One Month with iPad

My Late Review of the iPad Air 2

The first time I remember being profoundly delighted by a computer was when I got my first Mac. I was beginning my college career in the fall of 2009 and chose to get a 13” MacBook Pro. I loved it. It was the first computer I owned that felt nuanced and deeply considered.

I had been a Windows user for most of my life and briefly dabbled with Linux in 2008. I liked Linux more than Windows, but OS X was so much better that it changed my expectations of how computers should function. Since 2009, I have been a heavy Mac user. As the nature of my work and responsibilities evolved, so did my use of the Mac. It is one of the most powerful and versatile tools I have owned.

A month ago, I got my first iPad: an iPad Air 2. Having used it as my primary device since then, I can say this is the second time I have been profoundly delighted by a computer. As my Mac did in 2009, the iPad has changed my expectation of how computers should function.

Size

lt’s short-sighted to write the iPad off as just a consumption device. You can choose to use it as such, but it’s capable of a lot more.

The large size opens up the opportunity to do interesting things with software. This is particularly evident in universal apps. While the iPhone and iPad share a lot of software, in many cases it’s more useful and practical to use certain apps on an iPad.

For example, I can use Numbers or Pixelmator on my iPhone, but they’re much more useful and practical on my iPad. The same goes for working with lots of content. Being able to see a lot more content greatly increases the iPad’s usefulness.

I used to have to switch between two devices to use specific apps. With the iPad, I have almost all my daily apps in one convenient location. No unplugging and re-plugging headphones. No digging around in my pocket for my iPhone. Having everything in one place removes the cost of switching contexts when using multiple devices.

While being large enough to have a significant size advantage over the iPhone, the iPad Air 2 is still small and light enough to be extremely portable. My co-workers have remarked that they’ve never before seen me move around the office so much. With my Mac, I was fixed at my desk. With my iPad, I can truly work anywhere.

I can switch from sitting at my desk to walking circles around the conference room (my current record is 3.5 miles) — all while still working. If I need to read through a long document, I can just flip my iPad to a portrait orientation and plop down on one of the several office couches. It helps me avoid the downsides of staying in one posture for a long time, as well as the risk of repeated strain injury.

Finally, part of my job requires me to create and manipulate data visualizations and reports. The iPad’s large screen is excellent for that too. I can comfortably sketch concepts for a vizualization, easily manipulate elements in a report, and get a much better sense for layout and context in the deliverables I produce. There are so many ways the iPad’s form factor allows it to fit right into my workflow.

A Note About Accessories

A factor that significantly contributes to my iPad experience is my keyboard case. The ability to set it in an upright position is great for certain tasks. A physical keyboard is better when typing lots of text. A case is good protection against accidental knocks and drops. If you’re getting an iPad, I recommend getting a keyboard case to go with it.

I also recently got a stylus to use with my iPad. After a few days of use, I think it’s a handy accessory to have. The iPad is still primarily meant to be used with your fingers, but a stylus can be a useful tool for drawing, writing and annotating.

People have asked me why I don’t just use a Mac instead of an iPad with a keyboard case and stylus. The answer is this: the iPad is a fully capable and functional device by itself, but accessories can make a good thing better. There’s a huge market for Mac accessories, each enhancing some aspect of its functionality. The same is true of the iPad. You connect an accessory when you need it to complete a specific task more efficiently or comfortably. In many other cases, the “naked” device works perfectly well.

Hardware

There are three aspects of the iPad Air 2’s hardware that really stick out to me as contibuting to the delight. They are:

Speed

This iPad is a beast. It flies through almost any task I throw at it. Coming from a 2012 MacBook Pro with a spinning hard disk, I damn near shed tears of joy when I could launch Excel and open a spreadsheet in a matter of seconds.

When people ask me what I like about my iPad, its speed is frequently one of my top answers. I could write a song about how much I love using the iPad for this fact alone. No matter what I have to do, I reach first for my iPad. It removes the pain of death by a thousand cuts when waiting for a device to grind through common tasks.

The iPad probably benefits from a combination of powerful hardware, very little system legacy baggage and restrictions that force apps to be more efficient with resources. Whatever the reasons, the end result is a tremendously fast and capable device.

