Thinking About Going iPad... Mostly

Going “iPad only” is all the rage in some circles. I don't think it would really work for me. iOS still has too many limitations for that. But I do like the idea of using an iPad as my main “carry around” machine. Right now I use a first generation MackBook Adorable for this purpose. I take it on holiday and bring it with me to coffee shops (and occasionally the office) when I have use for it. But an iPad is smaller, lighter, and more versatile in form (if not in function). It also uses the same charger as my phone, which I consider a win.

The MacBook is also very small and light, but the issue is that a lot of the software built for it was not designed with the “small” part in mind. A lot of Mac apps were clearly designed to run on a 27" iMac screen and perhaps scale down to a 15" MacBook Pro. The 12" screen of the MacBook is not what the designers had in mind, and so the apps end up cramped and inelegant. Due to the windowing user interface, software for the Mac must be capable of being displayed at almost any size. It can't possibly be optimized for all of them.

It might seem natural that if the 12" Screen of the MacBook feels cramped, then the 9" or 10.5" screen of the (non tea-tray sized) iPad would be even more so. In practice this is generally not the case. The limited sizes an iOS app can be displayed in are known at design time. Thus they can be taken into account from the get go, and iPad apps (even complicated ones) can achieve a high level of elegance.

I can think of four key use cases I have for my MacBook Adorable, which any possible replacement would have to cover:

Content consumption is one area in which the iPad is basically peerless. Technically there isn't anything you can do on a iPad which you can't do on a laptop, but often times it's much more pleasant on the iPad.

If you want to watch Netflix or Amazon Video, for example, the iPad app gives a much cleaner interface than the browser, and allows you to download (some) TV shows and movies to watch offline later.

There are exceptions to this, of course. Some websites don't work well on Safari mobile and so can't be viewed on the iPad at all. Any website which uses Flash, for example, but that's increasingly rare. The Kindle app (and other eReaders, for that matter) on the iPad is fantastic for viewing cookbooks and textbooks1. But an ePaper Kindle is significantly more comfortable when it comes to novels and other long form writing.

For the writing use case, I think a tiny laptop and an iPad with a keyboard are on a pretty equal footing. I use IA Writer for this purpose. It's available on both platforms, so no issue there. It's also very minimal, so screen real estate is more or less a non-issue. If Matt Gemmell can write Novels on an iPad I can probably manage to write blog posts.

Using a trackpad/mouse is more convenient than tapping the screen for quickly jumping around the text. However the lack of this might not actually be such a bad thing. It would force me to rely on the keyboard more, which is likely to increase my productivity in the long run.

Another bonus is the ability to remove the keyboard and rotate into portrait mode when editing. In my experience changing your context as much as possible is really good idea when editing. It stops me from seeing what I was trying to write, rather than what I actually wrote.

Image editing, when performed on a Mac, is one of those use cases which benefits from the largest screen possible. More pixels on the screen means you can see more of the pixels in your photo (obviously). Plus you have space for the myriad palettes and tools image editing tends to require.

I'm mainly thinking of two apps here: Adobe's ubiquitous LightRoom, and Serif’s plucky newcomer Affinity Photo. There's not an exact one to one mapping between the two. Affinity Photo is more of a competitor to PhotoShop than LightRoom, but it can be purchased for a one off fee rather than requiring a subscription, so it's what I've tended to use when developing raw files and otherwise tweaking the images which come out of my camera.

As luck would have it, there are iPad versions of both of these apps. LightRoom Mobile is mostly a companion to the desktop version, but appears pretty fully functional. Affinity Photo for iPad is the whole shebang, though. It's seriously impressive. In both cases, the possibility of using an Apple Pencil for selection and making exact adjustments is very compelling.

The downside here is the lack of a good way of getting access to the image files for editing. Neither (currently) supports reading from external sources directly. LightRoom mobile appears to work best if you first upload the pictures to Adobe’s cloud via the desktop app, then pull them back down to the iPad. It can pull RAW files from the iPad’s camera roll, but not elegantly. Affinity Photo from iPad doesn’t seem to be able to see those RAW files at all, though. It wants you to upload them separately to cloud storage, and then pull them down individually. The workflow here is really not appealing, but I’m hopeful that new features in iOS 11 will help here.

Coding is potentially a showstopper for the iPad. Much as I want Xcode for iPad to exist, it stubbornly persists in failing to. It's not that coding is completely impossible on the tablet. There exist very solid apps for programming in Python and Lua for example. Unfortunately I want to code in Swift. There is the increasingly impressive Swift Playgrounds app. Unfortunately I want to work on a full App.

One possible solution is to use Dringend, which provides a full App coding environment for Objective-C and Swift. However it also requires a Mac to be used as a build server in order to make this work. Another slight red flag is that the App hasn't been updated since January 2016. As things stand it wouldn't gain the benefits of iOS 11. But still, there is hope.

That said, if I have a decent PC back at home base then possibly I don't need to code on the iPad. Maybe I can work on coding side projects when I'm at home, but when I'm out and about I can do... other things. Like write, or work on photos. Or maybe just look up and enjoy the world. It's crazy, I know.

So... what's my conclusion? I really like the idea, and will probably go ahead with it... at some point. Right now I really don't want to spend the money, but when my MacBook Adorable hits end of life I think it might be the next thing for me. A reasonable iMac at home (maybe) and an iPad Pro for when I'm not at my desk. It seems like a good division of labour.

[^1] anything with pictures, or that you might want to flick around in, essentially.