My desk at the Magnolia headquarters in Basel.

Making an iPad Pro my primary computer (and it’s not a test)



In late December 2015, I replaced my Macbook Pro with an iPad Pro to take on the role as primary workstation. These are my notes on how that went down. Since so many others have described — in detail — the annoyances that come with working fully on iOS, I’m going to focus on other more positive aspects. And honestly, if you think the big question is if the iPad Pro can replace the laptop or not, you’re in for a little treat. After my first 3 full weeks of working all-day on the iPad, it became clear that there’s something far more interesting going on than the replacement viability debate.

Enjoy that I can configure the keyboard and screen to match the surroundings. This is me on a long train ride in Switzerland.

The harddisk is no longer my home

I’ve switched completely from a MacBook Pro to an iPad Pro. You might think this is just yet another test if it really can — or cannot — replace the “real computer”. But the more I observe my own usage pattern after moving to the iPad, this becomes clearer:

The entire discussion about whether or not the iPad Pro can replace the laptop is not the real question to explore. I’m not switching from one thing to another one thing — but from relying largely on one main computer accessing many things — to a much more modular computing setup. The harddisk is no longer what I keep organized and controlled. The main computer is gone. I’m no longer trying to set up that one computer to make it match everything that I do and aspire to. I just need thinner and much more modular clients to jack me in.

Before trying it out, I was worrying a bit about how setup would work on a plane. But it works and you’re allowed to use Bluetooth to pair the devices.

Letting go of access to the file system effectively pushes you — big time — towards accessing and creating your assets via multiple devices in multiple ways. We’ve talked about this for a long time but even though I’ve depended on assets in the cloud for years, using many devices to access them, this transition to an iPad Pro was the last great push. One that I will probably never return from. And it was a push in that direction far more powerful than any ChromeBook could have sparked.

My digital home is just no longer the disks I control but anything I have the password to. That coupled with a physically modular setup gives you something much more surprising and deeper than any small or big annoyance you can spot while moving from OS X.

Now let’s dive into the observations and also look at the peripherals I added to make it work.

The details

Remember that unlike other posts on the subject, this is not a temporary test, a review or an experiment. I’ve spent all the money I had for buying new gear — so it HAS to work.

Surprisingly, I can work for hours with the tablet just being held up by the Smart Cover on my knees. Oh, the joy of not having an overheating MBP on the lap anymore.

Now why would I spend so much time going into details about all this?

First of all, selecting tools will always impact your work. It’s important.

If you place yourself in front of an email app, you will start spending time answering emails. If you have windows to move around, you’ll see yourself spending time doing so. Same goes for hardware; when you pick a laptop with loads of memory, you will fire up more apps and multitask more. It goes on: Certain cameras will push you to take certain types of photos…

So my questions easily turn into these kinds: Will defaulting to a safe choice of workstation also lead to a certain type of work output? How will a more uncommon setup impact the results of those endless hours I spent with the tools? After my first weeks, it’s become clear it does indeed impact the output.

The other reason for posting about is this: Most of the iPad Pro reviews state that the Pro cannot replace your laptop. After looking through the list of pros and cons I wrote down, I realized it just wasn’t the case for my needs. That simple realization about the overwhelming amount of reviews may be helpful to others, otherwise turning down full-time tablet computing. And on that note, “Can the MacBook Pro Replace Your iPad?” is a fun read :-)

Using (not testing) the software I help build

Because I work in product management at Magnolia International — a company that has invested in iPad compatibility for several years — I also want to champion using our own CMS with the iPad. I think specialized testing of such will always be inferior to working on your normal gear, doing real work. When Magnolia 5.0 was released, it was a pretty big deal that you could use an advanced CMS on an iPad. Today, that doesn’t sound quite as wild — but when you look at most of the enterprise class CMS’s out there, there’s typically still a long way ahead.

The discharged gear

Until New Years 2015, I ran on a retina MBP, mid-2014, 13 inch, 2.8 ghz with 16 gigs — on betas of El Capitan. Some of the software I used most frequently included Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, Axure, Slack, Hipchat, PhoneView, Stache, 1Password, OmniFocus, Helium, Kaleidoscope , Evernote, every alpha/beta browser I could get my hands on — and a ton of other stuff that I’m already starting to forget but which was all very important, eh.