Battery Life

On a recent three hour road trip, I had my iPad tethered to my iPhone so I could stream podcasts, play music, read, tweet and chat. I was blown away when, at the end of the journey, my iPad still had over 80% battery life remaining.

The nature of my work means I’m not very far from a charger for any of my devices. Having a long battery life isn’t necessary for me to do what I do, but knowing that the iPad is capable of lasting for a reasonably long time makes me confident in having it around. Should I ever be in a situation where power sources are scarce, I can safely conclude that my iPad will stay functional for a decent amount of time.

Touch ID

My current iPhone is an iPhone 5c. I wanted it for the color and it fit in my budget at the time. It’s a great device, but it suffers from a lack of hardware enhancements Apple has introduced over time.

It’s only now, with my iPad, that I can experience the joy of Touch ID. It’s primarily a time-saver, but that’s no small thing. The little things add up to create a great big experience.

iOS

There’s no way for me to know if my experience with the iPad would have been just as delightful had I got the device before iOS 9. My hunch is that the effect wouldn’t have been as strong. Many of the features iOS 9 brought to the iPad contribute to the delight.

Split View and Slide Over are very handy. It’s not hard to switch between apps on this fast device, but this feature takes the friction out of multitasking. Every app that can take advantage of it should do so. I’m disappointed, however, in the number of apps with half-assed implementations.

As of this writing, Facebook Pages and Wunderlist have unusable layouts in Split View and Side Over (all you can interact with is the side menu). There is also the problem of the Split View app switcher. The order of apps seems random. I constantly need to scroll up and down the list several times to find what I’m looking for. Apple and developers: please do better with this handy feature.

Better system-wide support for keyboard shortcuts is a handy feature too. Sure, hitting Command+T to open a new tab is only milliseconds faster than tapping the “+”. Having it around, however, means I don’t need to raise my hands off the keyboard. It seems small, but I appreciate it. As I wrote above, the little things add up to create a great big experience.

I haven’t used Picture-in-Picture a lot, but the few times I have, it has been a nice feature. I’m disappointed, though not surprised, that the official YouTube app doesn’t support it. ProTube is a capable replacement that does support Picture-in-Picture. It has the additional advantage of sparing you the official YouTube app’s terrible new design. ProTube isn’t pretty, but it is functional and forward-thinking.

Overall, I’m happy with the current state of iOS on iPad. The field is wide open for Apple to drive this forward to enhance the iPad experience even more.

Apps

As much as Apple can do to make the iPad a wonderful device, it is ultimately beholden to app developers to give users the reasons to use it as a primary work device. In my experience, several developers have stood up to meet that challenge.

Here’s a list of the apps that contibute to my delightful iPad experience:

Documents by Readdle

In the absence of a good file management solution from Apple, the people at Readdle stepped into the vacuum to really shine with what is my favorite iPad app. Documents is excellent.

It is one of the apps that demonstrates thoughtfulness and care by its creators. The app has a fantastic combination of simplicity and power. Do you need something to simply let you organize and access files? Documents is the app for you. Do you need something to manage files across multiple cloud storage services? Documents is fully capable.

Name a task in file management and Documents will probably serve that need. It has a built in text editor. If you get Readdle’s PDF Expert, it will also let you annotate PDFs (a feature that helped me with this review). It can compress and decompress files and folders. It is even available in share dialogs and the system-wide document picker.

If you use an iPad, you need to get this app.

iWork

While not from a third party developer, the iWork suite deserves a mention for showing how powerful and useful iOS apps can be.

A few months ago, I discovered how wonderful Apple’s Numbers app is. For many tasks involving crunching numbers and visualizing data, it’s a fantastic app.

There have been many moments when I’ve used Numbers to make sense of some data, organized it in a meaningful format, added the appropriate illustrations to the data and generated a finished product to ship off to my colleagues and supervisors. More than once, the feedback I’ve received on this work has been very positive.

