You likely use a laptop as a primary productivity tool, since it’s powerful and makes any task possible. And you likely think the iPad is a cute device that is useful for people who don’t work with numbers, and who don’t multi-task between powerful apps to get things done. Which was true up until the last few years. Since I replaced my laptop with an iPad Pro last year, it was surprising to see how the iPad somehow managed, a decade later, to become a better productivity tool than a laptop.
1. The physical structure
The physical structure of the iPad is a significant evolution from laptops. The iPad is a tool that can be used in many more contexts. First, the iPad can have a similar setup to laptops, where it’s attached to the keyboard. The Smart Keyboard Folio looks like a toy, but is surprisingly pleasant to type on. The keyboard is narrow, so the hands can easily reach for the screen. The keyboard attaches magnetically to the back of the iPad, which makes it easy so it’s practical to alternate between holding the iPad by hand, and attaching it to the keyboard. And that is part of the evolution. I use the keyboard to type, then hand hold the iPad to read and produce media. It’s really no issue to keep alternating between the keyboard and the hands in one sitting. It might sound silly, but it’s very pleasant to sit back on a couch, remove the keyboard, and edit a movie. This is specifically for the 11' screen, and might not hold true for the 13'. Since iPad OS uses the small screen size efficiently, I rarely think about needing a larger screen. A nice side effect here is how portable this tool is. Suddenly the train table is not so small. The backpack space needed for the iPad, keyboard and charger is negligible.
The last physical piece of the evolution is the pencil. I thought it’s just for artists. Turns out it’s well integrated with iPad OS in helpful ways. Touching the pencil while iPad is turned off automatically shows an empty note you can sketch on. You can also use the pencil to annotate screenshots. Move the pencil from the side of the screen to capture a screenshot, then draw directly on it. If you do that in Safari, you can take a full webpage screenshot, then save it as a PDF. You can also open any PDF, then use the pencil to highlight things or fill out a form like you would on paper. Sketch an idea effectively in a Keynote presentation, or review a Microsoft Word document by using the pencil directly on text. In Adobe Lightroom, use the pencil to selectively edit parts of a photo, and move the sliders with more accuracy.
2. The internal hardware
The power that comes from such a small device is quite impressive. This thing is a beast, even compared to MacBook Pros. Intensive apps like Lightroom and LumaFusion perform smoothly, even as they are exporting videos and raw photos simultaneously. Even without a fan, the iPad barely heats up.
The multiport adapter unlocks quite a few opportunities as well, since it has HDMI, USB-old-school, and USB-C ports. There’s the traditional things like connecting an SD card and a hard disk. But more interestingly, by connecting the HDMI adapter, I can mix live audio and video from Algoriddim’s djay app, while simultaneously previewing the next song on my headphones. A lot of other apps make use of the multi-port adapter. For example, Luma Fusion can play a 4K video preview on the TV, while keeping the editing interface on the iPad itself. And the USB ports can be connected to a hard disk and SD card, so I can import photos into Lightroom.
The battery power of the iPad far surpasses that of the Macbook. I don’t have to worry about forgetting my charger at home. Apps like Google Hangouts, which generally drain laptop batteries, perform much more efficiently on the iPad (by the way, screen sharing to a Hangouts call is easy). Finally, compared to a Macbook or Surface, the iPad’s cameras have better resolution, the speakers provide fuller sound, and the mic is more accurate. It’s weird that a tool smaller and thinner than a laptop performs better in all respects when it comes to what needs space the most – hardware.
3. The operating system
It took a decade, but iPad OS is now an evolution of desktop-based systems. Especially for multi tasking. It always seemed that the way desktop systems do multi tasking is the right way. I never questioned the time it takes on desktop to setup apps side by side, dragging and resizing them until I see all the needed content. And even then, so much wasted space remains on the screen because of how apps organize content. Then I have to resize a window to reach an item in the toolbar. And even then, I always ended up with wasted space on the screen. Or if it’s not wasted, it would be another app in the back of the screen that adds clutter and makes it harder to find my way through the many windows. When I need to drag an image to an app, I have to align the finder and app so I can move things around.
I don’t know if the iPad team questioned these drawbacks, or they were just trying to figure multi tasking within iPad’s existing OS. But it looks like they hit the jackpot. The way multiple windows work together is an evolution in the efficiency of multi-tasking. Apps make use of all the screen’s real estate, and the system makes it easy to work with a few apps in tandem. That’s without ending up with a stack of apps on top of each other that I eventually navigate like a maze. Two apps can be shown at once, through drag and drop interactions. I have control over which app occupies more space, and I don’t need to constantly resize each side of a window to show that last button in the toolbar. If I need a separate app for quick reference, like I often do with Google Keep or Slack, I can make it a slide-over app, which I can slide in and out as I need it. And if switch from Netflix to another app, the video continues playing on the side, only occupying the space of a video. With all that said, it actually feels that a desktop system is completely unaware of how we all use multi tasking nowadays.
The iPad system significantly capitalizes on drag and drop interactions, and not just for setting up multiple windows. It’s taking advantage of humans’ ten fingers and that natural gesture to make moving things around powerful. For example, starting from Files app, grab a file. Or multiple files, by keeping the first file on hand, and tapping the others you need. You could even browse folders and choose files from different places, as long as the selected files are kept on hand. Then feel free to browse further to the desired folder, and drop the files on hand so they all move there. Did you actually want to drop these files in a different app, like maybe to send them in an email? You can keep the files held in place, exit the files app, go to Mail app, tap to create a new email, and drop the files there.
The power of holding items on hand is not restricted to files. I can grab an image in Safari with one finger, switch back to Google Docs with another finger, and drop the image in a document. Or grab a few videos in Photos, switch to LumaFusion, and drop the videos in the edited timeline. Or select a sketch I drew in Notability, grab it and drop it straight in a Google Slides presentation.
Since I’m a little of a power user, the Shortcuts app is the final piece that really makes the iPad system powerful. My workflows often involve tiny technical things, like encoding an audio file to another format, converting a PDF into images, or combining 3 screenshots into just one image. Apps and websites that accomplish these tiny technical things exist. But the experience of finding these services and having to go through ads is neither productive nor enjoyable. With Shortcuts, I can quickly save a sequence of powerful actions that complete many of these technical things. So far this is similar to the Automator app on Mac OS. But Shortcuts goes further. You’ll notice that installed apps can also add their own actions, making it easy to complete a sequence of actions that involves multiple apps. And since Shortcuts show up in the share sheet and within Siri, it’s much easier to trigger a Shortcut.
So this is how the iPad redefined the main tool I use for learning and producing. A decade after iPad launched, it now stands as the evolution from laptops. The physical structure makes it pleasant to use this tool in many situations. The hardware makeup unlocks more potential than a laptop. And while desktop systems are stuck with the same multi-tasking workflows as a few decades ago, iPad’s operating system reviewed what it means to multi-task in today’s world, and redefined productivity along the way.