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Blog // Technology
January 30, 2020

iPad Pro Is My Portable Computer

For the first time in many years I’m no longer using a laptop or notebook computer. My go-to computer for daily writing and other work is now an iPad Pro.

My first laptop, or notebook computer was an Asus, which saw me through the end of college, and into graduate studies. It was a Windows machine that I never really loved, even though it was fairly reliable and helped produce thousands of pages of work. I used to carry it around in a nifty black leather shoulder bag. The last time I saw that bag was across a busy intersection in London, a few days after it had been stolen from my home in the middle of the night. By the time I realised what I was seeing, the bag, with its familiar scratches and wear, and the computer, and the guy carrying them were gone.

Losing that machine was a huge blow. Gone were most of my college essays, thousands of entries and notes in my bibliographic library, a draft master’s thesis (which was never the same after I tried to recreate it from paper notes and printouts), a screenplay, a few sci-fi short stories, and a stack of song lyrics and poems. Cue the lectures about backups, of course. But that was a different time, without the ease of cloud-based storage, when backups to external devices such as Zip Drives were a slow and tedious chore you had to remember to do for yourself. At least, that’s my excuse.

Entering The Apple Ecosystem

The one benefit of that experience was the opportunity to trade out of the Windows world and into the promised land of Apple. But only after a long and protracted fight with an insurance company that offered me cents on the dollar for the cost of replacing the stolen computer. They also justified offering me $12 to cover my lost software by saying some company with a post box for a business address would send me a copy of the complete Microsoft Office suite, worth hundreds of dollars, for just a small cheque and a stamped self-addressed envelope. If I asked, they might include Dreamweaver and Photoshop on the same disc!

Eventually I was able to get enough from the insurance to start shopping for a new computer. My first Apple was a black PowerBook G3. A sexy thing with curves like a sports car. That chic machine, along with the black messenger bag I bought for it, and the generally black, Matrix-inspired wardrobe I wore at the time, feels now like a snapshot of my best days as an academic, making my way across Waterloo Bridge, from one campus of King’s College London to another, and maybe onto the library at Chancery Lane, looking like an extra from The Matrix.

The PowerBook G3 worked wonderfully until I stepped on it and cracked the screen while getting up to tend to my crying child. This left me in the uncomfortable position where it was cheaper to buy a replacement than repair the machine I had. My kid wasn’t the only one whose tears needed tending to.

A Few Laptopless Years

Insurance wouldn’t cover this mishap and my budget didn’t extend to a new laptop at the time. So I bought an iMac, the delightful Pixar-like 13-inch model with the screen mounted on an articulated arm and two small pod speakers. By that stage I was mostly working from home and used a Palm Pilot to take notes on the days when I was at the library.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, the next laptop computer, an aluminium 12-inch PowerBook, would be the most important computer of my life.

The Best Laptop I Ever Owned

I bought the 12-inch Powerbook on a trip back to London after moving to India. I’d quit my PhD and was feeling kind of lost. But I knew I wanted to write, and missed the ergonomics and portability of a laptop computer. The house I lived in at the time, a vast farmhouse on three acres of land, also gave me plenty of potential writing spaces, inside the house and around the gardens, where I could pitch myself and hunt for ideas and inspiration as I tried to build a new life.

Perhaps my favourite space was a corner of the garden, sheltered between high stone walls, palm shrubs, and the shade of teak trees. I could sit at a big wooden table, with the faint sound of passing autorickshaws, or the distant call to prayer, as I tried to write my way into a new life.

That computer was the best I’ve ever owned. Compact, fast, with a brilliant keyboard, and it never crashed, never hiccuped, never seemed to give me the spinning beachball of death other Mac users complained about. I started this blog with it. I started studying online with Berklee College of Music with it. I did NaNoWriMo with it. I started to learn how to edit photos with it.

After I moved to Hong Kong and traded the farmhouse for a tiny high-rise apartment, the iMac went into storage and that wonderful PowerBook was my only computer for a few years.

The Last Laptop I Ever Owned

Even after I bought a 2008 Mac Pro to handle all the increasingly complex music and audio work I was doing, that little PowerBook kept motoring on, helping me grow a following for this blog, and land various writing gigs.

I replaced it with a 2010 MacBook Pro only because I needed a newer and faster machine to run the photography software I was starting to use at the time.

In the intervening years Apple had switched from PowerPC to Intel chips and all the new software from Adobe needed those Intel processors. The 2010 MacBook Pro worked well, but had its quirks, like a faulty power circuit that chewed up batteries every couple of years. But since I’d maxed out the RAM (like always) and added a Solid State Drive, it kept up with changes in software and operating systems pretty well.

But I did eventually need to buy a Mac Mini to hold my photographic library. This machine was meant to be a temporary solution, allowing me to keep the Mac Pro as a music studio machine, and not buy an upgrade to the MacBook Pro.

