iPad Only?

18 min. read (or watch the video)

It has been two years now since I ditched my laptop and desktop computers for this iPad Pro. So today, I will give you a summary of my experience — what I love, what I hate, and what my final verdict is. I know a lot of people are thinking about making the switch to iPad for various reasons. Every situation is different, everyone’s needs are different. But for the longest time, I was convinced that I could not do without a powerful laptop.

I teach four to six university courses per year — both online and offline, I conduct observational field research in various countries — both in cities and off-the-grid in the wilderness, I travel to conferences internationally, edit documentary video, manage the backend of a professional association website, update my own blog, and now am running this little YouTube channel on the side. I also have a home life in which I use the iPad for Netflix, banking, budgeting, groceries, cooking, DIY construction projects, family photo management, family videos; the list goes on and on and on…

Why the iPad?

The idea to switch to iPad first came to me when I was run-commuting. I could have left my laptop at the office overnight, but I often started working on lectures from home at 5:00am. I would then finish my power points from the office before 9:00am, and then teach the lectures immediately after. So I needed my computer at home, as well as at the office. I had already downscaled from a 13” MacBook Pro, weighing 4.5 pounds (2.06 kg) to a MacBook Air weighing in at 2.38 pounds (1.08 kg). But in my daily 10K commute the MacBook Air, plus lunch box, plus a set of fresh clothing, plus a towel and shampoo still weighed more than I cared for. Enter the iPad Pro at 1.03 pounds (468 grams)!

It occurred to me that the people I really admire for their productivity — especially famous authors, such as Earnest Hemingway — primarily used a type writer. He first used a Corona 3 typewriter, and after a Parisian cab driver smashed it on the pavement he switched to an Erica Model 3 Portable. When you look at the size of these apparatuses, you see they are ultra compact reporter models. The kind used by war reporters — which Hemingway had been. Small, light, portable. You whip it out of your bag and get cracking anywhere. At a cafe, on a train, in an airplane, at the office, or in bed. Although Hemingway allegedly complained in a letter to his dad about Corona not being good in bed. I think Erica was better.

The simplicity of the typewriter has recently inspired creatives to go back to just typing, without the distraction of social media. We can see this in the new FreeWrite models. I love the idea of the FreeWrite Smart Typewriter and FreeWrite Traveler, but I need ONE device that can do absolutely EVERYTHING for me. So, is a full laptop the only answer? If Hemingway was able to win the hearts and minds of millions around the globe with a device so simple, could I accomplish my tasks with the modern equivalent of an Erica? I figured, I’d give it a try.

Hardware Advantages

The power of the iPad lies in its screen. It has a touch screen so responsive, it eliminates an external mouse or track pad. This shaves 0.22 pounds (99 grams) off your weight. The screen is large enough to accommodate a virtual keyboard, which eliminates the need for an external keyboard, shaving off another 0.51 pounds (231 grams). When it comes to high precision drawing or handwriting, the iPad can be paired with Apple Pencil weighing in at 0.73 ounces (20.7 grams). This eliminates the need for a Wacom work surface, including its charger. The Apple Pencil 2nd generation charges through a magnetic contact surface, eliminating another charging cable. The charging block for a current MacBook Pro weighs 0.93 pounds (421 grams), not including its power cable. And for the MacBook Air power block you’re looking at 0.44 pounds (201 grams), not counting the power cord. The iPad Pro charger weighs 0.18 pounds (81 grams) with its cord! Contrary to some early reports, the iPad has a very strong case and sturdy (albeit not unscratchable) glass. For me this eliminates the need for a protective case (unless you’re going to work in the rain every day), saving me another 1.39 pounds (630 grams).

The iPad Pro provides approximately 10 hours of work time (when the battery is new), and with a simple 20,000 mAh battery, which you can get for $50, weighing in at 0.79 pounds (360 grams), I can boost this to approximately 20-30 hours of uninterrupted work time. Depending on the situation, this may allow me to leave my solar panels, their adapters, and cables behind altogether. So as a remote off-grid fieldwork office, the iPad wins out — hands down.

Software Differences

Switching from Microsoft to Apple is a big deal. Switching from an Apple laptop to an iPad is a similarly steep learning curve. It took me months getting used to the differences in workflow. The iPad is essentially a big iPhone with several additional features since iPad OS 13 of 2019. As of now, we are on iPad OS 14.4.2. I already had an iPhone, which helped me transition. But building content-rich power points with hundreds of stock images every single day, editing extensive video and sound files, working in excel spreadsheets, online grading portals, and writing and editing thousands of pages of typed text for book manuscripts, journal articles, and peer review came with some major adjustments for me.

