Can an iPad Pro Replace My Laptop?

I’ve read a number of iPad Pro reviews, many posted mere weeks after it launched, and they all sounded like they were written based on the device specs and not its actual use. They were all judge-a-book-by-its-cover reviews and not the contents.

Why the iPad Pro?

In July, 2016, I was ready to replace my 4-year-old Lenovo laptop. I won’t go into details about the laptop, just that it ran the Ubuntu-MATE flavour of Linux. I’m Linux guy–workstation, laptop, and server. Replacing the laptop with an iPad Pro 12.9” was a big step. When I made the jump I still wasn’t sure it was a viable replacement. Three apps in particular made me think it was possible, which I will get to below. If this iPad-as-a-laptop-replacement experiment failed, I could chalk it up as a learning experience. I was prepared for this possibility. It would cost me very little, some productivity loss, but not the end of the world.

I hate calling a computer a ‘PC’. It evokes imagery of Microsoft Windows and IBM PC clones. The computer I have in my office is a ‘Workstation’, not a ‘Personal Computer’. The workstation begs the connotation with that of the SGI Workstations of the 1990s, or maybe the NeXT Step workstations since we’re talking Apple-related things. These computers are more than PCs, because they are capable of doing more than just basic document processing.

My workstation runs Linux. It runs at least three virtual machines at any one time. It has lots of processing power (CPU and GPU), RAM, and storage space. I work on multiple monitors. It is geared towards getting the most out of my time in front of it, without hassle or delay. It runs automated tasks for aggregating data and backing it up. It compiles code. It has bash scripts and aliased commands for the everyday repeated tasks I run. It’s on 24-7. But I digress.

Why is this important to the iPad Pro discussion? In short, the iPad Pro cannot replace the workstation. Moreover, without this workstation I could not have replaced my laptop with an iPad Pro. But the laptop and workstation overlap in many respects and duplicate many of the same utilities. The iPad doesn’t do that. It’s a different device. And that’s the good thing. That’s what I like about it. It complements my computing environment and gives me ‘things’ I didn’t have before.

What attracted me to the iPad Pro is its impressively portable form factor and battery life. My previous laptop weighed 2.7 kg (~6 lbs) and the iPad Pro with keyboard only weights 723 grams (1.59 lbs). The iPad gives me a few hardware features over my current laptop: touch interface, SIM card, GPS, accelerometer, two cameras, stylus (Apple Pencil), thumb-to-unlock, compact keyboard (Apple Keyboard Cover). On paper, this has the potential to give me computing tools that I didn’t have prior. In practice, it still requires a bit of work to get the most out of it. These hardware components alone are not sufficient for a powerful platform–for this we need the right software.

What apps make the iPad Pro a laptop replacement?

Prompt, Transmit, and Coda, by Panic, Inc. are the apps that made this experiment possible. Without these I would not have considered an iPad Pro as an everyday computing device. Without a good ssh/sftp client (Transmit), a terminal client (Prompt), and a remote code editor (Coda), it would have been missing critical tools for my daily work. The iPad Pro has this basic requirement covered. Now I can remotely connect to my workstation, or to any remote server I manage from the iPad, and carry out what I need to get done.

There were other apps I was excited about. I wanted to buy into the iOS platform and give it an honest try. Drafts, OmniFocus, Workflow, Paper, Reminders, and Calendar–all seemed like they would either enhance or complement my work.

I wrote most of this article in Drafts. Every time I had an idea, I opened Drafts and jotted it down. It was my point-of-first-entry for writing on the iPad. For about a month I used OmniFocus to organize my projects and tasks, but it was not a good replacement for my usual org-mode. So I continued to use emacs + org-mode on the workstation, and put time-sensitive reminders and appointments in Reminders and Calendar on the iPad. This caused a bit of duplication but the convenience of having it on the iPad outweighed this duplication.

Paper was an app I wanted to use more. I had the Apple Pencil and I had good intentions of sketching and taking written notes more. That never materialized, though my kids enjoy playing with it.

One of the pleasant surprises was the Microsoft apps on the iPad. All I can say is, well done to Microsoft. Excel and Remote Desktop Client had become indispensable apps after only a short time. On the workstation and laptop, LibreOffice fits the bill for me, but on the iPad, given the choice of Numbers, Google Sheets, and Excel, I went with Excel.

There is an intimacy that comes with working on a touch device. For casually browsing, reading, and navigating apps, the iPad Pro has a nice feel to it. For my day-to-day work, the responsiveness and power I have in the laptop was missed. Outside of my everyday work I enjoy sitting back with the device, browsing the web, watching movies, setting it up to listen to podcasts, playing casual games, and using other non-work related tools and apps.

