The iPad Pro as a post-PC device

There’s three places I do computer stuff – my desk, the couch and outside.

The centre of the action, my MCG of computing if you will, is a desk at home. It’s got a fast computer with a big screen, a keyboard and a mouse, running Windows or Mac. I’ve been honing my skills on this sort of setup for over 20 years, so naturally, it’s where I’m the most efficient. There’s nothing that can’t be done at my desk.

Where I’m spending a lot more time these days is the “couch” which also includes the bed, the hammock, the floor, the beanbag or anywhere else you can sit or lie down comfortably. It’s my favourite place, the most comfortable place where I can do computery sort of things. With an iPad I can get through a large chunk of my work, which includes filtering through thousands of RSS feed items, reading articles and surfing the web to research topics I need to write about.

The third place I do computer stuff is “outside“. Outside encompasses the odd, but increasingly more frequent occasions I need to do some computer stuff the iPhone can’t handle when I’m not at home. I don’t like it here. I don’t have the comfy couch, nor do I have the big monitor, keyboard or mouse. It’s the awkward place I don’t want to be, but have to in order to get paid. If it was up to me, I’d never do any work anywhere outside my house so I don’t have to worry about this scenario.

Those three scenarios – the desk, the couch and outside, define the computer I use and are central as to what device suits me best. Not everyone works like this and that’s cool, but for anything I buy to be considered truly useful for me, it has to work in either one of those scenarios or else it’s useless to me.

Currently I use the same computer on my desk as I do outside, a Late-2014, 15” Retina MacBook Pro. On the couch I’m using an iPad Air 1. There’s no reason for me to change this setup. It works and I can get all my work done. But what if the iPad Pro is a better couch computer than the iPad Air? What if it works fine as an outside computer and I can combine the iPad and the laptop into a single device? It’d be handy to be able to use a tablet when outside as it’s more comfortable for reading than the iPad and way more appropriate than opening up a laptop – or worse, carrying an iPad and a laptop at the same time, ugh. Maybe I’ll even see glimmers of the future as it inevitably replaces my desk computer too. I don’t want to be the computer nerd who shits on anything that isn’t designed specifically for him (and it’s always a him, women are smarter than this) – that guy was always an arsehole.

This iPad Pro article isn’t an overview of the specs, or how it compares to other iPads or even if you should buy it. It predominately focuses on how the iPad Pro operates in each of my scenarios. Ideally it should be great on the couch and adequate outside. I don’t expect it to replace my desk computer, you’ll have to pry that out of my cold, RSI riddled, dead hands – but I do expect it to act as something I can use to get some basic work done when I’m not at my desk.

Using the iPad Pro on the couch

The Pro isn’t heavy, but the large size of the screen means it’s kinda hard to hold single handed for a long period of time, unlike the iPad mini or Air. I’ve found myself cradling the iPad Pro with my arms, like a glass and aluminium baby full of lithium, as to not further inflame my already weak and sore wrists. It works, but it’s awkward. But the reason the iPad Pro is awkward here, is it’s big beautiful screen. The larger screen means I can make fonts a bit bigger, view websites a little better and when reading PDFs, have something at 100% looking much clearer, or even have documents open with two pages side by side. Whilst on one hand the big screen is a hindrance (not as comfortable to hold), it’s also awesome (more shit on the screen at once).

The biggest advantage the iPad Pro has over it’s smaller cousins is kick arse performance. Even when doing basic stuff like web browsing, the iPad Pro’s speed shines through. Web pages load faster, switching between tabs doesn’t reload the page, switching back and forth between apps is sublime. There’s almost no scenario where anything chugs along, apps or websites. I love it. But there’s no reason why Apple couldn’t pack this into an iPad Air chassis. Chuck in an A9 CPU and 4GB of RAM into an iPad Air 3 and that would actually be the ultimate couch computer.

There’s not much else to say really – for what I do on the couch, the iPad Pro and iPad Air are very similar. I prefer the iPad Air on the couch over the Pro, but that doesn’t mean the Pro is no good on the couch. It’s just, different. It’d have to be awesome as a laptop replacement in order to justify the slightly poorer couch experience though.

Using the iPad Pro outside

The outside scenario is the one I’ve had to explore most as I’ve never tried to use an iOS device for work before. It was a messy experience and I can tell you now, there needs to be a lot more work done on iOS and in 3rd party apps for me to do the work I want to do outside, on an iOS device. I can do it all, but it’s so frustrating on iOS I may as well not bother and the advantages of the iPad Pro (portability & long battery life) don’t counter the lack of iOS to handle the tasks I need to do when out and about.