Software advantages

As has been mentioned in various other reviews, editing video on the iPad Pro is a delight. Apple Pencil helps you make quick and precise moves. Although the native iMovie app is great for very basic editing, other apps, such as Luma Fusion are built specifically for touch screens, and they contain a large selection of pro-features. These pro features do not rival the possibilities of Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, or colour manipulation tools, such as Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve. So if you need these features, maybe iPad isn’t for you. I have also not edited data coming from RED or other 6-8K resolution cameras. For now, I only shoot and edit video at 4K, and most of that on iPhone, and the iPad has zero hiccups with that.

One thing I absolutely love about the Apple ecosystem is the momentous wireless syncing of files between devices. I know you get this on an iMac or MacBook too, but having the same operating system between your phone — which for me is also my primary camera — and your editing platform is a dream. I don’t need any cables anymore. Still photography, video, and audio files can be dragged and dropped in seconds without switching out cards, attaching any card readers, or lugging round cables. It really is just two naked devices talking to each other constantly, as if they were one machine.

The iPad also allows me to run my scripts on its own screen as a teleprompter, which aligns script text right next to the forward facing camera. This eliminates a separate teleprompter, which costs anywhere from $100 to $500 and weights another 0.4-6.5 pounds (200-3,000 grams). I use Prompt Smart Pro, which moves the text based on how fast you read aloud. The app uses the internal microphone to gauge your pace, and it can record both sound and image while its serving you the text — all in one.

Prompt Smart pro is just one example of the huge number of very useful at-your-fingertips apps that seem to be popping up on the App Store all the time, and usually at low cost. Most of these can be downloaded within seconds. That way you can see if you like them before you buy them.

Returning to the on-screen keyboard: I work in three languages – English, German, and Russian. Each have their own alphabets and require their own keyboards. While a physical keyboard is easily switchable to these languages, it cannot have more than two alphabets printed on the keys at one time. There just isn’t enough space — and I don’t type blindly in any of these languages. The virtual keyboard switches between any number of languages in no time, showing special characters immediately, while also automatically switching your spell checking to that language. I couldn’t ask for more!

Software disadvantages

There are a number of software disadvantages that come with the iPad OS. First off, iPad OS does not have floating windows, but only a split screen. You can toggle multiple apps on each side, which is great, and you can easily reverse their order. However, text files can get pretty small if you want them side-by-side, and sometimes a second parallel split would be nice on a wider screen to allow for a third document or app to show. There are apps for this in conjunction with an external monitor, but this defeats my purpose for the iPad, which is to remain as minimal as possible.

When it comes to professional work, many of your trusty desktop software go-tos don’t currently have equally powerful iPad OS versions available. And in some cases, the makers haven’t bothered making anything at all for the iPad. Here are some examples from my workflow: I used to heavily rely on Zotero as my citation manager. This open source program is a great help when working in archives and with thousands of text sources that can be sorted, annotated, searched, linked, and plugged into Microsoft Word. But Zotero has had nothing for iPad, until recently. At the time of this posting, Zotero are trialing a Beta version for iPad. Its commercial competitor Mendeley offers an iPad app, but they haven’t sold me on it, and rumour has it they recently discontinued supporting the app. I have since reverted to a rudimentary file folder structure to save PDFs by theme, or by project. This is not nearly as convenient, but it is infinitely transferable between operating systems and computing devices, making it future proof.

Microsoft word is available for iPad, but it is a limited version, costs $7 US per month (for iPad Pro), and has some irking glitches. For instance, it will close out of the application every time you leave the app for a longer time (2-3 minutes or so), which means you have to find your position in the document after it has reloaded. When working on documents in the cloud, you may also experience latency after several hours of continuous work, which requires a restart. This is time consuming and annoying. Overall, Word doesn’t work as smoothly on iPad as I remember it from my desktop experience. Apple’s own Pages app, on the other hand works like a charm, although it too has limitations including some latency at times. Of course, none of my colleagues use Pages, and neither do leading publishers in the academic industry, for which reason I have to continue to subscribe to Microsoft Word.

Some websites, especially some government portals do not work properly on iPad OS (particularly fillable Adobe PDF forms that work only on the desktop version of Adobe Acrobat Reader). Over the past two years, I have had to use my wife’s laptop on occasion to fill official paperwork. This is not convenient. As a university professor, I also have a lot of grading to do, much of which is entered into Blackboard’s online grade book, which does not scroll properly horizontally on iPad OS. I now am working on Moodle, which has no such problems. Some academic publishers use online editing software in their publication workflow, some of which are not compatible with iPad OS. There are workarounds for all of this. For instance, I can log into my virtual work server, which runs on a Windows platform. There is a slight delay in response when doing this. But remote access allows me to access all restricted features. Luckily this is rarely necessary.

