Working on the iPad

Early in 2021, I asked what you’d like to know about how I get things done. I received many interesting requests, more than fit in a single post. So, I’m covering aspects of my setup in separate entries. In this post, I’ll explain my evolving use of iPads.

I’ve long advocated for using iPads for work. iPads aren’t toys or “consumption” devices — at least any more than early GUI-based computers were. But recently, I’ve started questioning the iPad’s role in my workflows.

iPads do some things better than “real” computers. My work involves a lot of drawing, and the iPad Pro + Apple Pencil combo is the best digital drawing system I’ve used. The Pencil is also great for reviewing and marking up documents.

Also, I like to move around when writing, and the iPad keeps me mobile and connected. I’ve produced many blog posts and considerable portions of Living in Information on iPads in coffee shops, libraries, subway cars, and even a cruise ship. (Mostly using the excellent Ulysses app.)

Yes, there are Windows PCs that share many of the iPad’s attributes. (I used Lenovo tablets for many years before the Apple Pencil came along.) But I like the convenience of devices that “just work” — which they do, if you stay within one ecosystem.

So, I’ve long looked for ways of doing more with the iPad. I use apps (like Ulysses) that offer excellent iPad and Mac versions. I’ve learned Shortcuts to automate workflows. I bought the Magic Keyboard, which turns the iPad into a more laptop-like device.

All these things have made the iPad a better “productivity” device. And yet, I’ve recently returned to the Mac for many tasks. This is for several reasons.

For one, I recently upgraded to an M1 MacBook Pro. While its form factor is nearly identical to that of my previous laptop, they’re different computers. The new Mac is faster, quieter, and has a much longer battery life. These seemingly minor things change the experience.

Also, while I can accomplish many work tasks on the iPad, I can do them faster on the Mac. An example is renaming lots of files or sorting them into folders. I could imagine an iPad app that lets me do this, but the Mac lets me fire up a Unix shell or use an app like Hazel.

Also, I use my Mac mostly with a large external display. The additional screen real estate makes a big difference (literally) when working on diagrams and/or with multiple apps simultaneously.

Also, I find it easier to move information between apps on the Mac. iPadOS has progressed on this dimension in recent years, but it’s still not as easy to copy-paste/drag-drop things on the iPad as it is on the Mac.

Finally, I prefer apps that offer great Mac and iPad versions — i.e., with feature parity between the platforms. But some key apps in my workflow have “lite” iPad versions (e.g., DEVONthink) or aren’t on the iPad at all (e.g., Tinderbox.)

So, I’m reconsidering the iPad’s role in my toolbox. Rather than having it gradually subsume the Mac’s role, I’m treating the iPad more as a notebook/sketchbook — a digital version of my old Frankly Covey planner, which was always with me but never aspired to be my main “device.”

Not to say I’ve written off having the iPad become my primary work device. I expect there are amazing developments still in store for the platform. But for now, I’m spending less time cajoling the iPad into jumping through hoops when I have a device that already does.