Six months ago after my laptop’s logic board ate itself, I used the opportunity to experiment with trading a laptop for tablet as a primary travel machine. Specifically, I substituted a 9.7″ iPad Pro for my usual 12″ MacBook on a trip. That test, while brief, went quite a bit better than I expected. When Apple updated that model to 10.5″ a month later, I picked one up in lieu of a marginal upgrade to my aging laptop.
The intent was to not replace the laptop, precisely, but rather to reconsider its workload. Essentially, the idea was to split my computing needs into two categories – home and travel. The laptop would continue to be the at home machine, while I’d travel – ideally exclusively – with the tablet.
Nearly six months later, that’s exactly how things have played out. Since I bought the iPad in June, my laptop has not made a single trip. And after mentioning that on Twitter, a number of people have asked about what it’s like “switching” to an iPad. If you’re a laptop user curious about how the iPad compares, this post is for you.
First, let me say a quick word about scope. My focus here is on the machine as a travel-oriented device. I’ll touch on things like its applicability and shortcomings for tasks like software development, but if you’re looking for an in depth assessment from that perspective you’ll be better off checking with someone who does that work all day every day (for example). For me, the machine is primarily a travel machine, so that’s the lens through which I measure it.
The specific unit I got is a Space Gray 10.5″ iPad Pro with cellular connectivity (I’ll come back to that) and 256 GB of space. I also got the Apple Smart Keyboard/cover and an Apple Pencil.
Why an iPad?
I’ve been curious about the iPad as a travel machine since they came out. I’m pretty sure I tried to talk Coté into being a guinea pig at the time, in fact. I’ve been interested in the devices both because my actual compute needs while on the road are pretty minimal and because the battery life/weight tradeoffs for laptops are not that great for someone who travels a lot. In theory, a machine that could handle even just email, browsing and Twitter in a lighter weight package with dramatically better battery life would not only be viable, but interesting.
In practice, my experience with the initial iPad generations and their Android alternatives was not encouraging. The battery life and weight were generally there, but the experience was clunky. Take something as basic as working in two applications side by side: this was not possible on the early generations of the hardware. Similarly, the first versions of the device were clearly oriented towards content consumption rather than generation; typing, in other words, wasn’t a particularly satisfying experience.
But as reviews of later versions of iOS and the new iPad Pro’s came out, they seemed to be closing the gap. Enough to test them, anyway. Enter the 9.7″ Pro for a single week, and then the 10.5″.
Why the iPad Pro Over the iPad?
The Pro has a variety of advantages in processor, screen resolution and so on, but the Smart Connector for the keyboard and the support for the Apple Pencil were the two big reasons to go Pro for me. Not that I’ve used the Pencil that extensively, but it’s been nice to use for slides here and there.
- Battery Life, Battery Life, Battery Life
If you’re using your iPad primarily on a couch, this doesn’t matter that much. But for my usage, the battery is the single most important feature of the devices. Apple’s vertical investment in its own chip capabilities, viewed skeptically at the time, has proven its worth and then some. I watched the two plus hour Wonder Woman on a flight, and my battery went from 100% to 96%. The same movie would eat at least half of my laptop runtime, if not more. Or there was the time I used my iPad to watch baseball while on vacation and do a bit of work, and the battery level was at 22% 12 days later – off the one charge. While I’m still fanatical about charging whenever I can because it’s a compulsion, the iPad is a machine you can basically use all day and just not think about the battery. Which is what I’ve always wanted from a laptop, and never gotten.
- Charge Time
I’ve seen a few complaints that claim that while the battery life is excellent, the time to recharge it is excessive, but that hasn’t been my experience. Maybe I’m using more powerful chargers, but mine went from completely dead this morning to 100% charged in less than three hours. Seems reasonable.
The iPad Pro isn’t light, technically. It’s not comfortable to hold yourself for the duration of a movie, for example. But even with the Smart Keyboard attached, it’s around a half a pound lighter than my Macbook. The power brick and cables are similarly lighter, to the point that my bag is so light now that I often open it up to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything.
- User Experience
I’m with Matt: the iPad is often, if not always, a joy to use. Part of it is the software, which is – with exceptions I’ll get into momentarily – really well designed. But as you’d expect from an Apple device, it’s really the combination of software and hardware that makes it a delight.
It sounds absurd, but one of the really important features of the iPad Pro is the fact that with the hardware keyboard set up I can alt-tab between running applications almost as if I was on my laptop. Double tapping a home button and scrolling through windows shouldn’t be that much higher friction, but is.
But sometimes it’s better to not have to switch between apps. Given that my day to day involves a number of applications used in concert, the fact that I can line Twitter and Slack up side by side and have that alignment persist between alt-tabs to other applications, as but one example, is transformative.
- Cellular Connectivity
As a Pixel user, I’m a Project Fi customer which means that in addition to my primary smartphone SIM, I can get a second, data-only SIM attached to that account (for anyone doing this on an iPad, note that you have to manually activate LTE). Cellular data access is certainly not unique to tablets, but it’s really nice to be able to open my machine and be online without having to find wifi or tether my phone.
