Using iPad Pro as a Laptop Replacement

I should clarify, this post is not about whether you can replace a laptop with an iPad Pro — at least not in that I am going to go through scenarios and talk about all that crap. That type of article is far too subjective to be worth your time, and I am guessing you could probably figure this out on your own. Instead, I want to talk about what it has been like for me to use my iPad Pro as a laptop, as a primary computer.

My typical setup for this was the iPad Pro on a small tripod type stand, with a Magic keyboard paired to it via Bluetooth. In short, this setup works far better than I thought it might, but still has a ways to go before it isn’t annoying at times.

Most of my daily activities center around being able to type, and this setup is beyond ideal for this, and my other large activities are Skype and GoToMeeting, both of which work perfectly well on iPad Pro. This leaves a bunch of smaller tasks, which are not deal breakers should they not work well with this setup.

Going into this, I had a few concerns about using the iPad Pro like a laptop:

  • In the past my arms would get tired of tapping at the screen all day.
  • I’ve had frustrations with doing things quickly in iOS.
  • I get hyper focused into some apps and lose all track of time.

Tired Arms

My biggest concern is my arms would get tired after a day or week of using nothing but iOS and the iPad Pro. I did notice after the first day my arms were a little tired, and I thought “here we go”. Then I didn’t notice it again. I adapted to using the iPad and positioning my arms in a such a way to limit impact on them.

Now, I tend to rest my arms on the desk, and hold the iPad in my fingers while I scroll with my thumbs. Elbows on the desk for sure. The first day I was full arm in the air as if I was directing a symphony — that’s not an ideal approach, FYI.

Resting my arms like this saves a ton of time when reading and helps with fatigue above all other methods I tried. Additionally, I got used to the keyboard shortcuts really fast — rarely do I ever tap the home button any more, whereas on the first day I was using it a lot. Because of this, I can do a lot of iOS computing with just the keyboard — this is a huge leap forward from even iOS 8 and a large reason why my arms don’t get as tired as I worried they might.

After the first week and a half of using just the iPad Pro, all my fears of having it be a full time device on my desk, and my arms being sore from the decision, turned out to be just idle worries with no foundation in reality.

Workflows in iOS

The last few times I tried to use an iPad as a laptop replacement, the workflows just weren’t there. That was pre-iOS 9 and a lot has changed for the better. Believe it or not, one of the biggest changes was just me shifting to be spotlight based for launching apps, instead of swiping around to find the app I was looking for — just that small change to my workflow on iOS has greatly reduced the pain of the system.

More than that, is the apps are just more robust — well the ones still being updated. That’s not just apps like Workflow and Editorial either — there’s a ton of apps out there which have made small changes to really benefit iOS overall. Sidefari is a great example of this, as before you had no easy way to view two websites side by side without having something like Chrome on your device as well.

Even reaching beyond what Apple and developers have provided, it has become increasingly easier to just search for “do X on an iPad” and actually find a really neat solution to the problem.

Many will argue that this is trying too hard to make iOS work, but I am not saying it is easy. I am saying it is easier than it was before. It’s not easy, but it is also no longer hard to set these things up. Which is a way bigger leap than most people might think.

Hyper Focus

One of the biggest issues and biggest highlights of working from iOS is the laser like focus you can gain in the system. When I write on iOS, I often get so locked in to the writing I lose track of time and too much time will go by.

That’s why I account for the hyper focus as being both good and bad. It’s good because you can really dive deep into your work. It’s bad because you might eschew people trying to talk to you, or even miss meetings and other things like stopping for the day. The last time I tried working from an iPad I kept missing out on Slack conversations because I would just lose track of time and ending my day too late.

Split-view has mostly solved this for me. Now when I am working I can place Slack in a small window to the side of almost any other app. This has been great, allowing me to get almost full focus on the task at hand, while also allowing me to see if anyone needs me at a glance.

It is also the best of both worlds, as I am able to get the same hyper focus in a full screen view if I want, or to split my attention between two things. It still won’t come close to a window based OS, but this is for the better. You have to pick which app you want to be able to distract you, and then that’s all you get.

