Sketchbooks vs Lap TVs
I forgot my iPad today
The iPad was released nearly a decade ago, in 2010. I bought the first one, and a few weeks ago I bought the most recent one. Every year I check to see if the iPad can replace my laptop, and every year it gets a little bit better. (Below I’ve included two essays from my 2016 and 2017 experiences.)
I’ve been using my iPad Pro at work for a few weeks, and this time the move away from my laptop might stick. There are some notable exceptions — Sketch doesn’t work on iPad — but most days I can go the whole day without a laptop. Until today. I realised at the bus stop that I had left my iPad Pro at home, so I tried running my decade-long experiment in reverse: can I go a whole day without an iPad Pro?
The answer, of course, will be yes. But my brain is already beginning to shift back to the old laptop way of thinking. When I’m using my iPad, it’s like a sketchbook. I’m manipulating the page directly, I find myself drawing a lot more, and most scenarios are single-use. The iPad forces me to focus, and I love how that feels. It’s tough, but in a satisfying and productive way.
Whereas macOS on a Macbook Pro feels more like a lap TV: 600 tabs and nothing’s on. The laptop fits on my lap just right for marathon procrastination sessions. The ability to tile infinite windows gives me a lot of power. Keyboard shortcuts and a mouse allow me to fly through the interface. But it’s harder to feel like I am actually making progress. I’m constantly keyboard-shortcutting my way to internet news when I meant to tackle a task, or reading Medium posts when I meant to write a Medium post, or getting lost in an email thread when I only meant to check if the client had gotten back to me yet.
The Lap TV is really great at diffusing my effort into a hundred directions. My iPad sketchbook is better suited to single-tasking, and that’s its killer feature.
I write articles like this once a year. Below I’ve attached two essays from what I was saying in 2016 and 2017.
I Am Confused By How I Feel About iPad Pro (2016)
I recently read this tweet that said “When I don’t sleep enough I feel like shit. When I get enough I feel great. I just wish there was something I could do with this information.”
For many people, eating well or exercising leads to similar feelings of ambivalence. You know you should. You know it makes you feel better. You’re motivated to, on an intellectual level. But you just don’t follow through. Your heart isn’t in it.
That’s how I feel about iPad Pro, so I’ve been analysing why. I build products and teach others how to build products for a living, so the more I can understand about my iPad Pro ambivalence, the better I’ll be as a designer.
I Can’t Hold It Right
You can’t use iPad Pro (the big one) on the bus or in the car. You can’t use it before bed. You can’t use it on the go. You can’t use it in the bathroom. You can’t even use it on the couch the way you can with a laptop, propped on your outstretched legs.
I’ve only found two successful configurations for iPad Pro: on a desk with some sort of prop or using my knees as a prop. That’s it. Unfortunately, I’m not in those postures very often. At work I spend a solid 8 hours a day with my laptop resting on my knees. That doesn’t work for iPad Pro (or Surface).
My Most Important Productivity Scenarios Are Slower
Whether I’m designing in Sketch, building a presentation in Keynote, or coding up a little prototype, I’m used to toggling between a ton of windows to get key tasks done at work. Each of the micro-tasks I perform are now technically possible in iOS, like opening external files, copying and pasting, seeing two apps at once, or writing long form content. They’re just slower on iPad Pro, and the time difference adds up. Ain’t no one got time for that.
But Most Software Is Better
Other than complex stuff like Sketch, Keynote, and development environments, I generally prefer iPad apps to their web or desktop counterparts. They tend to be more focused because they have to be.
Compare what Omni Group, Adobe, Panic, Apple, Microsoft, and Google ship on desktop versus what they ship on iOS and you see the same story each time: fewer features, which is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you don’t have to sift through a thousand menus to perform the action you want. On the other hand, sometimes the feature you want is missing.
And It’s Very Zen
Here’s the part that’s hardest to explain or understand. I just feel better when I’m using iPad Pro. Once I’ve gotten in the right posture and started in on whatever I’m doing, I feel calm. There are no overlapping windows to draw my attention or require fine-tuning. There are no bouncing dock icons. I don’t have to think too hard. When I’m done, the good feeling persists.
The app launcher, if it could talk, says “What is the one thing you want to do right now?” With one tap, that’s the one thing I’m doing, with a bias to stay there. Sure, I could pop back out, pick another app, pop out again, pick another app, on and on, but I don’t. Now I’m reading a webpage? Cool, I should read this webpage with my full attention. Drawing a comic? Let’s draw! Deciding to watch Netflix? Let’s just stay here and single-task. Huh, the cinematography of this show is actually pretty nice if you pay attention.