Without Numbers, producing work involving data and visualizations would not have been nearly as fast, efficient and flexible. The iPad version is one of the most full-featured counterparts to a desktop app I have come across. Pages and Keynote are fantastic and capable apps too.

iWork is free with any new Apple device you may have purchased since September 2013 (October for Macs). I recommend taking a good look at how these apps may fit into your workflow.

Microsoft Office

The Microsoft Office apps for iOS are very well done. Microsoft’s developers have the challenge of taking software that’s decades old and adapting it to new platforms and interfaces. Their iOS apps really shine in this context.

The core Office apps — Word, PowerPoint and Excel — don’t do everything their desktop counterparts do. For example, I can’t create pivot tables and perform complex chart edits in the iOS apps. However, with what they’ve done so far, Microsoft’s developers show that they are committed to meaningfully implementing features within the apps.

It’s not just the core apps that are great; the extended family including Outlook and OneNote is wonderful too. Outlook builds on the fantastic foundation of Accompli to create a wonderful email and calendar client. OneNote has plenty of great features for complex note-taking (my particular favorite is that it acts more like an open canvas than a text document).

I have an Office 365 subscription, which gives me access to the full feature set in the core Office apps and more storage on OneDrive than I know what to do with. I recommend subscribing and taking the Microsoft Office apps for a spin.

Workflow

Workflow is one helluva great app. It’s not just for “power users” either. I recommend this app for anybody who wants to ease some iOS headaches and catalyze their productivity on the platform. Simply put, the app lets you avoid several repetitive tasks through automation. In many cases, you can replace many taps with just one.

I recently created a version of Google’s URL Builder in Workflow. Google’s version doesn’t work on iPad unless you request the desktop site. It’s also a pain in the ass to use, since it can require lots of copy-pasting and app/tab switching. My Workflow version instead rapidly launches as an action extension in Safari, asks some questions and places the final URL on my clipboard.

Another Workflow I’ve created lets me save a file via an action extension. I’m occasionally annoyed when an app displays a system share dialog that doesn’t let me open a file in Documents. This Workflow lets me get around that.

There are many ways you can use Workflow. Take a look at the gallery and flex your creative muscles a bit.

Pixelmator

I occasionally need to create graphics and edit images for work. Pixelmator’s iOS app is thoughtfully designed and very capable of meeting that need.

The developers behind Pixelmator took what makes their OS X app so great and translated it very appropriately to the iPad experience. Tools are where you need them to be. Gestures work as expected. Particularly, the app has a fantastic granualar color picker — probably the most useful one I’ve come across.

There was virtually no learning curve for me in launching the app for the first time and doing significant work with it (granted, I am familiar with image editing apps). For a moderately powerful image editing application, that’s an awesome feat.

You may not need Pixelmator every day, but it’s great to have around when you do.

Others

There are a few others apps I either enjoy on my iPad or use to complete some part of my work. They are:

1Writer

I used 1Writer to write this review. It’s a simple app with additional power, should you need it. Federico Viticci has a great review of it.

Instapaper

It’s a great experience to read articles I’ve saved in Instapaper on the large iPad screen.

Tweetbot

When Tapbots creates apps, they take the time to painstakingly do them right. Tweetbot is one of my favorite iOS apps for its design and power. The iPad version doesn’t just heap shame on the official Twitter client, it offers a variety of fantastic features to improve your experience with Twitter. Mute filters, for instance, protect my sanity.

Reeder

Reeder is a simple and powerful RSS client. I love its clean aesthetic and handy features.

Overcast

Overcast is the best podcast client I’ve used. Marco’s done some truly great work figuring out what makes the podcast listening experience better. I listen to quite a few podcasts and can’t bear listening to them any other way now that I’ve had a taste of Overcast.

Screens

There are a few moments when I need my Mac to do something my iPad can’t. Screens is a beautiful and simple app that has allowed me to leave my Mac at home and still have it handy in a pinch.

Paper

Briefly mentioned above, Paper by 53 is a nice sketching application. I began using it much more after I got my stylus. So far, I’ve used it to sketch ideas and teach my son the alphabet. Check it out if you want a flexible and well-designed sketching app for iPad.

