A couple of weeks ago, I opened my Macbook Pro as usual. The keyboard lit up, as usual. I waited – there’s that pause while the display gathers itself (it’s a 2012 model) and the processor pulls everything together and presents the login window.
Except this time, nothing. The display didn’t light. There was the quiet sound of the fans going, but nothing. Oh dear. Closed the display, opened it to catch it unawares – no, that wasn’t going to fool it. After a bit more futzing around, I concluded that it was not in the mood to work. But I had work to do, and so I turned to my iPad Pro.
That was, as I say, a couple of weeks ago. Since then I’ve been doing everything I’ve done on this iPad – a 12in iPad Pro, with Smart Keyboard. That means email, writing articles for papers, editing chapters for my book, composing The Overspill’s daily Start Up post, and so on.
A few years ago, this would probably have been impossible. I wouldn’t have contemplated it. Now? Getting along fine. In a number of ways, the iPad is preferable – particularly weight and connectivity. In only a couple of ways is it worse (the most notable being “lappability”).
The big advantage these days is that if you trust your documents to iCloud, then moving between Mac and iPad isn’t a problem. (OK, for the chapters in the book that has been a mixture of iCloud – for the Pages edits of Word documents – and Dropbox, which is where Scrivener, which I used to write it originally, stores documents.) I was able to go straight to my iPad and have all the tools I needed.
Let’s run through a few of those things.
• writing my book: wait, you didn’t know I had a book coming out? Yes, in May – Cyber Wars, looking in detail at seven big hacking incidents: how and why they happened. You can order it on Amazon. (US, UK.) I wrote it in Scrivener, which is wonderful, and has an iOS as well as MacOS version. Documents and “projects” are synced via Dropbox, and it detects if you’ve done something in one place or the other and offers to sync them up.
• editing book chapters: the publishers sent back chapters as Word documents with Track Changes. Import those to Pages (on the iPad), run through the Track Changes, export to Word documents (also in iCloud Drive) and send back. All lives in iCloud Drive, so will be available when (if?) the Mac revives.
• writing articles for papers: this is generally easiest in Google Docs (because a lot of papers are on Google Apps). Weirdly, although Google will let you write things in Google Docs in Safari on MacOS, it absolutely won’t let you do that on Safari on the iPad, even if you request the desktop site. You have to use the app. This is the only case I’ve come across where you can’t do it on the site and have to use the app.
• making and recording Skype calls for work.
• curating The Overspill. This involves spotting links, selecting content from them, perhaps adding a comment and an image from that link, and then collating all the links together in a specific format (using particular HTML formatting), and putting those into a timed WordPress post with a Flickr CC-BY licensed picture at the top. (The CC-BY has to include a link back to the original photo and the photographer’s name or username.)
On the Mac, I compose the daily Overspill post using a custom Applescript I wrote (it queries Pinboard and posts to MarsEdit). Fortunately, well before the Mac went into a coma I’d translated the script into Python for iOS, using Pythonista – which is a damn useful program that lets you write and run Python programs which will interact with web pages, web APIs, and the OS itself. I wish there was something like it on MacOS; it makes writing Python programs to do tasks so much easier than doing them in the Terminal and other interfaces. (Pythonista apparently can also sync files between devices, as Workflow does, if you enable a setting – I wasn’t aware of it.)
(Please don’t laugh at my coding. It just has to get the job done, not be pretty.)
I don’t do any podcast recording (which I understand is still a problem on iPads, as Garageband fights with Skype), nor any video editing. But what I’m trying to do is “real work”, at least for me. It’s work that earns money, and isn’t that what we’re after?
So a couple of weeks in, here’s what I find to be the good and the bad points of working full-time on an iPad to do things I used to do on a Mac laptop.
• the weight. It’s so much lighter (even with the Smart Keyboard) than a laptop. Put it in a bag and go and you hardly know it; that’s a big difference compared to toting around the MacBook Pro (5.6lb, v 1.6lb for the iPad plus 0.75lb for the Smart Keyboard – so half the weight).
