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.

On Minimalism and Model Trains

I am both a minimalist and a model trains enthusiast. The two are sometimes at odds. Model trains are not an interest that embraces minimalism. Sure, I can have one set of locomotives and cars that I run, but much like eating the same thing every day it gets boring fast.

My minimalism theory is pretty much Marie Kondo’s sparks joy approach. When my dad died in 2011, his train collection merged with mine. This was a little untenable. When I rejoined my train club, I did a purge of both collections. Cars that required to much work to repair were thrown away.

To further make things challenging, earlier this year I switched eras I modeled. My dad and I both modeled the Erie Lackawanna railroad which merged with Conrail in 1976. I couldn’t run any of the modern intermodal trains, or the newer wide cab locomotives. So, I switched to modeling the Union Pacific railroad. I didn’t get rid of my Erie Lackawanna-era stuff since it sparks joy to run it.

However, a lot of the older stuff I have isn’t appropriate for the modern era. In the 70s, 40-foot box cars were often used. Most of the 40’ cars were retired around the turn of the century. This necessitated buying some modern rolling stock. I am intentional with it, though. I have a list of items I look for at a good price: 89’ flat cars, 50-60’ box cars; center beam flat cars; and modern tank cars.

I do hyper-organize my collection. I bought a bunch of clear plastic bins and each bin contains a train, sans caboose and locomotives. They are labeled, so when I head to the club I can just grab the bin with the train I want to run. Every now and then I may move cars from one bin to another, but my overall goal isn’t to load up one train with my favorite cars. Instead, each bin has a collection of cars I enjoy. It is also fun coming up with a story for the train. What is it carrying? Where is coming from?

The bins are also labeled with the name of the train. Not a fancy name like The Lake Shore Limited1, but something like Intermodal, or EL Freight, mostly covered hoppers. When I go up to the club, I just scan the labels for what I am in the mood to run.

The one change I did make to my philosophy is to not toss cars beyond repair. I find I need test subjects for weathering techniques so I keep a bin of bad order cars to experiment on.

  1. Although, if I did model that train, the bin would be labeled as such.

The “I Carry Too Much Crap” Edition

From Ben Brooks:

My rule here is very simple: take a phone and one other device. Unless you have a major reason why you need three devices, take only two. For me the second device is my iPad Pro, and before that it was my MacBook. If you need a Mac, take a Mac and use your phone for anything else. But decide if you even need that second device — I take mine strictly because if I can squeeze in writing time, it is worth having the iPad Pro. But I could do it all with my iPhone if I wanted

I’ve been in a weird state where I’m straddling a few tech lines and as a result I’m leaving the house frequently with both my iPad Pro and my MacBook Pro. The short version of a long story is I can’t really go iPad-only, but, I also can’t really go MacBook-only at the same time. My primary, non-day job, yet productive, tasks are: writing, drawing, photo editing, and security analysis. I’m oversimplifying here, but the iPad is best at drawing and the MacBook is the only platform I can do security analysis with. The other tasks I can do close to equally as well on either platform.

Ben’s post helped illustrate a growing frustration I have with my daily load-out: I routinely leave the house with my iPhone, MacBook Pro, and iPad Pro. That is one device too many. I’ve made my peace with the fact that I need a powerful Mac, an iPad Pro, and an iPhone as part of my technological setup. What I struggle with is why I feel I need to bring both the iPad and MacBook Pro with me. Core apps I use (Ulysses, OmniGraffle, Affinity Photo) are reasonably feature complete between iOS and macOS1. The iPad-only apps are Procreate for drawing, and the macOS-only apps are my security toolsets.

The practical answer is to just go back to a MacBook Pro. It’s a more flexible platform and the walls I hit are fewer than on iOS. Drawing is the least-performed of my activities. Even today I ran into a weird iOS limitation. I needed to export a multiple-canvas Omnigraffle document to png files. On the Mac, there is a checkbox to export the entire document. On the iPad, no such checkbox exists. [UPDATE: I have since learned there is a workaround] Practicality is not the only driver, though. I really like using the iPad Pro. Typing on the Smart Keyboard is a dream and I love the portability of the device. As with creative work, security work when away from my home is also a rarity.

Since I can’t decide, and impulse and emotions aren’t good points to base decisions on, I’m falling back on my analyst mindset. I created a spreadsheet where I will record on a high-level my device usage. Three columns: Date, iPad, MacBook. The value will be Date (obviously) and for each device row I am using a 4-point grade: 0, did not use the device; 1, used the device lightly; 2, used the device heavily; 3, did something I can only perform on that device. As an aside, this is only for when I leave the house. I don’t care too much right now about my day-to-day usage at home. I will also take care and not cheat the data. If I brought my MacBook, have it on the desk, and the thing I want to do can be done on either the Mac or iPad, unless necessary I won’t drag out the iPad just to give it a checkbox for the day.

  1. There are edge cases on things like some filters for Affinity Photo, but for the purpose of this article we can call them feature-compatible and not get too far down in the weeds.

Sacred Places of Work

I wanted to move game playing out of my home office and transform the area into a space where I would just focus on work stuff. Paint my miniatures, write, draw, work on my trains, or learn to program. Have something to show for my time. So, I bought a PS4, put it in the family room, and moved the Alienware off my desk. All that remained was the iPad, MacBook Pro, and a sacred place of work.

My home office is amazing. We had it painted recently, there isn’t much in the way of decorations. I look out at 57 acres of woods, and several times a week see the local wildlife in the back yard. I have two work surfaces: a large desk that is the 3rd generation in my family; and an IKEA dining table that I use for painting my miniatures and working on my trains. On the desk is my MacBook Pro, the 27” monitor hooked up to my Alienware Alpha, and the related chargers and cables.

The first paragraph was written earlier this year. The second one a week or so ago. An astute reader will notice in the first paragraph the Alienware was off the desk, and in the second paragraph it came back. The problem with bad habits left unchecked they come back like weeds. The painting happened in early June. The Alienware was put away when I got the PS4 in December 2016. By September, it had crept back on my desk like a pile of kudzu. I’m looking at the 27”monitor right now and thinking: that right there is a big bucket of fail. The foundation of bad habits is lies and false promises you make to yourself. I just put that there to have the game on. I want a big screen to watch the drawing tutorials on. It’s out of the way and you hardly notice it.

I used to follow the Minimalists a lot (my full feelings on them is a future article), but one of their mantras is if you lead a distraction-free lifestyle free of things like video games, the TV, the internet, and cell phones you will miraculously find yourself an amazingly productive person.

Bullshit. Hard work may pay off tomorrow, but procrastination pays off today. If I feel like writing and drawing, I will. If I don’t, I won’t. The beauty of personal side projects is there are no deadlines. The curse of side projects is there are no deadlines.

Instead of Minimalism, I instead try and follow simplifying and the essentials. Minimalism feels like paring down too far. A minimalist may have only one Lightning charger, but I have five: one at my desk, one by my bed, one in my car, one at my desk, and in my bag is a set of MacBook and Lightning chargers. It’s not minimal, but it is simpler. Everywhere I need a charger there is one. Because it really sucks when you run out of juice someplace and realize you left the charger the last place you were at.

Likewise, my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook are essential. The Alienware and the 27” monitor are not and will be removed. The rest of the desk will be clean, simple, and essential.