My iPad Pro experiment

Years ago, I placed a bet with Greg Linden, predicting that tablets like the iPad would replace PCs. The bet did not end well for me. My own analysis is that I lost the bet primarily because I failed to foresee the market surge of expensive and (relatively) large smartphones.

Though I lost to Greg, there is no denying it, I don’t think that I was wrong regarding the fundamental trends. So, during the third quarter of 2017, Apple sold 4.3 million laptops. That’s not bad. But Apple sold 11.4 million iPads, nearly three times as many. The real story, of course, is that Apple sold over 40 million iPhones, and a large fraction of these iPhone have been top-of-the-line iPhones.

For comparison, PC shipments worldwide are at around 60 million. So 11.4 million iPads is nothing to sneeze at, but it is no PC killer. About 40 million tablets are sold every quarter. The fight between PCs and tablets has been not been very conclusive so far. Though tablet sales have stagnated, and even diminished, many PCs look a lot like tablets. A fair assessment is that we are currently at a draw.

This is somewhat more optimistic than Greg’s prediction from 2011:

I am not saying that tablets will not see some sales to some audience. What I am saying is that, in the next several years, the audience for tablets is limited, tablet sales will soon stall around the same level where netbook sales stalled, and the PC is under no threat from tablets.

Who even remember what a netbook is today?

In any case, we are not yet at the point where people are dumping their PCs (or MacBooks) in favor of tablets. I would argue that people probably use PCs a lot less than they used them in the past, relatively speaking, because they do more work on their smartphones. I tend to process much of my emails in my smartphone.

But PCs are still around.

I’m not happy about this.

Even though I have had a iPad ever since Apple made them, I never tried to make the switch professionally. This summer, I finally did so. My 12-inch iPad pro has been my primary machine for the last couple of months. I got an Apple keyboard as well as a pencil.

Let me establish the context a bit. I am a university professor and department chair. I have an active research program, with graduate students. I write code using various programming languages. I write papers using LaTeX. I have to do lots of random office work.

Here are my thoughts so far:

  • It works. You can use an iPad as a primary machine. This was not at all obvious to me when I started out.
  • It creates envy. Several people who watch me work decide to give it a try. This is a sign that I look productive and happy on my tablet.
  • Some of the worse experience I have is with email. Simply put, I cannot quickly select a large chunk of text (e.g., 500 lines) and delete it. Selecting text on an iPad is infuriating. It works well when you want to select a word or two, but there seems to be no way to select a large chunk. Why is this a problem? Because when replying to emails, I keep my answers short, so I want to delete most if not all of the original message and quote just the necessary passage.
  • The pain that is selecting text affects pretty much all applications where text is involved.
  • Copy and paste is unnecessarily difficult. I don’t know how to select just the text without formatting. Sometimes I end up selecting the link instead of the text related to the link.
  • Microsoft Office works on an iPad. I am not a heavy user, but for what I need to do, it is fine.
  • Apple has its own word processor called “Pages”. It works, but it won’t spell check in French (it does on a MacBook).
  • The hardware is nice, but more finicky than it should be. Both the pencil and the foldable keyboards tend to disconnect. The keyboard can be frustrating as it is held by magnets, but if you move the iPad around, the magnets might move and the keyboard might disconnect. It is not clear how to reconnect it systematically, so I end up “fiddling with it”. It is not as bad as I make it sound, and I don’t think anyone has ever been witness to my troubles, but they would see a very frustrated man.
  • Cloud computing is your friend. Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive…
  • Reviewing PDF documents is nice. I use an app called “PDF Expert” which allows me to comment on the documents very handily.
  • While the iPad can multitask, I have not yet figured out how to put this ability to good use.
  • My employer expects me to use Java applets to fill out some forms. I can barely do it with my MacBook. It is a no go on the iPad.
  • Blogging works. I am using my iPad right now. However, it is not obvious how to do grammar and spell checks while typing within a web app. So I am making more mistakes than I should.
  • LaTeX works. I am using an app called TeXPad. It cannot build my documents locally, but it works once I tell it to use a cloud engine. I am also thinking that Overleaf could be solution. However, neither TeXPad on iOS nor Overleaf provide a great experience when using LaTeX. To be fair, LaTeX is hardly user friendly in the best of times.
  • iPads are not designed as developer machines. If you want to experiment with Swift, it is fairly easy to create “Swift playgrounds”, but that’s mostly for the purpose of learning the language. However, I am getting a good experience using ssh to connect to remote Linux boxes.

So my workflow is currently something of a hybrid. I have a cheap MacBook (not a MacBook pro!) that I use maybe 10% of the time. The rest of the time, I rely on the iPad.