There are some limitations on the iPad when it comes to Zoom. First of all, the number of concurrent Zoom windows on an iPad is smaller than it would be on a larger screen (limited to 9 concurrent windows, for the rest you have to scroll to the right). Secondly, when you split the screen to access another application parallel to Zoom, your own video image is turned off automatically. The same is true when you overlay a window. This is annoying if, for instance, you are discussing an email with someone over Zoom and your camera shuts off every time you navigate to an app. Thirdly, if you are streaming video with sound from your hard drive or from the cloud via Zoom, the volume of the streamed file is automatically suppressed. It doesn’t totally mute it, but makes it nearly inaudible to your audience. This is a major glitch in my opinion, especially if you are trying to stream pre-recorded conference talks. The same is true if you are running a Zoom meeting parallel to a Facebook Live Stream. The Facebook livestream will be near-muted, which makes watch parties impossible.

When teaching in a classroom or auditorium I connect my iPad to the AV system in the room. But since the screen resolution of projectors and smart boards is smaller than that of the iPad Pro the projected image never takes up all the real estate available. A work-around is to manually zoom in on the image by manipulating the projector lens, but this reduces the overall resolution of the projected image, while also distorting the frame ratio causing projection overlap at the top and bottom of the projection screen.

In some graphic design apps, such as Pixelmator, the number of editable layers is limited depending on the resolution you choose for a document. This was a first for me. On a MacBook the tolerance for larger documents is much more forgiving. For instance, if I am working on a raster-based poster with the size of A1, I am unable to ad layers! If you have a workaround for this, let me know in the comments. I don’t think this is an issue in vector-based graphics programs.

Hardware disadvantages

I wish the iPad Pro had a 12 megapixel 4K forward facing camera with ultra wide angle lens or Moment lens attachment capability (the 2021 iPad does have this, but still no 4K forward facing recording.) This would allow me to use the iPad as my primary camera for lecture recording, when a video monitor is essential to make sure your selfie framing is correct. This would eliminate the need for my iPhone in those situations. While the newest iPad Pro does have 4K forward facing video recording, it does not shoot at a wide enough angle, and Moment lenses still do not attach to it. I get it. We would loose the smooth glass surface, but it would make a heck of a difference for people like myself.

Sometimes it would be nice to attach a full frame dslr as Webcam. Using a proper camera allows for shallow depth of field, giving you that bokeh we all love to see, and which the iPhone can’t achieve with its tiny sensor. Sadly, iPad does not support direct recording via an external dslr. Neither does it allow you to tether with the rear-facing camera of your iPhone — which any laptop or desktop will. That is really a loss, especially when you want to select a dslr or iPhone with wide angle lens on Zoom calls. Come on, Apple, what’s with that compatibility issue?

Storage. This is the last thing I will mention. My iPad has 256 gigabytes of solid state hard drive. I often wish I had bought the 1 terabyte version. Most of the time 256 gigabyte is enough for me. But when I have to create more than one 30 minute lecture in one day, I run out of local space. Although I exclusively rely on cloud computing, composing a 30 minute lecture can require up to 100 gigabytes of temporary 4K stock video footage. Once the lecture has been exported, these files can be erased, but to really make space I have to tell the cloud to remove working files from my hard drive by disconnecting from the cloud, then reconnecting. This will give me all the space I need, BUT here’s the catch: iPad OS (in my experience) needs up to 24 hours to reconnect with all the files in my cloud. With two lectures in a day I cannot afford to wait that long!

In conclusion…

Okay, so there are many more things to be considered, but this has been long enough. After two years of relentless use, do I recommend the iPad Only life? Like I said, it takes some serious commitment. You really need to want it to work. If you do, it is possible and in many ways very rewarding. As an aspiring minimalist, I feel this is the most logical choice. For me personally, the true value of the iPad is lost when I add a keyboard, a stand, a mouse, an external hard drive, a case, and so on. At that point a sturdy ultralight laptop makes better sense. But in my minimalist configuration the iPad rocks like no other device I have ever used. It is to me the ultimate professional tool. Always on me, always with me. But then, I am in a very specific profession.

My top 3 reasons for the iPad Pro:

1. Weight savings of approx. … grams

2. Volume savings of approx … cm3

3. Near perfect collaboration with my iPhone/camera

My top 3 reasons against the iPad Pro:

1. Missing key software for iPad OS

2. Split screen sound limitations on Zoom

3. Local and cloud space time limitations

A final note: I recently went through an ergonomic workplace assessment. In the report, I was recommended to mount my tablet at eye level and to use a separate keyboard for longer text composition. This would reduce unnecessary strain put on my neck while typing type-writer-style. Not sure what Hemingway would say to that. But I was obedient and got myself a keyboard and a mouse for my work desk. In all other situations, I will stick to my ultra-compact Hemingway setup.

By alexoehler

I am an environmental anthropologist at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.