• battery life. If it doesn’t last a couple of full days, then I’m disappointed and slightly surprised. Compare that with the laptop, where you’d expect to get a morning and an afternoon, and then be hunting for a power outlet.
• connectivity. I’ve got a PAYG sim from Three, with 1GB of credit, and I use that if I find myself somewhere without Wi-Fi: just hook into the mobile network. Yes, I know you can do this by setting up a hotspot from your phone to your laptop, but being able to have the device do it on its own is far more satisfying.
• focus. The iPad lets you work on two – max three – apps at once on the screen. If you tailor notifications correctly, you can get a lot done. So if I don’t want to be disturbed by email, then I don’t let it notify me, and I can go literally hours without being interrupted. (I don’t use email in the browser.) Then you go to your email and deal with it. Remember, you might think of it as “my inbox” but it’s actually composed of messages sent out of your control by other people. In general, “your” inbox is not under your control at all; it’s other peoples’ ideas of what you should do – a task manager compiled by other people. Not looking at email is good.
• the keyboard. I really like the keyboard. The odd thing is that I don’t much like the keyboard on the new MacBooks/MacBook Pros, but the Smart Keyboard uses the exact same key design. The crucial difference is that the Smart Keyboard covers them in a layer of fabric, which has two huge advantages: it makes them much quieter (because oh my lord the bare keys are CLACKY), and it proofs them against the specks of dust which have been the downfall of recent designs. Double win. If they could make a MacBook with these keys covered in fabric they’d have solved their problems, but I’m guessing that there would be thermal dissipation problems with that – most laptops vent plenty of heat out of the gaps around the keys.
• ‘lappability’. Laptops have the huge advantage that they’re designed to work in your lap: the big flat base sits on your lap and the screen can be adjusted to your taste, and then the keyboard has a solid base too. With the iPad and Smart Keyboard, it’s difficult to get the same effect, because it’s so light and the screen angle is fixed. (That wouldn’t be improved by the Microsoft Surface’s adjustable leg, because I can’t adjust the length of my femur to cope with where the slide must rest for a specific screen angle.) With the iPad Pro, you really want a table to rest it on – or else something that can go on your lap. (I’m writing this sitting in a car, so it’s not impossible.)
• lack of keyboard shortcuts for one’s own scripts. On MacOS, I can use Keyboard Maestro (and some of Apple’s custom keyboard shortcut offerings) to create a keyboard shortcut to invoke scripts which do tasks such as adding text or HTML to a clipping. On iOS, there’s no such option. So I invoke the Share menu and Workflow a lot.
• grab problems. Sometimes it’s difficult to select a chunk of text, especially if it goes past a photo on a page.
• can’t grab inline image URLs. There isn’t a way that I can see on the iPad to find the URL to an image on a Safari page and directly copy that. It might be possible with a bit of scripting (input some text before and after the picture; script grabs the source, looks for image links between those words). Solution: presses on the image and choose “open in new tab” and grab the link from that tab. But it’s an extra step, and isn’t always available – take the example below from Techcrunch.
(OK, so people on Twitter have pointed out that the “copy” there is “copy the image URL”. I have to say that isn’t self-evident, and I didn’t try it because I didn’t want to destroy what was already on the clipboard. Anyway, there you have it: the solution is to “copy”.)
• information density. If you compare the number of pixels on an iPad with those on a laptop, it doesn’t seem like that many more. But the action targets (the things you have to hit with the mouse) are way smaller on the laptop than on the iPad, where they’re larger because it must expect that people will only use their fingers to operate it – even if the Pencil is an option. Smaller targets and more pixels means a lot more space can be used for information.