I love working this way and being able to work either way I want. It’s not the same as full screen mode on a Mac, I wish it was for the Mac’s sake, but it is a distinctively different experience.

Small Issues

No matter how you slice it with the iPad Pro, you need to have a stand in order to hold the device upright. One day I headed to a coffee shop with the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard in tow, but forgot my stand. The device was a pain to use, not because you can’t sit it flat to type, but because I had to make some video calls and I didn’t want people staring up my nostrils. With an iPhone or iPad Air, I could easily make my own stand out of found things, but the iPad Pro is just too large in order to do this. It was tiring to hold up the iPad for those calls, and rendered my Magic Keyboard pointless for the trip. The Smart Keyboard does solve this, but it’s also a $169 solution — more on that later.

Another issue I ran into is video stopping transmission (both ways) with Skype when you enter a split screen state. I am guessing this is an iOS limitation, but what a pain in the ass. Effectively I cannot do a one-on-one sessions and take notes on my iPad without pausing the video feeds. What a waste of the huge ass screen in front of me.1

And then there is the keyboard. Oh Magic Keyboard, how I love you on the Mac, but loathe you on iOS. While iOS has taken great strides in improving external keyboard support, unfortunately it is buggy as hell with the Magic Keyboard and the iPad Pro. I even updated to iOS 9.2 beta in hopes that would fix some issues, but it did not fix anything. There were times when the software keyboard would still show, times when the keyboard shortcuts would stop working entirely, and other times when it wouldn’t input text in some text fields. The fix for all of this was toggling the keyboard on and off — something I did about 6-8 times a day.

That’s more than an annoying issue, it’s basically unacceptable for a modern device you are expected to work on. It doesn’t take a lot of time to fix the issue, but it certainly will kill any type of groove you might find yourself in. It drove me nuts and I can’t recommend working like that for any length of time.

The Wins

If the above are some of the biggest challenges to using an iPad Pro as a laptop replacement, then the challenges are really minor overall if even there. Still, big enough that I would not shame someone for any one of those issues being a deal breaker, but keep in mind there is also a lot of positive attributes to the iPad Pro life.

One of these wins is something I am not yet able to put in words, other than to say this is likely what all of our kids computers will look like — not like a traditional laptop most of us use today — but closer to what the iPad Pro gives us.

Fun

If you can do your work on the iPad, and that is a big if for many people, but if you can do it — you will enjoy it a lot more. All too often the desktop apps we are using still revolve around older UI paradigms, whereas the iOS counterparts are essentially all new.

It is because of this apps you find on iOS tend to just be more fun to use, even if they are more limited. It is more fun to pinch and zoom a map on iOS, than it is to look at one in a web browser on the Mac. The same is true for almost every app, no matter how boring the apps themselves may seem, things feel more connected and fun on iOS.

Have you ever had that urge to just print something out because you feel like you need to touch it in order to really understand what is going on? Perhaps that’s financial reports, or maybe a rough draft of your writing — you just need it in your hand. If you have ever found yourself in that position, then I say to you: that is what iOS gives you. Hands down, you feel more connected to what you do in the same way you do with printed media. I firmly believe this to be the reason so many of us are willing to take hits in productivity for the sake of trying to use something like the iPad as our full time machine.

When I edit this post later, and I am touching the words themselves, I will forget for a moment just how fucking much I loathe editing. What more could I ask for?

The Right Tool

You can’t break iOS.

I leave that on its own line because you really need to think about that for a moment.

You can’t break iOS.

Install whatever app you can find on the App Store, and there is basically nothing so nefarious which could happen to your iPad that cannot be resolved by deleting that one app.2

As a long time computer user, that is just astounding to me. I remember constantly reformatting computers because I had gotten them into an unstable state after trying to do things I thought should work.

Ok, still not convinced? Think about this: a big problem when I was in college with Windows PCs was that you had to make sure you installed printer drivers before you plugged in a new printer. If you fucked up and plugged that printer in first, well you could lose hours getting that computer back to a place where you get a do over. For crying out loud, that’s the epitome of a fragile computing system.

