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Beyond the Tablet: Seven Years of iPad as My Main Computer

For the past seven years, I've considered the iPad my main computer. Not my only one, and not the most powerful one I own, but the computer which I use and enjoy using the most.

I've told this story on various occasions before, but it's worth mentioning for context once again. My iPad journey began in 2012 when I was undergoing cancer treatments. In the first half of the year, right after my diagnosis, I was constantly moving between hospitals to talk to different doctors and understand the best strategies for my initial round of treatments. Those chemo treatments, it turned out, often made me too tired to get any work done. I wanted to continue working for MacStories because it was a healthy distraction that kept my brain busy, but my MacBook Air was uncomfortable to carry around and I couldn't use it in my car as it lacked a cellular connection. By contrast, the iPad was light, it featured built-in 3G, and it allowed me to stay in touch with the MacStories team from anywhere, at any time with the comfort of a large, beautiful Retina display.

The tipping point came when I had to be hospitalized for three consecutive weeks to undergo aggressive chemo treatments; in that period of time, I concluded that the extreme portability and freedom granted by the iPad had become essential for me. I started exploring the idea of using the iPad as my primary computer (see this story for more details); if anything were to ever happen to me again that prevented being at my desk in my home office, I wanted to be prepared. That meant embracing iOS, iPad apps, and a different way of working on a daily basis.

I realized when writing this story that I've been running MacStories from my iPad for longer than I ever ran it from a Mac. The website turned 10 last month, and I've managed it almost exclusively from an iPad for seven of those years. And yet, I feel like I'm still adapting to the iPad lifestyle myself – I'm still figuring out the best approaches and forcing myself to be creative in working around the limitations of iOS.

On one hand, some may see this as an indictment of Apple's slow evolution of the iPad platform, with biennial tablet-focused iOS releases that have left long-standing issues still yet to be fixed. And they're not wrong: I love working from my iPad, but I recognize how some aspects of its software are still severely lagging behind macOS. On the other hand, I won't lie: I've always enjoyed the challenge of "figuring out the iPad" and pushing myself to be creative and productive in a more constrained environment.

In addition to discovering new apps I could cover on MacStories, rethinking how I could work on the iPad provided me with a mental framework that I likely wouldn't have developed on a traditional desktop computer. If I was in a hospital bed and couldn't use a Mac, that meant someone else from the MacStories team had to complete a specific, Mac-only task. In a way, the limitations of the iPad taught me the importance of delegation – a lesson I was forced into. As a result, for the first couple of years, the constrained nature of the iPad helped me be more creative and focused on my writing; before the days of Split View and drag and drop, the iPad was the ideal device to concentrate on one task at a time.

Over the following couple of years, I learned how to navigate the iPad's limitations and started optimizing them to get more work done on the device (I was also cancer-free, which obviously helped). This is when I came across the iOS automation scene with apps such as Pythonista, Editorial, Drafts, and eventually Workflow. Those apps, despite the oft-unreliable nature of their workarounds, enabled me to push iOS and the iPad further than what Apple had perhaps envisioned for the device at the time; in hindsight, building hundreds of automations for Workflow prepared me for the bold, more powerful future of Shortcuts. Automation isn't supposed to replace core functionality of an operating system; normally, it should be an enhancement on the side, an addition for users who seek the extra speed and flexibility it provides. Yet years ago, those automation apps were the only way to accomplish more serious work on the iPad. I'm glad I learned how to use them because, at the end of the day, they allowed me to get work done – even though it wasn't the easiest or most obvious path.

When Apple announced the iPad Pro in 2015, it felt like a vindication of the idea that, for lots of iOS users – myself included – it was indeed possible to treat the iPad as a laptop replacement. And even though not much has changed (yet?) since 2017's iOS 11 in terms of what the iPad Pro's software can do, the modern iPad app ecosystem is vastly different from the early days of the iPad 3 and iOS 5, and that's all thanks to the iPad Pro and Apple's push for pro apps and a financially-viable App Store.

We now have professional apps such as Ulysses, Agenda, Things, Keep It, and iA Writer, which, in most cases, boast feature parity with their Mac counterparts; we have examples of iOS-only pro tools like Pixelmator Photo, LumaFusion, Shortcuts, and Working Copy, which are ushering us into a new era of mobile productivity; and both from a pure iPad-hardware and accessory standpoint, we have more choice than ever thanks to a larger, more inclusive iPad lineup, remarkable Pro hardware, and solid options to extend the iPad via keyboards, USB-C accessories, and more.

