iPad-ifying the iPad

As someone who never had a computer until middle school, it’s crazy to think that iPads existed for almost half of my life. I bought my first iPad in 2011. For 12 years, I’ve gone through 5 different models. This is a slightly long, two-part post reflecting on the role of tablet computing, and more specifically, iPad, in my life over the last decade.

“In another world, my iPad Pro was my only computer”

My first two iPads were mostly for reading and note-taking. The lack of real keyboard support meant that as much as I wanted this personable device to be my primary computer, it never quite became the center of my digital life.

My iPad (right) and my project partner’s (left). 2013

In 2015, the iPad Pro introduced real keyboard support, and since then, the specialized tablet has slowly become a new form of computing crafted for strongly opinionated workflows. A conditional revolution of personal computing, if you could call it that.

While all of this was happening, the Mac experience took a nose dive. The annoying Touch Bar, the unreliable butterfly keyboard, and the hotcake thermal systems that slowed everything to a crawl. To add insult to injury, the majority of Apple’s UI and app innovations also happened in iOS and iPadOS, while macOS felt more lacking and antiquated by the day.

So when the time came to replace my aging MacBook that served me during college, the iPad Pro was looking like The New World. After a brief stint with the iPad mini to take notes in college, I opted for an iPad Pro instead of a new laptop just before I graduated.

My first iPad Pro with the Smart Keyboard case. 2016

I was already drawn to the form factor of the iPad, so as iPadOS matured, I’ve slowly stopped using my Mac altogether. For almost 4 years after that, I’d only open up my Mac a couple of times per month to perform some edge case tasks impossible on the iPad. And every time I pried open that chunky block, I was reminded of how sluggish and counterintuitive it was. Even for workflows that were awfully annoying to do on the iPad, I was driven to find alternatives. The responsive speed, minimalist UI, and lack of window management overhead was worth putting up with its adolescent flaws for.

The “final form” of my full-time iPad Pro journey peaked with the Magic Keyboard. Released in 2020, this two-pounder literally and figuratively elevated the iPad Pro to be an official contender for all your laptop needs. The extensive cursor support meant that I had one fewer reason to boot up my Mac. The iPad had finally become my all-purpose computer.

Laptopification of iPad Pro. 2020

“Falling in love with desktop operating system…again?!”

After many years of using the iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard as my only computer, I did start to find a bit of an existential crisis in the device. With the Magic Keyboard attached, it was heavier than the lightest MacBook, but it did things that macOS can’t, and yet it was also not as “real” of a computer as macOS is. The Venn circles were looking pretty wonky.

At almost two and half pounds, it wasn’t as portable anymore. It was awkward to detach the tablet on the go, but at the same time too bulky to have it all the time. The design was definitely meant for laptop-like use, and not great for anything else that actually involves working on the touchscreen directly.

The Magic Keyboard kept me away from Mac’s ugly middle age crisis, but it also kept me away from using my iPad…as an iPad.

But one day, I woke up to something I thought was much farther away. Yes, the sky turned an apocalyptic orange from the unrelenting forest fires of climate change. But also, Apple Silicon came to life, Jony Ive left, and most unbelievably, macOS engineers were finally getting paid! Suddenly, almost overnight, MacBooks were really great again.

The M1 Macs from 2020 onward changed everything I hated about the Touch Bar Macs. It suddenly had all the modern apps, design, and features of iOS/iPadOS. It was responsive and springy like a young athlete. It was whisper quiet, even during video crunching and RAW importing. I didn’t have to worry about doing too much, too fast, too anything. I could overload it, interrupt it, demand things from it, and it obliged without a drop of sweat.

I didn’t think reversing age was possible, but Macs felt like teenagers again.

Comically, I “rediscovered” the productivity of window management, the opposite of the very thing that I loved about the iPad. I fell in love with desktop operating system again.

“I got a cheat skill in the Mac world and became unrivaled in the iPad world, too”

The iPad Pro was so much faster and easier to use than the Touch Bar MacBooks that I spent years using my iPad Pro as my only computer. But now that MacBooks reinvented itself again, I could finally free myself from the limitations of iPadOS and let the iPad do what it does the best: iPad stuff.

What is the “iPad stuff,” and what does it excel at? I thought about this question many times and landed on three key pieces.

