or; the Blog Reboots
I’m writing this on my Mac. And that’s OK.
If you’ve not been following this blog to date (and why would you have?! I’ve barely publicised it!), allow me to catch you up real quick: Late November I decided to ditch my laptop in favour of an iPad in a personal experiment to see if it’s possible for a tablet to replace a computer for personal computing. I hid my Mac in a cupboard and used my iPad for all my day-to-day computing. And you know what? It’s totally doable… if you make some allowances.
With this post, I end the experiment, and share with you my findings (listen to me talking as if this was in anyway scientific. The most scientific thing about this whole ‘experiment’ is I watched some Ted talks). So sit back, grab some popcorn, and relax as I take you through an adventure that could rival Ulysses (Is it bad that I’ve never read Ulysses? I feel like I should read Ulysses? Or at least pretend I’ve read it.)
Right! First things first (I’m the realest). The iPad was more than capable of handling the majority of my personal computing. But I wouldn’t recommend selling your PCs just yet. You see, overwhelmingly, there is one realisation from this saga – technology is supposed to make our lives easier and there is, fundamentally, no point forcing yourself to do something the long way when a simpler solution exists in the cupboard.
Let this be the main, key, primary, top, take away from this exercise – technology should make our lives better. That could be an app that helps you take notes, a better camera in your phone to capture those fleeting family moments or a game that’s so immersive you miss half of your Christmas holiday (I’m looking at you, FTL: Faster Than Light, you addictive son of a barstool). Whatever it is, it should make your life better and there were some moments where using the iPad made the day-to-day a bit dodgy.
Secondly, there is no way in six weeks, through medium to heavy use, I could push the iPad to its technical limits. No way I could explore all of the best the App Store has to offer. No way I could compare the effectiveness of every task on a Mac to the effectiveness on iPad. In fact, I only today discovered the Workflow app, which is a bit magical. So, whilst this blog will broaden its focus in the coming weeks (heck, this is only the sixth post, it’s hardly like I need to justify the direction of this blog, it’s finding its feet) to look at all the best technology I can get my hands on, I’ll keep revisiting the iPad-first idea. There’s so much more to explore.
Hands down, entertainment has always been my gadgetry’s primary function. I remember the first family PC I got my hands on, and its enormous 3GB of storage, and trying to save a few mp3s for playback or using the dial-up connection for some of the age’s popular flash games.
As I got older and picked up my first proper tower PC (I think it was a Dell) I spent ages trying to get the built-in media centre (and the infrared remote control that came with it - swish) to do something outlandishly fun, like play a video.
And I imagine, for you, something similar is true. Your tech is your entertainment portal. So, if a tablet were to replace a laptop, it would have to be able to entertain. And I mean that in the most antiquated way – let’s not even to get into that new-age, crazy ‘gaming’ talk just yet – it needs to be capable of video and audio stuffs.
Riding the Waves
Simply talking about video-on-demand services, the iPad ain’t got no problems. Netflix, iPlayer, 4oD, YouTube. Even Ted has its own dedicated app.
Similarly for music, you’ve got access to services like Spotify, SoundCloud and, again, YouTube as it begins to expand its audio offering (Lol, as if Music Key will be any good).
But streaming content is only half the battle.
The problems I had were more to do with audio, but the following applies to all media:
1. You can’t transfer music from your own personal collection to your iPad without syncing from a laptop.
Spotify is great for listening to music, especially with a Premium subscription, ‘extreme’ quality playback and a decent set of headphones (you know, so long as you also don’t mind pissing off a large chunk of the music community – more on that another day), but what about artists that aren’t on Spotify? How do I listen to Taylor Swift without being able to sync from my personal collection of Taylor Swift CDs, EPs and unreleased demos? I can’t. And what about content that’s exclusive to other platforms? And how about my ever-increasing collection of vinyl? How the hell am I supposed to listen to them? Why can’t I download free music from some unsigned band and sync it to my music player without going through my laptop?
2. Data plans and cellular models cost a butt-tonne
Whether you’re buried deep within Apple’s ecosystem, like I am, or you’ve gone the Android route with the new Nexus in your quest to ditch the bulky laptop and slim down your portable digital life, picking up a model with cellular connectivity is always gonna chomp more of a hole in your wallet than the wifi model. And even if you can afford to drop the extra dollar, data plans have a way of cannibalising your monthly paychecks. With this in mind, streaming audio/video isn’t always doable, so you need to download content to your device for offline playback. Of course, there’s iTunes, but the content can be pricy and the platform limited. It’s not uncommon to see better prices for some content on other platforms, or in other media – for example, picking up a vinyl with a digital download off Amazon can be the same or cheaper than an iTunes download.
And yes, I know Spotify has an offline function, and iPlayer and 4oD allow you to download stuff, but unfortunately your selection is restricted to the music and video on those services. Plus forget about your collection of old DVDs and Blu-Rays, getting them onto the iPad ain’t gonna be easy.
