For almost two years now, I’ve started nearly every morning by reaching for my iPad. Before I even get out of bed, I check email, catch up on Twitter, read some comics and surf some websites. However, when it’s time for work, I put down the iPad and get out my Mac.
But as the iPad’s hardware and software have developed since its launch in 2010 and especially since the release of iOS 5, I’ve been wondering whether that handoff is really necessary. Can the iPad replace a Mac or PC for work? Or, more accurately, what kinds of work can it do now? What kinds of sacrifices are still required? Can you actually get things done with it?
Not so long ago, I wrote a story that said iOS 5 makes the iPad a better computer than ever before, so I volunteered to be the guinea pig for a little experiment. For three days, I vowed to go Mac-less, using my iPad instead of my laptop for everything. Here’s how it went.
The physical challenge.
For 20 years, I’ve been using a Mac; for the last five, I’ve used one almost daily to write. So that first morning, when I shambled into my home office and sat down at the desk, it struck me just how different working with an iPad would be.
On a normal day, my job involves some combination of reading and writing emails; using web-based tools to manage, develop, write and edit stories; communicating with my colleagues via instant message and an online chat room; and reading RSS feeds and Twitter.
Of course, I also spend a lot of time browsing the web and listening to music. I also take care of bits of personal business, like emailing and chatting with friends and family or paying bills.
I already do a lot of these things interchangeably on my Mac and my iPad. In fact, I find browsing my RSS feeds in Reeder on my iPad more pleasant than reading them on the Mac. Likewise, reading Twitter using Twitterrific feels more natural on the iPad than it does on my Mac. But using the iPad as my sole work machine would require some adjustments.
My initial instinct was to set up the iPad just like my Mac. So, using a small stand, I propped up the tablet on my desk, its little 10in display dwarfed by the 27in Cinema Display next to it.
I then paired my Apple Wireless Keyboard to the iPad via Bluetooth. While I’ve become pretty adroit at typing on the iPad, I’m not nearly as fast on the touchscreen keyboard as I am on a real one. After years of touch typing (thanks, Mavis Beacon), it’s weird to have to repeatedly glance at my fingers to make sure they’re on the iPad’s home row.
I started out this first day by responding to a few emails and checking in with colleagues. Because I work at home, much of my interaction with co-workers is conducted via IM (instant messaging) and an online chat room. The first was no problem: I’ve used BeejiveIM for iPad ($10.49) for a long time and it works great.
The online chat room was trickier. While I could access the service I use – Campfire (from US$12 a month), through a web browser, the web interface lacks some of the features of the Mac app I use.
I tested a couple of iPad clients: No Spoon Software’s Sparks for iPad ($5.49) and David Dollar’s Pyre ($0.99). While Sparks has a better interface, I prefer Pyre for a couple of minor features, including the ability to press the Return key on my Bluetooth keyboard to send a message. Neither of them, however, supports push notifications (more on that later).
My morning catch-up done, it was time to check in on some websites I write for. To do that, I use two web-based apps – a content management system (CMS) and a story management tool. Both of them appeared more or less intact in the iPad’s version of Safari. So it was time to get down to work and edit a story.
I immediately ran into glitches. For example, the CMS tool allows me to edit in either raw HTML or a WYSIWYG view. The raw HTML view worked fine on the iPad, but the WYSIWYG editor didn’t: I got just a blank white canvas. If you rely on web apps for your work, they may or may not work on an iPad.
Fortunately, I had a fallback plan: I copied the raw HTML and pasted it into a text editor, where it would be easier to work with. Now, there are a ton of good text editors for the iPad – almost too many, really. The problem is that no single one has all of the features I want.
I ended up using a combination of them, including Quang Anh Do’s Writing Kit ($5.49) and Yutaka Yagiura’s Textforce ($4.49). Writing Kit has a built-in web browser, among other compelling features and Textforce was the only app I could find that would let me run a search-and-replace-all command. Still, no iOS text editor came close to matching my weapon of choice on the Mac, Bare Bones Software’s BBEdit ($51.99 from the Mac App Store).
I did find myself increasing the font size in both text editors. The text might have been big enough when I was holding the iPad at arm’s length, but it was too small when the iPad was propped on a desk. (I was thankful for the iPad’s pinch-to-zoom feature, which let me quickly enlarge anything I couldn’t see.)
