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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

iPad Pro: New tricks for old dogs

iPad Pro on bartop

Like a whole lot of people in my profession, I’ve spent the last few days trying to do an unusual number of tasks with an iPad Pro. While I haven’t made the “working only on the iPad” plunge, I have been using the iPad Pro in a lot of situations where I previously used a Mac—as well as all the situations where I previously used an iPad Air.

For the first few years of the iPad’s existence, the debate was whether or not it was a device capable of doing real work, of providing the level of productivity that the users of Mac and PC laptops expect from their devices. That argument was probably over before this fall, but if it wasn’t, the iPad Pro should provide a definitive answer: This is impressive hardware powered by thousands of apps that have proven surprisingly flexible.

Yes, the iPad was once a place where you couldn’t really do some or all of your job. But today I think it’s fair to say the iPad can perform most tasks, just not in a way in which Mac and PC users are necessarily familiar or comfortable.

I’ve been using the mouse-and-keyboard method for the bulk of my work since I started working at my college newspaper in the fall of 1989. That’s 26 years of clicking and cursors and windows, and it’s just as tough to get out of that mindset as it was for the users of command-line systems to understand all the early Mac-inspired mouse-and-cursor interfaces.

I could list dozens of things that I can do on my Mac that I can’t do on the iPad. But you know, when I bought a Mac, PC (and Apple II) users told me the same thing about what they could do on the command line.

The Mac had power features and tweaky settings and other weird tricks, but they weren’t the same as the ones you could do in DOS or AppleSoft Basic. Likewise, the iPad app I’m writing this in (1Writer) has an entire JavaScript-based macro language behind it, and I can kick off complex actions via a sharing extension powerered by Workflow. The iTunes affiliate links in this paragraph have been generated not by a script on my desktop Mac but by an iOS app running in Slide Over, Blink.

The more I use the iPad Pro, the more convinced I am that the iPad is absolutely suitable for many kinds of work. Certainly not all kinds—there are always specialized tasks that require software that may just not exist on iOS, or may exist but just not be good enough. But as a general-purpose computing device, it covers a whole lot of bases.

That all said, I’m not going to sell my 5K iMac and go full-time on the iPad Pro. The situation reminds me a bit of what happens when people tell me that I shouldn’t use Logic to edit podcasts1, when Adobe Audition is so much better. Audition might be great, and if I put in dozens or hundreds of hours of time to learn it and understand how it works, I might even agree. But over the last few years I’ve optimized my Logic workflow so much that it seems unlikely that another app will be able to improve on my work enough to put in dozens or hundreds of hours of training. If Audition is way better than Logic, that’s a switch worth making. If it’s only arguably better, or just slightly better, the effort to switch isn’t worth it.

That’s sort of how I view the iPad and the Mac today: One is not fundamentally better than the other, but the Mac is the one I know by heart. The Mac is the one on which I’ve built numerous scripts and workflows and shortcuts to make my work manageable. Leaving it isn’t something I can do lightly, and would need to provide large, tangible benefits.

When I think about how Federico Viticci does his entire job on his iPad, I am reminded of the reasons he switched from the Mac: As he recovered from cancer, he needed to be able to work anywhere—from hospital beds to waiting rooms to his car—and the iPad could give him flexibility that his Mac couldn’t. That’s what I call a large, tangible benefit.

What the past few days have taught me is that if I needed to switch from Mac to iPad, if I had a compelling reason, I could absolutely do it. I can edit podcasts, write articles, edit spreadsheets, generate charts and graphs, edit photos, build web sites, transfer files via FTP, and more.

While I’ve been focused on the iPad Pro, even the iPad Air (and if you’ve got the eyes for it, the iPad mini) has enough power to do most of these things. The Pro just takes it to a whole new level in terms of size and performance. The Air 2 works well in Split View mode if you’ve got an external keyboard, so that the software keyboard doesn’t take up the entire screen; on the iPad Pro, there’s enough room regardless—and with an external keyboard, it’s even better.

But while the size is great and the implied power is spectacular—I never felt that I was particularly taxing the iPad Pro’s processor—I’m not entirely sold on the ergonomics of the device. It’s big and a bit ungainly. I found typing on the on-screen keyboard, full sized though it may now be, pretty difficult to get right—even days later, I struggle to type without loads of errors, unless I stare right at my fingers as I’m typing. As much as we might mock the idea of owning a Day Phone and a Night Phone, I started to think that users of the iPad Pro might want to consider having a smaller iPad around for more casual, lean-back use. That’s somewhat damning.

As someone who has already invested in a Retina iMac, I’m more interested in the idea of having the iPad Pro replace the 11-inch MacBook Air that used to be my primary Mac, and which I still use when I’m traveling. It would be (slightly) lighter, even with an external keyboard, with a bigger (and much higher-resolution) screen. Now that I know I can edit a podcast on an iPad Pro, and assuming I could work around the difficulties in recording a podcast on iOS2, I think it might all be possible.

So I can do it, but will I? Like I said, I’ve been using the Mac for 26 years. That’s a big obstacle to get past. But for the first time, I sense the possibility that I could do it.

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  1. FWIW, telling someone they shouldn’t use an app they like is bad form. ↩

  2. You can’t record your own audio during a Skype call on iOS, as you can on the Mac. The workaround is to talk on Skype on your iPhone while recording yourself with a high-quality microphone on your iPad, or vice versa.  ↩

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