The iPad seems unstoppable: its stable of professionals, the number of beautifully-designed apps grows by the day, its iOS operating system gets more efficient and productive with every update, and its hardware is way ahead of competitors. Some of Lion’s new features were clearly drawn from iOS and, in a market where distracting, bloated user interfaces are the norm, Apple is making a statement: simplicity, in the right context, can lead to increased productivity. At half the price of the MacBook Air, the iPad suddenly seems like a more than viable option for a cash-strapped student. But could an iPad really serve as a student’s only computer?

The major barriers to using an iPad as a student’s only computer are its lack of a file system and the difficulties associated with printing. I personally save all my school documents with Dropbox, which allows me to upload to the Internet and gain access from any computer to print. Dropbox is by no means a perfect solution, but it does generally allow for any necessary printing.

Of course, students have other technological needs. For people who like typing their notes, the iPad may actually be better than a laptop. It’s easier to bring to class than an Air, is faster at accessing note-taking apps on startup, and is less distracting in class. You could use a bluetooth keyboard for taking notes, but it negates the whole point of a distraction-free digital note-taking experience and of ultra-fast setup. The on-screen keyboard takes a little getting used to, but overall it’s quite good.

As for writing papers, there are also some excellent writing apps for the iPad that boast beautifully minimalist writing environments. I currently bounce between iAwriter and WriteRoom and wrote most of this article in WriteRoom. A bluetooth keyboard is a good investment if you plan on writing on the iPad for long periods of time. With a keyboard, the iPad becomes a beautiful, focused writing machine. It’s much easier to stay on task with an iPad because it’s harder to switch to Facebook or Angry Birds (think of the difference between command + tab and reaching over to press a button twice and you’ll see what I mean).

For this reason, writing linearly works very well. But the iPad isn’t as efficient as a laptop if you’re the kind of writer who constantly jumps to different parts of your document. Because the iPad doesn’t use a mouse, you have to clumsily reach forward and touch the screen in order to navigate.

Speaking of clumsy navigation interfaces, researching is quite difficult on an iPad given the limited functionality of the device’s multitasking system. In addition, the variety of bibliography generators at the disposal of Mac users is not available on the iPad. And as far as I know, there is no way to create footnotes or endnotes on the iPad.

Reviewing documents on the iPad, however, is an absolute delight. Upon purchase, my iPad—with the addition of the UPAD app—quickly became my go-to device for reading PDFs, highlighting key lines (with a finger!), and referring to passages in class. You only need to access a school computer to upload files to your Dropbox account, and you’re good to go.

As for novels, I prefer hard copies that allow me to write in the margins easily.

I don’t have as much familiarity with textbooks, but Amazon’s newly-announced textbook rental plan seems like a great solution when coupled with the iPad’s Kindle app. From what I can tell, you can rent textbooks cheaply and for any amount of time you desire. For some students, such a system could make up for the iPad’s cost within the span of just a few semesters.

I’ve never studied for a test using an iPad, but if the excellent reading, note-taking, and flash-card capabilities of the iPad are any indication, the device is likely an excellent study companion. Its portability, and the ease with which you can share the screen with a friend, makes the iPad ideal for study groups.

Will a MacBook Air therefore be the best choice for the majority of students? Probably. But the iPad has made unbelievable strides in the past two years and is truly redefining the way we interact with, and think about, computers—both in the classroom and in the wider world.

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