Why the iPad Pro replaced my MacBook Pro for travel

After putting his iPad Pro to use as his main work machine, Patrick Gray explains what he does and doesn't like about the mobile device and its accessories.

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Image: Apple, Inc.

I've had a long-running fascination with using mobile devices for legitimate productivity. From early attempts like the Compaq iPaq with a keyboard (some of you are smiling while others are wondering about a mysterious, small Apple device and questioning my spelling abilities) and IBM z50 to a more recent attempt in 2015 to use an iPad as my primary computer . All have failed in some way, and I've returned to a traditional Windows or OS X machine for my computing needs. Apple promises something new and different with the iPad Pro, and I set out to determine if the company finally fulfilled my desire for a mobile device that gets "professional" work done.

Apple suggests that not only can the iPad Pro replace your standard laptop, but in many ways is a superior device. Ads tout the new Apple Pencil and processing horsepower that "exceeds 93% of laptops," but also cause one to wonder who is the target market for the device. While commercials for the device show a shot or two of creating documents and slides, they spend significantly more time on drawing and DJ'ing. While my art skills don't extend much beyond stick figures, and my mixing career ended in the '90s with the mixtape, it seems one could reasonably consider me a "professional," with 20 years in my field, and a leadership role in one of the top global consulting firms. Unlike the Apple commercials, I'm more likely to be on an airplane doing slides for a client pitch than sitting in a laundromat drawing comics, but the promise of a lightweight, long-lasting device that changes how one thinks of and uses mobile computing does have significant appeal.

The "laptop replacement" fallacy

I don't have any special access to devices, so I pay standard retail like any other consumer. As one would expect, I spent a fair amount of time researching before spending the rather significant outlay required for a 256 GB 12.9" 3rd generation iPad Pro, Apple Pencil, and Apple keyboard. The items tallied up to $1,327 US before taxes (there was a $200 price match discount on the iPad), negating one of the arguments in favor for tablet-based computing: A lower price than most laptops.

While reading reviews and arguments for and against the device, many people suggested the final decision comes down to whether you need a "laptop replacement." Through this lens, the iPad, or any tablet based on a mobile OS is a non-starter, as you'll never be able to run the same applications and have the same software capabilities as a desktop OS. This seems blindly obvious, but many of the reviews I encountered dismissed the iPad and tablets in general since they did not behave in the same way as a traditional desktop operating system. As I investigate the iPad's viability for technology executives, my goal is to approach it as a new kind of tool, and see if it helps or hinders my ability to get work done vs. looking for exact equivalents of the software I use on a traditional computer.

How I use technology

I spend the preponderance of my time away from a desk, whether on an airplane, sitting in whatever flat space I can find at a client site, or huddled with my team in a car or conference room, so a highly mobile device is a priority. As my 3-year old aptly summarized for his preschool class: "My daddy rides on airplanes and talks to people."

I've left most of the hardcore technical and program management work behind, so the majority of my day is spent communicating with colleagues and clients, creating and collaborating on presentations, and reviewing the work of my various teams. Before switching primarily to the iPad for purposes of this experiment, I used a MacBook Pro running OS X from my employer and a Samsung TabPro S and custom desktop in my home office, both running Windows 10 for writing my TechRepublic pieces, completing personal tasks, and watching the occasional movie or goofing around. My primary applications, in rough order of use, are Outlook, Chrome/Edge/Safari browsers for work and client applications, Microsoft Teams (a Slack equivalent that allows for a chat and file-sharing/collaboration), PowerPoint, Word, and Excel.

SEE: The Apple Developer Program: An insider's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

For my specific use, iOS provides a major benefit right off the bat: It's the only platform my employer sanctions for running work applications and data on a personal device. As an Apple employee explained to me, iOS has what amounts to separate data stores for different profiles, allowing work and personal data to be segregated at an OS level. This allows my employer to monitor and manage my company email while having no access or visibility to my personal email, for example. While the technical features are great, from an end-user perspective, it's even better that I finally have a single device that allows me to work on my day job, writing, and personal affairs, all while keeping them separated at the data level.

iPad Pro: Noteworthy hardware enhancements

Like most recent Apple hardware, the 3rd generation 12.9" iPad Pro is solid, light, and well-designed in a businesslike if somewhat somber manner. As is the case with almost every new Apple device I pick up, I was amazed at how light yet solid the device felt in my hand. The 12.9" version of the iPad is almost the same size as a standard 8.5x11" sheet of paper, and a bit thinner than the average paper notebook or folio, even with the Smart Keyboard attachment.

