A week with the iPad-as-laptop setup

iPad as lightweight laptop

Recently I had to fly to Italy to visit my parents for a small family emergency, and I decided to bring with me just my iPad 3, an improvised stand (which is actually a bookstand), and the Apple Wireless Keyboard that’s usually connected to my G4 Cube. My workload was moderate at the time, nevertheless I wanted to really give a try to the ‘iPad as laptop’ setup. In the past, especially when the long-standing ‘consumption vs. creation’ debate was raging, I already tried to use my iPad as a lightweight working machine, but the results were rather underwhelming. My first impressions at the time were that, while the iPad can be used to do some work, I found it awkward to do the kind of work I do. As I explained in My moderate scepticism about the Post-PC era, the two main reasons it was hard for me to work on the iPad were the cramped workspace (I simply need a larger screen real estate than what the iPad provides) and the spatial arrangement:

Apart from certain iOS text editors/word processors with an integrated Web browser, working on the iPad means uni-tasking. While this is a great concept in theory […] in practice I feel a kind of constraint which I usually don’t feel when I’m working on the Mac. When I do translation work, in particular, I simply need to have the main screen split at least in two areas, one with the original document, the other with my translation. These two areas may be just two windows inside the same application or, more often, two separate documents open in different applications. Arranging such workspace on a Mac is trivial. On an iPad, not so much. […] In other words, I still very much need an interface with multiple overlapping windows, because while it’s not ‘multitasking’ in a machine sense, it’s just that kind of ‘human multitasking’ where you need to keep an eye on multiple elements appearing simultaneously on a (big) screen.

I wanted to give this setup another try because this time I had the opportunity to perform a more in-depth test by using a physical external keyboard, rather than the iPad’s virtual one. 

The wireless keyboard and usability considerations

The Apple Wireless Keyboard turned out to be both a relief and a source of (moderate) frustration. A relief, because during iMessage sessions with my wife back home and for word processing tasks, having an external keyboard meant having a bit more breathing room on the screen. The frustration came essentially from the generally poor key mapping and user-interaction obscurity.

If Apple bothered more to increase compatibility between iOS and an input device the company itself produces, using the iPad as a lightweight laptop would be a better, more fulfilling experience overall. For instance, why not have the Enter key (or a combination such as Option-Enter or Command-Enter) work the same way it works on the Mac, where it can be used as confirmation in dialog boxes? When using Messages on the iPad, I could write my messages on the physical keyboard, but had to reach the screen and tap on Send every damn time. Having full keyboard support in instances like this could be a time-saver. It’s just natural to hit Enter as confirmation (‘send message’) and I often found myself pausing to remember I had to split the action of writing (hands on keyboard) from the action of sending (hand on screen to interact via touch).

But the best keyboard shortcut Apple could implement when using an Apple keyboard with iOS devices is, in my opinion, Command-Tab to activate the multitasking interface. I believe that, by now, every Mac user’s muscle memory has Command-Tab ingrained as a means to quickly switch between different active apps (and — correct me if I’m wrong — even Windows users have a similar shortcut memorised). I certainly have: while working on the iPad I can’t enumerate the number of times my fingers instinctively hit Command-Tab to switch from, say, iA Writer, to Mail or Safari. Having to reach the Home button and double click it every time became rapidly a pain and another unwanted interruption of the workflow.

As for the user-interaction obscurity I was mentioning before, I had to discover certain key mappings by blindly trying out different keys. This way I found that the Eject key shows/hides the virtual keyboard, and — more importantly for those like me who use different international keyboards — that Command-Space switches from one keyboard layout to the other (and here I thought it could be used to quickly invoke Spotlight, like it does on Macs…). I guess that if you really want to use an external wireless keyboard with the iPad, you’ll find that dedicated third-party products may be better than Apple’s offerings, which — let me reiterate — is a bit of a paradox.

So, a week with just the iPad, how was it?

I know there are people out there who have been able to actually replace their laptop with an iPad as their main work machine. After a week of moderate-to-intense usage, especially with the aid of an external keyboard, I certainly understand the appeal more than I did a few months back. The iPad + keyboard + stand is a very compact and lightweight setup (even lighter if you have an iPad Air). What I’ve learnt with my recent experience is that you definitely can do more on an iPad than just basic consumption-oriented stuff like reading news, watching movies/videos, browsing the Web, looking at photos, and so on. If your work doesn’t require you to constantly jump between different applications and doesn’t require you to have different windows open at the same time and to keep an eye on a part of the interface (an app in background, for example) while working on another, then using an iPad with this kind of setup is certainly feasible. But I wouldn’t venture to say it’s a pleasure or a particularly enjoyable experience overall.  

I work essentially with text, so I should be an ideal candidate to prove that one can just work from an iPad leaving the Mac behind. However, as I wrote in that article I mentioned at the beginning, for my translation work I need a bigger screen and the freedom of spatial arrangement that only a Mac allows. A typical translation workflow for me involves having at least one browser open at all times, an application to handle PDF files, two different text editors, an FTP client to send/retrieve files, sometimes a separate offline technical dictionary or glossary, and sometimes (if the client so requires) a proprietary software to input my translation/localisation directly. As you can imagine, such workspace needs a certain number of open windows and a healthy amount of app switching. Even working with good iOS replacements of all these pieces of software would result in a slower, more awkward workflow. 

During my iPad-only week I translated a couple of articles, and while I managed to complete the task, the experience was far from seamless. I found Daedalus Touch to be a decent tool for the job: by putting the original document and the new document with my translation in the same virtual stack of documents, I could switch from document A to document B and back with just a swipe, but often I had to reposition the original document because the app didn’t remember which paragraph I was working on. Another useful feature in Daedalus has been the integrated browser, so I could look up words in online dictionaries without switching to another app. So, as I said, I could complete the task and do the job. Was it comfortable or enjoyable? Not really.

(Writing on the iPad with this setup was way more enjoyable when I didn’t need to leave an application. Writing the draft of a fragment of my novel on iA Writer was great. Writing an entire short story for my Minigrooves series was great. Taking some extended notes in Simplenote, writing a post for my blog using Posts, writing a few long emails in Mail… all very pleasant experiences. So, I’m not saying it was all terrible.)

The iPad is a fantastic and very capable device, and can definitely be used to do some work. I think it’s awesome that some people — Federico Viticci comes to mind — have been able to switch to an iPad as their main machine for work and leisure. I can understand how liberating it may feel. I believe that Apple could turn the iPad into an even more independent device if iOS had a better support for external keyboards, especially Apple’s wireless keyboards, borrowing some major shortcuts and paradigms from OS X to make for a more frictionless experience during long sessions with an external keyboard. 

For me, the iPad is a great ’emergency’ device, meaning I can adjust to it as being my only device for work in extreme cases; but the most fitting role of the iPad in my devices’ ecosystem is exactly where Steve Jobs meant for it to be when he introduced it in 2010 — filling the gap between the smartphone and the laptop. To close with a metaphor, the iPad can fight alone just fine, but it fights best as my MacBook Pro’s trusty sidekick.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!