My test to determine if the iPad Pro is returned to Apple or not is if it can allow me to publish an issue of The Sizzle. If I can do this smoothly, the iPad Pro will replace my MacBook Pro as what I take with me when I have to leave the house and hence, also means the MacBook Pro is replaced as the desk computer. Why have a laptop that never leaves a desk? That’s an expensive paperweight.

Using the iPad Pro’s on-screen keyboard is the best on-screen keyboard I’ve ever used. Thanks to the bigger screen, the keys can be larger and more spaced out, reflecting a traditional keyboard as best as an on-screen keyboard can. But I paired the iPad Pro up with a Logitech Keys to Go keyboard, which performs much better than I expected. I actually wrote this entire article (which would have been over 5,000 words if you include the stuff I cut out) with the Keys to Go and couldn’t be happier with it as a travel keyboard. I wouldn’t use it every day, but for the odd times I have to do work outside, it’s perfect.

The first step of publishing an issue of The Sizzle is assembling the day’s news. I need to be able to access my RSS feeds and have a text editor close by so I can take notes on each story.

Text editors are plentiful on iOS but I couldn’t find one similar to Sublime Text on the Mac. I settled on Coda as I love Panic’s work and knew they wouldn’t make something shit. It’s not ideal as it doesn’t sync with Dropbox and really is designed to handle editing a whole website, not single files. There’s craploads of text editors out there, so I need to spend more money and more time finding the right one. I’ve already spent about $100 on text editors to no real conclusion.

A massive spanner in the works is that there’s no RSS readers for the iPad which support split-screen multi-tasking and are full resolution! Without an RSS reader and text editor side by side, writing The Sizzle’s content is incredibly difficult. Having to cmd+tab between apps is rubbish. This is just temporary though. Sooner or later, Reeder (my RSS reader of choice) will be updated and it will be glorious, so in the meantime I’ve just loaded up the articles I want to feature in The Sizzle into Safari and had about half a dozen tabs open simultaneously. Thanks to the iPad Pro’s great performance, this isn’t a problem like it would be on the iPad Air.

With my HTML template for The Sizzle loaded up in Coda, set side by side with Safari loaded full of tabs, I get down to writing. With the Pro’s larger screen side by side multi-tasking works well and very closely mimics how I have my desktop Mac set up – with the screen split in half using Moom, placing a text editor next to a web browser or RSS reader. Not all apps on iOS support side by side multi-tasking, which for an early adopter is very frustrating.

The biggest problem I encountered during this compilation stage of constructing an issue of The Sizzle, is trying to switch context between the two split-screen windows. You can cmd+tab between apps easily, but the cursor won’t return to Coda after using Safari unless I touch the screen. Even then, it sometimes won’t drop the on-screen keyboard down without also removing the cursor entirely, rejecting external keyboard input. It got to the point where I was writing things up in 1Writer, then pasting it into Coda later when it wasn’t running side by side. It seems to me like it’s just a software bug that will probably be fixed soon now that people have real iPad Pros in their hands, instead of just relying on the Xcode simulator.

In Safari, I can navigate tabs via keyboard shortcuts, but scrolling a page with keyboard arrows only happens sometimes. I don’t know if it’s another bug or an issue with the keyboard, but it’s random when Safari will let me use the arrow keys to scroll up or down a page. Of course, if I want to view a section of text larger, or follow a link, I need to touch the screen. Touching the screen is bad when using a keyboard. Imagine having to lift your arms off the keyboard to move your cursor around on a laptop. Yeah, I want to minimise that as much as possible because it’s uncomfortable. I had to do this so often as to read the text on most websites, so I wasn’t happy with having to prod the iPad’s screen while it’s propped upright.

A huge hindrance to my writing style is the lack of a specific keyboard shortcut in Coda or any other text editor I tried. I simply want to be able to select a sentence, press a keyboard shortcut and have a HTML tag applied to that selection. Almost every text editor on a PC can do this, yet on iOS, none I’ve found do it, or if they do, lack a user guide explaining how to do so. Having to manually enter in HTML tags slows me down. Again, I’m sure this will happen sooner or later from a 3rd party developer, but right now it doesn’t exist, making the task of creating an issue of the Sizzle frustrating.

The last step is logging in to the Active Campaign site, creating a new campaign and pasting in the complete template. On the iPad Air, the Active Campaign site chugs horribly, shit, even on my Mac it chugs – it’s not a very good website. But the iPad Pro renders it just as well as the Mac does and the process of sending off a campaign works by copying it all out of Coda and into Active Campaign. Because Coda doesn’t support Dropbox, I’ve copied the whole thing again into 1Writer and saved it into Dropbox as well so I have a backup and I’m able to easily see it again on my desktop computer. Ugh.

