My iPad Pro experiment: almost two years later

Soon after the first iPad Pro came out, I bought one and started using it daily. The experiment is ongoing and I thought it was time to reflect upon it further.

Before I begin, I need to clarify my goals. When I started this experiment, some people objected that I could get a hybrid (laptop/tablet). That is definitively true, and it would be more “practical”. However, it would not be much of an experiment. I am deliberately trying to push the envelope, to do something that few do. So I am not trying to be “practical”.

And, indeed, using an iPad Pro for work is still an oddity. Relying solely on an iPad Pro for serious work is even rarer. I am currently in Ottawa reviewing grant applications. There are a few dozens computer-science researchers (mostly professors) around me. The only other person with an iPad is a Facebook researcher, and he seems to be using the iPad only for reading applications, otherwise he appears to be using a laptop.

In my department, other faculty members have iPad Pros, but I think only one of my colleagues use it seriously. Other colleagues do not appear to use these tablets for work when they have them. I am not sure.

  1. The main impact on my work at relying mostly on a tablet is that I am always focusing on one or two applications at a time. I recall finding it really cool, back in the days, when a Unix box would allow me to have 50 windows open at a time. I think having many windows open is akin to have many different physical files opened on your desk. It is distracting. For example, on a laptop, I would write this blog post while having an email window open, probably a couple of text editors with code. Yes, you can work in full screen mode with a laptop, and I try to do it, but I tend to unavoidably revert back to the having dozens of applications on my screen. Laptops just make it too convenient to do multiple things at once. If you need to concentrate on one thing for a long time, you really want to have just one clean window, and a tablet is great at that. On this note, it is also why I prefer to program in a text editor that has as few distractions as possible. I can write code just fine in Eclipse or Visual Studio, and for some tasks it is really the best setup, but it often leaves me distracted compared to when I work with single full-screen editor with just one file opened.
  2. Though I could not prove it, I feel that using a tablet makes me a better “reader”. Much of my work as a university professor and researcher involves reading and commenting on what other people are doing. The fact that I am entice to concentrate on one document, one task, at a time forces me to be more thorough, I think.
  3. As far as I can tell, programming seriously on a tablet like an IPad Pro is still not practical. However, there are decent ssh clients (I use Shelly) so that if you master Unix tools like vim, emacs, make, and the like, you can get some work done.
  4. I’d really want to push the experiment to the point where I no longer use a keyboard. That’s not possible at this time. I like the keyboard that Apple sells for the iPad Pro 2018. There is a major upside: the keyboard is entirely covered so it is not going to stop working because you spilled some coffee on it.
  5. Generally, most web applications work on a tablet, as you would expect. However, it is quite obvious that some of them were not properly tested. For example, I write research papers using a tool called Overleaf. However, I cannot make the shortcuts work. At the same time, it is really surprising how few problems I have. I think that the most common issues could be quickly fixed if web developers did a bit more testing on mobile devices. Evidently the fact that developers rely on laptops and desktops explains why things work better on laptops and desktops.
  6. At least on Apple’s ios, working with text is still unacceptably difficult at times. Pasting text without the accompanying formatting is a major challenge. Selecting large blocks of text is too hard.

My final point is that working with an iPad is more fun than working with a laptop. I cannot tell exact why that is. I’d be really interested in exploring this “fun” angle further. Maybe it is simply because it is different, but it is maybe not so simple. My smartphone is “fun” even if it is old and familiar.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

14 thoughts on “My iPad Pro experiment: almost two years later”

  1. FWIW, I have been using Surface Pro for the last year or so, and I can attest to the “better reader” sentiment. I tend to read from it in tablet mode now, and I feel like I can focus on the contents much better compared to using a laptop or desktop (or, indeed, Surface Pro but in laptop mode). Not sure I can quantify this either 🙂

  2. Do you connect an external keyboard?

    When I tried to use a hybrid device as a main computer, I discovered the best keyboard I found still wasn’t good enough for the task. I imagine on a pure tablet solution, you’d use an external keyboard and not have this problem.

