Notes on using the iPad Pro for “real work”

The iPad Pro is a capable machine for getting all kinds of “real work” done while on the go.

After much deliberation, I bought myself a new iPad Pro 9.7″ about four weeks ago, and since then I’ve been running an experiment to see if I could use my iPad for “real work”. Inspired somewhat by Steven Sinofsky’s treatise on why his iPad Pro has stickers, I wanted to see if I could leave my MacBook at my desk all the time, and only take my iPad with me when I’m on the move (in meetings, working remotely, etc).

My MacBook has been chained to my desk for three weeks now, and since then I’ve written blog posts (like this one), worked on spreadsheets, taken handwritten notes, read and responded to email, set up meetings and managed my calendar, presented with slides at meetings and taken notes, joined video conferences, made drawings, including a few lessons from a “learn to draw” course, surfed the web, read and marked up eBooks, written Python code, played games, watched Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and the European Championship, booked flights, ordered groceries, bought clothes on Zalando and bought other stuff on Amazon: all from my iPad. It is truly the most versatile computing device I have ever used.

The iPad is a capable machine for doing "Real Work" on the go.

The iPad is a capable machine for doing “Real Work” on the go.

In many ways, all of the things you wanted to do with your first iPad, but couldn’t, are now possible. The hardware is faster, lighter and better, for sure, but the biggest improvement is the software, both iOS and third party apps. Thanks to iOS extensions and multi-tasking, apps work together better than they ever did before. Persistent cloud services are baked into everything, so data and preferences are immediately synchronised across all your devices and available everywhere. Microsoft’s Office suite is now thoughtfully designed for iOS and they plug into OneDrive perfectly, and meanwhile Dropbox, which I use for personal files, is integrated into all other apps that I use so I can get files in and out of other apps easily.

I had an iPad 1 when they first came out in 2010, and I bought an iPad Mini Retina a few years ago. Neither of these devices found a way into my regular work routine. Neither was in any way capable of replacing my MacBook for anything other than web browsing, and with an iPhone in my pocket there was little upside to offset the added weight and hassle of carrying the thing around, so I couldn’t find a way to build them into my workflow in a meaningful way. There were too many reasons doing Task X on my MacBook or Task Y on my iPhone was just easier. The iPad 1 was quickly relegated to the coffee table by the couch for occasional web surfing, and nothing else, and my daughter appropriated the iPad Mini as a Netflix device. Now, however, with the iPad Pro I can safely leave my MacBook on my desk for the most part, and use the iPad in all the scenarios when I want to be mobile.

There are plenty of ‘real work’ tasks that I could easily get done on the iPad Pro while away from my desk. Here are some observations:

  • Reviewing a document or set of PowerPoint slides by scribbling on it directly with the Pencil is lovely: it’s so much quicker and more intuitive than typing everything with comments: you can quickly highlight stuff, draw arrows to indicate changes, and add quick comments in the margins. But if you want to edit a longer passage, the keyboard is right there when you need it. (One of the guys in my team told me he’s had term papers come back cleaner. šŸ˜‰)
  • With a HDMI dongle, presenting with the iPad is easy – and it’s even easier when you’re presenting to a TV with Apple TV/AirPlay.
  • No fussy display settings to worry about: mirroring worked first time, every time for me.
  • The PowerPoint app does a great job of presenting. You can add mark-up to your slides in real time with the pencil (that are automatically discarded when you close the presentation), and it also has a little ‘laser pointer’ feature, where you can point to something by holding on the slide preview.
  • It’s a bit harder to take notes while presenting, though, because the iPad won’t let you have a different app running on the device while presenting, but you can take notes either as annotations directly on the slide, or in the slide ‘notes’ field.
  • Excel works just fine, and you can view complicated sheets and update them easily. I must admit I miss my large dual-monitor setup for working with large and complicated sheets, but I was surprised how capable the iPad version of Excel is.
  • Long-form typing is easy when you attach a Bluetooth keyboard. I’m using the Bluetooth keyboard from my MacBook, and it works just fine.
  • Using the Apple Pencil to take handwritten notes is also great. I used to carry around a slightly larger than A5 Moleskine notebook for taking notes, scribbling drawings, etc, and I would scan in the important ones to Evernote. The iPad and Pencil combination has completely replaced that for me, with my handwritten notes going straight into Evernote, which saves me an extra step of scanning, and saves me carrying around an extra heavy notebook and pens.
  • Having all your files in the cloud makes working life on the iPad possible. I always have access to everything I need, without having to think about it.
  • I’m using Outlook for email, and the way PowerPoint and Excel are built in make it simple and seamless to open documents, review them, and quickly send back your comments.
  • All the apps I use in my normal workflow on the Mac are available and optimised for iPad: Outlook, PowerPoint, Excel, Evernote, Wunderlist, Pocket, Dropbox, OneDrive, Skype, Slack and of course Safari. (Sadly however the Twitter app on Mac is even more crappy than it is on iPhone.) I didn’t have to swap to any new apps or re-learn any behaviour. It’s all there, with all my files, context and history.
  • The iPad also works as a great accessory for the MacBook when you’re at your desk. With apps like Duet you can use it as an extended screen, or Astropad can turn it into a Wacom-like tablet. You can quickly scribble down ideas like in a paper notebook and have them appear immediately on your Mac.
The iPad is really versatile - and great for ebooks.

