iPad as a computer replacement

20 Nov 2018

There has been a lot of debate on the internet about whether or not an iPad can replace your laptop. This debate has reached vitriolic levels since Apple released the latest batch of 2018 iPad Pros, mainly because Apple specifically targeted traditional laptop usage in their launch event.

I’ve been a fan of the iPad even since it launched, and have owned each of the Pro models. I recently acquired the 11” 2018 Pro and a Pencil (I originally tried the 12.9” with a keyboard folio, but found it just too large for my usage requirements). I’m not going to tell you that an iPad can replace your laptop, but I am going to tell you why it has done for me, for most of my computing usage. In fact, for me the question isn’t “can an iPad replace your laptop” it’s become “can a laptop replace your iPad”, and for many of my uses the answer to that is a resounding “no”.

Setting up a Mac Mini

Lest you take me for some kind of wacky new-age computer user, I should let you know that I’m a dyed in the wool Mac fan too. I’ve been using Macs since 1988, and I use one for at least 8 hours a day when working as an app developer. My main computer personally is a Touch Bar Mac Book Pro.

This weekend I dusted off (literally!) an old 2011 Mac Mini which has been sitting idle of a couple of years. I decided my daughter could make good use of this, so coupling it with an old, but excellent, 23” Cinema Display I set it up for her to use. I’d previously upgraded the Mini with an SSD, but other that than it was a stock 2.0GHz i7 machine with 16GB of RAM - and despite being 6 years old it’s still a solid machine that compares well with todays offerings. That in itself says something about the slow pace of progress we’ve got used to for PCs and Macs.

Setting up the machine was a breeze - it wont run the very latest OS, Mojave, but it does run the previous version, High Sierra. All the apps I needed could be downloaded from the App Store, and I had literally zero problems setting everything up. It’s a pleasure to use, and that 23” monitor is glorious in 1900x1200 resolution - and I’m someone who’s used to a 4K monitor and my Macbook’s Retina screen.

Laptops Suck

Setting up this Mini really confirmed something in my mind. Laptops suck. Laptops are a form factor that has become so popular that they are now the standard computer for almost everybody. But a laptop design is a huge compromise: the screen and keyboard are too close, with the keyboard at the correct position the screen is far too low and close. The trackpad is also in an unergonomic position. The small form factor limits the capacity and expandability - I hope you MacBook Air users are happy with 2 USB-C ports. Laptops are also expensive, for the power they offer. They are also compromised on battery life and weight - these two factors are always in a trade off against each other.

I’m convinced that, for most people, working on a laptop is a terrible idea. If you are working for any more than short periods, you need to be sat at a desk. And if you’re sat at a desk you should have a proper ergonomic setup in order to prevent crippling neck and back pain or carpal tunnel syndrome. Therefore, if you are doing any significant amount of work on a computer you’re better served with a desktop computer - an iMac, Mac Mini or Pro (for Mac users).

If you absolutely need to have the portability of a laptop, then you should be using a desktop monitor most of the time, and disconnect your laptop when travelling (don’t get me started on people taking laptops to meetings!). But in doing so realise that you’re accepting a compromised and limited machine compared to what you could be using for the same budget if you’d bought a desktop computer.

An iPad use case example

“I thought you were going to talk about iPads?” I hear you ask. OK, let me illustrate with an example. After setting up the Mac Mini at the weekend, I headed over to watch my daughter swimming in a gala - a large ‘open meet’ where swimmers from dozens of clubs participate in multiple events as individuals, trying to win a medal and set a good time that will qualify them for the county championships.

The programme for this meet was a dense list of events and swimmers names and personal best times, running to 20-odd pages. It’s important to follow along with the programme so that you have a reasonable idea of who the actual competition is for your child, and what times they are setting. I used PDF Viewer on the iPad Pro to do this, using it’s search feature to quickly find names and the Apple Pencil to highlight them and note down times.

Galas are long and at times pretty boring, so having something else to do is useful. I opened up the Kindle app in split view, and finished reading John Sopel’s excellent book “If Only They Didn’t Speak English”. Having the book in split view meant I could keep an eye on the times of the swimmers but also read my book without having to context switch at all.

Of course, when it came to the races I was really interested in, I wanted to time them. This I did by running the Clock app in stopwatch mode in Slideover - the app runs as a panel on the right side of the screen that you can side out of the way and bring back with a swipe. This worked extremely well - now not only could I read my book and keep an eye on the qualifying times, but I could time the races and note them down on the pdf with my pencil.

It struck me that this is something that you just couldn’t - or wouldn’t - do on any other device. A phone just doesn’t have the screen space, even the very largest ones available today don’t come close to an iPad for screen size. And you wouldn’t want to sit reading a book on your laptop - have you ever read a book on a laptop? I haven’t. You wouldn’t be able to use a writing tool to quickly mark up a PDF document on a laptop either - at least not on a Mac. My iPad has LTE, so I was able to check the news and Twitter and email too - there’s no Mac laptop that has built in cellular networking.

Battery life was simply a non-issue, whereas using a MacBook for this length of time just wouldn’t have been possible (there don’t tend to be power outlets at swimming pools!)

Here was a perfect example of a usage where the iPad comes into it’s own. I suppose you could do something similar on a Windows Surface machine, which retains a full ‘desktop’ OS as well as touch features. I see a fair few of these being used on trains these days - however I have never seen a Surface tablet being used as a tablet. They always seem to be used laptop style, with a keyboard and trackpad. I did once see someone try interacting by touching the screen, but she quickly gave up and restarted to the trackpad. So I tend to discount Surfaces as tablets.

So here’s where I tell you an iPad is better than a laptop

I firmly believe that laptops are a bad choice for most people, unless you really need to work whilst actually on the move. If you must use a laptop, get a proper desktop setup for your main work location, with a monitor and keyboard.

But I also think that for most domestic use an iPad can absolutely replace a computer, and in certain usages there is no other device that can come close to it. The same is true of a phone, for a subset of these tasks - and it’s true that in parts of the world a phone is the only computer most people have or have any intention of owning.

Can an iPad replace a laptop? Definitely, and for certain things there’s nothing else that comes close. But what you should probably replace your laptop with is a desktop and use the desktop when your’e working. Use your iPad for everything else. That’s what I would do.