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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Giving up the iPad-only travel dream

MacBook and iPad

Every time any of us packs a bag, we are making some very specific tech-focused decisions. It starts with what devices we need (or can live without) and cascades into charging bricks and cords and anything else that will keep us powered up and not feeling regret about having left an essential device behind.

I’m spending a few days this week visiting my mom, and it’s the fourth or fifth time this summer I’ve needed to pack a bag as a part of a busy travel schedule. For many years, I tried very hard to travel with only an iPad. (Why bring two devices? And I’m not leaving my iPad at home.) Since the arrival of Apple silicon, however, I’ve gone back to traveling with both an iPad and a MacBook Air.

As the Mac picked up speed (and the M2 MacBook Air packed even more power into a delightful new design), the iPad seemed to evolve slowly when it evolved at all. I’ve noticed that a lot of my colleagues who were previously working hard to integrate the iPad into their professional work have backed off, retreating to the more flexible and powerful Mac side of the house.

In the battle between iPad and Mac, I’m a longtime member of Team Both—I use my Mac most of the day at my desk, but when I write elsewhere in the house or backyard, I switch to an iPad Pro in the Magic Keyboard case. And that iPad (in a regular case) is my primary computing device when I’m not in work mode.

I’m not at all ready to declare the “use iPad to get work done” experiment dead. With the forthcoming release of iPadOS 17, Stage Manager has thrown in a bunch of improvements that suggest the iPad’s progression to more functional status continues, albeit at a pace that’s a bit too slow for my liking.

But here I sit at my mother’s dining room table, typing on a MacBook Air. Something has changed in my approach to travel, and I’m trying to understand just what it is and what it tells me about the trajectory of the iPad as a productivity tool.

My productivity needs are clearly unlike those of most people, but the truth is that everyone’s got different productivity needs. The problem with the iPad continues to be that as it builds functionality, it has failed to build in flexibility—or at least the flexibility offered by a platform like macOS. If the iPad doesn’t support it, you’ve hit a brick wall. Your choices are to find a workaround or give up.

As I’ve written about for the better part of a decade, I’ve tried endlessly to find a solid workflow to record podcasts on the iPad. Oh, sure, there are plenty of workarounds, but the bottom line is still this: the iPad’s audio system is so inflexible that it just can’t do the job.

Sure, it would be swell if a utility like Audio Hijack could run on the iPad. But even a simpler solution, like being able to record microphone audio in one app while simultaneously using Zoom to have a conversation, would make this approach viable. Speaking of Zoom, that app’s built-in recording feature will save a recording of your local microphone audio… on every platform except on iOS and iPadOS.

But it’s not just podcasting. Take the Stream Deck, a clever external device that lets you press buttons to kick off all sorts of tasks. I’ve come to rely on it, so much so that in a moment of weakness, I bought a second Stream Deck (for travel and potential use in a backup office I’m setting up) on Prime Day the other month.

While there’s an iPad app for Stream Deck, it’s not what you think. It turns the iPad into a Stream Deck, so you can tap on its screen and execute macros on a Mac or PC. If you connect a Stream Deck to an iPad directly, nothing happens. The Stream Deck software on Mac and Windows runs in the background, looks for button presses, and then runs macros. That kind of software just doesn’t fit how Apple envisions the iPad experience.

Sure, the iPad has the Shortcuts app, and many of my Keyboard Maestro macros really just execute shortcuts… but this very useful accessory just doesn’t work with it. How could it? Even if there were a market for it, I don’t think the platform is robust enough to support it.

This is where the iPad is today. It’s good enough for what it does. If it doesn’t do it, it doesn’t do it. This is the fundamental difference between the Mac (a platform that basically lets developers and users do anything they want) and the iPad (where if Apple doesn’t specifically allow it, it can’t be done).

The beauty of the Mac as a platform is that Apple doesn’t have to think of every use case and doesn’t have to build out every single esoteric detail in order to enable new features. It empowers developers and users to build what they need, and by extending the Mac’s functionality, they incrementally increase the Mac’s value as a computing platform.

On the iPad, advancement doesn’t work like that. Instead, it’s decided in various meetings inside Apple where specific features will get prioritized or deprioritized for the next operating system cycle. Once every year or two, we will hear about some (legitimately exciting!) new features that will extend the usability of the platform. And that will basically be it. The waiting begins again.

I’m tired of waiting. I’m tired of creating more inconvenience for myself in order to push the iPad past the boundaries Apple has set for it. For the cost of an extra 2.75 pounds in my backpack, I can travel with a MacBook Air knowing that more or less anything I need to do while on the road can be accomplished without requiring weird workarounds or risking a catastrophic tech failure.

I want to do it all on my iPad. I hope that one day I’ll be able to. But for now, I’m done pushing the envelope. Apple will determine what I can do with my iPad, and when that changes, I’m sure they’ll let me know. Until then, all any of us can do is wait.

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