What’s Not As Good
- File Management
In the latest release of iOS 11, Apple finally (reluctantly) relented and stopped telling users they had no need to see a filesystem with the Files application. The problem is that Files isn’t very good, nor are the file management capabilities of the device generally. If I want a bunch of videos of my daughter on the device but not in iCloud (which I don’t), it should be easy to create a folder and transfer some files over. Should be, but isn’t. See if you can spot what’s missing from the following UI:
See anything about creating a folder? Me neither. Which is why I default to storing PDFs I want to keep locally, for example, in the folder created by the Byword app: I can’t create my own. If Apple was going to add file management, it’d be nice if they’d actually add file management.
- Form Factor
If you’re using the iPad on a desk or other reasonably flat surface, it’s perfect. As soon as you don’t have that flat surface, things get more interesting. At a conference this week I spent maybe a third of the sessions with the device in my lap, and it’s a little awkward – though doable. If you’re one of those people who lie in bed with a laptop, similarly, this isn’t going to work for that. Neither has been a big issue for me, but depending on how you use your laptop it’s something to think about.
- Multi-Tasking (yes, it’s a con too)
It’s great to be able to multi-task, as noted above, but it would be nice if it were more intuitive. I still have to look up how to do certain things, and every so often I find myself with paired applications that I didn’t want.
- Some Workflows are a Little Clunky
For a lot of things I need to do, the iPad is perfectly suited. There are some examples, however, where that’s not the case. Anything involving a lot of cut and paste, for example – say composing a blog post or newsletter entry with a lot of links or quotes – absolutely can be done, but will take longer because iOS’ cut and paste is there but not particularly well executed. Likewise, workflows that involve file management – working on multiple CSVs or PDFs, for example – is clunky. Like any tool, the iPad has its strengths and weaknesses, and is not the best for every job.
- Some Workflows are Impossible
There are many things that can’t be done well on an iPad, but there are others that just can’t be done. The majority of my charting and graphics work with data, for example, is done in RStudio and that’s not supported on the iPad. Most programming language work is the same. It’s fine, because I generally do that kind of work back at the office rather than on the road anyway, but your mileage may vary.
I don’t know if iOS notifications are bad because I’m used to the Android platform’s or if they’re objectively bad, but I find iOS notifications worthless. The iPad doesn’t change this calculation much.
- Various Other Minor Platform Specific Issues
In an example of something you’ll almost certainly never be bothered by comes this bug, which describes a condition in which Microsoft Office products on iOS cannot process the Helvetica Neue font properly. I care about this because Helvetica Neue (Condensed Bold) is what all of my slides use, so I can either a) complete my slides ahead of a trip or b) bring along a laptop if I want to work on slides up to the minute I’m presenting. It should tell you how fond I’ve become of the iPad that I’ve been going with option A.
For 80-90% of what I do on the road, the iPad is perfect at best and adequate at worst. Combine that with a battery that I don’t have to pay attention to and significantly less weight than laptops – particularly larger ones – and the iPad Pro has been everything I could have hoped for.
To be sure, my expectations are limited in that I have a desktop at the office and laptop at home for things the iPad is incapable of, but if you’re looking for a machine that can accompany you on the road, in a lighter weight package with a better battery, I’d definitely recommend the iPad Pro.
How Mine is Set Up
My approach to tablets is similar to the one I use for phones or laptops. I want as few platform-specific apps/services/content as possible, because I want to preserve the ability to trade between platforms whenever it seems appropriate. This means no iCloud, no iMessage, no Apple Music and so on.
My iPad Apps
Skipping the full inventory, here are the basics:
- Productivity: Nothing exotic, just the basics. G Suite for email/calendar/docs, Slack for communication and Office for spreadsheets/slides.
- Browser: I currently use Chrome primarily because of its password and bookmark syncing, but the tab management is terrible. In the wake of Firefox’s most recent major release I’m evaulating that.
- Files: With the exception of things created in Google Drive, it’s pretty much all Dropbox.
- Keyboard: I cannot bear to type things out letter by letter like a savage, so I use GBoard. Which is mostly fine, except that for reasons I have yet to discover, the GBoard software keyboard will pop up even when the physical keyboard is present, but only for certain applications. Is that GBoard’s fault? iOS’? Who knows.
- Music: My music library has been in Google Music for a while, and that’s supplemented with Pandora for stations mostly because Google Music’s stations are oddly terrible by comparison.
- Photos: As mentioned, I don’t use iCloud (platform-specific), so instead I use Google Photos.
- Media: I use Netflix some but Plex and YouTube heavily. The picture-in-picture support on the iPad for all three is great, meaning that I can watch movies or TV while working on something else.
- Notetaking: Currently, I use SimpleNote on Android and iOS which synchronizes with nVALT 2 clients on my Mac desktops (usually, anyway). I’m experimenting with Notability and Penultimate for their Apple Pencil support, but honestly my handwriting is so awful and slow relative to my typing that I’m not likely ever to take a lot of notes by hand.
- Podcasts: I use Pocketcasts, primarily because it’s multi-platform and has a web frontend.
- Twitter: I’m not a fan of the official client, so I instead use Tweetbot. Strangely, however, because the Android Twitter client landscape used to be a barren wasteland, I’ve found that I actually prefer the Android-client Fenix’s UI to Tweetbot.
- Writing: Anything longer than an email gets written in Markdown which means it gets written in Byword. The UI isn’t super intuitive, but the writing experience is focused.
- Game: I’m not much of a gamer, but I’ll make time for this.
Got other questions? Apps I’ve missed? Things you like or don’t like? Let me know in the comments.