iPad Pro vs MacBook Pro Field test report

Every so often, I indulge myself with an off-topic article. Here’s a quick summary of my experience of temporarily using an iPad Pro in place of my usual MacBook Pro.

Last week I put my workhorse laptop in for servicing, as its internal fan was giving out an alarming grinding noise, and was getting very hot under load. Tempting as it might be to drop £2500 on a decent new one, and keep my 2014 model as a spare, common sense and thrift prevailed. So I have borrowed my father’s 12.9” iPad Pro with a Logitech keyboard whilst Apple do the repair.

The experience has been an interesting and educational one. Being closer to 50 than 40 means I am now already well into the zone of computing decrepitude, and unenthused by being forced to learn new user interface tricks. The journey from 1980s 8-bit computers to today has involved quite enough reprogramming of my muscle memory. My last switch away from a Vaio Z running Windows 7 was quite traumatic for this digital geriatric, with weeks of frustrating miscues and WTFs.

The first hurdle was to backup my father’s iPad so I could restore it to the same state on its return to him. This invoked a flurry of errors about media rights when I tried to do it to my own laptop, so I had to have a second go using my father’s account on their iMac instead. iTunes is a notorious mess, and lived down to its reputation. More on this later…

After doing a factory reset on the iPad, I then used a backup of my iPhone to configure it. Everything went pretty smoothly, although it took a long time to regroup the huge number of apps into folder to make them manageable again. I also downloaded the MS Office apps, which it turn triggered a bunch of futzing around to find a long-forgotten Microsoft login ID to activate the trial period.

At first it’s like learning to ride a bicycle, with frequent silly mistakes. The keyboard tricks you into thinking you’re still on your laptop, and you find yourself reaching for the touchpad, only to find it’s missing. The UI focus doesn’t always work the same way. Touching the screen of my main work computer always reminds me of being five years old and severe admonishments for putting greasy finger marks on the TV set. It goes against the natural law of separation of screen and dirty digit. The keyboard has different shortcuts than the Mac for symbols I often use, so you have to relearn those.

Apart from a great deal of re-authentication for every app and website, with plenty of lost passwords, the basic transition to being operational was easy. What has been really hard is to create a workflow that is smooth and simple. I combine Google Apps with Dropbox and a series of Web apps as the basis of my work. This clashes with the app-centric paradigm of the iPad.

For example, I use Google Mail in Safari and for any message I can copy the URL and then paste it into Kanbantool so that every card can carry its conversational context. With the Google Mail app, you can’t do that. Another closely-related example in Google Mail is that when you go to attach a file, it only shows the Google drive, not Dropbox.

Opening a Dropbox file in Work does work, but it is slow and there is a whole slew of waiting and cloud authentication. It’s not like having a native filestore and opening something in a local application. I still haven’t worked out how to get music from Dropbox into the player app, except via iTunes on a laptop that’s out of my hands.

You can’t pin tabs in Safari, so my browsing world is kept unusually neat and tidy, rather than being a maze of memes. The way the browser is invoked “in context” from another app, like mail, helps to limit the proliferation of digital detritus. It is neither better nor worse, just different. There’s a relearning and redesign process that adds to the mental cost of the switchover.

I have found that many apps lack the functionality I wish. Mailchimp’s app doesn’t let me edit, so I have to go back to the website. But the website doesn’t render well, so I can’t see the first column of reports. Kanbantool’s app is extremely basic, and only renders in portrait mode. Indeed, there are quite a few apps that are just direct iPhone ports, and this really don’t work well. Even Twitter hasn’t really thought through the native iPad experience, leaving loads of white space for no obvious reason.

My workflow is based on files and URLs, and the iPad is app-centric with a content sharing model. URLs are hyperlinks to resources, which are visible, and work remotely. The app content sharing model is “hypolinks” that are invisible, and only work locally. It’s a kind of impedance mismatch for digital workflow.

I do most of my work using the local filestore, and only use Google Docs for things that are genuinely collaborative. The cloud complements my experience, rather than being integral to it. Connectivity is not always assumed. A laptop is a networked computer; a tablet is a network computer. Being online becomes integral to getting anything useful done with an iPad, beyond replaying downloaded entertainment and reading books.

I could imagine using the iPad as my primary computing device, but it would mean rebuilding how I work to fit its native paradigm. I would switch to using Apple’s iCloud services and mail client. I would move away from local files. I would get the Apple Pencil and draw more charts and diagrams. I would use Microsoft Office far less. I might switch to an activity stream model like Slack, and away from email. My use of Zoom video would probably increase, and Skype would be ignored as legacy. The end result may be great, but the cost of a rebuild of how I work is a once-a-decade activity.

I have also noticed a few other hardware drawbacks to the iPad. The camera is on the left in landscape mode, rather than centred, so this makes you look oddly off-balance. The centre of gravity is higher than the laptop, so it more easily falls off your lap if you use it on the train, say. The “sweet spot” in terms of size is smaller than the model I am typing this on, as the new iPad Pro shows. Printing is best left unmentioned; you’re no longer supposed to use paper in the world of the cloud.

Whilst iOS is clearly the future, and in many ways superior to the near-obsolescent macOS, isn’t quite there yet for me as a road warrior. If I had an upcoming birthday and an unspent budget then I’d buy myself one for taking on vacation, but it’s not going to replace my MacBook Pro any time soon. The iPad cons outweigh the pros still, but not by much.

A fundamental vulnerability of the tablet is its large glass screen. The laptop format naturally protects this. I wonder how well the accessory case would take the kind of beating that comes with endless travel, at least when compared to the dents in my laptop’s polished aluminium. I’d miss basic things like USB ports and HDMI built-in, which Apple has foolishly (IMO) ditched on its new laptop model for fake simplicity. I like powering my iPhone from my laptop when tethered via USB.

The iOS software platform is maturing, and the applications are clearly often excellent. Until there is a critically large body of enterprise workers using iPads for creative activities, then the level of workflow integration will continue to be an issue. Files and URLs may be clunky, exposing the system’s innards in ugly ways, but they work and have huge ecosystems behind them that are extremely mature.

Apple’s continued use of iTunes is really problematic, as it’s a quality embarrassment. The iPad is not a Mac accessory, and the management model for media really needs a rethink. I would also like the iPad to integrate with things like the Time Capsule backups (maybe it does, but it’s not obvious!). If the iPad is made for the cloud, persistence is its weak point. I insist on a local copy of my own critical data, in a format that is useful even if Apple goes broke.

The bottom line is that the iPad could readily become the new mass-market default for many enterprise users, but it still needs to go through a cycle of maturing to meet the needs of that segment, and it is one that Apple has less experience of. Microsoft is clearly resurgent in many ways, and if Windows wasn’t a privacy horror then I could even be tempted back with a Surface tablet that offers a more pragmatic combination of familiarity and novelty.

In the meantime, I eagerly await my MacBook’s homecoming. My father can have his tablet back, possibly even with the same configuration if I can cajole iTunes into performing. I will miss this iPad Pro, but not enough to buy one at the price Apple currently asks.

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