Using an iPad in China

I often travel to China with student groups or for research and never leave home without my MacBook.  It is the place I keep things to read, write fieldnotes, store the many photos I take and keep in touch with friends and family through e-mail, Skype and Facebook. Lugging it around always seemed a bit much, and after a drop at the Tokyo airport last January that left a nasty dent in the corner of its otherwise immaculate aluminum frame, I began to wonder if I should think twice about continuing to bring it to China. With no alternative, however, leaving my laptop behind was never really an option.

When the iPad was first announced I imagined it would be the perfect travel companion, and I ordered one on the first day so that it would arrive before this year’s trip.  Because it was so new, I scoured the Internets for any information I could find about how an iPad might meet my needs.  I came up with very little, and being afraid that it would not work, at the last minute I decided to bring both my MacBook and my iPad. Since a number of folks have asked, I thought I’d take a few moments to share my experiences.  If you don’t want to read the details that follow and just want the quick answer, here it is:

The iPad is an excellent replacement and I don’t think I’ll be bringing my laptop along on future trips.

Before leaving, my main concerns were Internet connections in hotels that only offer wired Ethernet, access to e-mail and Facebook, VPN access (due to the Great Firewall of China), typing essays and notes, reading documents and storing photos.  I have found a solution for each of these things and have been very satisfied with the results. The details:

Internet Connection
Most hotels in China offer free, or very cheap wired Ethernet connections in hotels.  The iPad, however, doesn’t have an Ethernet port. Because wireless networks are not that common and concrete buildings don’t lend themselves to good reception, my major concern bringing an iPad to China was that I wouldn’t be able to connect to the Internets—rendering my shiny new toy useless.

Fortunately this turned out to be a fairly easy problem to solve. Back home I picked up a used Airport Express on Craigslist for $45.  Before I left, I used my laptop to configure the airport with WPA and added MAC access address control tied to my iPad’s MAC address just for added security.  I then gave the Airport an innocuous name “lwo” (for “little white one”, because the Airport is so little and white and I only have one). I also set it as a closed network so it wouldn’t broadcast its network name. Finally, I set the Airport to Bridge Mode using DHCP. When I arrive at a hotel, I only need to plug the Ethernet cable into the Airport Express, plug it in, let it boot up and I’ve created my own secure roomwide wireless network! I can then login through Safari on the iPad.

Traveling without access to e-mail or Facebook is unimaginable these days. So after connecting to the Internet, the most important thing was to come up with a VPN that would give me access to the tools I need.  Fortunately I found Astrill.They have a monthly rate at $10.95 which can’t be beat.  They also have a configuration for iPhones that seems to work reasonably well on the iPad.  It has a bug that disconnects sometimes, but it does the work quite well.  Facebook done.  (Oh yes, it also works with Dropbox on the iPad, which is also blocked in China.) There is also a very nice review of top VPNs that I found on Lifehacker that might be useful.

While away I use my Gmail account, so I can easily send messages through the iPad’s mail program and keep my addresses and calendars synched. Email done.

I also use Skype, which is probably the only thing the iPad doesn’t do well.  Without a camera, it cannot compete with a MacBook video chat. In a pinch, however, the iPad can use the iPhone Skype app which at least allows me to make voice calls. Skype done (well, mostly).

Unlike previous years, this year I only brought one book and then loaded up my iPad with PDFs and ebooks.  My first experience of reading on the iPad was on the airplane, and my feelings are quite mixed. Nothing, in my opinion, can really replace a book and a pen to annotate.

Reading on the iPad was nice in a dimly-lit airplane cabin and holding it was not uncomfortable.  Until there is a solution for annotating ebooks, however, I think I won’t be entirely satisfied.  I can’t complain, however, with 26 books on an iPad that weights as much as one.  For PDFs I use GoodReader, which would be “AwesomeReader” if it came up with a solution for annotation.

Notes, Writing, Research
Like many folks I have spoken with, I was most concerned about how the iPad’s typing interface would work.  All in all, it isn’t that bad.  I wouldn’t want to type more than about 3000 words on it, but for e-mails and fieldnotes it works quite well.  I bought Apple’s Pages application, which does all that I need it to do.  I also picked up ArtStudio for doodling and Adobe Ideas for the times when a person I am interviewing wants to write down a character I don’t know. In those cases I also have DianHua, which is a free Chinese dictionary app for the iPhone which works fine on the iPad.  For voice interviews I use the VoiceMemo app.

Photos and Video
The only area that I have not been able to really try out on this trip is using the iPad for storing photos and video.  Before I left I tried to find an Apple Camera Connection Kit, but they were sold out or unavailable everywhere.  Reading the online reviews, however, I don’t find a reason to doubt that it will serve as an ideal way to connect my camera and upload my photos.  Now that good-sized HD cards are relatively cheap, I imagine on future trips I’ll just grab a few extra 4GB cards as backup.

So, all in all, the iPad has been a great travel companion thus far. I should add, that the 10+hour battery life made the flight from Minneapolis to Hong Kong very enjoyable.  I read a bit, watched a few movies that I ripped, listened to some music and when my mind turned to mush after about nine hours in the air I played a few rounds of Plants Versus Zombies.  Perhaps the only downside, is now that I am here in the land of bootleg DVDs there is no way to pick one up to watch.  Come to think of it, the only reason I think I have ever used the DVD drive on my laptop is to watch movies in China…

Anyway, that’s my initial report on my iPad use in China. ‘Nuff said.


  1. This is a wonderful review, David. As I prepare to take a group of students to China, I wonder if you have any updates now that 2 years have passed….Thanks!


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