• you’re using a tablet? Some sites still don’t expect that. Yes, I’m looking at you, Flickr, and your impossible-to-copy text in the “embed” link. On a Safari page, this comes up as it does on the desktop – a floating window with some HTML. But trying to tap-to-select the necessary part of that code – which begins “https://farm…” and ends “.jpg” is a fight, and copying precisely what you want a truly vexing process. (I haven’t found a way to script the grabbing of the necessary code, and the Flickr app is unbelievably useless: can’t restrict a search to a specific licence, can’t do a view by date/relevance, and so on. It’s mindless crap meant for the most passive user imaginable.)
• missing web page functions. I use Instapaper to collect links through the day/week; in Safari on Mac you get icons to delete links after you’ve used them. Not on Safari on iPad. (The Instapaper app does, though.)
• easier to miss stuff. The Overspill Start Up daily email requires a specific set of things to be correct about the WordPress blogpost (correct category, launch before a certain time). I’ve made more mistakes with the WordPress interface in Safari on the iPad in three weeks than I did on the laptop in three years, which has led to missed blogpost launches and missed email deliveries (sometimes both, sometimes just one). It’s very annoying; partly it’s that some of the work was done before by Marsedit (see below) and that the web interface for WordPress is appalling when it comes to the scheduling/category stuff. (Ought to be at the top of the page; instead is relegated to the side, sometimes well down the side.)
• miss having a newsreader. I use NetNewsWire on the Mac, which I’ve been using for about 15 years now. (It’s not as good as it was.) I know it’s available for iOS; I just hadn’t set up the synchronisation, so it would have been a big slog.
Room for improvement
• Mail needs work. Quite a bit to bring it up to speed. Though you can filter your inbox(es) by all/unread/flagged/has attachment/to me/cc me, there are no Smart Mailboxes (I can’t create a virtual inbox of messages with particular characteristics, or from a particular sender or domain or set of domains). I also want to be able to see more emails on the left-hand pane – if you get any appreciable number of emails per day, they’re going to overwhelm those you were previously dealing with, which screws up your workflow.
• I’d really like a good blogpost editor, ideally scriptable – basically, MarsEdit for iPad. MarsEdit is a wonderful blogpost writing/editing program which can deal with multiple blogs, and is also scriptable so that you can fire up a script and get things done. The WordPress app (in which I’m writing this) is OK, but not very intuitive. Although – as soon as I made this complaint to myself, I realised there might be a solution. And so there was, via Workflow (which can control WordPress – you can do pretty much everything up to scheduling the post) plus Python(ista). With a bit of finagling, I had a solution which did slightly more than the version I run on my Mac.
In many ways, this post is like the real-life experience that I wrote about more as a theory in Benjamin Button moves from an iPad Pro to a MacBook Pro. But it’s reality. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but sometimes it’s just the mother of getting on and discovering what tools are actually available.
I eventually got a Genius Bar appointment for the Mac. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing (including a disk wipe that turned out to be unnecessary, but that’s for another post) the diagnosis was a problem with the NVidia video card – a known fault on my model. Weird that it took over five years to become calamitous, but that’s computers.
In the meantime, I’ve got the iPad, and over the weekend wrote a combination Workflow/Pythonista script which automates almost the whole process of compiling and scheduling The Overspill. Of course, rather as we redefine artificial intelligence to be “anything that computers can’t yet do” (where the goalposts move from “beat humans at chess” to “beat humans at Go” to “be better than us at Where’s Waldo”), the definition of “real work” has probably moved so that, because everyone knows you can’t do “real work” on an iPad, it’s now all the things that I don’t or didn’t try to do – the podcasts and video editing.
But you know what? It works for me. Plus it’s improved my Python.
TL;DR: want to do pretty much everything you do on a Mac, but on an iPad? Get Workflow and Pythonista.
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You haven’t stated whether or not you touch type. If you do, I find it hard to believe you like that keyboard. Even the less than wonderful keyboards on the new MacBooks and MBPs seem better than the membrane job for me. I love my iPad but editing text and typing on it, even with a bluetooth Apple keyboard is rough by comparison to a MacBook / Pro.