Publishing an issue of The Sizzle from the iPad Pro was not a smooth process. There are lots of small niggles that add up to it being way easier just to use a Mac. Maybe it’s the way I work, but I don’t want to have to change how I work to suit a computer – it should suit me.

I need a text editor with Dropbox/OneDrive support, HTML syntax highlighting, the ability to select a passage of text and apply a HTML tag to it, includes in-line spell checking to text that isn’t a HTML tag, fixed width fonts, selectable colour themes and of course, supports iOS 9 multi-tasking and is full resolution on the iPad Pro. If you know of one, let me know!

I also need an RSS reader that syncs to a service that works on Windows – NetNewsWire is perfect, but has no Windows capability. There’s so many RSS readers that haven’t been updated in months and don’t support multi-tasking or have high-res graphics on the iPad.

Without those two apps, there’s not much point in me keeping the iPad Pro for use as my outside computer. Maybe in a few months the app situation will improve and I can re-assess the whole process. But for now, I’ll be returning the iPad Pro to Apple as it did a very poor job of being a computer I can use to accomplish my most important tasks.

Apple needs to give the iPad Pro major loving in iOS 10. Their primary mission should be “how do we make people not touch the screen as often when they’ve got a Bluetooth keyboard connected?”. The vast majority of the time, a screen touch can be avoided. Simple stuff like scrolling in Safari with the keyboard arrows, or selecting dialog box items with the arrrow keys and accepting the selection with the enter key, would make things much easier. It still wouldn’t eliminate the whole issue of touching the screen while the iPad is upright though. I don’t know how Apple can fix this. Maybe it’s just me who finds this annoying and most people don’t care – heaps of Windows laptops ship with touchscreens that work like this and I guess some people like it?

The iPad Pro as desktop PC

Now I know the iPad Pro won’t replace the computer on my desk. I like the big monitor and keyboard and mouse. It’s what I’ve been using for 20+ years. This is where I have an advantage over those who aren’t comfortable with desktop computers and possibly never will be.

However, I can totally see how an iPad Pro can replace a PC for many, many people. Let’s take my wife as an example. Her iMac is mainly used to edit photos, play some games, browse the web and use Office documents emailed to her at work.

Editing photos on an iPad Pro is spectacular. Photo editing tools are abundant on iOS and only getting better. Games are on iOS are magnificent, you’ll never get bored. Office on the iPad Pro is actually one of the best programs I’ve ever used on iOS – Microsoft’s done a tremendous job. The iPad Pro even goes beyond what her iMac can do and let her draw using the Pencil. To do that on the iMac she’d need to buy an expensive tablet and it probably won’t be an as good experience as Procreate and the Pencil. I give it 3-6 months until I sell her iMac because she’s simply stopped using it.

If for some reason she needs to use a computer, she can just use mine, or I’ll buy one from the Apple store, use it for 2 weeks, then return it when she’s done with whatever she needed it for. Just like you’d hire a van or a truck to move house, she can just borrow a PC for the rare event she needs one.

Are you gonna keep the iPad Pro?

No, sadly, the best iPad ever isn’t the computer for me. The iPad Pro doesn’t do a good job in either of three scenarios I outlined at the start. The iPad Pro will never replace a PC on my desk and it’s too big to use on the couch comfortably, even though it’s super fast and has a gorgeous screen. Where I wanted to love it the most, outside, it’s frustratingly incomplete.

If the iPad Pro worked well for me as a laptop replacement for when I need to work away from home, I’d be able to overlook its size and use it on the couch just fine. But trying to complete the simple task of publishing an issue of The Sizzle on the iPad Pro was horrible. Too many times I had to touch the screen in order to do something – that’s slow and uncomfortable versus just using a trackpad on a laptop. I was often left wanting for the most basic of keyboard commands. For that fact alone I really can’t justify having the iPad Pro around.

Even if Apple decided to go all out and make a whole bunch of keyboard shortcuts in iOS 10 – it’s still a compromise. It’s still not the natural environment of the iOS user interface. Microsoft probably has the right idea here. When a computer is on a desk, propped upright, the keyboard and mouse convention works really, really well. When holding a computer in your hands, a touch interface is better. Maybe it’s me who can’t work properly without a keyboard and mouse and I’m unable to change my habits. Maybe what I want to do is trivial and others who haven’t been glued to a desktop PC find it much easier. I honestly don’t know how they cope though and wonder how many hoops they need to jump through to accomplish what would be straightforward on a desktop PC.

Back to the Apple store you go iPad Pro. I’ll see you again around August 2016 when iOS 10 comes out.