaction ratings (or just ask around your friends). People love their iPads and most of the people with iPads have never owned or used a Mac.
Don't be shy, say what you think. The comment system below is there for anyone to ask a question or make a point. Especially don't hold back if you are a normal person just trying to make sense of it all. It's easy to get the opinions of geeks on geeky matters. Much more interesting to hear how this works out for you or what bits need more explanation. No such thing as a silly question, jump in.