I do touch type. You think someone can be a journalist this many years and not? And yes, you’ll have to fit this into your belief system: I do like the iPad Pro Smart Keyboard. It’s not a Bluetooth keyboard – it’s not separate. As the picture shows, it’s right there as if it were a laptop.
22 years writing for a living, and only two fingers ever employed!
Have you taken a look at Ulysses? I’ve not used MarsEdit so I can’t compare them but Ulysses is a really good text editor that integrates very well with Workflow and also publishes directly to WordPress.
I haven’t looked at Ulysses. I think it’s one of those things where you either go with Ulysses or Scrivener (I have the idea of their both being for bigger writing projects). But the fact that the WordPress app intergrates with Workflow, and so Pythonista, means I’m able to do with Workflow/Pythonista/Wordpress app what I used to do with Applescript/MarsEdit.
If you don’t already check out Federico Viticci at macstories.net and Ben Brooks at brooksreview.com. Both have written extensively about going iPad only (and both swear by Ulysses, although I’m sure one uses Scrivener as well).
Sorry – brooksreview.net
I used Ulysses for a year and then they went to subscription. At that point I switched to iA Writer. It’s a very similar writing-focused interface and also allows for fairly easy publishing to WordPress which was a feature I really wanted. I’ve been using it for the past few months and am very happy with it.
@Beardy Star Stuff – this isn’t really the right place to ask this – but why did you not want to pay for a subscription for Ulysses? I was happy to pay because software is normally expensive (but Ulysses is only £26/year) and I know that it pays for one of my favourite bits of software to stay supported in future years. Panic (who make Coda) have just discontinued the iOS version of Transmit (which I also used heavily) because it didn’t cover its costs. I think there’s a real problem with iOS software and the amount of money people expect to pay for it.
I’m happy to pay more for apps and agree they are for too cheap. That said, I’m not in favor of a subscription model. For apps I really need, I’d be happy to purchase every year or two assuming active development is going on that warrants on-going purchases. Regarding Ulysses, I simply don’t care enough about the app to pay that much per year. I don’t need it to make a living. I use it to blog and I’ve never made a dime blogging. I’d previously used ByWord which isn’t too bad but felt clunky. I tried iA Writer and really liked it. It’s probably too cheap too and I’d pay more for it. But again, I wouldn’t subscribe to it. But I’d probably for a new version every year but not more than $8-10 bucks. It simply comes down to my budget, need and utility. If the Ulysses’s sub was $10 a year I might have kept at it even with the subscription model because the cost was reasonable in my context.
That said, thinking about Transmit and Coda, I’ve been growing frustrated with those iOS apps. From MY perspective the development has been too slow. When Panic dropped Transmit for iOS I made a plan to drop Panic and have done so. No had feelings but from my perspective development is too slow and it lacks features I want. In particular it lacks iOS 11 features that I want. I DO use those apps for my living and would have paid more for both of them. Instead I’ve switched to Textastic and FileBrowser. Between the two of those I get iOS 11 features such as drag and drop, Files integration and more open access to my html files which I can now sync between all devices in iCloud. I was already using FileBrowser but was happy to pony up the money for Textastic because the cost was reasonable (too low). Same with Affinity Photo. I’d easily pay double for those because I make my living with them.
My point is, I’ll pay more for apps but I’ll drop them if they’re not being actively developed. Further, I don’t like the subscription model because I think it goes too far in the opposite direction. Sell your product and I’ll buy it if I need it and it fits in my budget. Fix the bugs. Update for new iOS features. Add new features as you see fit. Chances are good that I’ll choose to buy it again for those updates. It’s a model that’s been around for a long time and I prefer it.
It’s on the seller to budget their funds just as it’s on me to manage my own. I don’t ask my clients to subscribe to my services either. It’s on me to manage my funds between sales/jobs. I know it’s a different case but subscriptions (in the case of apps) feel similarly.
I could go on but that’s probably too much already.
Not sure if I understood ‘inline URL’ complaint right, but you can touch an image, wait for Drag, then wait a little more. You’ll get a pop-up with ‘Copy’ option at the end of the list. No extra step needed.
