A Year of Using the iPad Pro as a Laptop Replacement

It was the Pencil that got me.

When the 12.9″ iPad Pro1 was announced, I was interested, yet skeptical. I wasn’t sure of the weight and the size. I had just purchased an iPad Air 2 and really liked it. I was outside of the return window so I figured my next iPad would be the Pro, and that was the end of that.

In February, after reading about what Federico Viticci was able to do with the iPad Pro, I spent some of my tax return money on the iPad Pro. I was still a little skeptical. It was large, heavy, and I felt the 9.7″ iPad was still the optimal size. But, I could tell that iOS had really grown and was now something I could consider using as my main portable OS. This was not the case when I purchased my MacBook Air a few years ago. Still, I was willing to concede that perhaps I just had a case of wanting the new shiny. What pushed me over the line was a strong desire to get back into drawing, and rather than spend the cash on a really good drawing tablet, I could get the iPad Pro and a Pencil. There are plenty of apps that let you draw on the iPad. I wanted the freedom of movement the iPad offered.

About a month later I got the Apple Smart Keyboard and that’s about the time I stopped bringing my MacBook Air with me every day. I still get some shit about the size of the iPad. The people at work at first were like, Holy crap, look at the size of that thing!2 A friend’s daughter always asks me, “What do you need to do with something that large?”3 In the year I’ve had the iPad Pro, I’ve seen only two4 in the wild. It’s not that I don’t get out. I’ve walked through a university cafeteria (a medical school, so that may skew things). I’ve seen more new MacBook Pros (4) than I have iPad Pros (2). I can’t tell how many of the smaller iPads I’ve seen are the Baby Pros.

Interacting with the iPad

I believe the best accessory you can get for your iPad Pro is the Apple Smart Keyboard (ASK). Other keyboards, like the Logitech Create, may be better keyboards. but they add too much bulk to the Pro. If you are using the Baby Pro, the Logitech Create may be a better option than the ASK. Matt Gemmell seems to think so.

Tapping the screen on the Pro, I can understand why Apple is hesitant to bring a full touch interface to macOS. It gets tiring tapping the screen on the Pro when I have a keyboard attached. The best recommendation I have is if you do use an external keyboard with the Pro, is to start memorizing and using the keyboard shortcuts.I can’t tell you how much time and physical energy they save me. What I would love is the ability to use keyboard shortcuts with the virtual keyboard. Maybe in iOS 11 Apple will add Control, Option, and Command keys to the on-screen keyboard.

One area I think the MacBook is superior to the iPad is the trackpad and keyboard placement makes it more comfortable to interact with the device for a long period of time. Even using keyboard shortcuts there is still a lot of tapping on the screen. If the on-screen keyboard was just a little bit better I’d probably just use that.

Creating

My two main creative endeavors are drawing and writing. A key app for my creating on the iPad is Ulysses. Ulysses has become my single-source of writing on the iPad. I use it almost every day. Every blog post is written on it. My long-form writing also resides there. I’ve never once lost a document or had a syncing error. It just works. I do have Scrivener, but what I don’t like about it is it’s intended to be just a companion app to the desktop version. Your export options are limited. The developer wants you to finish your compiles and exports via the desktop app. On the one hand, I like how all of my writing is one Ulysses document; on the other I like Scrivener’s “an individual file for each piece of work” is appealing. Scrivener’s sync is a little too manual for me to like it, or trust it. Ulysses has never had a sync error and I like that it uses CloudKit. It does indeed, Just Work.

I am starting to think about using Pages more as well. The new release allows for RTF export and bookmarking. When I start school I’m going to explore using Pages as my primary authoring tool.

Unfortunately, I’m not drawing as much as I’d like a year later. I still draw more with the iPad than I would traditionally, but it’s something I need to increase. My main app is Procreate, but I doodle5 with Adobe Draw as well.

With the iPad Pro, I feel like the excuses and reasons I don’t create are just that: excuses and reasons. I can write and draw anywhere I have my iPad. I always have the iPad with me, so there’s no excuse. Just creative laziness on my part.

Cloud Services

There are things about iOS that drive me bananas. iOS is my favorite platform to download a PDF and upload it to a cloud service. Unless, oddly enough, that cloud service is iCloud. iCloud expands every single folder when you invoke the share extension. It is functionally impossible to locate the specific folder you want to upload the file to. So, all my uploads go to my OneDrive account instead. The lack of selective file sync on iCloud Drive on macOS is a hindrance from going iCloud-only. So, I’m screwed both ways with iCloud Drive. I can’t save the file easily from iOS, but I can’t do selective sync on macOS. It would be nice on macOS if they did something similar to Dropbox infinite, where I can tell a folder to only store data in the cloud, but make the folder and contents available via WiFi.

I’ve got 100g of scans on OneDrive I’m not sure where else to put them. That said, as a minimalist they are starting to feel like the digital version of a storage locker. I’m thinking of downloading them all to a removable drive and throwing them in a drawer someplace. The primary reason I think about paying for a cloud storage plan is storing them. I do download them every so often, but it feels like a “just in case” thing. I can’t replace them in 20 minutes, which is the point the minimalists make, but they aren’t critical files by any measure.

Office 365, OneNote, and OneDrive

I’ve had a lot of thoughts about Office 365 scattered through the sections, so it might just be easier to collate them all here.

Outside of the digital junk drawer, the main reason I keep my Office 365 subscription is Office for the iPad. The 12.9″ iPad falls outside of Microsoft’s free version for Office. I use Office just enough for it all to be worthwhile. $80 a year for 1TB of storage and the Office Apps isn’t bad. Now, I could use my school’s Office 356 account and save the money and get full access on my iPad. OneDrive lets me connect multiple accounts to it on iOS, so I can activate the Office apps on one account, but access my files on my personal OneDrive account. Wins all around. A technical manual I’m writing sits on OneDrive so I can edit it on the iPad when I want some distraction-free writing time. If we ever implement OneDrive at work, this will make working on the iPad very interesting. I couldn’t use it as my main machine, but I could do more with the iPad.