3. Size does matter. Storage is small. Flash memory is expensive.
Now, if you’ve gone for an Android device, you’ve probably got an external SD port somewhere. And if you’ve got a Surface (you’re cheating, and probably not having the best time doing so, unless you dropped mad cash on the Pro 3) you’ve likely got a spare USB port. But if you go with the iPad (which you would, let’s be honest, it’s kinda dominating the market) then you’re stuck with the storage the device has when you buy it. I picked up the 64GB model, which is actually enough when you consider the majority of media is being streamed, and that which I do save for offline playback is in flux. However, if you go on a bit of a HD binge, download a few too many apps, it’s only a matter of time until you’re recklessly uninstalling apps you might need for work to fit just one more episode of Game Of Thrones onto your device.
Of course there’s cloud storage but then there’s also a subscription cost and, yep, data costs. Alternatively, wifi storage devices, like the SanDisk Connect, exist to expand what your iPad can hold, but we come slamming back to my first point, this is an inferior solution – a USB drive can temporarily expand the memory in your Mac and all you have to do is plug it in.
The App Store is perhaps Apple’s saving grace in the battle against Android. Despite Android devices outpacing Apple in the market by about 4:1, it’s not uncommon to see developers favour Apple when it comes to launching a new product.
Whichever platform you choose though, apps are going to make or break your ability to move to mobile-first.
My iPad came pre-installed with iWork, which I wrote about in a separate post, and although I’ve not used Pages much, some sort of word processor is a must for the modern tech head who’s downsizing.
You see, the iPad, and most mobile devices for that matter, have long had a perception in the market as ‘consumption devices’. They were excellent for browsing the web, reading emails, watching YouTube, scrolling around Twitter or Facebook, or even devouring digital magazines. But tablets never seemed styled for production, for productivity, or for creativity.
As the tablet took off, however, the demand for this sort of functionality emerged and really it’s only because of the new swathe of productivity apps that it’s possible to use an iPad instead of a laptop most of the time.
Of course what apps to use on you productive iPad will come down to you so rather than laboring the point, here are a few to start you off...
- Paper by 53, Bamboo Paper, Tayasui Sketches
- My Script Calculator (Incredible app)
- Kitchen Stories
- Elevate (Imagine Brain Training from the DS but better looking. If it wasn't for the extortionate subscription price this would be one of the best apps on the App Store currently. Thankfully, free is still good)
- Documents by Readle
(I could do a whole post dedicated to each of these, so I won’t dive into detail. All I would say is that these make the iPad a functional computer for me and are, mostly, necessities)
Obviously, Office is the most popular productivity suite, and I didn’t get round to using it on my iPad so I can’t speak to it’s functionality but I imagine it would be safe to assume that it’s not as fully featured as it’s desktop big brother. Pages is certainly feature-light compared to desktop Word. Thankfully though, this nicely illustrates the point numero uno in this (what is by this point more of an essay than a) post – if you need to produce a highly complex document with many chapters and designs and weird layouts and everything else a fancy-pants Word doc has, maybe a tablet isn’t going to be the best platform to produce on, maybe use the tablet when you’re out and about, when you’re on the go, when you don’t need to write the 8th installment to the Harry Potter series; Harry Potter and the Obnoxiously Long Blog about Mobile Computing.
It’s Dangerous to Go Alone
Hands down, there’s no way I’d have made it to day two without a Bluetooth keyboard. Buying a tablet? Buy a keyboard. There’s a crater-full available on the market at a price point to suit everyone. I’ve been using the Apple one, but there are tonnes of manufacturers churning out these things, and I still plan on picking up the Keys to Go from Logitech at some point.
Typing is one of the most infuriating things about the iPad, but with a Bluetooth keyboard that completely transforms. Get one.
And get a case too. Preferably one with a stand. I picked up my iPad without a case as I had intended on buying a keyboard folio down the line, but as I ended up using the Apple keyboard, propping the bare naked iPad against a book to type on it was a pain the ass. As was watching videos. Some web browsing was a pain. Typing on the iPad screen on the rare occasions I did was a pain. And pretty much every other use I had for the iPad that involved touching it was a pain without it being held at any sort of angle. Get a case that can prop the thing up. It’ll blow your mind.
Beyond the essentials though, there’s a number of accessories that are going to change the way you do your computing. At least, I think there are – this next chunk is pretty much a very well researched shopping list
Connected styluses are growing in popularity, and whilst I didn’t use one in this little test, I did find myself using a dumb stylus often. Specifically to get more out of the rising tide of graphic creation apps, like Paper 53, Sketches and Bamboo Paper.