The iPad is really versatile – and great for ebooks.

Where I did miss my MacBook:

  • My dual-monitor setup. There’s no denying that for some work, like working with big excel sheets, illustrations or presentations, the size of a large monitor, and the accuracy of a mouse matters a lot.
  • Split-screen multi-tasking on the iPad is good, but it is definitely not as quick and seamless as on the Mac to work with multiple documents and apps simultaneously. The iPad also lacks completely the ability to view two different documents of the same type next to each other: for example, two PowerPoint documents, two Word documents, etc. It will be great to see Apple open up the multi-tasking to allow single apps to run multiple instances of themselves in different windows.
  • In terms of apps, the only apps I absolutely cannot use on my iPad are Photoshop and Illustrator, which I use quite often for designing screen mock-ups or for building visuals for presentations. There are alternatives designed for the iPad, but I haven’t found one that completely convinces me yet.
  • Some apps don’t support rich text editing, such as the Outlook app, which is a pain. It’s annoying to always have to send emails in plain text.
  • I can’t say that I found using the iPad in “laptop mode” ergonomically superior to using a laptop with a trackpad or mouse. In fact, I found raising my arm and reaching across the keyboard to the screen to touch some screen element with my finger tiring after a while.

You can get an incredible amount of work done on an iPad. If I ever did find myself frustrated that I couldn’t do something on the iPad, most times it turned out that I could do it; I just needed to do it in a different way.

When you spend a few days using the iPad for everything, you come to appreciate how versatile it really is. One minute you’re typing up a report or an email, then you’re reviewing and annotating a document with the Pencil. After that, you might sit back and browse the web, look at your photos, and then open up the Kindle app and continue reading your book – all from the one device. I would argue that no other device has come anywhere this close to being truly one device for everything.

I'm clearly never going to be an artist, but yes, I drew this, and it's quite impressive what even a layman can achieve drawing on the iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil

I’m clearly never going to be an artist, but it’s quite impressive what even a layman can achieve drawing on the iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil

Tim Cook likes to say that the iPad is “the clearest expression of vision of the future of personal computing.”
They’re not there yet… But I can clearly imagine a future where personal computing is truly versatile, portable and intimate, and in my view the iPad Pro is the clearest version of that yet.

Steve Jobs famously said at the launch of the iPad that having a touch screen on a laptop would be "ergonomically terrible".

Steve Jobs famously said at the launch of the iPad that having a touch screen on a laptop would be “ergonomically terrible”.

We’re not a factory

Old factory workers

Factories must be awfully dull places. Factory workers working on a production line follow a strict process. Work is divided out into narrow and highly controlled portions. The guy working at machine #1 is an expert at machine #1, but not at machine #2 or #3. But that’s ok; if he stays focussed on his machine, the production line moves on and many widgets will roll off the end.

Factory workers take a given process or specification and assemble it. That the solution is provided is a given. There’s no room for initiative or individual innovation on the factory floor. If one machine doesn’t produce output of exactly the right type at exactly the right time, the system breaks down. Process improvement and innovation is for senior managers; observing the factory floor below from an air-conditioned room behind a wall
of glass.

In the early 1800s the factory revolutionised the production of goods and heralded the onset of the industrial era. It raised millions of people from poverty and created countless jobs (and millionaires). It brought about a new kind of competition: one fought along the bottom line. The problem with the factory is that the race to the bottom is over: we hit it long ago. When every factory can produce widgets as cheaply as you can (or cheaper), your ability to differentiate lies elsewhere – it’s not enough just to be able to sell widgets cheaper than anyone else.

Luckily in the software product business we’re not factory workers. We encourage individual initative. We challenge our teams to help us improve our processes. We believe that innovation can (and should) come from anywhere.


If that’s true, why do we keep treating our teams like factories, and our people like factory workers? Why do companies push solutions to teams and expect them to be just assembled, (where possible by yesterday), without asking too many questions or making a fuss? Why do organisations rebuff any innovation or ideas that don’t come from their own team? Why do we incentivise teams and individuals on the quantity of output, and not the quality or impact?

It’s not enough to talk about supporting innovation and encouraging initiativeā€¦ our daily working process has to support it too; otherwise, we’re just another factory.