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technology travel

Working from an iPad (updated)

Last year, I wrote a blog post about trying to work using only an iPad. During our recent travels, I had a chance to try out the setup again, but with new hardware. My previous trip was with a first generation iPad Air (2013) whereas I’m now using a third generation iPad Pro (2018).

It made a big difference.

External Keyboard Support is Great

After trying the on-screen keyboard, I knew I needed a Bluetooth keyboard. I started researching options, but then Julie pointed out that I already owned a Bluetooth keyboard. It was sitting in our office for use with my MacBook Pro. Due to functional fixedness, I just hadn’t realized that it could be used for my iPad, too.

The new ones are even sleeker than this one

First, I’m much better at typing on a physical keyboard with click-y buttons. Over my entire life, I have had probably too much practice and consequently am much faster and more accurate.

Second, an external keyboard is much more comfortable. A major ergonomic issue with keyboards and tablets is that the screen and inputs are in the same place, so either you’re looking down, or you hands are raised. With the screen and keyboard separated, I stacked books to get the screen up to eye level and left my keyboard at hand level.

Third, the keyboard support was also good. I used many of the same typing shortcuts I would in OSX to copy and paste, go to the start or end of lines, toggle between apps and tabs, and manipulate text as I would like to. The iPad unfortunately doesn’t support remapping modifier keys (I switch Ctrl and Caps Lock), but Termius did.

The only catch was reverting to the onscreen keyboard. When I walked away from my desk, I had to disconnect from the keyboard. However, Julie helpfully pointed out that I could just turn off Bluetooth entirely, and that was much quicker from the control panel.

Face ID is seamless

My iPad Air didn’t have either Touch ID or Face ID, so whenever I needed to login to an account, I had to type in my master password into 1Password. That actually really limited what I did on my iPad because I just couldn’t be bothered to inaccurately punch my long master password using the onscreen keyboard.

With Face ID, I can get into any of my accounts just by looking at my screen. In fact, it is even easier than on my laptop. The tight integration with browsers for prompts makes it completely seamless.

Desktop and Tablet parity

Over the past few years, there’s been a big push towards responsive apps that work for different screen sizes and device types. Some people even champion “mobile-first” web design patterns. Even still, it seems like the smaller screen sizes and limited input methods would make things more difficult on tablets.

However, I was actually pretty impressed by how similar the desktop and tablet experience was for most websites. When it wasn’t, I just had to toggle Chrome to use the Desktop version of a site, and that typically worked fine.

I still prefer desktop web apps over mobile apps (where both are well-supported), but I did discover a notable exception. For our trip, I was loading many restaurant recommendations into Yelp, and the flow was pretty difficult on web. Each restaurant page loaded slowly, and then after I added it into a collection, I had to slowly load the collection page to add a note. I tried doing this on my iPhone, and it was much smoother. The iOS app was much snappier, and I could add notes from a popup rather than loading another page.

Coding

The primary downside to working on my iPad is that I don’t have my code running locally on my device. On my MacBook Air, I am running a development server of the web app, so it’s pretty quick and easy to edit. On my iPad, I have to run my development server in the cloud and remotely connect via command line to it.

To get a command line, I used the free version of Termius. I was able to swap Ctrl and Caps Lock, and typing was roughly as responsive as it should be. The free version is missing SSH agent forwarding, but that wasn’t too difficult to work around.

I did notice that my Termius SSH connections were often terminated in the background when I switched apps. I suspect that this was from iOS jetsam. It’s a little annoying, but since I use GNU screen, it was easy to jump back in.

Single context

In my last blog post, I talked about the good and bad about only having a single app open at any time. On desktop, I often have multiple windows visible simultaneously, but on my iPad, I can only look at one thing at any time.

I think most of that still remains true. One notable difference is that my current iPad has more memory (1 GB versus 4 GB), it did jetsam less often, so I didn’t have so much loading to do between contexts.

Also, my new iPad is capable of running more apps. However, I did notice that I did lose some of the multitasking that I typically appreciate from desktop browsers. For example, with Google Docs, I often am working across multiple docs at the same time each in its own tab, but with the Google Docs app, I couldn’t easily find a way to do that. Switching back and forth between my code editor and the web browser was also still burdensome, though made better by having Cmd-Tab available on my keyboard to switch back and forth quickly.

Conclusion

Looking back at my old blog post, I really criticized the entire experience of software development from an iPad. However, I now realize that these weren’t constraints of the ecosystem: I just had outdated hardware. I was pleasantly surprised and productive.

Of course, I still prefer the desktop experience for work, but this is a suitable and light option for travel. I really can travel without my laptop now and not worry about work emergencies.

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