So, from Hong Kong to Singapore, Tokyo, and then London, the MacBook Pro was the main computer behind my writing, this site, the store, and much of my other presence online. It also saw the inside of many airport security machines, and helped me edit photos while travelling in places such as the Himalayas, Penang, Oaxaca, Rajasthan, and Taipei.

And that’s where the story ends. Or at least, my story with notebook computers, because a few months back I bought the MacBook Pro’s replacement – an iPad Pro.

The iPad Way

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time; the point at which tablet computers could replace notebook computers. I wrote about it back in 2015.

Of course, there were reasons to postpone making the switch, at least for many of us in the creative world. For a lot of people in business and academia, the case for the move was already pretty compelling, since iPads had more than enough power for most office and writing tasks, and so much work was moving onto cloud-based platforms.

But until iPads gave us a proper file management system, including access to external drives, a way to handle custom font libraries, real versions of desktop applications like Photoshop and not just lite cut-down apps, and the ability to run multiple apps at the same time, we held onto notebooks like weary travellers pushing their luggage through unfamiliar foreign airports.

iOS13 and iPadOS brought all that, and the current iPad Pros have power to rival desktop computers.

So I opted for the 10.5-inch iPad Pro. It gives me a screen of similar size to that beloved 12-inch PowerBook from years ago. But the resolution is so much better, so much crisper.

Sure, you don’t have a built-in keyboard, but you can pair any Bluetooth keyboard you want. So, no problems with malfunctioning keys, like Apple’s recent setback with the scissor keyboard mechanism. And once you add an external keyboard to iOS13 the system really comes alive (I’m using The Apple Wireless keyboard and trying out the the Keychron k4). Using keyboard shortcuts and keystrokes with the iPad makes you realise how much of a fully-fledged computer this really is.

From Five To Three

I’ve migrated all my writing, digital note-taking, and personal productivity to the iPad, with no regrets. (In upcoming posts I’ll explain this further, especially how I use Notion and Scrivener for iOS.) I love how small and light it is. For now, all the photography, design, and visual art stuff from existing projects lives on the same old Mac Mini, which only gets turned on every now and then. And the music stuff is all on the powerhouse 2008 Mac Pro, which is technically obsolete, but still works great.

At some point in 2020 all the work from the Mac Mini and Mac Pro will go into a new desktop machine.

Because iPad can’t do everything, or at least, I’m not expecting it to. Actually, I don’t want it to. Going back a few years, a lot of us had five slightly confused levels of tech. A smartphone with dozens and dozens of apps trying to do all sorts of things. Tablets that seemed to be more promise than performance. Laptops doing a lot of the heavy lifting, and maybe desktops, consumer, pro, or both, doing the rest.

For a few years I was trying to work with five devices at the same time (iPhone, iPad, MacBook Pro, Mac Mini, and Mac Pro).

Talk about anti-minimalism!

Since then, the iPhone has become less of a “do everything mini-computer in my pocket” and more of a focused communication and control device. What the iPad can do overlaps so much with what we used the MacBook Pro for that it makes sense to merge the two for an everyday work and writing machine. And soon the uses of the Mac Mini and Mac Pro can also be merged into a new mega-machine for intense creative work such as photo editing and music production.

So, five will become three.

Cleaner Edges

Of course, the number of devices is only part of the story, the visible layer of minimalism. More than just cutting down the number of devices is cutting down the range of things we expect from each device. Or, to put it another way, it’s about having cleaner edges around the tasks we do with these devices.

There’s a tendency for contemporary life to be just one steady slide from screen to screen throughout the day. Screens first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and at every point throughout the day.

It’s worth asking why this happened and whether it’s the ideal way to live. As a writer, screens are amazing. But writing on nice paper with a fountain pen can also be amazing. Screens are great for editing photos. But nothing is better than seeing your best photos printed and hanging on a wall.

Knowing clearly what I wanted from a portable computer made it easy to choose the iPad Pro. Sure, a MacBook Pro is more “powerful”. But that power is kind of meaningless for the writing, note-taking, e-mailing, and scheduling I mostly do with a portable machine. Some might claim the notebook computer, with an attached keyboard, has better ergonomics. But if you’re serious about that, then you really need to elevate the screen and consider using a better keyboard, so the two become more equal, and if anything, the iPad becomes the better option, since it’s lighter, more portable, and easier to mount on a stand or other elevated surface.

Once I had a clear picture of the tasks I really did with a portable machine, and how it needed to work for me, it was obvious that an iPad was the future.

Mark Beech 4 years ago

It’s great reading your Apple history. I agree with you about the iPad Pro. My Macbook Pro is my main device, but if I am travelling or going to meetings in another office, the iPad is the device I put in my bag. It’s also my device for interviewing and making notes. Typing seems so impersonal but using the Noteshelf App I can be much more engaged with the candidates.

fernando 4 years ago

Mark – thank you. That’s a great point about using the iPad in the presence of other people. Laptops create this odd little wall, in a meeting, or even when someone sits near you with one in a cafe.

fernando 4 years ago

Mark – I’d not thought of that but it’s a great example!

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