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.

Digital Minimalism: Sorting out Cloud Storage

One of the digital minimalism tenets I use is online (and removable) storage is akin to paying for a storage locker for your physical goods. It is easy to just shove files online or to a USB drive without questioning whether you really need all of those files. It’s not a perfect analogy, of course. It ignores prudent backup strategies. We live in a world where we have multiple devices and we want our stuff on all of those devices.

So while I still pay for cloud storage (iCloud and Dropbox), I do try and be mindful of the shit I throw up there.

iCloud, iOS 13, and Catalina

The simplest solution would be to just use iCloud. I pay for the 256gb option mainly for photo storage, backups, and PDFs in iBooks. There are two main reasons I can’t go all-in on iCloud: Scrivener, and lack of selective/smart sync. Now, selective sync is one of those gray areas for my digital minimalism tenet. After all, if the storage of the files exceeds the storage space on my devices, well, why do I keep it? Honestly, it’s a valid question I don’t have the answer to. It is something I think about often, but for now there are things I don’t need replicated all of my devices.

Scrivener only uses Dropbox for syncing projects between Mac and iOS. This sync method is something that I am factoring in to my pros and cons between Scrivener and Ulysses.

A lot of this changes with the next versions of iOS and macOS. While there isn’t true selective/smart sync, both OSs let me pin a folder to ensure its contents stay downloaded. My limited tests show that a pinned folder will automatically download a newly-added file without any prompting.

Dropbox

Dropbox has a few things going for it. Scrivener works with it. It has true selective/smart sync. It also retains versions and deletion history better than iCloud. Dropbox recently raised its prices from $9.99 to $11.99 a month. This price includes smart sync, which lets you choose a folder to always remain offline. This is handy for my large archive of PDFs. I don’t usually need to have them when I’m not online and can save some disk space.

The Road Forward

I am willing to take the hit on Scrivener at this point if it means moving off Dropbox. Of the apps I use, it is the only one that solely syncs with Dropbox1. I have given myself a few action items before the new OSs are are released this fall.

  • Continue to work and see if pinning continues to work to keep files synced for offline access;
  • Work on moving writing away from Scrivener and into Pages/Ulysses;
  • Take a hard look at that large PDF archive and see if it needs to reside in the cloud.
  1. AutoCAD is the other app that doesn’t use iCloud, but I don’t use the iPad app much.

iPad Life: On a Keyboard Failure Making Me Rethink an Entire Workflow

I have used the Apple Smart Keyboard as my main keyboard for my 12.9” iPad Pro since I bought the device in January 2016. Unfortunately, they are not reliable as I have gone through two of them in that period. I went to Apple to try and plead for swapping out the second carcass but failed.

I love creating on my iPad. It is perfect for writing and drawing with. The Smart Keyboard worked well for me as it was easy to flip around from writing mode to drawing mode and it didn’t add too much weight to the device. It also charged from the iPad and I didn’t need to worry about pairing with Bluetooth.

The Smart Keyboard’s death, however, triggered a long tail of analysis.

The first thought is iOS 13 stands a chance at being a sea change for iPad productivity. I am not sure of two things: whether those changes will make a meaningful difference to how I use iOS; and if those changes work on my iPad Pro. If the answers to both of those are yes, I will likely get something like the Brydge keyboard1 for my iPad and call it a day. If the changes are amazing but don’t work on my iPad, later this year I will look at getting a new iPad Pro2. If the changes don’t improve my use if the iPad, I will take a long look at what the iPad means to my creative life.

There is always a lot of discussion about iPads as laptop replacements, but to get a new iPad Pro setup that mimics what I use now costs about $1,600. That is well towards 13” MacBook Pro prices. If you take out the Pencil, it’s pretty close since the 256GB MacBook Pro is $1,500. At that point, if I drop that kind of money I simply want my iPad to do more than it can now. Little things, like use a mouse and keyboard3, and access data on USB drives. Right now, the new iPad Pros don’t solve $1,600’s worth of problems.

