Rethinking the iPad Pro as a Laptop Replacement

Posted on July 9, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, iOS, Mobile with 91 Comments

Rethinking the iPad Pro as a Laptop Replacement

For the past month or so I’ve done everything reasonable—and some things unreasonable—to see whether Apple’s new iPad Pro could be used as a laptop replacement.

But I’m starting to think that this effort is missing the point. That is, yes, for a significant number of people, an iPad Pro—and probably a normal iPad, frankly—could perform the duties that most people currently do with a traditional laptop. I’ll even go so far as to say that an iPad Pro could even work for certain professional writers.

What it doesn’t do, of course, is meet my needs. Nor do I believe that the iPad Pro would meet the needs of many power users. The experience is just too constrained, and too compromised, even with the coming benefits in iOS 11.

The primary issue, of course, continues to be the lack of an on-screen pointer and a mouse or trackpad. Even for something as basic as writing this post—which, yes, I did with the iPad Pro—being able to position the cursor exactly where you want it is crucial.

But let’s get past that. A lot of the complaints that I, and others, have made about Apple’s post-PC efforts are built on tradition, familiarity, and, let’s be honest, PC bias. It’s important to remember that most of the activities we used to do on a PC are more efficiently done on mobile devices now. And that writing and other productivity tasks are, for many, the exception not the rule.

It also occurred to me recently that some of my complaints about iPad Pro productivity are a bit unfair. For example, with iOS 11 and an iPad Pro, you can position two apps on screen, side-by-side, in a simple form of multitasking. On the smallish 10.5-inch iPad Pro I’m using, those two apps are not full-sized, and are in effect the iPhone versions of those apps. This is, I argued, problematic.

And maybe it is. But here’s the thing. I don’t even use this kind of feature on my PCs. So why would this matter on an iPad?

Consider a typical workflow for me. Microsoft publishes a blog post, and I want to report on it. So the blog post is open in a web browser window and I have my text editor—Markdown Pad on the PC, but it could be Microsoft Word or anything else—open in a separate window. I don’t actually—or ever—place these two windows side-by-side. Instead, I switch between them using the ALT + TAB keyboard shortcut.

Well, guess what? That works just fine on the iPad Pro, too. The only difference is that the keyboard shortcut for app switching is COMMAND + TAB. Whatever.

Of course, the real difference is that I can select a quote from a Microsoft blog post with my mouse very easily, copy it to the clipboard, and then paste it into my editor. This procedure would require some deft touch gestures on my part, thought the copy and paste part (COMMAND + C, COMMAND + V) would work normally. I bet you’d get used to it.

The one thing I’m not a big fan of, at least on my 10.5-inch iPad Pro, is Apple’s Smart Keyboard. It’s expensive, at $160, though its fabric-covered keys are actually fine. The issue is that it’s too small (and that it offers only one display angle). If you’re a smaller person—man, woman, or child—you might be OK with it. But I would need the larger 12.9-inch iPad for a satisfactory typing experience. And that version is more expensive and is overly large for a tablet.

If you can forget about the Smart Keyboard and move on to a more realistic typing experience—say, Apple’s Magic Keyboard or any other Bluetooth keyboard—things start to get interesting. First, any Bluetooth-based hardware keyboard will better than the Smart Keyboard. All you’d need is a normal Smart Cover to prop the thing up.

Of course, the Smart Cover also only provides a single viewing angle. If this is unacceptable, you could try a third-party adjustable stand. I bought a Satechi R1 multi-angle tablet stand from Amazon on the Twitter-based advice of Betanews’ Brian Fagioli. It provides different heights and angles, which I like. But you can also use the iPad in portrait mode. I always thought that configuration would make for a decent writing setup, and it does.

In case it’s not obvious, what I’m describing here is a bit complex and expensive: The Magic Keyboard is $99, for example, and the stand I ended up buying was about $35. But you could get cheaper variants of either. And it’s worth remembering that the Smart Keyboard costs $160 anyway. So, you’re saving money, in a way.

It’s a lot of trouble to go to, to make this work. You’d have to cart around all this stuff, and, of course, you still wouldn’t have mouse cursor support. But I feel this feature is inevitable, and that a Bluetooth-based touchpad like Apple’s Magic Trackpad 2, would solve the problem nicely. Maybe that will happen with iOS 12 in 2018.

In the meantime, no, the iPad Pro is not a laptop replacement. Except, of course, that it is.

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