Make fun of iOS for how locked down it is all you want, but at least I don’t have to worry about breaking it because I wanted to install a new free text editor, or I wanted to try and print from it.3 iOS is not only a stable computing platform, it is hard to break. In fact, I have yet to have a family member hand me an iPhone where it had such software issues that I could not fix it with a simple device restart, or removing an app sucking down the battery.

Better Connectivity

There are no Macs with LTE, and while using a WiFi hotspot from your iPhone works swimmingly with OS X and iOS — it’s just not the same as having it built in. I stopped in to work from Starbucks and noticed I had full LTE, so I just stayed on LTE instead of WiFi and avoided all the potential for snooping on my traffic and having to run my VPN.

But, it’s not just the LTE connectivity that is better. Sitting in my office, at my desk and running speed tests on the Internet in my home, my iPad has a faster WiFi connection. It stunned me at first so I really started testing it around my house and in almost every case, my iPad retained a better connection to my router (all on 5ghz network) than my MacBook.

To me the combination of both these things is a very compelling argument for iOS. I don’t know if it is the hardware design, or the software doing better management, but something is tangibly better with connectivity on the iPad Pro, as compared to my MacBook.

Adapts to you

When you have a laptop, or a desktop, you are always forced to use them one way. Even if I stroll out to my couch with my MacBook, I am still using it effectively the same way as I would on my desk. That’s just how those devices work.

With the iPad Pro, the device can adapt to me instead of me having to adapt to the device. Right now it is mimicking a laptop, but when I go to edit I will detach it from the keyboard and turn it portrait, toss my feet up on my desk, lean back, and edit.

And when I feel like I need a mental break, I will lay it flat on my desk and start to doodle on it. If I hit the couch I can use it anyway I want to, maybe a game or too where the screen is my steering wheel, or maybe more doodling or long hand writing.

There is no right or wrong way to iPad.

Over the past year I have been experimenting with moving positions throughout the day to have different work areas, and the iPad Pro only enhances this working method. It used to be a pain to do this with a laptop, but now it is actually something I look forward to and something which feels more natural.

All in All

I will fully admit that I can see why people would want to keep a Mac full time. I not only see why, but I can’t hold anything against people that feel more at home on a Mac.

At the same time, I can fully see why you wouldn’t want to use a Mac any longer. I can no longer shake my head and say that people just use iOS because they just want to be cool, or different — as the iPad Pro is just too easy to use as a laptop replacement.

Believe it or not, there were a good amount of days I had both my MacBook and iPad Pro running side by side and I was just bouncing between them. Typically this was because of a particular, niche, limitation I found in iOS, but didn’t have time to work around. Like needing to record a GoToMeeting session (only available on the Mac), or trying to find a document I figured must not be syncing, only to then find it in iCloud — oops.

The entire time I used the iPad Pro as a laptop replacement, I allowed myself to use my Mac whenever it felt more expedient, or whenever I wanted to. That was only a hand full of times and usually I couldn’t wait to shuffle the MacBook back away. That will likely subside, but when I spent a week working on just an iPad Air earlier this year, I couldn’t wait to get back to my Mac.

This time around, I just keep having to remind myself to occasionally plugin in my MacBook so it is always ready to go should I need it. At this point iOS could be my full time machine, but the nature of my job means there are somethings I just cannot do without a Mac.

All of this to say: boy am I glad I am not in a position where I need to choose between the iPad Pro and the MacBook, because I don’t think I could choose. Both are fantastically good devices and perfectly capable of being and everyday machine for me. And for the first time, using an iPad like I would use a laptop is easy and makes a lot of sense. The iPad Pro is the best of both an iPad and a MacBook. Thin, light, powerful, and touch driven.


  1. Not that I don’t love seeing the cheery faces of my team, you guys are great. 

  2. Privacy issues of late aside. 

  3. Though, comically, printing is a challenge from iOS unless you buy a supported printer. But honestly, who prints anymore? 

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Article Details

Published
by Ben Brooks
15 minutes to read.


tl;dr

The iPad Pro makes a hell of a good laptop replacement and is the best of both worlds.