Could I go iPad only?

A thought experiment about whether I could transition to an iPad-only workflow for my creative endeavours.

Could I go iPad only?
Photo by Dmitry Mashkin / Unsplash

About three months ago, I bought a 12.9 inch iPad Pro refurbished from Apple. It’s the 2020 model, so not the newest, and I bought it mostly for drawing since I had outgrown the size of my iPad Mini 5. Hitherto, I’d always treated iPads as an accessory — something portable and convenient to write with when commuting and travelling, reading ebooks, and as a sketchpad for drawing maps and world-building.

Thanks to the pandemic and a change of job, my commute on overcrowded trains is a thing of the past, and I rarely travel more than 5 km from my house. As my reality changed, so has my tech needs. For years, I preferred light and portable — laptops over desktops, and the iPad Mini over its bigger brothers. Now I find myself using my laptop as a desktop replacement, that rarely leaves my desk, while more and more of everyday content consumption (and even creation) are done on the iPad.

This isn’t the first time I’ve contemplated a shift to macOS — I’ve considered it ever since Scrivener was released for iPad and Matt Gemmell began journalling his transition from macOS to iPad OS. However, with the iPad Pro now in my hands, this is the first tablet I’ve owned where I think such a move is a serious possibility.

My needs

Like most people, my needs don’t fit neatly into a single box. Even setting aside my professional needs, my creative life requires that I write a variety of content, create ebooks and their covers, draw maps, edit photos and video, record and publish podcasts (assuming I ever return to that), maintain my website and the server it runs on, and occasionally write code.

For writing, which is the bulk of what I do, the iPad is an excellent device thanks to its high-DPI screen, long battery life and over-abundance of excellent apps, not least my personal favourites, Ulysses, Scrivener and iA Writer. With these apps, I can also create ebooks and even, with a little work, physical versions. The only thing that gives me pause for hesitancy on this front is Vellum, which runs on the Mac, but not the iPad.

For graphic art, the iPad is also a splendid choice, thanks to the Apple Pencil and apps like Procreate and Affinity Photo and Designer. With this combination, I can easily create my maps and even book covers.

Likewise, the iPad is even very capable for video and audio editing, and frankly, its hardware is far better optimised for these tasks than the Intel hardware in my MacBook. Out-of-the-box apps iMovie and GarageBand are adequate for simple video and podcasting. Beyond the basics, and LumaFusion and Ferrite and pro-level video and audio editors optimised for both the iPad’s hardware and its input apparatus (fingers and Apple Pencil).

The only problem I foresee is the more technical aspects of my requirements — command lines and coding. While there are terminal apps for the iPad, they don’t provide local access, which rules out using bash scripts, cURL and FFmpeg, but at least allow me to remotely connect to my server via SSH. That said, automation and coding are possible on iPad using Shortcuts, Drafts, and Pythonista.

The case for the iPad

Hardware that adapts to the user

If I could encapsulate the iPad’s advantage over the Mac in one word, it would be transformative. Unlike any other Apple device, the iPad is the one that can adapt to my use as I shift contexts. In my hand it’s a great content consumption device, add the Apple Pencil, and it’s the best digital drawing experience available. Add a keyboard accessory like the Magic Keyboard, and it’s a decent surrogate laptop. Connect it to a USB-C docking hub, and it makes an okay desktop replacement.

Of course, Apple doesn’t hold the monopoly on this technology, and there are comparable devices from Samsung and Microsoft that offer the same abilities. I just happen to prefer Apple’s ecosystem.

Focus and simplicity

On the software side, iPadOS encourages a shift in thinking from the traditional desktop metaphor of files, folders and windows, to one based upon apps and tasks. As a writer, the space and mindset I inhabit are far more important than the hardware I use. Writing requires focus, and an iPad facilitates this need very well with its limited window manager.

On an iPad, apps work and look best when they are given your sole attention, and this is especially true when writing, but also in other contexts, such as drawing. I find myself far less distracted when I use an iPad because on the Mac it’s easy to open up a dozen different apps and quickly lose focus.

Similarly, iPadOS is unsaddled by much of the technical debt and complexity of its older brother. This is partly because iOS apps can do less, but also because app developers have spent years creatively overcoming limitations in power, screen real estate and input methodology. As a result, iOS apps are far more streamlined, easier to learn and use, and have better-designed interfaces.

For example, compare the difference between Scrivener and Ulysses. Scrivener’s origins as a desktop app saddled it with a complexity of widgets, functionality, and file format that has not transferred well to the iPad. This legacy has created a vast disparity between the two platforms that will never be bridged. Meanwhile, Ulysses was authored from the beginning with iOS in mind, and so the app behaves very similarly across the platforms and enjoys almost complete feature parity.

Another (perhaps unfair) example is the vast difference between Photoshop and Procreate. The former is a veritable kitchen sink of features with a learning curve steeper than Mount Everest, while Procreate is a very lean and capable drawing app, that’s highly optimised to the iPad’s screen size and limited memory.

What’s holding me back?

At first appraisal, there isn’t much holding me back from such a transition, but the sticking points are hard to overcome. Yet, as work through this thought experiment, I realise that most of my perceived limitations are self-imposed, and reflect my bias for how I would prefer to work in a given context. Although the iPad can shift contexts, once it apes a laptop or desktop, the cracks begin to appear. A first-party laptop solution costs a whopping $550 Australian, and while there’s a shift in form-factor, the software experience remains unchanged.

This problem is more glaring when docking the iPad with a USB-C or Thunderbolt display. While it’s cool being able to add peripherals like a wired keyboard, ethernet and storage, the iPad’s external display support is rudimentary. I’m certainly not the first to say this, but I’d love the iPad’s interface to become more Mac-like when docked. Keep Springboard on the internal display, but give me a proper multi-window manager on the external screen and use all its real estate, not just a 4:3 mirror of the iPad’s display.

There’s no technical reason why the iPad can’t do this, and any excuse to the contrary died abruptly when Apple shipped M1-equipped Macs and iPads. As far as I’m concerned, the guts of these devices are the same. No, the only reason why Apple doesn’t do this is because elevating the iPad would be the death of the Mac sales.

Concluding thoughts

Well, this has been an interesting thought experiment. While I think I could switch to the exclusive use of an iPad, I would be making compromises, that might prove expensive and frustrating — at least given the current state of Apple’s software and hardware ecosystem.

Presently, I enjoy the best of both worlds, and while this would be a cop-out if it were my sole conclusion, I still believe it’s the best solution for my needs and preferences as they stand today. If I’d known now that what I did a year or two ago, then I don’t think I’d have bought an expensive MacBook Pro, opting instead for the combination of a cheaper M1 Mac mini and an iPad Pro.

Even so, it’s telling that I wrote and edited this article on my MacBook. I did by splitting my time between the living room, bedroom and home office as my mood and kids dictated where I could and wanted to work. I love my MacBook Pro; it’s the perfect writing machine, not least because it doesn’t need a $500 accessory to shoehorn a slate into a form-factor that was perfected decades ago.

And yet, if I could only have one device, I would be tempted to cast my lot in favour of the iPad Pro, if only because of its transformative nature. Even though the iPad is not the best laptop/desktop replacement, it can at least ape the experience that’s good enough. The Mac meanwhile is a better desktop/laptop, but it cannot be a slate with the ability to draw on its display.

Regardless, this is not a transition I have to make, merely a thought experiment against the day Apple kills or merges the Mac with the iPad. That’s still away — even if that eventuates. Since I already have, use and enjoy both devices for their unique merits, I have neither the need nor desire to choose one over the other.