Why do this? It is an experiment. So far, it has been instructive.

So what are the benefits? My impression is that replacing a laptop with a tablet makes me more productive at some things. For example, I spend more time reading on my iPad than I would on my laptop.

15 thoughts on “My iPad Pro experiment”

  1. I don’t think you were necessarily wrong. The hybrid laptop/tablet market is growing and the Surface/SurfaceBook is the cool kids device these days. You are so behind the curve with all this old fashioned apple nonsense.

  2. When I tried to connect a keyboard to an iPad I found that editing commands such as ^W and ^B are working. My unix-trained fingers just did it by themselves and it just worked. It even took me a while to realize that I should be surprised.

    Not a solution for the text selection issue, though, unless you want to select ALL of it with ^A. It would be nice if shift+arrows or shift+ctrl+arrows worked.

  3. > Selecting text on an iPad is infuriating. It works well when you want to select a word or two, but there seems to be no way to select a large chunk.

    Not sure if you already know this and I’m over simplifying your problem, but when you select one or two words you can then drag the handles on the edges of the selection to expand it. Here’s a demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oMDxktLsyk

    1. Not sure if you already know this and I’m over simplifying your problem, but when you select one or two words you can then drag the handles on the edges of the selection to expand it. Here’s a demonstration: (…)

      The video shows how to select a few words, a sentence, or a bit more than a paragraph. The emails and documents I get span several pages. There is no way for me to do “select everything but the last and first sentence out of this 5000-word email”. It takes forever.

      Furthermore, selecting text in a web page is a nightmare whenever there are hyperlinks because iOS assumes that you want to capture the hyperlink.

      And let us not even talk about the fact that iOS insist on selecting text with formatting, and that there is no way, apparently, to just select the text without the formatting.

      1. Thought so, just posted on the off chance it might help.

        If you’re trying to select that much text you also get the problem where as you move your selection to the bottom of the screen iOS scrolls the entire page past you in the blink of an eye.

  4. Too many compromises. Besides the maddening limitations of not having a reasonable file manager, most complex tasks cannot be performned on an iPad. What happens if you can’t connect to your cloud service and need to update your presentation for a talk within the hour?

    A laptop remains by far the best choice for me. I need to run complex tasks and everything is my laptop. No need to connect to anything to get all of my work done. I love that aspect.

    1. Besides the maddening limitations of not having a reasonable file manager

      Arguably, iOS has a superior file manager. It covers Google Drive, iCloud Drive, Dropbox as well as the files hosted on your device.

      Please make sure that you are referring to an iPad Pro as it stands now with iOS 11, not older devices with older versions of the operating system.

      What happens if you can’t connect to your cloud service and need to update your presentation for a talk within the hour?

      About the same thing as would happen on a laptop.

      I need to run complex tasks and everything is my laptop. No need to connect to anything to get all of my work done.

      This does not match my workflow. I require Internet connectivity to work. I don’t think I am alone.

  5. I have felt your pain and have a near solution.

    I tried to work excursively with an iPad, a Nexus 9 tablet, an iPad Pro, even the latest 10.5 iPad Pro with iOS 11 is insufficient. Apple needs to allow a mouse. It works for laptops, it would work an iPad.

    Anyway, Apple is unlikely to challenge their MacBook in that way for a few more years.

    So the solution that is working for me, so much so that the PC is used perhaps twice a month, is a Chromebook.

    A new Samsung Chromebook Pro uses a fast Intel m3 processor and runs web apps that fail on an iPad. It works as an Android tablet in the few cases where you fill in the gaps of ChromeOS. In a pinch, you can even install Linux on it.

    It has a sweet S-pen that tucks into the body so you won’t lose it. The screen is bright and sharp, not quite as good as the 10.5 iPad Pro, but better than most. It’s $500 and replaced my PC and iPad 95% of the time.

    The other 5% is made up of video editing, which PC and iPad excel at and the random old school apps that require a PC. That 5% will drop to 0 soon.

    Anyway, if you haven’t looked at Chromebooks lately, check out what Samsung, ASUS and Acer have to offer in the last year. There are solid PC & iPad replacement candidates for $500.

  6. I have ordered the Samsung Chromebook Plus for my daily driver, replacing my now venerable Samsung Chromebook. The plus is a hybrid device, and (once again) I intend to install Crouton on it for the occasion when I want full blown Linux.

    1. I own a Chromebook, and I have promoted them a lot. It is especially well suited in schools, I think. It is a bit less convincing for professional use, which is why, I think, people install Linux on them.

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