iPad Turns Portable TV

I'm embarrassed to admit that I already owned a laptop, smartphone and e-reader -- not to mention having access to my husband's netbook -- before I bought an iPad 2 last month. Did I really need a tablet? Is there so much that a tablet can do that one of those other devices can't?

But those turned out to be the wrong questions.

Yes, if you leave out iPad-specific apps -- and that is leaving out a fair amount -- most of the things I'm doing on an iPad can be done on either a laptop/netbook or smartphone. However, there's a difference between could do and will actually do; manage to do and enjoy doing.

Case in point: watching television.

I can view streaming video on both my phone and my laptop, and I often do -- for clips lasting a few minutes. Full-length TV programs? Not so much. The phone's screen is too small; and the laptop is, well, a laptop. It just doesn't feel like a device to kick back and relax with. That's the same reason I rarely put my feet up and recreationally surf the Web in my living room with my laptop: The device feels a bit too large, heavy and cumbersome. (As for the first-generation netbook, the slow bootup time, sluggish browser and cramped keyboard tend to drive me nuts.)

Not so with the iPad. I've been carting it from room to room more than I'd ever done with my laptop. And when I was away last weekend, I surprised myself by standing up the iPad and using it to watch a show on HBO -- especially surprising since days can go by without me watching television of any kind. The iPad turned out to be a nice little portable TV (as long as the Internet connection in our B&B held up). The screen is still a bit small in these days of 50-inch HDTVs, but it's large enough that I'm not annoyed when watching. And, the TV-over-IP video display was pretty good.

I've loaded two TV-related apps on my iPad. One, Dish Network's TV Everywhere, lets me watch anything remotely on the iPad that I could view if I were home, including any live program on a channel we subscribe to as well as shows previously recorded on our DVR. This means I'm no longer limited to whatever channels a hotel offers on its cable service when I'm on the road. The app itself is included with other Dish services, if you've purchased Dish Network's Sling Adapter or SlingLoaded DVR. If I watched television more regularly and didn't have access to the Dish app, I'd probably look into a service such as Hulu Plus.

The other app, Major League Baseball's At Bat, requires an annual subscription of $79 or $99 for a season of computer-based Web access plus another $14.99 for the app on a single mobile device. For that you can watch games live or archived for any team throughout the season, as long as you're not in the team's blackout area. So far I've only viewed game highlights on the app, since I rarely have time to sit through a whole game while traveling. Still, it's nice to know that I can -- and I'd enjoy doing so if I tuned in.

I'm unlikely to travel with a laptop, tablet, e-reader and smartphone very often, but I don't regret being able to pick the best tool(s) for the job, depending on type of travel. Work trip where I need to write full articles on deadline? Laptop. Pleasure trip where I want to check e-mail, keep tabs on weather and view photos? Tablet. Day at the beach? E-reader.

So yes, I probably could have gotten along fine without a tablet and didn't really "need" one. But as is often the case when technolust comes into play, need wasn't really the point.

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Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter

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