"iPad Pro Initial Reaction: A Timeline"

Posted on Sun 19 June 2016 in personal

I’ve had my iPad Pro for only about a week.

I’ve wanted something like an iPad Pro for years. Ten years ago, I lusted after the Modbook, a clunky attempt to hack a MacBook by replacing the keyboard and hinge with a stylus sensitive display. The lure of a computer that you could code and draw on was nearly irresistible. However, the reviews were middling and the process was expensive and irreversible.

When Apple released the iPad, I scoffed. I joined in the throngs who critiqued the tablet as being a passive consumption device, not a general purpose computing tool. A few friends took me to task for it, but I never really got it. I never spent much time with an iPad. Around the same time, I bought myself a personal MacBook Air. It instantly became my main computer for art school and for software development. After I finished my MFA and returned to the technology workforce, I used my personal MacBook Air as my main development computer, resisting pressure to get a work device. My MacBook Air was the best computer I’d ever owned, I reasoned, why would I lug around something worse?

Last year, Apple released the iPad Pro, and I almost didn’t notice it. Around the same time, I caved to temptation and bought a 15” MacBook Pro for work. I wanted the Retina display and the faster compile times. My backpack noticed.

Last month, I stumbled onto a blog entry by a developer who had switched to using an iPad Pro as his main computer. I was intrigued. Here was a “serious” user of computers, a computer scientist and a programmer, who was comfortable with the iPad Pro. Not just comfortable, he was incredibly happy. I searched the web and found other examples of users who’d switched. Most were of the pundit variety: writer / artist switches his or her main computer. This hardly seemed a fair comparison to me: I don’t use office products + browser for a living. I need a computer where I can access a shell, where I can code, compile, and test software, and where I can view and work on wireframes and design documents. This developer blog I found showed me that perhaps the iPad Pro could work for me.

I was cautious, however. In order to work, I reasoned, it needed to be the top of the line device, with maximum storage, LTE with a service contract, keyboard and a pencil. It would likely cost over a thousand dollars, not something to be bought lightly. So I spent a few weeks working on an old iPad Mini 2 with a Bluetooth keyboard, to see how I liked it. What I loved: the apps, touch, single-tasking and focus, portability and the sheer novelty. The only thing I didn’t like was specific to the iPad Mini 2: not enough memory for background apps. When I had to work on both the iPad and my laptop at the same time, I found myself accidentally tapping on the MacBook Pro screen. Touch isn’t as fast as keyboard-optimized UI (i.e. vim), and it’s not as precise as mouse-optimized macOS apps, but it’s really natural. It doesn’t feel slow or imprecise.

After a few weeks with the iPad Mini 2, I knew I had to take the plunge. I already had a 13” laptop (my trusty MacBook Air) so I decided on the 9.7” iPad Pro. Screen real estate, after all, is mostly about the desktop and multitasking. I love the combination of the keyboard and the pencil. I don’t miss multitasking, I was always shit at it. I haven’t really missed the filesystem, but it’s early days. I’m reorganizing my apps. On my iPhone, I’ve always used folders to organize the majority of my apps. On The iPad, I’m using entire home screens dedicated to different workflows. One for coding, one for drawing, one for educational apps.

I love coding on this thing. Pythonista is quirky but wonderful local Python development. Coda for iOS is a great start, but needs work. Built-in lint would support developers working on anything other than HTML and CSS. The file browser struggles, with many too many touches required to open files. Recursive filename search, recursive content search, and side panel file browser would all be great additions. The syntax highlighter gets confused and locks up the UI or even crashes when working with large objective-c files. It’s a long way from Sublime Text or Xcode. Irritatingly, after playing a bell sound, Coda will sometimes take over full control of the audio on the device, and refuse to allow music to play from other apps. I wish the developers of Coda worked on it in Coda itself, so they could see its limitations when working on a large software project.

I find myself wishing for an IPython equivalent that worked well with the Pencil and the iPad. I want to write or draw with the pencil, embed the illustrations or notes into the notebook as vector SVGs, and run code alongside the illustrations. It would be great for math annotations, sketches of algorithms, etc. I suppose Playgrounds for iOS 10 is working in this direction.

I love learning on this thing. I used to be really into coursera, but they’ve been streamlining their UI and the learning experience there feels less comfortable and more formulaic lately. I started looking at EdX, but then discovered what looks like a white-label EdX platform called Stanford Lagunita. It’s got great statistics classes.

I love writing on this thing. I started with Medium, but it’s not a great writing app, and is a shitty publishing platform. Why do we need yet another corporate walled garden for our public, collective content production? I’m using Ulysses for long form writing, and Editorial for task lists.