6 min read

Replacing a Macbook Pro with iPad Pro (or trying to)

Apple thinks that the iPad Pro can replace your computer. I decided to pick up the iPad Pro 12.9 inch as an experiment. My primary use for the iPad Pro be able to draw ideas for Customer.io and easily share that with our team. Secondarily I wanted to see if I could challenge the assumption that I’m better off with a full computer for most tasks. Could I actually make life simpler by using a more opinionated device?

What’s amazing about the iPad Pro?

I deliberately left the screen greasy for the pictures. This is the worst part about a touch screen.It’s great for focused work. If you turn off notifications, the iPad Pro’s single app view helps you maintain attention and focus on what you’re doing. Especially for writing where any little distraction breaks you out of your flow.

My quick attempt at smooth lines and circles. Drawing / Sketching with the Apple Pencil. I use the Apple Pencil in Goodnotes for sketching out rough ideas for changes to Customer.io. My workflow before this was to sketch in a notebook and sometimes take a photograph or scan a page when I wanted to share. Often I would write words rather than use a simple sketch to communicate an idea. Using the Apple Pencil on an iPad is overall a wonderful experience but it definitely seems like it takes some practice to draw smooth lines on a screen.

Happy paths work well. You’ll find a lot of apps designed for the iPad. That generally means when something exists and there’s a task it is supposed to perform, it does it well and without fuss.

Syncing with iCloud between devices

The app I’m most happy with on the iPad is iA Writer. That’s where I wrote most of this article. I don’t even think about whether or not I’ll be able to continue writing on my laptop, or whether or not something is saved. And there’s a nice workflow to “Publish a draft to Medium”. Quick edit here… it looks like if you do that, it dates your post in 1969.

Why I keep going back to my Macbook Pro

It was death by a thousand cuts rather than any big single reason.

Little quirks when using the iPad like a computer

There are lots of little frustrations that drive me crazy on a daily basis.

With an external keyboard, I might be working in one tool and need to cmd-tab to the browser and then back. Depending on the product, this causes the cursor to unfocus. You then need to tap the screen again to get the cursor back in to the right spot.

Using the keyboard to delete a line of text on the iPad takes forever! On my MacBook, there’s a setting. I make key repeat rates fast and decrease the delay.

That’s not possible on the iPad — probably since keyboards are an accessory, not the main mode if interaction. But it does make it feel like an eternity to use the arrow keys to move around, or delete.

The Terminal

I knew I’d lose the terminal going in to the experiment. However, I didn’t realize how often I go in to the terminal. Whether it’s using ping to check the internet connection is working, ssh-ing into a Raspberry pi on our network, or making a quick change to our docs by running a Jekyll server locally and using Vim to edit the pages. All of these tasks feel fast from the terminal and cumbersome when they are even possible on the iPad.

Stripped down or missing apps hamper productivity

One of the hardest things has been when an application you rely on elsewhere just doesn’t work the same way in the context of an iPad.

Google Calendar

On Desktop, Google Calendar in Chrome works great. On my Google Pixel, Google Calendar works great. On the iPad, there’s no Google Calendar app. You can connect your calendar to Apple’s built in calendar, but it seems like that calendar often doesn’t get the memo when things change. I just don’t use the calendar on the iPad because of this.

Gmail for iPad
The iPad (and iPhone) apps are missing functionality like “Block” (which is my favorite thing to do when I read email). For power using Gmail, I still go to my computer but sometimes use the iPad for responding to a message (providing I don’t need to bring in information from outside of gmail to reply).

Microsoft Excel
Since there’s no filesystem, the only way you can get data in to Microsoft Excel for iPad is through cloud drives or requesting a file be opened in Excel from another application. Unsurprisingly, Google Drive is not one of those cloud services.

To open a document stored on Google Drive in Microsoft Excel, you need to open the Google Drive app, click on the file and use “Open with” and pick Microsoft Excel. To get it back on to Google Drive, you can use the built in “Share” functionality in the iPad.

Can crop but not resize images. All the images in this post were resized on my desktop.

Composing a message when using an external keyboard has a really small viewport that makes it hard to see what you’re writing.

There are lots of little stumbling blocks you encounter when trying to work the way you’re used to on a real computer in an iPad. Some of them just take a little adjustment and you can get it done as easy as it used to be. Other times boy does it feel cumbersome.

In summary and what’s next for my quest for a single device?

Overall, using the iPad Pro works really well for a few use-cases: sketching, reading articles on the web, watching videos, emailing, and simple writing. When you try to do more complex things, it feels like you’re using a computer with 2 hands tied behind your back. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve realized I just need to put the iPad down and go do the task on my Macbook Pro and get it done faster.

If you’re looking for the flexibility of a Macbook Pro with the ability to draw on the screen and you’re in Apple’s ecosystem you’re likely to be in a two device world for a little while longer. Apple seems committed to increasing sophistication of its iOS powered devices rather than adding tablet functionality to its macOS powered devices. Until the iPad Pro actually becomes pro with the software ecosystem to support it, you’re going to be using 2 devices.

If you’re in an open relationship with Apple, Microsoft has been doing phenomenal work with the Surface line of products and Windows Ink.

My major hesitation switching to Windows and a surface 4 instead of the iPad was that I was concerned that while the iPad just works, the Surface might require a lot more daily maintenance. I’ve been playing with Windows 10 on a computer at home and have been impressed by things like the linux bash shell on Windows 10. However, when I’ve tried to do things like run Jekyll in that environment, it hasn’t worked while the instructions for macOS are well tested online.

The Surface Pro 5 is supposed to be coming out soon and I’m planning to buy one to give it a shot. Overall, the biggest lesson with buying an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil was how great and productive it is to sketch directly on a screen rather than writing in a notebook and digitizing later.

What about you?

Did you move from a MacBook to iPad successfully? Or are you already using a surface to share UI / UX sketches with other people? Did you make the jump from Mac to PC?

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