iPad Life: (Almost) Four Years of the iPad Pro

Next February will be four years since I bought the first-generation 12.9” iPad Pro. It’s the first iPad I purchased as mainly a creation, not consumption, device. I wrote about my thoughts on the Pro a year in, and this is a follow-up to that article.

A Privileged, Superfluous, Device

The reality of my iPad Pro usage is if the device died1, I wouldn’t replace it — at least not with another Pro. This is also why I have not invested in a new iPad. I still feel this iPad is enough for me. Four years in, my simple conclusion to the iPad Pro is: it proves valuable enough to my general workflows to justify using it, but not indispensable enough to replace or upgrade it. Not upgrading is an easy conclusion. I don’t feel my 12.9″ is slow, nor is the move to USB-C and the slimmer design a stress point. The device works fine, so it doesn’t need to be upgraded.

My reasons for not replacing will come out through this piece, but while the iPad is a joy to use, and I love creating on it, there really isn’t much I do on the iPad I can’t do on a Mac.

An Alternate Universe, In Which I Bought a MacBook, Instead of the 11” Air

In February 2015 I bought my 11” Air. In March, Apple announced the 12” MacBook for an April ship date. If the series of technical failures that resulted in the purchase of the Air occurred 2 months later, I would have bought the 12” instead of the 11”. Mainly, for the retina screen. The reason I got the 11” was for maximum portability, and the 12” would fit that use case.

If that happened, I am not sure I would have bought the iPad Pro, or my 15” Pro. The MacBook would be an ideal mobile creation tool. If I did get the iPad Pro, I doubt I would also have bought the Smart Keyboard, and instead just used the Pencil for note-taking and drawing, and bring the MacBook for writing.

The minimalist in me wants one device to rule them all. Having an iPad and MacBooks Air and Pro is, at times, excessive. I have spent a considerable amount of time trying to mentally resolve this with no real outcome, other than to maintain the status quo.

The Ideal Mobile Creation Device

My main creative output is: writing, editing photos, and light drawing/note taking. My ideal mobile writing tool prior to the iPad Pro (IPP) was my 11″ MacBook Air. That little laptop still kicks ass, and will the subject of a future article. While the IPP is larger (and thicker, when in its keyboard case) than the Air, the spirit of a mobile platform to write on is also present in the iPad. If I want leave the house and just write, most often the iPad will be that device.

All mobile solutions for an iPad need to remember the iPad is first and foremost a touch device that can be used in a multitude of angles and positions. Jamming the tablet into a contraption like the Brydge keyboard gets away from the pure form of the tablet. While a keyboard is essential for quick and accurate typing, I also feel it should take just a quick tug to convert it back to a tablet. I have the Logitech (not-so) Slim Keyboard, and while the back of the tablet is encased in silicon, the smart keyboard is quickly detachable. I prefer the old Smart Keyboard Cover, but Apple doesn’t make them for the original 12.9 any more, and I had reliability problems with them at any rate.

In the extreme digital minimalist situation, my Computer in the Woods would be a device running Procreate, Ulysses, and Affinity Photo. Those three apps are critical to my creative process; everything else is a distraction. I have thought about doing this, too. In fits of pique where I feel I am just not advancing my creative goals, I think of wiping my devices down to those applications. It’s an ascetic form of minimalism, to be sure.

The Pencil, and the Myth of Drawing

In the original review, I commented:

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.

I haven’t done enough drawing to justify the iPad. I do use the Pencil for taking notes in meetings, but my drawing is limited to just doodling. It is clear to me that over the last four years, my unwillingness to draw overtakes the desire to do anything about it. I have no solutions to this, other than an observation that clearly drawing isn’t the priority I hoped it would be.

iPad Only, and Why I Can’t

Ergonomics, and side issues like needing to work from home via our remote desktop system, I could suffice with the iPad as my only device. It would be a lean existence, with no games I like to play. There are rare times I need to print, and my printer isn’t AirPrint compatible. I do have a Alienware Alpha that is my file and media server. I could offload gaming and printing to that. Right now though, nothing technology-related needs to change, so I am not expending much effort on that.

Edge cases and side issues are only outliers until they become the task you need to do right then. At that point the inability do to those isn’t quaint; it’s a roadblock. The iPad is the least flexible of my devices. Let’s imagine a world in which the iPad is my only non-phone device. If I know in advance I am going to work from home, I can bring my work laptop home2. But, on unplanned days off, the inability to effectively use Horizon View on my iPad is a deal breaker. Sure, there is an app, but tasks like right-clicking are a pain in the ass. I would not want to work a full 8-plus hour day off the iPad app.

Also, no one I know that is “iPad-only” is 100% on the iPad. Federico Viticci still uses a Mac to record podcasts.3 Matt Gemmell uses Scrivener to create the final PDFs for his paperback books. Edge cases, again, until they are needed.

Doing a week to 30-day iPad-only challenge would likely be possible. At the least it would let me assess what is important and what is not.

The Challenges of iPad Productivity

In MacPower Users #512, David Sparks confessed he bought a 16” MacBook Pro. Now, granted, David has pretty much no self-control when it comes to tech, but his reasoning was solid: the iPad is a great laptop-alternative, until it’s not. He was going on a trip he needed to do some heavy Excel work, and the iOS version of Excel was not fit for this purpose.

The iPad has come a long way since its inception in 2010, but not far enough since the release of the Pro. Some of this is to be expected. The initial Pro was a solution in search of a problem. The OS and apps took a while to adjust to the idea of Pro use cases. Ulysses was always a capable iPad app, but apps like Ferrite really showed that you could use an iPad for previously Mac-only tasks, like podcast editing.

iOS now is more capable of heavy tasks. The Files app in iOS 13 is close to a Finder-level app on iOS. We can finally access the On my iPad storage as a local storage device. Previously, that area was hidden away for app usage only. We can connect external storage, and connect to servers. Where it falls apart still is accessing (and editing) Cloud-files when not connected to a network. On the Mac, your Dropbox and iCloud Drive files can be set to keep a local copy. You can’t do that on the iPad. A future release of iOS will let you pin a folder for offline use, but for now you need to make sure files you want to edit are stored offline before hitting the road.

Another challenge is app developers. The developers of Ulysses, Ferrite, and the Affinity apps treat the iPad a first-class citizen. The majority of other apps (Scrivener, Microsoft Office, AutoCad) treat the iPad as secondary device. The unspoken thought is: that iPad is fine for doing some light work and editing, but to do the heavy lifting you will still want to use a Mac.

The Trickle-down Effect of the Pro

One area I think the iPad Pro was successful at is beginning the sea change that iPads are capable creation devices. Now, previously Pro features like the Pencil and Smart Keyboard are available on almost every iPad (the ASK can’t work on the Mini). This means for less than the price of a Pro iPad, you can get a regular-sized iPad, a Pencil, and the Smart Keyboard. A year ago, my iPad Pro dying would likely end up with me abandoning the iPad. Getting a Pro, a new Pencil, and a new Keyboard case would run me more than just getting a MacBook Pro. I wouldn’t replace it as a productivity device. I would just go back to writing on my MacBook Air or Pro. I would feel comfortable spending $1700 on an iPad solution if it could truly become my only device. When it’s a secondary device, not so much. When I priced out a 10.5” Air, with a new Smart Keyboard, it was $800 since I can use my existing Pencil. That is easier to justify, since I do use the Pencil a fair amount.

 

  1. I dropped it on a hard floor right as I typed that. Sometimes you do tempt fate.
  2. I am NOT dragging that thing home every night.
  3. Federico does have an iPad recording setup, but I don’t know if he uses it all the time.