The screen is fantastic, and with a narrow bezel, the front of the device is nearly all screen, a bit of a surprising experience if you're coming from a standard iPad or the average laptop where a much larger border surrounds the screen. The device is also filled with strategically placed magnets, allowing the keyboard to clip on and stay attached, and rest solidly in one of the two grooves that allows you to use the device like a traditional laptop. There's essentially no "flop" if you grab the iPad or the attached keyboard, a refreshing change from tablets I've used in the past where the keyboard and slate will disconnect with a slight move or turbulent airplane flight, let alone use in one's lap or bed.

Apple also revised its stylus. In typical Apple fashion to refuses the standard lingo, it calls the stylus a "pencil." I did not own a previous generation iPad Pro, but when using a colleague's device I was surprised how poorly the Apple Pencil was designed, requiring that you plug it into the port at the bottom of the tablet to charge, creating an awkward appendage that prevented the device from being easily carried or packed while the Apple Pencil was charging. The latest iPad Pro and Apple Pencil fix this problem, once again leveraging magnets to attach the pencil to the top of the screen, which also charges the device, a vastly superior solution than the "dangly, floppy tail" of the last generation. While well-designed, the Apple Pencil happens to be where you're likely to grab the tablet, and the magnets are less strong than those that affix the keyboard, so a bump in one's bag or a too-firm grab, and the pencil is likely to be dislodged, a potentially expensive occurrence should it be lost.

The other noteworthy addition on the hardware front is replacing Apple's proprietary Lightning connector with a standard USB-C port. This mirrors the transition on Apple's MacBooks, and it's great to see "one connector to rule them all" despite some sadness in the slow obsolescence of the zillions of Lightning cables scatted about my home and office. While USB-C works for everything from chargers to keyboards to mass storage, device support on the iPad Pro is limited.

Overall, the device is extremely well-designed and manufactured, and it feels like a quality tool. There's a more "serious" quality about the iPad Pro vs. the "regular" iPad, especially in the Space Grey color that looks like it could be the computing choice of Darth Vader. In terms of whatever definition you might wish to assign to the nebulous "Professional" moniker, the iPad Pro seems to fit the bill.

iPad Pro's software: This is where things get interesting (thanks, Microsoft)

It seems quaint now, but Microsoft and Apple were once archrivals locked in what seemed like an existential battle for the future of computing; however, the two companies have long since buried the proverbial hatchet, and Microsoft is now perhaps that company that makes the iPad Pro an extremely useful professional tool. If your company is a Microsoft shop, as my employer is, you'll find that Microsoft has created apps for all the common tools, from the usual suspects in the MS Office suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook), to tools like Teams, Yammer, and OneDrive. With the latter, I can access all my work and personal files using tools that are generally on par with the macOS versions, meaning that they're not as full-featured as the Windows versions, but include all the key elements you need for 90% of your work.

There are some missing features and capabilities, partially due to Microsoft and partially due to limitations of iOS. Perhaps the most noteworthy in the current version of iOS is the ability to have multiple instances of a single app open at the same time. This might seem like an odd complaint, but it becomes quite obvious when trying to perform simple tasks like opening two Word documents to copy and paste text between them or trying to open two spreadsheets to compare figures between different versions.

Another simple capability that we take for granted on a desktop OS is the ability to copy and paste content between applications, and that's missing on the iPad. For example, it's a non-issue to select a few cells of a spreadsheet and paste them into a Word document, or right-click an image and paste into another application. While iOS seems to do OK with images and simple text copy and paste, anything more complex loses its formatting to the point that it's unusable. The workaround I use is to screenshot the content I want to add and paste an image or to "cheat" and ask a team member to make the required update. Other missing features, like a lack of macro support in the Office apps, could be irrelevant or deal-breakers depending on your workflow.

The pen(cil) is mightier than the redline

You certainly give up some software capabilities, but you also gain the capabilities of a stylus, which Apple has dubbed a "pencil." As mentioned, Apple Pencil usability is vastly improved over the previous iPad Pro, and where I've found it most useful is for marking up documents, and small-group brainstorming. For the former, the Microsoft Office tools have the same review and commenting features you've come to expect in the desktop versions, but sometimes it's much easier to grab the Apple Pencil and markup a document. Particularly in presentations where review entails moving visual elements around, a simple arrow or two drawn with the Apple Pencil simplifies what is usually a convoluted comment that's misinterpreted.