Yes, that’s true. Except on some images you get “open in new tab”. (Perhaps those are images which hyperlink to bigger images?)
Nice article. The only thing keeping me from making the switch to iPad full-time, is the need to mount network shares and edit/save files right from said share. Citrix offers a solution for this, but my understanding, is that it requires an enterprise level installation. if Apple would provide this functionality, like the Mac already has – I could make the switch.
In regards to RSS, have you considered going with an RSS feed service like Feedbin? Then you you could use the awesome iOS Reeder app…
I suspect there might be ways to access network shares (SMB?) – have you looked at Coda, which is an FTP/file editing program? – and it’s always helpful to dig around the App Store.
Re RSS, I haven’t thought about Feedbin. Once the Mac is repaired, I may severely triage my RSS feed list, as NNW now struggles terribly with it (it used to be really fast in older versions; somehow they’ve made it slower and worse). And sure, I might try something like Feedbin. Thanks for the advice.
I’ll second the idea of looking at Coda. It’s really an editor for web developers, but it will load up all different types of network shares and let you edit and arrange files on that share in-place.
I will definitely check out Coda. The key will be if I can open and save to that share with Word & Excel for iPad. Thanks!
I would have a look at FileBrowser. It comes in three varieties, I’m using the standard. I don’t use Word or Excel but I use Pages and Numbers and have no problem navigating to my local Mac or to an ftp server using the app. From there I can open and edit Pages/Numbers in place from within the document picker of the appropriate app.
I would suggest FileBrowser. It comes in three varieties, I’m using the standard. I don’t use Word or Excel but I use Pages and Numbers and have no problem navigating to my local Mac or to an ftp server using the app. From there I can open and edit Pages/Numbers in place from within the document picker of the appropriate app. Has excellent drag and drop support as well as proper integration with the Files app.
Wow! FileBrowser does the trick! Not only does this help me personally, but we can begin evaluating iPads as laptop replacements! Thank you. Dan.
Excellent!! I’m very happy to hear it!
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I can totally see the Apple Pro fitting a significant of my needs with a couple of exceptions:
* most of my stu digital and also I use bits of software like Nvivo (a qualitative data analysis package) and the like where it’s handy to have constantly open and present while I’m writing rather than flipping between windows. So I bet I could get by but I like having two 26″ screens and a big mechanical keyboard to bash on at home.
* Here’s what I think is a surprising omission given how popular Ipads are in education – it’s an absolute faff to use your ipad and project it to a screen while mobile – I’m amazed how clunky the solutions are – the *best* I’ve seen is to buy an apple TV and lug that around with me.
This is one area the Surface pro seems to have apple licked – I have a dongle – I plug it into the HDMI slot in the classroom and hit *connect* and I’m done and can move around the classroom with the pro talking to people as material is projected on the screen. It’s really that easy.
(I demo this here in a really rough way for some colleagues:
Can’t comment on the data analysis package (and that sounds like it needs lots of space to show it). On the projection to a screen – there are dongles for VGA/HDMI and whatever the thing that’s a step up from VGA is. I use them all the time; presenting from an iPad (using iPhone as a remote) is a breeze.
Do you miss having a mouse?
I have fingers. They do the job pretty well. As I say in the post, the targets on the iPad are larger (because fingers) so you get less information density. But I don’t miss the mouse at all. I haven’t used an external mouse for years anyway; I’ve used the trackpad on my laptop.
Re Google Docs, have you tried the iCabMobile browser? You can set it to make web sites think you are using another browser, like Safari for the Mac when you are using iOS (Settings>Web Sites>Browser ID).
Great article, thank you for writing it. I use my iPad extensively when I travel, as it is way lighter than my Mac or windows machines and does everything I need. I am looking forwards to an improved exchange mail client, but Outlook does a good job for work until something with better search arrives. The office apps are enough for my needs, and I’ve recently had to prototype app designs and found nice tools for that.
The tip for Pythonista is appreciated, I’ll be looking into it.
