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iPad Can Halve Cost of Portable Computing

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- With a bit of aftermarket TLC, the mostly-for-hipsters Apple (AAPL - Get Report) iPad 16GB ($499) really can be tricked into becoming a legit portable workstation.

I'll admit upfront that this will take some real effort. You will be shopping for aftermarket parts, doing some trial-and-error with apps over at the App Store and otherwise having do some heavy thinking about how you plan to use your device. But done right, the iPad has a heck of a small-business upside. And it does it all for about half the cost of any other Apple portable computing solution.

Done right, and with some trial-and-error effort, the iPad offers plenty of small-business upside.

Remember, even an entry-level MacBook starts at $999.

Here's what you need to know:

1) Get yourself an aftermarket, hard-qwerty keyboard.
Apple loves to trumpet the iPad's virtual, touch-based interface and its full suite of business-ready functionalities, including support for Microsoft (MSFT - Get Report) Exchange, eReader apps such as GoodReader, mobile office tools such as Cortado Workplace and Quickoffice. Sure, those are all nice. But what really makes the iPad small-bizworthy is a good, old-fashioned qwerty keyboard, which you can buy in the fast-growing aftermarket for such gizmos.

Apple itself sells an iPad Keyboard Dock ($69) that works nicely for typing and simple data entry. It boasts a good design and has -- by Apple standards -- a reasonable price.

Big PC peripheral makers also are fighting for the aftermarket iPad keyboard dollar. I like what Kensington is doing with KeyFolio Bluetooth beyboard and case ($100). The unit connects wirelessly to the iPad, which is slick, once configured. And it has a well-made rubberized keyboard and not-awful synthetic leather cover -- which, by the by, is a must.

But for my money, the real winner is Salt Lake City-based Zagg's (ZAGG - Get Report) all-aluminum ZAGGmate ($99). This iPad cover features a well-designed keyboard, rugged aluminum shell and surprisingly high-quality look and feel. When using it you will need to remind yourself you're not working on a legit MacBook.

2) Don't be afraid to invest in software at the App Store.
Once you can really type into your iPad, the next step is to comb the dark corners of the App Store for versions of the business tools you use that can run on the iPad: big ones such as (CRM - Get Report), Oracle (ORCL - Get Report) Business Indicators and Intuit (INTU - Get Report) QuickBooks as well as smaller ones such as Wyse PocketCloud and Fuze Meeting. You will be surprised -- and honestly, overwhelmed -- by the number and quality of business apps. But getting the hang of doing your work on a touch-based iPad takes a bit of effort.

And that, of course, is the rub: You are dealing with a rah-rah, we-can-do-no-wrong approach that means you can't demo software, the free versions usually stink and reviews are usually unhelpful. So you must be prepared to spend money on apps to see if they're for you. It is annoying -- but you are only spending, say, $5 a pop. Just keep telling yourself that.

3) Remember that you are accessing data with your iPad, not creating it.
The most important thing to remember in trying to do work with your iPad is what it cannot do. This is a closed device that has no optical drive such as a CD player. And you only have 16GB of storage, so it's not like there is much room for business tools. Plus, as much functionality as you get with third-party keyboards and slick apps for the iPad, you will miss your legit Mac when it comes to serious data entry or creating complex files. The trick is to enter much of your business content as possible elsewhere and use the iPad for virtual access to that content.

I think of the iPad as a portal that allows quickly access to my business information, not as a way to create it. Keep that in mind, and you have just got yourself one of the lowest-cost Apple mobile work gadgets on the market.

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This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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