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My 11-inch iPad Pro Experiment

If you’re in the market for an iPad Pro, choosing the ideal model size is not easy. It used to be simpler, back when the big option was made bigger by its bezels, and the small option had a significantly smaller display. I’ve used a 12.9-inch iPad Pro as my primary computer for five years, and have been very happy with it, but as the smaller iPad Pro’s display has grown, I’ve become more intrigued by it.

2017’s 10.5-inch iPad Pro was the first smaller model that tempted me. 2016’s 9.7-inch simply wasn’t enough; as an iPad user since 2010, I knew what a 9.7-inch display was like, and it wasn’t suited for my needs as a primary computer. But the screen bump in 2017 was intriguing, so I gave it a test run for a couple weeks. My takeaways: it was a fine device, but Split View was a bit too cramped, and since I mainly used my iPad at home rather than lugging it around regularly, sticking with the larger model made more sense for my needs.

Recently, however, I embarked on another test of the smaller iPad Pro. On the latest episode of Adapt, the iPad-focused podcast I do with Federico, I challenged us both to try doing our work on the 11-inch iPad Pro rather than our usual 12.9-inch setups. In my mind, it was the perfect time to try the smaller size again because a lot has changed since my 2017 experiment.

First, the smaller iPad Pro’s display has gotten larger yet again. The gap between 11 and 12.9 inches is relatively narrow. Also, while the current pandemic has forced me to work from home more than ever, prior to this global crisis I was taking my iPad on the go more regularly. In 2017 I lived in the suburbs of Dallas, whereas now I call Manhattan home, so it’s much easier to just walk out my front door and visit a local coffee shop, park, or some other public space to get work done.

Finally, the concept of the iPad as a modular computer has been another motivator to try the 11-inch model. I normally use my 12.9-inch iPad Pro exclusively in “laptop mode” with a hardware keyboard attached. But lately I’ve been wondering if that approach is too limited, causing me to miss out on the full potential of the device’s versatility. Using my iPad Pro not just as a laptop, but also as a tablet or in a desktop configuration sounds intriguing, and for several reasons I’ll detail later, I think the 11-inch model is better suited to these alternate setups.

My Apple Store haul.

My Apple Store haul.

So a few weeks ago I ordered an 11-inch iPad Pro alongside the Magic Keyboards for both the 11- and 12.9-inch models; I also bought a USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter so I could connect my iPads to an external display. All of these purchases made possible a comprehensive comparison of the two iPad Pro sizes, spanning tablet, laptop, and desktop configurations, for the purpose of determining which iPad was best for me. As I mentioned, I was already pretty happy with my 12.9-inch model, so my focus was especially on trying the 11-inch and evaluating its unique strengths.

Here is what I learned from my experiment, and my decision on the iPad I’ll be using moving forward.

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Introducing MacStories Unwind: A Weekly Podcast Review of Everything MacStories and More

We’re excited to announce Unwind, a new MacStories podcast recapping everything happening at MacStories and more. Every Friday, the new show will run down the stories, reviews, and other posts published on MacStories, the topics covered on AppStories, and what’s new with Club MacStories, plus a couple of media picks for unwinding over the weekend.

You can subscribe to Unwind in all the usual places using the buttons below and listen to the trailer introducing the show right here:

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MacStories Unwind Trailer

Unwind

We publish a lot every week between the site, our podcasts, and the Club, and we know that sometimes it can be hard to keep up. With Unwind, you’ll get a short, fun guide to everything going on at MacStories, along with links, so it’s easy to jump to what interests you most.

Each week, we’ll also highlight the media we’re enjoying when we take time to unwind ourselves. Every episode will feature a couple of picks including the movies, TV shows, albums, books, articles, and video games we love. Especially with so many readers and listeners stuck at home, now felt like the perfect time to share more of how we spend our downtime.

Of course, we have a new page dedicated to Unwind on MacStories, and you can always access the full catalog of episodes at MacStories.net/tag/unwind.

Helping MacStories’ Sponsors During Uncertain Times

Sponsorships are a big part of what allows us to continue to produce MacStories and each of its properties. We’re fortunate to work with top-notch companies that make terrific products that we’re delighted to promote to readers and listeners.