Seven years after I started (slowly) replacing my MacBook Air with an iPad, my life is different, but one principle still holds true: I never want to find myself forced to work on a computer that's only effective at home, that can't be held in my hands, or that can't be customized for different setups. For this reason, the iPad Pro is the best computer for the kind of lifestyle I want.

However, the iPad is not perfect. And so in the spirit of offering one final update before WWDC and the massive release for iPad that iOS 13 will likely be, I thought I'd summarize seven years of daily iPad usage in one article that details how I work from the device and how I'd like the iPad platform to improve in the future.

In this story, I will explore four different major areas of working on the iPad using iOS 12 system features, third-party apps, and accessories. I'll describe how I optimized each area to my needs, explain the solutions I implemented to work around the iPad's software limitations, and argue how those workarounds shouldn't be necessary anymore as the iPad approaches its tenth anniversary.

Consider this my iPad Manifesto, right on the cusp of WWDC. Let's dive in.

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    (Don’t Fear) The Reaper

    Apple needed to show developers that Carbon was going to be a real and valid way forward, not just a temporary stopgap, so they committed to using Carbon for the Mac OS X Finder. The Carbon version of Finder was introduced in Mac OS X Developer Preview 2, before Aqua was revealed; it acted a bit more like NeXT's, in that it had a single root window (File Viewer) that had a toolbar and the column view, but secondary windows did not. At this stage, Apple didn't quite know what to do with the systemwide toolbars it had inherited from NEXTSTEP.

    [...]

    It had taken Apple four years to find the new 'Mac-like', and this is the template Mac OS X has followed ever since. Here we are, eighteen years later, and all of the elements of the Mac OS X UI are still recognizable today. So much of what we think of the Mac experience today came from NEXTSTEP, not Mac OS at all. AppKit, toolbars, Services, tooltips, multi-column table views, font & color pickers, the idea of the Dock, application bundles, installer packages, a Home folder, multiple users; you might even be hard-pressed to find a Carbon app in your Applications folder today (and Apple has announced that they won't even run in the next version of macOS).

    Fascinating read by Steve Troughton-Smith on how Apple transitioned from NeXTSTEP to Mac OS X between 1997 and 2001. The purpose of this analysis, of course, isn't to simply reminisce about the NeXT acquisition but to provide historical context around the meaning of "Mac-like" by remembering what Apple did when the concept of "Mac-like" had to be (re)created from scratch.

    Apple is going to be facing a similar transition soon with the launch of UIKit on the Mac; unlike others, I do not believe it means a complete repudiation of whatever "Mac-like" stands for today. The way I see it, it means the idea of "Mac-like" will gradually evolve until it reaches a state that feels comfortable and obvious. I'm excited to see the first steps of this new phase in a couple of weeks.

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    Panic Reveals Plans to Sell a Handheld Gaming System Called Playdate in 2020

    Panic, well-known for its thoughtfully-designed Mac and iOS apps, has announced that it's entering the hardware market with a portable gaming system called Playdate, which will ship in early 2020 and cost $149. This isn't Panic's first foray into the game industry. With the release of the hit indie game Firewatch in 2016, the company became a game publisher. Later this year, Panic will publish the highly-anticipated Untitled Goose Game on the Nintendo Switch. Still, creating hardware is something altogether different for Panic.

    Playdate is a diminutive handheld device with hardware and software features that distinguish it from any other handheld on the market. The bright yellow handheld system is just 74mm  ×  76mm  ×  9mm, which is roughly three inches square and a little thicker than an iPhone XS.

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    GIFwrapped 2 Offers Redesigned, Streamlined GIF Management with Universal Search and iCloud Drive

    GIFwrapped has long been one of the best ways to store and access your GIF collection on iOS. Five years after our initial review of the app, developer Daniel Farrelly's GIF utility has received a big update today: version 2.0. GIFwrapped 2 completely rethinks the app's UI, streamlining it from tab-based to panel-based, while also adding support for two key new features: universal search and iCloud sync.

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    Apple Updates WWDC App in Advance of Conference

    On the heels of sending invitations to the press for the 2019 WWDC keynote that will be held beginning June 3rd, Apple has updated the WWDC app.

    Much of the app's UI is similar to the version released around this time last year, but now, the app's icon can be changed between eight neon-themed Apple logo icons. There are also fourteen new animated iMessage stickers included many drawn from the artwork the company used for the initial WWDC announcement and the invitations sent earlier today. In years past, pins were distributed to attendees at check-in for the conference and during sessions that resembled stickers from the app.