My new setup

Here’s what I bought instead:

  • iPad Pro 128, WIFI, Silver
  • Magic Keyboard 2
  • Apple Pencil
  • A Smart Cover (white like the silver iPad front)
  • iPhone 6s Plus (I will get back to why that’s of importance in this context)

Mobility & convenience

I also ordered these accesories which I think are important to make it all work out. I work from both Copenhagen and Basel — which means the gear also needs to work well while traveling.

iSkelter Canvas Smart Desk (the pro, iPad variant)

Waterfield Magic Keyboard Socket:

Wrappers iPad Pro Wool Felt Cover Grey Portrait:

The backdrop

The way I look at it, choosing a computer setup is similar to choosing an instrument for a musician. I’m not at all deep into the technical specifications of computers — just like musicians often aren’t that concerned with the factual specifications of their instrument. But how it plays out, what they can do with it, how it looks and feels — and quite simply what they can create in symbiosis with the instrument… That counts.

My folks are both musicians and seeing my dad speculate over the subtlest delicate differences between the sounds of two grand pianos is a level of gear obsession to which I will never aspire.

The iSkelter lapdesk. Multitasking surprisingly happens naturally via the iPhone when something is cooking on the iPad

But what about Photoshop?

Apart from having to give back my old computer to my now former employer, the job change also meant new responsibilites and thus, new computer tasks. In the past, I’ve been producing tons of UI and design files for both screen and print. In my new job, I don’t have any design tasks — which basically just meant I didn’t necessarily have to run Adobe CC anymore. That’s a pretty big thing to let go of for someone who has been using Photoshop for hours every day for 20 years.

When it dawned upon me that I had the option to do something new with my tech setup, I spent countless hours in November and December of 2015 researching. And I put a great deal of thought into it after I figured out that I didn’t need to just go with an ordinary full OS X setup anymore. The easy choice would have been to just go out and buy a Macbook Air. Apart from the fact that I find the Air somewhat ugly, I just wanted to explore the options more.

I started by asking friends on Facebook for help. Lots of great and insightful input from them — but unfortunately it’s all in Danish.

The pro with the magic keyboard on a flight.

The big list of cons

I then made a list of what I would be saying goodbye to if I left OS X.

What surprised me was this:

The list really wasn’t that long. Some of the painpoints of trying to move to an iPad Pro which others have described are just not relevant to everyone.

The only big issue was a private theme: Using Bridge and Photoshop for my decade-long photography addiction. But given that it was almost only a private concern, that naturally meant I should just get me a cheap used MBP for that. I also used to be a heavy Axure user — but now I can’t wait to start using something else. Some have pointed out that using multiple applications (more than 2 in split-screen) is a big thing only possible in iOS X. To me, I was looking forward to blinders. Because my computer can do a gazillion things at once, it doesn’t mean that it’s a good habit.

Btw. if you want a different view on how to use the iPad Pro as primary computer, be sure to check out Jon Wheatley’s good post on Medium, too.

After having looked closely at that list of cons and trying out the iPad Pro several times, the choice ended up being straightforward. I could see it all come together and could suddenly feel the realism in the project.

Help. Am running in circles!

Interestingly so, my new setup greatly closely resembles a computer setup I used many years ago. I was the editor of a mobile computing section of an online Mac publication back in the late 90's. Back then, my mobile gear was a Newton MessagePad 130 with its stylus and an external, corded keyboard — plus a now vintage Nokia phone with a modem connecting the MessagePad to the Internet.

The setup I had in 1998–1999: A Newton MessagePad with the external keyboard. Am I running in circles?

What I really like about the iPad Pro + Pencil + a Magic Keyboard is just the same. It’s not all stable at times but the advantages of modularity far outweigh the annoyances.

Hello, modular computing

What this really comes down to is that I enjoy accessing and creating stuff in ways that work well with the context I’m in, from moment to moment. Just like with the Newton MessagePad, I’ve chosen a setup that’s as modular as it can be. The variations of how to use the iPad are plentiful. With or without the detached Bluetooth keyboard, with or without the Pencil — standing, sitting or lying — in combination with the phone — or even with an OS X computer capable of running those apps that iOS cannot (I have a Mac Mini for backup access to my old files when I need to pull them into the cloud). Adobe’s handovers to desktop apps are well done for example:

Adobe Comp is a very impressive tool.

The big surprise on repeat:

My digital home is no longer the disks I control but anything I have the password to.

Be that storage on my iPad Pro, cloud services, external drives or SSD’s at home. The point is that I’ve stopped trying to control the files in the file system on disks but am relying solely on ‘access’ through whatever. It feels quite liberating to give up all the control mania of the one computer, carrying the one disk that almost came to the point of mirroring my personality.

I can easily think of going away from the iPad Pro. But giving up this modular computing style is probably not going to happen anytime soon.




Lead product manager of Magnolia. Former product strategist and UX’er on the Neos team. Open design advocate.