  3. I had a similar experience using the SAMSUNG Note Pro 12.2. It was Android so text selection was definitely better. I was using Xodo to annotate and highlight PDFs, which was a system that I liked.

    Unfortunately, that tablet broke and I have yet to get something to replace it. Been thinking of replacing it and the laptop with a surface pro. However, I still haven’t done it, because I prefer Linux on the laptop and I feel having a separate device for reading really does create a different focus space.

    1. I have also had Android tablets but there isn’t yet anything on the Android side that is comparable to an iPad Pro.

      I don’t just use my iPad for reading. I use it for a wide range of tasks… including writing up reports and stuff.

      My view is that if I were strictly bureaucrat, I could do all of my work with an iPad Pro. There are obvious limitations, but there are upsides as well.

  4. Have you tried pythonista on ipad? It has nice IDE (with debugging support) and you could build python applications with nice GUI support.

  5. Very technical question: is it relevant that it is an iPad Pro, or do all of your comments apply to the classical iPad as well?

    I am asking since I am thinking about starting to use an iPad for work for exactly the same reasons as you. What puzzles me is the choice between the classical one and the pro version. The keyboard that comes for the pro is indeed very nice. The pro is otherwise just double the price and I am not yet sure how work-relevant its added features are (e.g., direct charging for the pen, better display, …).

    1. The Pro is an expensive device. I think that you could get the same results with a cheaper tablet…

      Of course, you still need an external keyboard.

      The Pro has a better processor which is handy if you use CPU intensive web apps (say). I don’t have performance issues, but I fear I might on a cheaper tablet.

      1. Good article and thanks for sharing.

        I’m an IT veteran with a career spanning 40+ years. I switched to mobile platforms exclusively a couple of years back. To get things done I jump between iPad Pro and my iPhone depending on what’s needed. The key to this working well for me is the availability of an abundance of good iOS apps and cloud enabled services. E.g. Loading a Citrix Remote Desktop VDI on my iPad Pro is a bit clunky but it does work and allows me to get things done with my organizations legacy systems.

        I do more management than coding these days, but I do create a lot of content. Being able to do this from just about anywhere (volcano hikes, jungle treks, the local coffee shop etc) with good battery life is keeping me smiling. The trick for me has been to not try and get my mobile environment to behave like a laptop or desktop but to understand how to do things well in the mobile and cloud world. Some frustrations along the way, but that has been true of all environments I’ve worked with.

        I liked your observation “Evidently the fact that developers rely on laptops and desktops explains why things work better on laptops and desktops” and I’d say that’s true with my own experiences.

        FYI, agree with the external keyboard need. I use a Logitech “Keys to Go”. Only small, good battery life and fits easy in my backpack.

  6. The correct description, I think, is not “fun” but delight.
    And I think it’s rooted in something that people consider Apple hype, but it’s real; namely making items in the interface behave like physical objects. The early version of that, skew,orphism, was about looks, and of limited success. Today’s version is about behavior, not appearance, and I think is hugely successful. It’s the fluid motion, the little bounces, the gravity attraction, that creates the delight.

    To the extent that this could be quantified (60 fps, no skipped frames) it was accepted by tech nerds as a real “goal” and aspired to/argued over. But that’s old hat, what matters now is the pseudo-physics; that can’t be quantified, and so it’s dismissed. But I think it’s what makes it all work.

    On the Mac I’ve had the same experience. The HW has (finally) become fast enough to maintain the fluidity, and enough of the system SW has picked up the pseudo-physics, and so IMHO MacOS has a lot more of this feel of delight than it did a few years ago, even though superficially it looks very similar.

    1. I was too brief. ish provides sandbox installation of Alpine Linux from which python and other packages can be installed using APK.

      Not directly comparable to Pythonista.

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