We plan to offer Unwind as a separately-sponsored podcast like AppStories eventually. However, as we developed Unwind, it didn’t feel appropriate to ask companies already facing uncertainty from the COVID-19 pandemic to take a chance on a new show too. So, for the time being, Unwind will be part of the MacStories homepage sponsorship at no additional cost. Our hope is that including Unwind will help the companies that have been so good to MacStories over the years by providing them with additional exposure.


Working with sponsors to promote products to our readers and listeners in a manner that doesn’t ruin the reading or listening experience and allows us to continue to produce the content you love and the quality you expect has always been of utmost importance to us. To the sponsors with whom we’ve worked in the past and will work with in the future, we hope Unwind adds some value to a MacStories sponsorship that helps make these uncertain times a little less difficult. To our readers and listeners, we hope you enjoy the new show.

– Federico and John


Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro: A New Breed of Laptop

The Magic Keyboard and my iPad Pro, featuring the iVisor matte screen protector.

The Magic Keyboard and my iPad Pro, featuring the iVisor matte screen protector.

Following the surprise early release of the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro, I’ve been waiting to get my hands on Apple’s highly anticipated accessory and evaluate it from the perspective of someone who uses the iPad Pro as a tablet, laptop, and desktop workstation.

I received the Magic Keyboard for my 12.9” iPad Pro yesterday afternoon; fortunately, I was able to order one in the US English keyboard layout from the Italian Apple Store last week, and the keyboard arrived three days ahead of its original scheduled delivery date. Obviously, less than a day of usage isn’t enough time to provide you with a comprehensive review; however, given that plenty of iPad users are still waiting for their Magic Keyboards to arrive, I thought it’d be useful to share some first impressions and thoughts based on my initial 24 hours with the keyboard.

Let’s dive in.

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The Future of the iPad

It’s been an eventful decade for the iPad. But what’s next?

This week’s iPad at 10 celebration has centered primarily on the past. We’ve explored the device’s influence in accessibility and education, heard developers’ stories, outlined some of the most impactful apps from the decade, considered one of the most overlooked iPad models, and more. But as the week closes out, we turn our attention from the past and present to what lies ahead.

For the longest time, the iPhone’s shadow loomed large over the iPad. The iPad Pro began to change that, iPadOS solidified that shift, and now the device is forging its own path as a modular computer.

There’s never been a more exciting time to use the iPad. Yet as far as the device has come, we remain optimistic that its best days are still ahead.

Before wrapping up this anniversary week, we have to consider the future of the iPad.

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Modular Computer: iPad Pro as a Tablet, Laptop, and Desktop Workstation

My iPad Pro desktop setup.

My iPad Pro desktop setup.

When I started my iPad-only journey in 2012, I was stuck in a hospital bed and couldn’t use my Mac. It’s a story I’ve told many times before: I had to figure out a way to get work done without a Mac, and I realized the iPad – despite its limited ecosystem of apps and lackluster OS at the time – granted me the computing freedom I sought. At a time when I couldn’t use a desk or connect to a Wi-Fi network, a tablet I could hold in my hands and use to comunicate with remote colleagues over a cellular connection was all I needed. Over time, however, that state of necessity became a choice: for a few years now, I’ve preferred working on my iPad Pro and iPadOS (née iOS) in lieu of my Mac mini, even when I’m home and have access to my desk and macOS workstation.

The more I think about it, the more I come to this conclusion: the iPad, unlike other computers running a “traditional” desktop OS, possesses the unique quality of being multiple things at once. Hold an iPad in your hands, and you can use it as a classic tablet; pair it with a keyboard cover, and it takes on a laptop form; place it on a desk and connect it to a variety of external accessories, and you’ve got a desktop workstation revolving around a single slab of glass. This multiplicity of states isn’t an afterthought, nor is it the byproduct of happenstance: it was a deliberate design decision on Apple’s part based on the principle of modularity.

In looking back at the past decade of iPad and, more specifically, the past two years of the current iPad Pro line, I believe different factors contributed to making the iPad Pro Apple’s first modular computer – a device whose shape and function can optionally be determined by the extra hardware paired with it.

