when geeks take wing

When I take to the air, this coming Thanksgiving Monday, on a conference trip to Halifax, I will once again be a geek in the air with lots of techno-toys: an iPod touch in one pocket, a Blackberry Storm smart phone in the other; and, in my carry on should

When I take to the air, this coming Thanksgiving Monday, on a conference trip to Halifax, I will once again be a geek in the air with lots of techno-toys: an iPod touch in one pocket, a Blackberry Storm smart phone in the other; and, in my carry on shoulder bag, an Asus EEE PC netbook and an Apple iPad.

Now, this might occasion the question – for the less techno-obsessed of you, at least – about why I need so many devices.

My answer is two-fold.

First of all, I am a computer nerd, and I just plain love my tech toys.

Second, though all these new, smaller, lighter mobile computing and communication devices make travelling lighter and more manageable for the geek on the go, none of them alone really accomplishes the full spectrum of tasks you can achieve on a more conventional laptop unit.

Hence the need for multiple devices, all of which, even in combination, are less than a quarter of the bulk and weight involved with lugging a full-scale laptop around – and actually a bit cheaper, too.

I justify the iPod on pretty obvious grounds: It is my own possession, packed with all my own purchased and free apps, and all my personal music, photos and videos. It is my home entertainment unit away from home, not a work machine.

I justify the Blackberry (just newly acquired, by the way), because, as an asset of the Yukon Research Centre, where I work, it is necessary so my clients and coworkers can get in touch with me; plus, it allows me to sync up my Outlook calendar and to-do lists so that I don’t miss the boat on important events or plans.

I justify the netbook (also a company asset) because I may be called upon to do more than type SMS messages, or briefly reply to some emails. If I am called upon to generate a real document or spreadsheet while I am away, I need a small, but fully-functional computer to do that with; and the Asus netbook is an admirable little machine for doing that – though, with its cramped keyboard, not one you would want to use as a workstation on a daily basis.

The last item in my collection – the iPad, also a company machine – is perhaps the one hardest to justify, and the most expensive, too.

The iPad in question is one I bought for the company from my fellow gadget-addict and brother in journalistic arms, Andrew Robulack.

It is a 32 GB, Wi-Fi only model, with a current list value of $649 CDN.

The original rationale for the purchase was that I am involved, through my work at the research centre, in the development of some Yukon-branded mobile phone/iPod applications for Yukon Tourism, and it made sense to have the new and very fashionable iPad in the suite of platforms available to me and the software development team for testing and demonstration.

On top of that, the iPad looked to be a handy tool for someone with a meeting-laden, one-place-to-another kind of job like mine: Light to pack, quick to start up, quiet to operate, and, I admit it, kind of status-rich.

Over the past few months of working with it, though, I have become as conscious of its limitations as I have of its merits.

The iPad is an attention-catching toy, particularly since Apple launched its large scale media campaign, touting it as a slick, pretty, go-anywhere, do-anything machine, but it is a bit like Lady Gaga, that way: look beyond the hype and fashion, and you quickly detect a thinness of substance.

If you are a serious, enterprise-style computer user, the brutal truth is that the iPad is overpriced and under-featured for your needs.

It is really just a big iPod music player, with a bigger, prettier screen, and some bloated ambitions.

The extra screen space, and the very impressive quality of the display, do actually make it a much handier device for note taking or e-mail creation than the iPod or iPhone; and the Safari web browser application is snappy and pretty full-featured (except for the notorious lack of a Flash player).

On the other hand, it is a device that is only half way to being a real computer, or even a netbook.

To do any meaningful uploading or downloading of information, you need another computer with iTunes on it, since its one USB input/output port has a propriaterial design, and the iPad’s contents are locked down from being accessed like a conventional USB device.

There are work-arounds to these problems, of course: You can hack (or “jailbreak”) your iPad to make it behave more like a standard USB device; but that of course voids any warranty, and also runs counter to the interests of the kind of user likely to be attracted to the iPad in the first place – the kind of user who wants a device that just works, without his or her having to do anything special about it.

Hence, though it is the priciest and showiest item in the suite of tech toys that I take to the air with me, the iPad is not likely to chase off all my other devices – certainly not my cheaper but more fully functional little netbook.

Stylish and innovative as it is, the iPad is all about information consumption, not generation; it is a cool tool to operate from your easy chair, but not much of an asset at your school or office desk.

On the other hand, that fact is not necessarily a deal-breaking indictment. The fact is that, if I total the price of all my four devices, the iPad included, their total value comes in at less than the price of a full-featured laptop, and at considerably less bulk.

It’s the old business of using the right tool for the right job; and that means, for techno-nerds like me, that you need a wide variety of tools.

Now, if I can just get my hands on one of those new Kindle e-book readers, and get that in my shoulder pouch too.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie

who lives in Whitehorse.