90 Days No Laptop: Switching to the iPad Pro

In mid-August, faced with an increasingly crashy Macbook Air, I started looking at my upgrade options. My findings were eyebrow-raising, to say the least. The hardware available now is only an incremental improvement over my top-of-the-line mid-2013 device, and I’d still be running the same software that was causing me grief. 

So I decided to try switching to an iPad Pro as my main work and leisure device. Here, reader, is a complete accounting of how that’s worked out for me so far. 

The Problem Space

For those of you who are new here: I’m an author and freelance game designer, so my life is completely wrapped up in my keyboard and digital presence — but I don’t need to run any specialty software or write code, so your needs may vary from mine right there.

I was betting on three main benefits to the switch. 

1. Less physical pain. Mice wrecked my wrists decades ago. But even trackpads create pain for me; the spot where my palm rests next to the trackpad becomes agonizing and even disabling, particularly on long strings of days when I do a LOT of writing. Apple’s Smart Keyboard doesn’t have a trackpad extension, and so there’s nothing to press against my wrist and injure me.

2. Less logistical pain. In the course of my regular work, I do a fair amount of puzzle design, story boarding, and sketching out pieces of ideas. Historically that takes the form of doodles on paper, that I would then photograph or scan and send to my team. Or, worse, doodles on paper I would show to my webcam in the middle of a video call. Sketching in a digital-native place to begin with seemed like a big win.

3. Lost in tabs. A lot of my workload was relying on an increasingly unreliable web browser: email, Google Docs, calendars, Hangouts, various social streams and pieces of research. I lost a lot of time looking for stuff among my tabs and getting distracted. And I’d find myself with four Gmail tabs open because I couldn’t find any and kept opening new ones. I had a theory that the iOS paradigm of apps rather than websites would take enough strain off the hardware to make everything smooth and peachy again.

Everything is Awesome

Here’s what I bought: a 10.5-inch iPad Pro with 512 GB of storage space, along with the Apple Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil. (It turns out I didn’t need all that storage space, though.)

Let’s get right to the point. I’ve been really happy with my switch. Everything I expected was accurate. My wrist hasn’t bothered me in months — not even after days where I’ve written 5,000 words in one shot. Ironically, I haven’t had any need to sketch for other people lately, but the Apple Pencil has been genuinely game-changing. And as I hinted earlier in the week, my levels of distraction are way, way down. 

That Smart Keyboard

I want to talk about the Apple Smart Keyboard in a little more detail, first. It took a little getting used to the action, but when I have to go back to a regular keyboard now, they feel hopelessly clunky and cheap. The materials of the cover feel really gorgeous to the touch, and I, uh, stroke the faux-leather while I stare into space thinking about things now. And I don’t have to worry about spilling my drink or crumbs and making sticky keys, since the whole thing is one piece.

As a stand, it’s not quite as stable as a laptop is, but I’ve found it fine for propping up on a pillow or my lap and typing away. I rarely work at a desk or table, and I haven’t suffered for it. I haven’t missed not being able to adjust screen angles, either; it turns out that’s not really something I did, anyway.

Sometimes I’ll bounce up from the sofa a little too hard and the keyboard and iPad will flop down one way or the other. I don’t find this a dealbreaking issue to struggle with, especially not stacked up against the extra decade of typing I’m going to get from losing the trackpad and its associated injury. 

It took me a little while to work out how to fold the cover as a stand without the keyboard, because it doesn’t come with instructions and it’s not... super intuitive. But YouTube can hook you right up and you’ll be a champ in no time. 

And it turns out that iOS respects a lot of the keyboard shortcuts I’m used to using. In particular, I use cmd-tab a lot to switch from app to app — and that still works. And cmd-H take you to the home screen. In many applications, just holding down the cmd button will display a list of keyboard shortcuts you can use. At the same time, the touch screen is always there, and I’ve found switching from keyboard to touch goes so smoothly that I hardly notice I’m doing it. It really is the best of both worlds.

Apple Pencil OMG

I’m also really in love with the Apple Pencil. Oh my god, where WAS this all my life.

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I was hoping I’d be able to do a little more art with it than the watercolors I’d started with a year or two ago, but the sheer amount of doodling I’ve done has been surprising. 