In Mac OS X, I’m constantly evaluating what I need to do next. In iOS, I settle in and concentrate. Sometimes my mind wanders. For example, I often wonder if I have new email. So I swipe from the side, see my email, pull to refresh, see nothing there, and dismiss it again. Apple’s decision to demote your second app to a tem- porary “peek” is brilliant. It biases me towards completing my task. The UI says “You’re done … right?” And I usually am.
But Then I Forget How Much I Like It
Whenever I’m packing my bag and I consider taking my iPad Pro along, I think “Eh, I wonder if I really need it today.” And the answer is always no. The Pencil is amazing, I prefer the apps, I think and focus better while I’m using it … but I don’t need it. Not the way I need a laptop.
So I skip using it for one, two, three days at a time. Sometimes a week. And every time I use it again, I remember all the benefits. I feel my brain shifting from the hyper blinky overlapping-windows Vegas-strip power-user over-caffeinated way I feel in Mac OS to the clear and healthy way I feel in iOS.
But it’s still not enough to get me to use it two days in a row.
2. iPad Pro, One Year Later (2017)
I still love using it, but I still don’t use it enough
Last March I wrote “I Am Confused By How I Feel About iPad Pro” and a lot of things have stayed the same. I still prefer using it, and I still reach for my laptop first. I have a few new thoughts to sift through.
I’ve been consciously paying attention to how I manage my windows on a laptop versus my iPad Pro. Last year I talked about how defaulting to full screen and iOS’s method of “peeking” a second app onto the screen helps me focus. Now it’s not just something I notice on iOS, it’s something I’m actively missing when I’m on Mac OS.
I’ve found great software solutions for nearly everything I do, and they store everything online. There’s next to no tax for switching from iPhone to MacBook Pro to iPad Pro. Data portability is a non-issue, even when using more complex apps like Numbers or Keynote.
The App Story
I spend a fair amount of time making graphics in Sketch and animations in After Effects. And sometimes I need to juggle a lot of files when I’m trying to upload them into bug tracking or make a deck. In those advanced authoring cases, I need to use my Mac.
But it’s not hard to envision a Sketch-like app or an After Effects like app coming to iPad. It’s just a matter of time. And I keep seeing examples of the iPad Pro versions of pro software actually being better than their desktop counterparts. Not weaker, not equal, but genuinely better. That’s exciting to see, and it’s been happening to me more.
I still love the pencil and I still use it a lot. It activates a completely different portion of my brain and my creativity than slogging through a desktop OS to try to wrestle creativity from it. And that’s a big shift.
Focus, Creativity, and the Death of Tinkering
One of the strangest things about using my iPad Pro is the sense that it doesn’t want me to tinker mindlessly. It wants me to do something great, then put it away. My laptop seems to say “I have 150 different things to show you, so settle in. You’re going to be here for a while. Longer than you expect. Longer than you planned for. Longer than you want.”
When I write on my iPad Pro, it feels like I should keep writing. When I get distracted and check my email, their peek approach is designed to say “this is in the foreground for now, but that’s temporary. Ready to get back to it?” And when I focus, I produce more and do it faster.
Instead of a series of small sprints, I feel like I do one focused marathon. I get tired faster by the clock, but I’ve often done much more in a shorter amount of time. Afterwards, It makes me want to get up and take a walk because I feel spent but also successful in the tasks I set out to do. I’m not tinkering and fussing, I’m creating. And that’s it.
The Apple Watch works for me in much the same way. I never stare at it. I never tinker with it. I never aimlessly flick the interface around to find something to do. It’s purpose-built to provide quick information and then be forgotten.
You see the same thing in heads-up displays in video games or car consoles. Those interfaces aren’t judged by how much you want to tinker, they’re judged by how quickly they can do their job and get back out of the way.
I’ve used desktop operating systems for decades, and I’ve never felt sated when I use them. I always feel like there’s one more thing I need to do, one more thing to check. I’ve used modern smartphones for ten years, and I can’t stop fidgeting with them. Pop open an app, pull to refresh, see nothing useful, close the app, wait five seconds, pop it open again. It’s mindless but it feels like the OS is encouraging it.
iPad Pro, in contrast, feels like it’s trying to help. It feels like it’s designed to facilitate my creative focus. It wants me to do a good job, then understand when my job is complete. It wants me to have a healthier approach to consuming technology: take only what you need. Then know when to stop.
I’ve been saying the same thing for three years. The iPad Pro is better for the things I want more of, and worse at the things I want less of. The big exception is Sketch, which isn’t on iPad. But there’s always next year…