All of the keyboard cases — save the Smart Keyboard — are a form factor that make the iPad more laptop-like, but at the sacrifice of the flexibility of quickly switching to tablet mode. The closest I have seen is the Brydge keyboard, but that one still requires you to remove the iPad from the keyboard to use it in tablet mode. If I am just going to jam the iPad into that style of encasement I wonder if just using my actual laptop is a better option.

Until the WWDC keynote I am not buying another keyboard for my iPad, which means until then I am trying to work off the virtual keyboard as much as possible. Right now it is a tough slog but we will see how that goes. I have a spare Bluetooth keyboard I could use, but I prefer to keep my keyboard and iPad as a singular unit. One thing I do like about the virtual keyboard is just having the tablet flat on the table and not reaching up to use the interface is amazing.

  1. Or, yes, another Smart Keyboard. They aren’t reliable but they work best for the way I use my iPad.
  2. The biggest disappointment would be if USB-drives are only available on USB-c iPads.
  3. The main use case is using our Virtual Desktop system at work.

On Apple’s Earning Adjustment and Upgrade Cycles

Apple today announced expected revenue for the holiday quarter would fall short of expectations. They didn’t miss by much, only by about $5-7 billion1. Tim Cook blamed a lot of things: China’s slow growth, longer upgrade cycles due to the elimination of cellular subsidies, and that people paying $29 to replace old batteries allowed them to keep their iPhones longer2.

What he didn’t mention was Apple raised the prices on everything over the last few years.

Now, some of the complaining about prices wasn’t justified. The new MacBook Air starts at $1,199, up $200 from the old-model’s $999 price tag. That old Air, however, was outdated. No Retina screen. Old internals. It did have MagSafe and USB-A ports, so for a lot of people it was still worth it.

The price increase on a lot of other items, yeah. I bought my 2016 15” MacBook Pro in March 2017. It replaced as my main Mac a 2011 15” MacBook Pro, and an 11” MacBook Air I bought in early 2015 right before Apple released new upgrades. The 2011 I farmed off to a co-worker; the 11” I still have3. While performance was a driver for the upgrade, a large part of it was getting a Retina screen. The 12.9” iPad Pro really made the older screens hard for me to use. I sometimes wonder if I got a 2014 13” Pro instead if it would still be my main Mac. The dual core processor would likely show its age by now. I still use the Air though, when I need MacOS and an ultra-portable computer.

My theme for 2019 Evaluation. For the record, I’m not looking at making major life changes. I am, however, evaluating the devices, apps, and services I use. For now, it’s a lot of data collection. What do I use my Mac and iPad for? I say I want to use x app more, but over the year I use y app instead. I promised myself it was unlikely I was going to upgrade any of my devices. Some of this is price. The increased price of the new iPad Pro may not have completely turned me away, but also needing to buy a new Smart Keyboard and Pencil (also at a roughly 20% price premium) surely did. The same with my iPhone. I used my 6 for three years, and I expect to get 4-5 out of my 8 Plus. New iPhones are more expensive and my existing one works just fine. For me to upgrade I need to see real-world improvement; not just benchmarked improvement.

As Patrick Rhone would say, a lot of people are finding out their current phones and devices are enough.

  1. Since this is the internet, I feel I need to mention I am being sarcastic.
  2. I am not making that one up.
  3. It’s on my desk next to me, actually.

iPad Life: Moving the Goalposts

Any discussion of using the iPad as productivity tool — be it a primary or secondary device ends up with: “Until x application is on the iPad, it can’t be a ‘real device.’” Said application is usually Photoshop. Adobe recently announced plans to bring Photoshop to the iPad. Naturally, the anti-iPad crowd folded their tents, admitted you can now do “real work” on an iPad and the argument ended.