I tried Adobe Sketch for a while, but I’ve settled on ProCreate as my drawing app of choice. (Your needs may vary!) I’ve even used ProCreate and the Pencil to throw together a quick slide I needed for a presentation, and I expect more quick one-shot fixes like that going forward.

The Pencil always needs charging, so it seems; but it charges so quickly that it hardly matters — I can plug it in, go get myself a drink, and by the time I’m settled into my seat, the Pencil is charged more than enough for whatever I’m planning to do that day.

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Perhaps most surprising: I’ve taken to doing bullet journal-style pages in Notes. Digital tasking has never worked for me, and now, for the first time, I can do paper-style tasking in a digital format. It is glorious. The main problem with that is the overwhelming guilt I feel about not using the kazillion blank notebooks I have stacked up in my office... 

A lot of these uses emerge solely due to the sheer portability of the device. I can tuck it into a regular handbag on my way out the door to dinner, or to go shopping for shoes with my kids, or wherever. It feels like less of a production to pull out an iPad than a laptop; more worth it for two minutes. So I bring it with me most of the time, and then I can, say, sketch my margarita while I’m waiting for dinner to be served. Easy-peasy.

Other Surprise Upsides

That increased portability has a lot of other implications for how much use you get out of a device. It’s easier to bring through airport security. Or... anywhere, really, and no dedicated laptop bag needed. Thanks to the lightning cable, I can charge with the same charger I bring along for my phone — but the battery life is so long that it’s hardly necessary. I didn’t get an iPad with cellular, but tethering to my iPhone in an emergency has been a snap in the couple of instances where that’s been necessary.

You know that thing where the person in the airplane seat in front of you suddenly reclines and almost cracks your laptop screen? Smaller screen, smaller problem. Huge relief. 

Microsoft Word for iOS has been a revelation. On a desktop, Word has become the worst kind of bloatware — loaded with specialty features, and prone to crashing and losing your work. Especially in a document with a lot of comments in it. Like, say, notes back and forth between you and your editor. 

The iOS version of MS Word has a totally different interface; it’s cleaner and much, much simpler. And I haven’t had a single issue with crashing for comments (or anything else!) yet so far. It seems as stable as a rock. Given how much of a writer’s life happens in Word, this is a huge, unexpected improvement. 

And I can’t overstate how much clarity the app paradigm has brought to my life. It turns out all of that stuff I thought I liked — apps bouncing in the Dock for my attention, alt-tabbing between the fifteen programs running, keeping fifty tabs open to remember to look at them later — were all time killers for me. I just work... better, now.

The Downsides

I won’t lie and say there have been no bumps in this transition. But I’ve only had to actually go back to a laptop for three things in ninety days: one, appearing as a guest on a podcast that uses Zencastr. Zencastr doesn’t support iOS. I’ve also had to grab a laptop to make design changes to my site in Squarespace; their drag-and-drop design tool is close to nonfunctional in mobile Safari. And when I needed to change an old Photoshop file, I picked up the laptop again, not because I didn’t think I could do it on the iPad, but because I didn’t want to invest two hours of research into apps and pricing just to solve a two-minute problem.

I can’t do anything about Zencastr or Squarespace, though fingers crossed that Squarespace is making improvements. I’m writing this on their blogging app and it’s... actually a lot better than their browser interface was. And more stable, too. So you never know.

All right, let’s get into my laundry list of minor friction points and complaints. 

iOS Copy/Paste is Still Garbage

This is probably my biggest ongoing complaint. Writers need to rearrange text sometimes! And when I’m blogging I need to highlight to make links, etc. etc. But selecting text in iOS is fiddly on a good day, and certainly less smooth than mouse-select ever was.

This seems like a great use case for Force Touch, and I am perpetually annoyed that it hasn’t happened yet. It’s likely that my writing process will streamline to require less rearranging over time, which is a more disciplined way of working. But that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it. 

Shout out here to Autocorrect, which I have a love/hate relationship with. It’s made some things much, much better for me. It’s made other things much, much worse.  I haven’t decided yet which way the balance goes.

Some Websites And Apps Are Super Broken

...Or at least a little broken, or at least not integrated the way I wish they were.

Google is one of the biggest offenders, here. For example: I can’t change my profile photo for my Google account... because the “confirm/save” button is literally off the screen, and there’s no way to scroll to it. Worse: in a Google Hangouts video call, the iOS version doesn’t have access to the same instant messaging/chat window that desktop users see, so if other people in your group are trading links, or someone’s got audio problems and is just typing in, you’re screwed.