The original iPad Pro showed how Apple was willing to go beyond the old “just a tablet” connotation with the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard. Three years later, the company followed up on the iPad Pro’s original vision with a switch to USB-C which, as a result, opened the iPad to a wider ecosystem of external accessories and potential configurations. At the same time, even without considerable software enhancements by Apple, the creativity of third-party developers allowed iPad apps to embrace external displays and new file management functionalities. And lastly, just a few weeks ago, Apple unveiled iPadOS’ native cursor mode, finally putting an end to the debate about whether the iPad would ever support the desktop PC’s classic input method.

The intersection of these evolutionary paths is the modern iPad Pro, a device that fills many roles in my professional and personal life. Ever since I purchased the 2018 iPad Pro1, I’ve been regularly optimizing my setup at home and on the go to take advantage of the device’s versatility. I’ve tested dozens of different keyboards, purchased more USB-C hubs than I care to admit, and tried to minimize overhead by designing a system that lets me use the same external display and keyboard with two different computers – the Mac mini and iPad Pro.

At the end of this fun, eye-opening process, I’ve ended up with a computer that is greater than the sum of its parts. By virtue of its modular nature, I find my custom iPad Pro setup superior to a traditional laptop, and more flexible than a regular desktop workstation.

So how exactly did I transform the iPad Pro into this new kind of modular computer? Let’s dig in.

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The Mighty mini: Adapting Apple’s Diminutive Tablet to Work and Play

Make no mistake, whether it’s a Mac, iPhone, or an iPad, I prefer big screens. I think most people do. A big, bright screen makes reading easier, and a larger canvas for the apps you use is rarely a downside.

Still, there’s a reason we carry mobile phones when a tablet, laptop, or desktop could accomplish the same tasks: portability. Smaller is often better, even as the compromises start to pile up when you shrink a device.

Portability is why foldable phones have captured the imaginations of so many people. They promise the portability of a traditional smartphone with a screen that’s closer to a tablet’s.

Just over one year ago, in March 2019, Apple released two new iPads: a 10.5-inch iPad Air and the first new iPad mini in over three years. The 5th-generation mini was a big surprise, largely because the mini hadn’t been updated in so long, leading many people to write it off as dead.

Perhaps an even bigger surprise, however, was the mini’s hardware. The design didn’t change, but the 5th-generation mini upgraded the device to an A12 processor, the same chip in the then-current iPhone XR and XS. The update also added a Retina laminated screen with True Tone, P3 color support, and the highest pixel density of any iPad. The mini doesn’t support ProMotion, it only supports the first-generation Apple Pencil, and still relies on Touch ID for security. Still, in terms of raw horsepower, the mini is more similar to the 10.5-inch iPad Air than it is different, allowing it to hold its own in Apple’s iPad lineup despite its diminutive size.

Table of Contents

The previous fall, I had ordered a 2018 12.9-inch iPad Pro and fell in love with it for writing and other tasks. As much as I enjoy the iPad Pro’s big display, though, it’s not suited for every task. For example, the size of the iPad Pro makes it awkward for reading in bed. Also, although I love to play games on my iPad Pro with a connected controller, that only works well if the iPad is sitting on a table.

When the mini was introduced, I immediately wondered whether Apple’s smallest tablet could be the perfect complement to its largest iPad Pro: a powerful but tiny device that could work well where the Pro doesn’t. I also figured the mini could be a great ‘downtime’ device for activities like games, reading, chatting with friends, and watching TV, movies, and other video content. So, I sold some old gear I no longer used and bought a mini with 256GB of storage, so I’d have plenty of space for games and locally-downloaded video.

The plan was for my new mini to serve almost exclusively as my downtime iPad. What’s happened in practice during the past year is very different than I anticipated originally. My use of the mini has expanded far beyond what I’d expected, despite the compromises that come along with its small size. The iPad Pro remains the device I rely on for most of my needs, but as we approached the iPad’s first decade, the time felt right to consider how far the mini has come and how this unassuming device fits so neatly into the spaces between the other devices I use.

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Exploring the Most Impactful iPad Apps of the Decade


John: It’s hard to understate the importance of the iPad’s large screen. Early critics dismissed the device as a big iPhone, but that criticism revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of the product.