While the iPad’s smaller screen size didn’t really bug me, I found the angle of the display on the desk ungainly. I had to hunch over to see it clearly, which probably wasn’t great for my neck.
Despite those shortcomings, I managed to edit my first piece and copy it back into the CMS without a hitch.
When it was finally time for the last challenge of my first day – writing an end-of-the-day wrap-up piece – I again turned to Writing Kit. With the Bluetooth keyboard, writing on the iPad felt a little different from doing so on my Mac. The one big downside was that I needed to switch back and forth between the document and a webpage when I wanted to copy a link or other piece of text.
Though iOS 5’s multi-tasking gestures (Settings > General) let you quickly switch between apps using four-finger swipes, I didn’t end up using them much. Because of the stand holding the iPad upright, performing gestures was awkward; I had to brace the iPad with my other hand to keep it steady. Instead, I ended up double-clicking the iPad’s Home button, which was easy to do with one hand.
However, that made it somewhat slow and laborious to switch between apps when the iPad was in the stand. I found myself longing for the quick efficiency of the Mac’s c-tab shortcut for switching applications.
When I was finished writing, I used Writing Kit’s export feature to send the text to my clipboard as HTML.
I pasted the finished story into the web tool; with that, my day was done.
The obstacle course
But, to be honest, I had been a bit cautious about the things I’d attempted to do. So on day two, I pushed myself a little bit harder. Not surprisingly, in doing so I ran into more problems.
For example, on the morning of day two, I was assigned to manage an online news desk. That means keeping an eye on news, assigning stories and letting readers know about new stories via Twitter and Facebook. However, when I fired up Twitterrific on my iPad to tweet about that morning’s stories, I ran into a wall.
On the Mac, I use an AppleScript to generate short links to my stories with a tracking tag; the iPad doesn’t support AppleScript, so that wasn’t going to fly on the iPad.
But be warned: If your workflow depends on Mac-based AppleScript, you’ll need to have a workaround on the iPad.
Later in the morning, I encountered a problem I just couldn’t circumvent. I wanted to upload a picture to accompany a story, but the iOS version of Safari wouldn’t allow me to. (That functionality requires access to the file system, which iOS doesn’t grant – even to Apple’s own browser.)
Instead, I was limited to searching through the database of already- uploaded images.
As part of my desk duty, I also had to prioritise assignments in a story management tool.
To my chagrin, I had to call one of my colleagues and ask him if he’d mind doing the dragging and dropping for me.
INTO THE CLOUD
When on my Mac, I use a program called Cloud (free) to quickly upload screenshots and send links to them to my colleagues.
So I was glad to find that there are a few iOS Cloud clients; I picked up an excellent one called Stratus ($1.99), which let me easily upload files and generate links to them. It turned out to be one of the handiest new apps I discovered during the entire experiment.
However, not all web services treat the iPad like a full citizen. For that collaborative story, for example, my colleague and I turned to an old standby – Google Docs.
Unfortunately, I discovered that the Google Docs interface on the iPad leaves much to be desired.
For one thing, you’re forced to use a slimmed-down mobile version of the site, which lacks many of the full version’s features – most importantly, real-time collaboration. Instead, you must constantly tap a Refresh button to synchronise changes you’ve made with the copy in the cloud. When you’re writing alongside a colleague or colleagues, that’s an inconvenient extra step, to say the least.
I ended up sidelining the effort until I got back to my Mac. It was one test that the iPad really and truly failed.
After a day or two of using the iPad, my brain seemed to have rewired itself. It’s not that the iPad is better or worse than the Mac; it’s just that different things are hard to do on each device.
The thing I found the hardest to get used to on the iPad was the lack of windows. On the Mac, I think nothing of arranging a web browser and a text editor or two text-editor windows, side by side and then referring to
one while typing in the other. On the iPad, that’s impossible, as I found on the morning of day three when I tried to start composing this story from my notes.
That third day also happened to coincide with a weekly staff videoconference meeting, conducted via Google+’s Hangout feature. Using the iPad for this was frustrating for a couple of reasons: First, the Google+ app doesn’t have a native iPad interface and must be used in the 2X mode. Second, there’s no way to click on the URL for a hangout and have it load the Google+ app; I had to have a colleague invite me through Google+ itself.
After the meeting, I spent some time proofreading the PDFs of an ebook. While Mac OS X has Preview, iOS has no PDF-reading capabilities built in (unless you’re viewing a PDF in Safari or Mail). So I turned to one of my favourite apps, Good.iWare’s GoodReader ($5.49); not only can it handle PDFs with aplomb, but it downloaded the file from a URL and unzipped it.
