Technology

Using an iPad as my primary computer

While I’m on parental leave, I’ve begun an experiment to see how often I can use my iPad as my primary computer. I don’t have much need for my laptop while I’m not doing work, so I found myself reaching for the iPad to do quick tasks more often. In fact, I’m even writing this on it. By doing this, I’ve found that there are many places an iPad is just as good as a dedicated computer for getting things done, a few where it’s even better, and of course some major times I have to run to grab the laptop.

I got this iPad Air with LTE back in February or March, right before the COVID pandemic hit and I started working from home because I thought I’d be on the bus commuting every day like I had been. Having an actual connection on a device larger than my phone would be great for productivity beyond watching Netflix on my phone screen each afternoon. Even now though with my schedule quite different, I’ve found it quite useful and easy to pick up while I’m moving around the house.

A good keyboard really makes the difference between an iPad being useful for only consuming media content and actually being able to do productive work on it. I have two, a dedicated iPad keyboard with a stand that Microsoft makes, as well as the Bluetooth Apple Magic Keyboard that provides a more computer-like full sized experience. Most of the time, including now, I just use the Microsoft one due to ease of use. I wish it attached to the iPad directly like the official Apple ones so that I could use it on the couch, but it’s sufficient for working at the kitchen table or out on the deck table. Whenever I need to type more than a few words, I reach for the keyboard rather than depending on the onscreen one.

With the keyboard, productivity improves not just for typing. I can also come-tab through recent applications, making it faster to switch than jumping back to the home screen or swiping to bring up the doc. Overall, multi-tasking is one of the weak points of using an iPad as a primary computer. While it’s possible to do split screen between apps, I can never remember how to do it and actually do it accidentally more often than intended. When I am able to get it working, it works reasonably well for watching course lectures on one side and taking notes on the other. However, it’s still less seamless than doing the same thing on a Windows or Mac computer and still feels bolted on. The smaller screen size compared to my laptop also makes both applications feel cramped. Extensions like the one I use to auto-progress through the course playlist and remember my playback speed – I’m a 2x viewer and need the information to be streamed into my brain that fast – don’t work at all in the iPad’s browser, so I often end up jumping back to the laptop for longer sessions.

Not having a mouse really doesn’t get in the way very often. The touchscreen is still easy to use when propped up on the keyboard stand, and keyboard shortcuts make it pretty easy to jump around as needed. Having the extra hardware like TouchId is great compared to the laptop as I find it much easier to enter passwords, pay for things, and gain secure access to applications than compared with the laptop. The camera is also far superior to my laptop’s camera. In fact on one occasion where I used the iPad to call in for a video conference call, others actually commented on my hair since they hadn’t been able to see it on my laptop one. I’m not a person who takes pictures with the iPad, but it is nice to have the good camera on the back as well for scanning documents and receipts on the few times I need to do so.

Obviously one of the biggest advantages to using an iPad over a laptop is the application support and catalog of apps. Many of the apps actually work better than websites – though I still prefer the openness of the web – and getting logged in to them is far simpler. I can access various work HR sites like my stock plan, 401k, and healthcare through apps on the iPad which are much slower on the laptop. I can’t access all of the internal sites I need to for work as that requires a VPN, but more and more internal sites are being opened up and accessible through a secure app that works great on the iPad. I can also get my email, though it’s through the inferior default mail application rather than outlook, but at least I can also get my personal email and keep them separate. Our Slack and video calling applications are also great on the iPad and actually seem to be a bit more stable than on the laptop. Plus, not having true background multitasking on the iPad means the battery lasts me nearly a week compared to a few hours on the laptop.

Notifications are also dramatically better on the iPad than laptop. Since iOS was designed and built with notifications for apps in mind, and laptop Oses basically had them bolted on, it’s no surprise they are more seamless and useful on the iPad than laptop. When something happens in any of the apps I have installed, I’m notified quickly, often can take immediate action, or can leave them and triage them later in a much better way than the variety of notification paradigms on the laptop. I still prefer Android’s notification system over iOS in general, but iOS is still much better than the inconsistent notification mechanisms on a laptop.

In use, I would say the iPad is pretty much good enough to do everything I need my laptop for. I won’t be replacing the laptop for actual work yet, at least not until all the internal sites and tools are available on it, but for personal daily use, it’s more than adequate. Whether I’m watching YouTube or Netflix, writing a blog post, checking emails, responding to Slack messages, or browsing the web, I can do it all pretty easily on the iPad now. Considering the limitations of the first generation one I originally had, the iPad has slowly evolved to become a pretty good productivity machine rather than just enabling content consumption. I feel pretty comfortable using it on a regular basis now and my laptop is spending more and more time in the drawer now.

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