Worst of all: Google Inbox doesn’t integrate with Dropbox. At. All. Or the iOS 11 Files system, either. That means attaching your work and sending it out is... well, it’s impossible, frankly.  I’ve tried other email applications, but all of them fail me in a variety of ways, and some of those ways are even worse.  So I’ve become real handy at creating Dropbox links and pasting them into an email.

It’s not great.  

And some apps aren’t optimized for the iPad, or don’t have a landscape view like you need with a keyboard. Amaroq, the Mastodon client, is one of those, but there are dozens more. Maybe hundreds.

And of course I gave up on my complete Steam library to do this. Alas. Well, I was always more of a PlayStation girl anyway. And the iOS games ecosystem gets better every day.

Ugh, Subscription Software

Shifting to software-as-a-service is tough on the budget, and for good or ill, there’s a lot of that in the iOS ecosystem.

I’ve already made peace with shelling out money every month for services like Dropbox that I get amazing and ongoing value from. And I can grudgingly see the sense in paying a monthly fee for MS Office 365, another real workhorse of productivity.  If I were a working artist, I’d be happy to pay for Adobe’s software every month, too, but as a dabbler it’s a lot harder to justify, so I’ve gone elsewhere.

The subscription paradigm is a lot less reasonable for pieces of software that I use lightly and infrequently.  One of the biggest problems I’ve run into is a dearth of good invoicing software for iOS, at a price point that I could live with. See, invoicing software tends to run a monthly fee of between $7 and $20 a month, which sounds perfectly reasonable for a small business that might be sending out dozens of invoices every month. But I’ll sometimes need to send out three in a month, and then nothing for three or four months, due to the feast-or-famine nature of my business. And paying $7 per invoice seems, ah, a bit steep. 

I’ve defaulted for now to making invoices in Pages, of all things, since I have found literally nothing better. But if any of you out there are an app developer looking for a project, listen, iOS invoicing software for the creative freelancer is an unmet market need. Multiple clients and multiple currencies necessary. Hook me up? 

Scrivener for iOS

Since I’m a writer, I feel like I should give a little more detail on Scrivener for iOS in particular before we wrap up here. 

I do a lot of different kinds of writing: prose fiction of every possible length, scripting for video and audio drama, nonfiction essays, you name it, I write it. Scrivener was a revelation for me when I first discovered it, and it quickly became the cornerstone of my writing life.

I haven’t been ideally pleased with relying mainly on Scrivener for iOS. But it’s not because the iOS version is BAD, it’s just that the desktop version is BETTER.  What I’m missing are features that I used to have, and don’t now.

I wish I could edit two scenes side-by-side, for example, but in iOS you can only bring up a reference doc in the side panel. You can’t adjust how much real estate each pane gets, and you can’t edit the reference doc at all. You also can’t expand and collapse folders in the binder to see a whole structure at once; you have to go into each folder, one by one.

There’s a real problem for me in not being able to see a page view for length, too. For scripts in particular, knowing how far down the page you are is an important visual cue for how much time the scene takes up, and very often a script needs to stick to some very tight timing. 

But the biggest thing I miss is the integrated word count calculator — wherein you can tell Scrivener how long a piece needs to be and when it’s due, and it calculates a daily word goal for you. iOS Scrivener can’t math up a goal for you, you have to do that yourself. And you have to manually tell it when you’re beginning a “session,” too, instead of it resetting at midnight all on its own. 

None of these things make it impossible to work. It just puts a little more friction back into my environment, and these tiny snags over time can add up to real frustrations. 

Wrapping Up

In all, this hasn’t been a perfect experience. But it’s been pretty great, and I have no regrets. I got what I wanted out of the change, and for me, the problems I’ve found are more than worth the trade-off in benefits I’ve received.

But your needs aren’t mine, and it’s possible you have questions I haven’t addressed here. If so, feel free to pop into the comments (or onto my social media) and ask me about it. I’ll do my best to help you figure out if the iPad Pro life is meant for you, too.  

Gotta warn you, though. Once you’ve made the switch, a regular laptop feels like it may as well have been made in the 1990s. There’s no going back. 


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