    The WWDC app can be downloaded for free from the App Store.


    Apple Sends Press Invitations and Confirms June 3rd WWDC Keynote

    In mid-March Apple announced that WWDC 2019 would take place the first week in June, and today the company confirmed that, following past tradition, the keynote for that conference will take place on June 3 at 10:00 am Pacific.

    Apple is expected to unveil the latest versions of its major operating systems at WWDC, including iOS 13, watchOS 6, and macOS 10.15. We may also see hardware products announced too, like the long-anticipated modular Mac Pro. A live stream for the keynote has not yet been confirmed, but it remains likely since WWDC is one of the prime Apple events of the year.


    Vignette: Easily Update Your Contact Photos Without Sacrificing Privacy

    I’m the type of person who tries to add a photo to each of my iPhone’s contact listings. I can’t stand having grey, initial-laden photo bubbles in Messages; while contact photos can be disabled in Messages’ settings, I’ve never done that because once photos are added, it gives the app so much extra beauty and utility. For years I’ve done the manual work of choosing contact photos from my own photo library or, more often, finding images for contacts online via social media, then adding them to my contacts from there.

    Based on the times I’ve peeked at someone else’s Messages app, most people never bother to go through the trouble of manually configuring contact photos; I don’t blame them, because it’s a nuisance. However, a new app called Vignette, from developer Casey Liss, aims to eliminate the pain of adding contact images by sourcing the web and social media for you, and updating your contacts’ photos accordingly – all in a privacy-conscious way.

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    Apple Updates Its MacBook Pro Line with Faster CPUs and New Keyboard Mechanisms

    Apple updated its MacBook Pros today with new, faster processors and changes to the notebook line's keyboard mechanism. According to an Apple press release:

    The 15-inch MacBook Pro now features faster 6- and 8-core Intel Core processors, delivering Turbo Boost speeds up to 5.0 GHz, while the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar features faster quad-core processors with Turbo Boost speeds up to 4.7 GHz.

    Apple says that the new 15-inch MacBook Pro with an 8-core processor is up to two times faster than the previous top-end quad-core model. To put that performance in perspective, Apple claims that:

    • Music producers can play back massive multi-track projects with up to two times more Alchemy plug-ins in Logic Pro X.
    • 3D designers can render scenes up to two times faster in Maya Arnold.
    • Photographers can apply complex edits and filters up to 75 percent faster in Photoshop.
    • Developers can compile code up to 65 percent faster in Xcode.
    • Scientists and researchers can compute complex fluid dynamics simulations up to 50 percent faster in TetrUSS.
    • Video editors can edit up to 11 simultaneous multicam streams of 4K video in Final Cut Pro X.

    Interestingly, Apple's press release makes no mention of the MacBook Pro's keyboard. However, the company spoke to Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch who was told:

    1. The MacBook Pro keyboard mechanism has had a materials change in the mechanism. Apple says that this new keyboard mechanism composition will substantially reduce the double type/no type issue. Apple will not specify what it has done, but doubtless tear-downs of the keyboard will reveal what has been updated.
    2. Though Apple believes that this change will greatly reduce the issue, it is also including all butterfly keyboards across its notebook line into its Keyboard Service Program. This means that current MacBook Pros and even the models being released today will have keyboard repairs covered at no cost, in warranty and out of warranty.
    3. Apple tells me that repair times for keyboards have been longer than they would like. It is making substantial improvements to repair processes in Apple Stores to make repairs faster for customers with issues.

    According to Panzarino, failing third-generation keyboards will be replaced with the new fourth-generation keyboard found in these updated MacBook Pros.

    It's not unusual for Apple to release product updates shortly before a major event that don't make the cut for the keynote presentation. Notebooks with faster CPUs fall squarely into that category. With the company's annual developer conference just around the corner, today's announcement is likely also be designed to try to satisfy one its biggest pro user groups that the company is trying to put keyboard issues behind it. However, only time will tell whether this version of the MacBook Pro's keyboard is more reliable than prior iterations.


    Beyond the Tablet Extras: eBook, Special Episode of AppStories, and Making Of Essays

    Today, Federico published Beyond the Tablet: Seven Years of iPad as My Main Computer, a comprehensive evaluation of the advantages and shortcomings he’s experienced using an iPad as his primary computer. Weighing in at around 50,000 words, Beyond the Tablet rivals Federico’s annual iOS reviews in scope and depth of coverage. As a result, it felt appropriate to release the same sort of extras for this story that we’ve provided for iOS reviews.

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