I start my Master’s certificate in a few weeks. Microsoft Office will likely become something I use more often in my personal use.

I have Outlook connected to our Exchange server. I use Mail and the Gmail app for my personal needs, but I like my work accounts to be separate. It helps work/life balance. I also have OneNote and Office installed to read documents sent to me via email for review in meetings. I use Documents to mark up PDFs sent to me for review.

Recently, I broke down and got the Lightning to VGA adapter to tie into the projector systems at work. VGA is the port that will never die. Our TVs at work don’t have an available HDMI port and I don’t feel like dragging an HDMI cable with me. So, got the fucking adapter. I’ve been thrilled with how it works. I used it recently for a document review and was very happy to see it used the full, widescreen size of the monitor at work with no black bars on the sided. I was reviewing some workflow documents with a group and I used the projector, GoodNotes, and the Apple Pencil to mark up the workflows. It worked great.

Note Taking Apps

I use two note taking apps: OneNote and Apple Notes. All of my work notes are in OneNote. I have a notebook for just work and separate pages in it for each project. When a project is closed I put CLOSED in front of the page name and shove it to the bottom of the screen.

I’ve found taking notes on a tablet at work removes the perceived barrier of a screen between you and the other participants. Even if you’re using the iPad with the ASK. Unless I’m taking a ton of notes, I’ll often keep OneNote open and lay the iPad flat on the table. When a person says something interesting, I pick up the iPad, make the note, and put it down. It feels more natural and that I’m more of a participant in that session.

My Apple Notes are a mess. It’s the version of little scraps of paper you write something down on and shove it in your wallet. Just looking at my Notes file I have individual notes for: an email address someone gave me; comic book artists someone suggested I check out; the address of a seminar I went to; and the cell phone number to a contractor I need to contact. I really need to combine those. I’ve gone through and deleted a lot of them but it’s still an unpleasant sight.

This situation works out very well for me. Work notes in one app, personal in another. I have OneNote installed on my work PC so I can access them there.

When I start school in a few weeks I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but I’m thinking of using OneNote for that also. Not sure, though. I might use Notes for it. Decisive, I am.

Consuming

There are a handful of tasks I still use the Mac for — outside of iOS programming. One of my goals for the year is to examine each one and see if the task itself adds value to my life. The most-common task is converting my ebooks. I’m usually de-DRMing my Kindle books so I can read them in iBooks. Neither iBooks or the Kindle app fill me with joy. I much prefer the Bookerly font on the Kindle for reading books, but iBooks is a better PDF reader than the Kindle app6. GoodReader is also a good PDF reader and can sync PDFs on my OneDrive. The Kindle app also doesn’t support split screen, which is important if I’m referencing an art or programming book.

It’s bothering me that I can’t really do everything I want in one app. I don’t want to buy my ebooks on the iBookstore. I’m just going to have to get over myself on this one. non-PDF reading in my Kindle. PDF reading in iBooks.

I use Instapaper as my read it later service and Tweetbot as my Twitter client.

Apple’s Vision for the iPad

There is one thing about the iPad Pro that concerns me… and it’s Apple. I’m just not sure that Apple has a long term plan. When the Pro launched, Apple was all, “Hey look, it can be a laptop replacement!” To a certain degree it’s true. The new iPad Pro commercials are cute, but some big limitations to going iOS-only exist.

iOS 9 brought out Split View. Split View made a lot more sense when the 12.9″ iPad came out. Instead of one of the two apps in Split View being an iPhone view, both apps were iPad views. The whole Split View picker needs some serious love. It seems like the type of feature that showed off well in a demo, but once people used it, it didn’t work out right. The problem is, iOS 9.3 didn’t address it, iOS 10 didn’t address it, iOS 10.3 doesn’t address it. In iOS 10, uploading files to iCloud Drive became problematic because the Document Picker expands every folder and sub folder.

I can’t currently go iOS-only. I still use a Mac. Almost all of these limitations are software. Adobe’s Lightroom app isn’t as good as the desktop version. Office for iOS lacks citation management. Maybe by the time my Retina MacBook dies in 2023 I might be able to go iOS-only. Certainly, my use of iOS will only grow over the years. Right now, when I hit a wall in iOS I don’t graze it; I slam right into it. I can’t use my Topaz presets on the iPad. I can’t use the full version of Photoshop. I can’t use Word’s citation management. I can’t run some of the 3D rendering programs I want to learn.

This is not an indictment of the iPad. It’s just an acknowledgment that I have some needs the iPad can’t meet. It’s great at the things I want to do on it: write, draw, read, email and triage my photos. For the things it can’t do, I have my Mac.

It’s all about the right tool for the job.

  1. For the sake of clarity, in this article when I refer to “the IPad Pro, I’m referring to the 12.9”. The 9.7 will be referred to as “The Baby Pro.” This is because, for me, the canonical iPad Pro is the larger screen.
  2. That’s what she said.
  3. I did not say, “That’s what she said.”
  4. One of them was a person really taking advantage of the device. He was taking handwritten notes with the Pencil.
  5. That bad pun was not intended, but fuck it, I’m keeping it.
  6. This is mainly because iBooks displays the full height of the PDF when reading in landscape. I keep my Pro in landscape mode almost all of the time, so this is pretty important to me. There is also the not-so trivial issue that the Kindle uploader caps out a 50mb.
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