The Apple Pencil also enables you to use the iPad as a "digital napkin" of sorts. I'm frequently in conversations with 2-5 people where we're trying to determine how to visualize a complex idea. The iPad is big enough to share with this size group, and the erasing capabilities and ability to send the end-product around immediately after the discussion makes it more effective than a whiteboard, especially in a restaurant or other location where a whiteboard isn't readily available.

The ultimate test: Leaving my MacBook Pro at home

I have a fairly mixed computing environment. In my home office, I use a variety of Windows desktops, primarily for my writing and personal work. For my employer, I use a MacBook Pro, which also has a Windows Virtual Machine that I'll invoke perhaps once a month. I spend most of my time at client sites or traveling to meetings, so I'm on the MacBook 90% of the time, and when in my home office, it's plugged into a USB-C dock allowing for the larger keyboard and screen of my home office.

After a week or so of using the iPad alongside the MacBook, I decided to leave the Mac at home and see if the iPad could truly support my workflow as my primary computing device. Like any new tool, there's a ramp-up period, and I'd find myself initially frustrated doing things like moving and resizing content on a PowerPoint slide, where the click and drag of a mouse was second nature. Without the crutch of my laptop, I'd spend the 5 minutes trying to figure out how to move a picture with my finger rather than the mouse, or do a quick web search to determine how to do a task that wasn't readily apparent.

The key mindset change was that the iPad is a rather different beast than Windows or even macOS. Common tasks like manipulating files or dragging and dropping that are fairly similar across desktop platforms might be completely different. What's interesting is that once you figure out how to perform a set of tasks, for example sharing content between apps, the iOS method is easier and more intuitive at least 25% of the time, about the same 50% of the time, and a bit more convoluted the other 25%.

By my second trip with the iPad, I found myself preferring it to a traditional desktop--my main worries we're quickly addressed. The keyboard is quite comfortable and functional, and while not up to par with a quality desktop keyboard (I usually use a Microsoft Natural keyboard) it's similarly capable and comfortable to a quality laptop keyboard. The instant usability of the device is also something I appreciate more than I thought I would. Modern laptops are a far cry from the Windows XP days where it might take 2-6 minutes before the device was usable, but they're still slower than the iPad, where a quick button tap, glance at the camera to unlock, and tap at an app and I'm productive. The battery will generally last me an entire 8-10 hour workday. There are extensive battery tests in other reviews with more technical details, but I've rarely arrived back at the hotel with less than 10-20% battery after a day that might include watching a movie on a flight, working on a variety of documents, and doing a video conference or two.

The weight and size of the device are also huge assets for me. Being constantly on the move, having a single device that's the size of a traditional paper notepad and covers all my work, personal, and entertainment needs is a massive asset. I can do everything from reading a book on a plane to tracking a cycling workout at the gym, to creating a client presentation and live editing it with my team. While not as exciting as it once was, the ability of cloud-based storage and tools allows me to access all my documents and tools from anywhere, and it's still surprisingly cool to find that everything from my OneNote-based "TechRepublic Ideas" notebook, to my Todoist-based tasklist, are synced and magically updated.

Intriguingly, at this stage of my career, I spend more time communicating and creating content that's later embellished and redesigned. In this role, the simplified interface and applications of the iPad have become a bit of a benefit rather than a handicap. With the exception of macro-enabled Excel workbooks that I need to use about once a month, I'm now loathed to pack my MacBook when hitting the road.

Is the iPad Pro for you?

Apple is nothing if not an excellent marketer, and the company recently made big promises for its next version of iOS, splitting off an edition targeted solely at the iPad called iPadOS . The biggest news is that Apple promises to add the capability to have multiple instances of an app open, addressing the ability to compare two Word documents, for instance, simultaneously. Indeed, the iPad Pro seems capable of more than its software allows at this point.

If you're in a role where you create and review content and communicate with a variety of teams vs. a role that requires complex document manipulation or technical work, the iPad Pro starts to make sense. If you add a role that needs significant travel and combine that with someone who does this type of work both professionally and for outside endeavors after hours, you've got a winning combination.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that there's a high price of admission, especially once you factor in the Apple-branded keyboard, which I would consider a mandatory accessory. To truly determine if an iPad Pro will meet your needs, I suggest finding a retailer with a reasonable return policy and attempting my experiment yourself: Lock your laptop in a drawer or leave it home on your next business trip, and you just may find yourself grabbing the iPad as your main computing device.

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