Working from an iPad

Julie and I just got back from vacation in China. Amongst many other things, we saw baby pandas.

This was the only place where they had a line and kept us moving

On the trip, I wasn’t carrying my MacBook Air, but I did have my iPad and iPhone, and I learned a few things about trying to do work on my mobile devices.

1. Some apps are great, some apps are not.

For work, I needed a variety of apps, including Gmail, Asana, JIRA, various Google Drive products, Chrome, Slack, and GitHub (which sadly didn’t have a native client). It was a mixed bag.

Some were well-designed. Other apps were clearly an after-thought. Some products are very simple and work well with a touch interface. For example, chat is reading and writing messages, which isn’t complicated. Other products needed cut advanced functionality to fit onto a touch interface.

In general, I preferred the web app, desktop version of almost every app. Even if the functionality is a perfect match, I have set patterns about how I use products on my computer and am more efficient that way.

2. Passwords are annoying.

Although I installed the apps beforehand, I didn’t try all of them before I left, and many require passwords. And typing passwords was frustrating. I keep all of my password in a password manager, which thankfully has an app. I had it installed on my phone with Touch ID so I could open the app, hold my finger over the button, copy the password with a tap, and paste it where I needed it. However, my iPad doesn’t have Touch ID, so to get a password, I had to type in my very long master password. That was hard because…

3. I am a bad mobile typer.

I didn’t bring an external keyboard, so I was relying on the onscreen keyboard. I’m not sure if the problem was the lack of physical buttons or a difference in size, but I couldn’t type anything right. Not only was I hitting the wrong letters, I was hitting the modifiers and navigation keys to spew junk all over the input.

And I really missed my keyboard shortcuts. I use a ton of Mac keyboard shortcuts (especially the less popular “Document shortcuts”) and Gmail shortcuts.

4. The iPad was bad for posture.

After using my iPad for awhile, my neck started to hurt. My office desk has years of ergonomic refinement to reduce the aches and pains of being so sedentary.

On my iPad, I was at best looking slightly down with iPad on a desk. At worst, I was looking straight down with my iPad in my lap. It was worse than the Smartphone Slump.

5. Single-tasking is restrictive

The biggest surprise was the impact of only having a single app open at any time. At my office desk, I typically have:

  1. a code editor with at least 2 panels
  2. 3 other command line windows in tabs
  3. several Chrome tabs on my primary display
  4. Slack and my Calendar in Chrome tabs on my secondary display
  5. Spotify

At least 3 different windows are visible at any time, and with no more than maybe 5 keystrokes, I can instantly get any other one into the foreground.

On my iPad, I had 1 app visible, and to switch, I had to swipe and pick and wait a few seconds for the content to load again. Since my iPad is a few years old, it is slower, and I was quite impatient, especially when I was mentally on a roll and just needed to pull up another window.

6. …but maybe single-tasking is good?

However, it did force me to focus on one thing at a time. At my desk, whenever I’m waiting even just 5 seconds, I will switch contexts and look at another window to check email or read reddit. It was oddly liberating to only have a single window because I wasn’t distracting myself all of the time.

Of course, I did end up with a workaround: I would just pull out my phone to use as a second screen or to goof off while I was waiting for my iPad to load.

Final Thoughts

I’m not switching anytime soon. My phone and tablet are great for consumption and checking in, but I need the flexibility and power of a full desk setup to do everything.

Better hardware would bridge the gap. If I had a newer iPad with Touch ID, then passwords wouldn’t have been a problem. If I had an external keyboard, I would have less neck strain and could maybe type better. It’s all a matter of degrees.

But the world is mobile: I couldn’t have worked this well a few years ago.

I couldn’t even have played games this well. On the second to last day of the trip, I saw that Baldur’s Gate 2, my favorite video game of all time from over 15 years ago, was on sale on the App Store. At first, I dismissed it since I didn’t think my iPad could handle it. Then I realized that my iPad was much more powerful than the desktop I first played the game on.

I think mobile has caught up after all.

2 thoughts on “Working from an iPad”

  1. I always travel with 10-inch tablet (Nexus 10) and 12 inch Thinkpad (X230T) with Linux, but when we’re weight conscious, we have two 10-inch Asus netbooks installed with Xubuntu that we can take as alternatives. These netbooks, with Linux, are full function computers, with keyboards and smaller screens (discouraging multitasking), that are light, cheap, and have great battery life. Netbooks are being obsoleted by Chromebooks, but the hardware still runs fine, and the Xubuntu continues to be supported, so we haven’t had a need to update platforms.

    1. That’s a good setup! Under normal circumstances, I would travel with my MacBook Air, which I guess is the closest offering from Apple. I haven’t used a Chromebook before, but the high schools here actually issue them to students, and they seem to work well enough for them.

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