I will give you a few moments to catch your breath from laughing so hard. The MacRumors forums — where most of the arguments I see take place — the big discussion point is that clearly it’s not the real full version of Photoshop, and here are all the reasons it will fail without even looking at the app.

This is the problem I have with people saying you can’t do “real work” on an iPad. Most of the arguments are from people who have never used the iPad for such tasks. They immediately dismiss the idea, and insist until the iPad is exactly like a Mac, it is but a child’s toy. Maybe they feel threatened that Apple will one day stop making the Mac. Maybe their fears will come true. My own issues going to an iPad-only life are well-documented. Which is why the only opinions in these arguments that matter to me are the people who have attempted to use the iPad for more than surfing the web.

Photoshop coming to the iPad is a big deal. While apps like Affinity Photo & Designer, Procreate, and Pixelmator are quality apps, Photoshop is the standard for any photo editing. It’s great to see Adobe finally realize they need to bring their apps to the iPad.

.plan Files and Tracking & Thinking About Personal Goals

For working on some of my personal projects that have longer timelines than “install this tool on my Mac”, I’ve been struggling with how to track and report on progress. Things, which I love, isn’t good for these. These efforts aren’t really something that can be broken down to task levels. A good example is learning about security tools. I have a task in Things to remind me to install a tool on my Air. But tracking progress, notes, and high-level tasks I need something else. The same for working on coming up with a side-hustle and secondary revenue streams.

I was thinking of how John Carmack of id software used to maintain .plan files. It used the finger protocol as a type of blogging engine, but I liked the simple, text-based structure. As I was thinking about tracking some of my personal stuff, I debated between a separate Ulysses sheet, or using Apple Notes, or just Day One Journaling. I ruled against these because I don’t want it to be in my face. I didn’t want a constant reminder that I hadn’t gotten to those projects because work, school, and life got in the way. I also want to keep it private. I did want the ability to edit the file on Mac or iOS, so that sort of limited the app I would use.

So, I decided on keeping a sort of .plan file in Byword. It’s a simple text file. It’s out of the way since it’s not an app I use a lot. It’s just one file now named “plan” and I will be keeping some notes and goals over time there. Maybe it’s close to bullet journal, but I just wanted a separate way to track a lot of this.

iPad Life: A Post-iPad-Only Life and Rendering Unto Caesar

I have largely abandoned the idea that I can go iPad-only. While I never actually thought it would work for me, and admire people like Matt Gemmell who can, I have come to the grudging realization I cannot join their ranks.

In the parlance of many failed relationships, it’s not the iPad; it is me.

When the focus of my non-day job stuff was writing and drawing, the iPad was perfect for that. Even architectural drawings, while I can’t do full AutoCAD on the iPad, I could still draw buildings and have some fun with that. Schoolwork was a little more challenging where I’d run into some limitations with Word, I could still get around them on the iPad. It was when my career path diverted into information security the wheels fell off the iPad bus. There are some discovery and recon tasks I can do on the iPad, but the tools I use require access to the Unix parts of macOS I don’t ever expect iOS to allow.

I wrote earlier about how I carry too much crap with me and did some data analysis on how I use my mobile devices. While the numbers clearly point towards the iPad as my primary mobile device, they don’t tell all the story. There is a line from the Bible I like which is Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s… and a variation of this applies here. While I cannot go iPad-only, the iPad is still pretty much my primary mobile device. Unless I really need a program only available on the Mac, I only bring my iPad with me. I’m writing this post now at lunch at work on my iPad. I bring the iPad to to take notes, read materials, write, and draw. The reasons I outlined in A Year of Using the iPad as a Laptop Replacement for using the iPad as my primary mobile device still apply. But, I felt like my quest to either go Mac-only or iPad-only were causing me to focus on the negatives of each system, rather than the positives. By accepting I need each device in my life freed up a lot of mental energy. I love writing and drawing on my iPad. I love using Unix tools on my MacBook Pro. If that means I leave the house with both of them in my bag some days, well, so be it.