The sheer volume of styluses, clever and not-so-clever, available on the market and the ungainly way they interact with the iPad (Apple, particularly Steve Jobs, have famously taken the 'styluses suck' position and therefore there is no way for developers to easily make an app 'stylus ready', each stylus has it’s own interactivity and each app has to be coded for a specific stylus, which leaves users like you and me stuck between a rock and a hard place when we try and pick one up simply because the better stylus on paper works with fewer of the apps we use. Pain!) certainly credits a proper bit of proper primary research beyond this post, but there are plenty of favourable reviews and not-so-favourable reviews for the Evernote Jot Script and Wacom’s Creative Intuos Stylus 2, should you find yourself in the market for a new toy.
I mentioned the SanDisk connect earlier, but there are plenty of alternatives to choose from when it comes to expanding the iPad’s storage. Alternatively, you might want to consider a private cloud for the home. I’m currently looking into setting up an FTP server so I can access my docs across devices without the need to pay for cloud storage subscriptions. I’d also feel a touch more comfortable digitising documents with personal data onto a personal cloud.
This, of course, is personal preference. DropBox’s ease of use quickly outweighs the appeal of sorting out a personal server, especially if your not a hobbyist BUT whatever solution you take (because you’re going to need off device storage at some point) take a cheeky gander at Documents by Readle – a killer app that centralises the majority of main stream cloud solutions (i.e. one app for DropBox and Google Drive) and places them alongside your FTP access. It’s also the only way I’m aware of you can just browse iCloud Drive.
External Battery Packs
Once the preserve of the Instagram-loving, festival-going, sepia-toned hipsters, external battery packs have found there way into the bag of many an iPhone user. The lack of replaceable batteries in iOS devices is irksome, and while Samsung owners have the pleasure of popping in a new after market battery when their main one dies (and then having the pleasure of swapping back if the after market battery doesn’t explode), iPhone users have found solace in the chunky juice boxes.
Lastly, there’s controllers. There isn’t much to be said on controllers other than: there are two sort of games for iPad (well three, but I don’t like to think of ‘freemium games’ as games; they’re more evil than games are supposed to be) - awesome touch screen controls (Monument Valley) and kick ass console games that are just damn awkward to play. For the latter, a controller is a necessity. There are so many games I’ve downloaded and haven’t played yet.
We dealt with the old people entertainment earlier on, but us young whippersnappers have a more varied palette when it comes to ents – we like games.
Mobile computing has opened up a whole new world of gaming potential. But it’s also opened up a cesspit of ‘freemium’, or free-to-play, ‘games’ that offer a god-awful experience in exchange for micropayments. Call me old-fashioned, but I liked it when I could buy Sim City, spend 3 hours trying to join a server and play the game until my computer crashed and I lost all of my progress, rather than downloading it for free, suffering through a mediocre 20 minutes of mind-numbing monotony and then being asked to buy some in-game currency with my real world money before I progress to building my first landfill (I don’t actually know if that’s how SimCity Build It works, I got as far as the tutorial and it stank of freemium so I deleted it faster than King could try and trademark the word ‘the’).
Once you’ve negotiated the burning pile of garbage that is free-to-play (I’m perhaps being a touch harsh, there are some good ones – you know I’m talking about you Clumsy Ninja, you adorable swine) there are a number of incredible iOS games to keep you entertained well past your tube stop. Actually, gaming is the one area where my Mac isn’t just matched, it’s bested. Frustratingly, gaming is a nice to have, not an essential for a productive computer.
There are great resources like Pocket Gamer and Touch Arcade that are more well versed in iOS gaming than me, but find below a handful of the highlights from my 6 weeks.
The One Where The Post Concludes.
It is, in my professional opinion as a geek (or nerd? Which is the good one) that a tablet is, by far, the ideal mobile computing device. What it lacks in the raw power and functionality of a proper laptop. It more than makes up for in usability, portability, versatility and design (damnit, the iPad looks gooooood).
But, and it’s with a heavy heart I write this because I was so, so sure I could ditch the laptop for good, it doesn’t fully replace your computer. Just the lack of proper file hierarchy and the excessive sandboxing is enough to stop even the most persistent techy in their tracks.
That said, the MacBook I’m writing this on only has a year, maybe 18 months left in it. I won’t be replacing it. Instead I’ll likely return to the world of proper desktop computing, and use a tablet for pretty much everything that doesn’t take place at my desk, because it can certainly handle it.
Ok, so it’s not quite James Joyce, but if you made it this far – Thank You! This was not a short post. Hopefully you enjoyed reading (if you didn’t then, dude, why did you keep reading?) and hopefully you’re looking forward to more from Keys & Code. If you are, please subscribe to the newsletter. Really, we’re just getting things going, and there are a lot of ideas about what to do with this blog next now that I’ve shattered the whole premise we launched on.
Ps. I know new blogs have promised you the world before and they never came through for you. I hope this isn’t the case now.
Pps. Another reason why it's really not worth pursuing this 'iPad Only' topic is because the guys over at Mac Stories have been doing it for a while now (I found them whilst doing some research for this piece) and they do it very, very well.