However, the couple of hours I spent proofing those chapters adversely affected my iPad 2’s battery life. For the first two days of my experiment, the battery held up spectacularly; by 5pm each day, it had dropped to about 18 percent of capacity. By the end of work on day three, however, it had dwindled to just a few percent and I was forced to plug it in to finish. That’s still better than my MacBook Air, which can run from full to empty in an afternoon.
As I wrote my wrap-up column at the end of day three, I found myself thinking again about how well the iPad works with an external keyboard. Not only can you enter text, but you can use familiar keyboard shortcuts to do things like copying and pasting, undoing and redoing and moving the cursor and selecting text.
That last one, in particular, is a godsend. If you’ve spent any time trying to select text on an iPad, you’ve probably spent time wrestling with that magnifying glass interface. But savvy Mac keyboardists who are familiar with all the tricks of the ⌘, Option, Shift and arrow keys will find themselves breezing along as if they were sitting in front of their computer.
In the end, though, the iPad’s keyboard integration works just well enough to make you wish it worked better. There are a lot of places where you’d think shortcuts would work, but they don’t.
For example, there’s no way to get back to the home screen or navigate between apps from the keyboard. And even with iOS 5’s addition of rich text in Mail, you can’t use the familiar keyboard shortcuts to apply bold, italics or underlining to your text. And in some places, the iPad’s keyboard support is wildly inconsistent.
For example, when auto- completing an email address, you can use the arrow keys to scroll through the suggestions and the Return key to select one. But try to do the same with a list of autocomplete URLs in Safari and you’re stuck. Too often, you have to go back to the touchscreen.
Spend a couple hours – or heck, 20 minutes – with an iPad and you’ll see pretty quickly that the idea of a touchscreen desktop computer doesn’t make much sense. Having to constantly raise your hands from the keyboard to interact with the screen just feels wrong.
It’s not simply the unfamiliarity of it: The effort of lifting your arm – instead of, say, shifting it sideways to a mouse or trackpad – is significant. And there’s that problem I ran into on day one, needing two hands to perform most on-screen gestures. This isn’t a slight to the iPad, though – its interface feels perfectly natural when you use it in your lap or hold it in your hands. It’s an issue of forcing an iPad-shaped peg into a PC-shaped hole.
Using the iPad as your primary machine forces you to adjust the way you think about and prioritise what you’re doing. For example, on the afternoon of that third day, I realised I had neglected the Campfire room for several hours. Unlike a desktop computer, the iPad gives you no way to keep an eye on a chat room window. None of the Campfire clients I tried had notifications, so if they weren’t running in the foreground, I had no way to know what was going on.
That isn’t always a bad thing, though. For example, it made me concentrate on the tasks at hand, instead of being constantly distracted by Twitter, IM or my RSS feed. But some tasks do occasionally get lost in the shuffle.
Strangely, writing on the iPad felt the most foreign of any of my work tasks. As counterintuitive as it might sound, I’m used to having a lot of things going on while I write. That’s one of the reasons I like to work in cafés: The background noise forces me to focus. When I’m presented with nothing but a blank page, I find it harder to concentrate; my mind wanders; I wonder what’s going on behind the scenes that I’m not paying attention to.
By the end of my three-day experiment, I felt as though I’d gotten the hang of working on my iPad. I felt like cursing it only once, when Safari reloaded a tab in which I’d been writing, erasing all of my progress. And there were Mac things that I definitely hadn’t missed: the spinning beachball, for example. The iPad’s snappiness rivaled that of my MacBook Air and I rarely felt as though I was waiting for it to catch up to me.
I had a definite sense that this might be the future of working on a computer. I spent little if, any time, managing files or saving my data. And, thanks to Dropbox and iCloud, I didn’t worry at all about lost data. That’s perhaps the biggest change in switching from a Mac or PC to the iPad: The technology becomes almost transparent. You are simply writing or reading or browsing. It’s all about the task itself, while the technology you’re using fades into the background.
Is the iPad ready to be your only computer? It’s not quite ready to be mine, but I doubt that’ll be the case forever. I saw enough in these few days to realise that the iPad will soon be ready for whatever I throw its way. That will happen in part because the iPad will adapt and change. But so will we.