After a month I was finding the iPad tiresome to work on. I was at a client’s office most mornings, away from my workstation, so I had plenty of time to work from the iPad. It was becoming a bit cumbersome and slow to get things done: task switching, command+tab or 4-finger swipe, was slow. I would lose cursors in text fields and documents. Terminal sessions would time-out very quickly. The web development I was doing at the time was handicapped by not having debug tools built-in to the browsers (Safari, Brave, and Firefox)–not even a View Source option. It was doable–I got by–but much less efficient than I was used to.

iOS takes an application centric approach to computing rather than being file-driven like most desktop operating systems. One app’s output can be another app’s input–but not always. Share Sheet is handicapped. Simple things like extracting zip files or cropping images to a particular pixel dimension or compression value were non-existent or involved a sort of “app spaghetti” approach. I often ended up with multiple versions of files across different applications leading to many version control headaches.

The Lightning to USB Camera Adapter was useless to me since the raw processing capabilities on the iPad were sub-par compared to their desktop equivalents. The adapter would not take regular USB sticks and read files, which would have been nice. People still like to carry things around to share from USB thumb drive.

The Apple Smart Keyboard Cover was usable but not great. The compactness of it and the no-spill worries are nice features, but for everyday work it’s not up to par with the standard Apple Keyboards. It is the perfect coffee-shop keyboard but not for typing on all day.

The more I used the iPad Pro, the more I realized this was a casual device for me and less so a laptop replacement. As a personal device, what it lacks in capability, it makes up for with its intimate and casual feel.

What I miss about the laptop?

There are tools I use on a laptop and workstation that just don’t exist on iOS: the bash shell, Firefox, emacs, org-mode, ssh, Thunderbird, access to system files and low-level configuration, compilers, multitasking, multiple displays using external monitors, and multiple workspaces.

After a little more than a month in, I realized the experiment was failing–but not by a lot. What I also realized during this time with the iPad Pro was that I don’t need a monster of a laptop. I can get by with a sportier coupe of a laptop. A light and portable device that I can take everywhere in my backpack will get me where I need to go. So I had to bite the bullet and buy a new laptop to replace the old one. I ended up going with the System76 Lemur 14” which comes pre-installed with Ubuntu.

What I ended up doing next was dividing my portable computing tasks across two devices, some on the iPad and others on the System76 laptop. The laptop was to be dedicated to work only. The iPad was to be primarily for calendar, reminders, messaging, playing podcasts, movies, and casual browsing, and for the usual entertainment apps, games, and personal stuff.

There are also minimal distractions on the laptop and I am an order of magnitude more productive. I block most time-sucking-non-work-related websites so I’m not distracted from work. This option is not directly available on the iPad.

What do I open up at the coffee shop?

I am writing this paragraph in Drafts on the iPad Pro in a coffee shop. I am currently carrying both the lightweight System76 laptop and the iPad Pro around with me in my backpack–their combined weight still lighter than my previous laptop. Outside of work, I go for the iPad Pro unless there is something specific I need the laptop for. At a coffee shop I am usually looking something up on the web, responding to an iMesssage, composing an email or a blog post, or catching up on HackerNews–the things I like the iPad Pro for.

What should you buy?

If you are reading this then you may be in the market for a new computer or laptop or tablet. My rule-of-thumb advice on what to buy:

  1. If you’ve never had a computer and only want it for the web, email, calendar, reminders, maps, Netflix, and some casual apps or games, then the iPad Pro will suit you just fine.
  2. If you need a computer to carry out your livelihood: managing files, processing images, sharing documents like spreadsheets and word processing documents, or if you have always used a PC or a laptop, and are wondering if you can replace it with an iPad Pro, don’t. It’s not there yet. The operating system and apps will be handicapped compared to what you are used to.
  3. If you have a PC or workstation and need something portable for when you are away from the office, then an iPad Pro might be a nice fit, even with its limitations.
  4. If you have some extra money to spend on devices, and enjoy this sort of technology, then you won’t be disappointed with the iPad Pro. It’s fun and entertaining to use.

Overall, the iPad Pro has come a long way compared to the original iPad. It is not (yet) a laptop or PC replacement. It offers a lot but it’s firmly in its own category between a smartphone and a laptop. It complements the computing technology we have available today but replaces none of it.

2 comments on 'Can an iPad Pro Replace My Laptop?'

  • Tom Hemmes

    Dear Scott, Thanks for this comprehensive review of the Ipad Pro from a more "Pro user" perspective. If I may ask, how do you look back at this review since the release of iOS 11? It takes away some of the downsides you list, does it affect your final conclusions? Tom

  • Steve Scott

    Hi Tom, Thanks for the comment. The review still holds for me even though the OS has improved. That being said, I use the iPad Pro a lot! I have added a 2017 5K iMac to my lineup of computers, but even that doesn't take away from my use of the iPad. Almost all of my casual computing activity: browsing, podcasts, watching video, etc., happens on the iPad. The iPad Pro is always close by when I'm doing things around the house. On the other hand, I do almost no work on it. I find I'm most productive when I compartmentalize my computing activity: work computing on the iMac or Linux Workstation or Laptop, which I keep as distraction-free as possible (no notifications popping up), and do almost all of my casual computing on the iPad or iPhone. - Steve

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