By jumping from the iPhone’s small 3.5-inch display to one that approached 10 inches, the iPad delivered a canvas that allowed Apple and third-party developers to rethink not just the concept of mobile apps, but of apps altogether. The additional screen real estate allowed developers to flatten and spread UIs in a way that made new uses possible. That, in turn, led to richer, deeper experiences for everything from reading a comic book to managing complex projects and automating repetitive tasks, allowing users to interact directly with the software beneath their fingers.

After years of using the very best apps developers have to offer on the iPad, it was remarkably easy for Federico, Ryan, and I to come up with a list of the iPad apps that have been the most impactful for us during the past decade. There’s a lot of factors at play in arriving at these apps. Some forged a path by adopting the latest Apple technologies in a unique way that set an example for apps that followed. Others are apps that define a category that takes unique advantage of the iPad’s hardware. These are also apps that work on the iPhone or Mac too, but are most at home on the iPad’s unique platform.

Although there is no single formula for which iPad apps have been the most impactful, one thing each app in this collection shares is a rich, personal experience. These are apps inspired by and reflected in the image of Steve Jobs sitting onstage in a comfortable black leather chair swiping through photos. The iPad and the apps that run on it have come a long way since then, but the intimacy of directly manipulating apps that transform a slab of glass into anything a developer can imagine hasn’t changed, and remains what makes the iPad so special.

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Full of Potential: Developers on the iPad’s Past, Present, and Future

From the start, the iPad has always been rife with potential. This is partly because it launched as a new type of product category, with unexplored use cases prompting users towards a different computing experience. But it’s also because the device’s very nature – a slab of glass that becomes its software – evokes countless possibilities.

To celebrate 10 years of iPad, I spoke to the developers of many of the device’s best apps across areas of productivity and creative work. They’re the people who make that slab of glass into something new, realizing the iPad’s potential but also showing, by their constant work of iteration and reinvention, that there’s always more that can be done.

In sharing their stories from the last decade, the people I spoke with outlined some of the best and worst things about iPad development, memories of their reactions to the product’s introduction, and dreams for where its future might lead. All throughout, it’s clear how much excitement remains for the iPad’s potential even 10 years on.

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For iPad, Accessibility Gives ‘It’s Just a Big iPhone’ New Meaning

Perhaps the most common complaint hurled against the iPad over its first decade of life is that it‘s little more than a bigger iPhone. At a fundamental level, the criticism is certainly valid: by and large, the iPad runs the same software as the iPhone. The penchant for bemoaning this bigness emanates from discontentment over the fact that substantial improvements to the iPad’s software have come at a glacially slow pace. Until last year, meaningful upgrades tailored to the tablet were few and far between.1 As much as Apple has extolled the iPad for being “unlike any computer,” the truth is the product stagnated for quite a while in terms of software.2 For better or worse, the company has been preoccupied with savoring every last drop of mother’s milk from the cash cow that is the iPhone. The iPad was left to wither thirstily when it came to its own growth, and it suffered for some time as a result.

In actuality, the iPad being more or less a scaled-up iPhone isn’t necessarily an entirely bad thing. The reason is iOS; familiarity breeds comfort – Apple shrewdly created the iPad’s user interface (and to lesser extents, Apple Watch and Apple TV) to largely resemble the iPhone. Especially for less nerdy users, the consistency across devices makes for a seamless, less intimidating experience. From icons to text to features to the touchscreen, the iPad being so similar to the iPhone means acclimating to the device takes minimal time and effort. From an accessibility standpoint, easy acclimation sets the tone for an enjoyable user experience. The foremost reason this is important is that the easier it is to acclimate to a device, the easier it is to find and configure mission-critical accessibility features.

Thus, it’s not at all unreasonable to look at what was heretofore a pejorative assessment – the iPad is nothing but a big iPhone – and turn it into a positive. One of the unheralded aspects of the device’s success is how its approachable, intuitive nature has made it a hit in accessibility-centric contexts such as special education classrooms and as a communicative aid. Such advances get right at the heart of the oft-cited Steve Jobs quote on the so-called intersection of technology and the liberal arts, when he said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough.” Assistive technology obviously caters to the humanities part of the liberal arts, and it’s not hard to see how the iPad’s roots as ostensibly a bigger iPhone can be an asset rather than a liability. You just have to be willing to keep an open mind.

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