I followed a link here from Dave Mark on Loop Insight, and you got another fan of your writing style. Thanks again,
Excellent article! I recently had the exact same problem: Retina MacBook Pro mid-2012 stopped showing video on its screen (although I hear the boot chime and can use the computer with VoiceOver).
Did you manage to have your computer accepted under the Repair Extension Program for Video Issues? I’ve faced many problems trying to convince the Apple Representatives in my city that my computer should be repaired under this program (there are only two Apple Stores in my country and both are very far from my city).
Hi Victor – yes, they did accept it on the REP because it was only just past. (And also they had recently replaced the battery, and who knows if that affected it somehow.)
Nice article! I use a small, plastic kitchen cutting board under the iPad on my lap, it’s almost the only way I use it. I also touch type, and after getting used to the Smart Keyboard, agree that it has all of the benefits of the think MacBook keyboard, but avoids the dust problem.
If they can make the laptop with this Smart Keyboard covering, they can relax, IMO. But as I said, I think the problem with thermal emission – venting air around the keys – prevents that. Pity.
Yet another writer exclaiming that, lo and behold, you can write well on an iPad Pro.
That is a bare minimum requirement for any device. And it’s a FAR cry from making it a laptop / professional mobile device replacement. My iPad has become a secondary device, far more limited than my Surface Pro for professional usage.
Oh and on that subject, regarding your (somewhat out of place) comment on the Surface while criticizing the obvious lack of lapability if the iPad Pro: “That wouldn’t be improved by the Microsoft Surface’s adjustable leg, because I can’t adjust the length of my femur to cope with where the slide must rest for a specific screen angle.)” ..
Absolutely WRONG. I use a Surface in every orientation from an almost vertical screen to an almost horizontal screen on my lap, and it works well. Certainly better than the joke of a solution offered by the “smart keyboard”. Maybe your experience is different, but I get the impression from your comment that you’re simply parroting what you’ve heard about it from the Apple devotee crowd.
You seem upset.
More to the point: the tasks I’m doing aren’t just “a writer”. As pointed out, to write The Overspill, I query an API, construct a blogpost, and need interaction in the script. Also, there are other occasional non-writing data-intensive tasks that I do, for which I’ve also written Python programs in Pythonista. You don’t say what tasks you do on your Surface Pro, and why the iPad doesn’t meet your requirements.
But I’m guessing that it’s something about “real work” from your use of the word “professional”, which as usual drags us back to the topic this post revolves around: as soon as an iPad can do X, people declare that X isn’t “real work”, but that Y is. If an iPad then gets the capability to do Y, it’s declared that Y has never been “real work” – actually it’s Z. And so on.
Let us know what your X, Y and Z are. As I and others say, if you’re into podcast recording, the iPad isn’t there yet (can’t Skype and record…), and ditto video editing beyond iMovie.
Well, it’s a good thing that the iPad does allow users to type on it! I use it to manage 12+ client websites. That’s content updates as well as design updates and all new designs as needed. Plenty of apps available for web-coding and file management. It’s also a great thing (for me) that I have access to a variety of apps for graphic design. I’ve used my iPad for designing postcards, brochures, posters, logos, and more thanks to apps such as Affinity Photo. If you’re iPad became a secondary device that may be it’s limitations or it may not. Depends on the work you do. There are plenty of us using it as primary computers and we’re not all “just” writers.
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As always, Charles, great ideas and writing. Thank you. I, too, would love to see MarsEdit for iPad (which Daniel J. says is on his to-do list). Until then I often use the WordPress app, but since it is simply a wrapper on the Web UI, I am always uneasy about loss of material with a live connection. (Same concern about using the Web UI on my iMac of course, but at least it tells me if there is an intermittent loss of connectivity!) Do you share this concern? Or do you have some offline work-around that I have missed?
I will often draft stuff in Notes – it has iCloud sync but doesn’t rely on it. Haven’t looked at how well hyperlinks carry over though.
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