2Do

Following some frustrations with how Wunderlist was fitting in my workflow, I transitioned to using a combination of iCloud Reminders and Notes. After reading Federico Viticci’s review of 2Do, I’ve been giving this app a try. There are some useful features in this app, which has the added benefit of building upon my iCloud Reminders.

Clips

I don’t always need to manage my clipboard, but when I do, I prefer Clips. It’s clean, simple and thoughtfully designed.

Alien Blue

I can’t use Reddit’s web version for a long time without clawing my eyes out. Alien Blue isn’t perfect, but it vastly improves the Reddit experience for me.

ProTube

As mentioned above, ProTube is a great YouTube client for iOS that supports Picture-in-Picture.

Fantastical

Fantastical is a great app for managing your calendar and to-dos. I love its natural language input for events and reminders.

Drafts

I mostly use Drafts to compose Markdown-formatted emails, but it’s got a lot of powerful features. It’s a great iOS app to have around for doing useful things with text.

Sidefari

It’s a shame that Safari doesn’t support pinning tabs next to each other in a Split View-like mode. Sidefari uses the Safari View Controller to give this ability to us.

Transmit

Transmit is the best FTP client I have used. The app does a lot more than I need it to, but it’s never been too complex for my modest needs.

Coda

Coda is a delightfully simple code editor. I’ve only briefly used it since I got my iPad, but it truly is shockingly good software.

Google Docs, Sheets and Slides

To the extent that these apps let me get some of my work done, I like them. However, I am frequently frustrated by a mind-blowing lack of several basic features. For example, you can’t filter data (!). You can’t create and edit charts in Sheets. You can’t view comments in a spreadsheet or presentation. You can’t view past versions of a file. You can get a shareable link in the file browser view, but not from within a document. Lacking features such as these is a major annoyance. I don’t enjoy Docs, Sheets and Slides, but they do help me do some of my work.

XCOM: Enemy Within

I don’t play many games, but XCOM: Enemy Within is among the few that I enjoy immersing myself into. It’s a challenging and fun game I recommend to any fan of strategy games.

Wrap-up

For PC users, transitioning to work on the iPad can require some effort to unstick yourself from your PC workflow. The iPad is a different platform that necessarily should not work like your PC. There have been a few moments with my iPad where I’ve struggled to finish a task I’ve grown accustomed to doing on my Mac. It’s only been a month, but I know with time I will figure out how each device and form factor fits into my workflow.

I think it’s foolish to bind yourself to one device or form factor. I may not always be able to sit at a desk and use my Mac. If that ever is the case, I want to be able to pick my iPad or iPhone up and do what needs to be done. Some devices or form factors will be better at some tasks than others, but I don’t want a single one of them to be the lynchpin in my livelihood.

I’m glad to have boarded the iPad train now, even if it’s with an iPad Air 2 while some of my favorite writers and thinkers are transitioning to the iPad Pro. As a general purpose computing device, the iPad is delightful. Its future is going to be fun to experience.


Tangents

  • I find walking while working helps me focus deeply on a challenging task. It’s almost meditative. My Apple Watch appreciates it too.
  • Using OneNote and Paper with a stylus reminded of Microsoft’s Courier project. From what we know, they had some clever ideas. I would love, for example, to quickly clip content from anywhere and throw it into a notebook. 53, the company behind Paper, includes some former members of the Courier team. It’s not hard to see how their work may have influenced Paper’s design and feature set.
  • Speaking of 53, I purchased their Pencil a few days ago. It’s got a nice finish and works better than the cheap other stylus I previously purchased. There are, however, issues with palm rejection and the “eraser” feature in Paper and partner apps.
  • I have had a chance to briefly try an Apple Pencil in my local Apple Store. It’s fantastic. As others have mentioned, the palm rejection is near-perfect and touch latency is barely noticeable. If it worked with my iPad Air 2, I would buy it in a heart beat.
  • Having never owned an iPad before, I decided to go ahead with the iPad Air 2 instead of getting an iPad Pro. I don’t regret this decision at all, since the iPad Air 2 is a fantastic device. That said, I think I would enjoy an iPad Pro too.
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