1. Interactive reading

Reading, annotating, jotting down notes, all while listening to music. While the tools have changed, this workflow has been a staple in my iPad use. I could do the same on my Mac, and in fact I do often read on my Mac. But nothing beats the notepad-like portability of the iPad. The way that the entire glass transforms into a book without any extraneous UI in the way; the small joys of highlighting text and handwriting with my Pencil; the ability to annotate as much as I want in the virtual margin. The small details add up to an entirely different reading experience.

Yes, the feeling of paper books tops everything else. But it’s just so, damn, hard to get anything off paper. I have many paper books that I scribbled and highlighted on like a mad scientist and I regret that none of those thoughts, questions, diagrams, and summaries will ever see the light of the day. Because I’m just not motivated enough to re-read the whole 400-page book and transcribe not only what I put down, but also copy the corresponding text.

Especially since I started networked note-taking two years ago, the antithesis of an interaction-resistant medium like paper, there’s just no way I’ll ever be able to build that beautiful, aesthetic personal library stuffed with well-read paper books.

2. Focused writing and journaling

Writing is hard. As any writer can attest: writer’s block is a real thing. There are even apps that threaten you with complete erasure of your work if you don’t force yourself to keep typing. The slight distraction takes me out of my flow. And for a myriad of other excuses, I never even start. So it really helps to have a minimal user interface for writing. Not as far as a literal digital typewriter, but the iPad comes pretty close to it.

The iPad’s limitation is also its strength: full-screen Ulysses makes me temporarily forget that this slab of glass is also capable of hours of YouTube playback and hundreds of messages. In the moment, all I see is a black rectangle, a white background, and a never-ending scroll of words.

It defies reason, almost. Once could easily replicate that on a Mac with full-screen mode. I do it all the time. But maybe it’s the size of the screen, maybe it’s the weight of the laptop, using a laptop just feels more like piloting an airplane than riding a nimble single-speed.

One is an orchestra. The other is a harmonica.

3. Sketching

The language of my mind is visual. Over the years, I’ve relied on lines and circles as much as numbers and letters to think “out loud.” Paper and pen still provide the most pleasurable experience, but just like paper books, the friction to making use of that information digitally has not gotten less annoying.

The world of freehand pixels and Unicode glyphs stubbornly don’t get along, but Apple has gone further than anyone to elevate ink as a first-class input citizen. Features like Scribble makes direct handwriting in any textfield possible. Surprising “oh I can do this?” is the ability to lift text out of any image or handwritten notes that appear on the screen. It’s not perfect, but it really makes handwriting notes feel workable, native, and alive.

There’s something about carrying around 16 different “notebooks” designated for different purposes that pleases my inner organization perfectionist.

Final thoughts

Of course, an iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard can do so much more. I can shop, text, and email. I can book flights, edit photos, and watch videos. But reading, writing, and sketching are the raison d’être of the iPad for me. While it can do most of what I do on a Mac, it doesn’t have to, anymore.

So let me cut that line clean, let me simplify the iPad. A keyboard, a screen, and a pen. That’s it. The Magic Keyboard still has a place, but the slimmer, lighter, and touchpad-less Smart Keyboard Folio is now exactly what I need, and nothing more.

Form follows function. A library and a printing press in 760 grams, an infinite digital notebook that fits into my sling. My 5-year-old companion regains a stronger purpose as it takes on a simplified form that emphasizes its strengths.

It’s unobtrusive, understated, and ready to instantly come alive at the tap of my finger. Welcome back, my iPad.

Comments 2

  1. Tedd Fox May 20, 2023

    I have been iPad only for about 10 years. Mainly out of necessity due to the great support for dyslexia. I am not a fan of te Magic Keyboard because it is so heavy and limited in use. I have a Supcase case on my 12.9 iPad Pro and it has a great pencil holder as well! I keep a desktop Magic Keyboard and Magic Trackpad for when I really need them, but for the most part, I can leverage the on screen more a large amount of my needs. The Supcase also has a built in easel so I can stand it up landscape or portrait so when working on a long document I can type in portrait mode with the desktop keyboard.

    • Donny May 20, 2023

      Happy that it’s been working really well for you! A built-in kickstand would be really great to have indeed. I’ve been also thinking about using a larger iPad for brainstorming/photography work at home, as I’ve been using Freeform to do some layout work.

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