Is It Possible To Actually Work On An iPad?

By James O Malley on at

When Apple launched the iPad Pro in September 2015, it was more significant a moment that just a minor change of name. With the launch of the 12.9” Pro, the company was clearly deciding to reposition the tablet as not just a device for consuming content - but for creating it as well. Apple was hoping that we’d stop using our iPads just for reading and watching, but for getting some work done too.

Perhaps the thinking was that if the iPad could be used to work, it would become a more essential device to own - unlike the iPhone sales, which kept growing, the iPad was flatlining. Clearly consumers didn’t think the iPad was an essential product to own, especially as our phones got larger.

So then the push for business use began - with more of an emphasis on productivity apps than before. But this raises an obvious question: Is it actually possible to get work done on an iPad?

Meet the Sceptic

I’ve always been quite sceptical of the idea of working on tablet. After all, why would I want to give up my MacBook Pro? Sure, it’s rather heavy but it enables me to get stuff done. Whether I’m working at home, the office or a coffee shop, I know that the machine can do everything I need it too.

But then, after booking a holiday, I started to wonder if I really wanted to lug my computer around just in case I needed to catch up on work. It made me contemplate for the first time, perhaps I could use my iPad for this stuff? So I went out and bought a simple Anker keyboard case for my iPad Air 2 - a device that before I’d primarily used for scrolling through tweets while lying in bed in the middle of the night. Could it really replace my computer? I was about to find out.

Productivity Apps

After slotting my iPad into it’s new case, I banished the likes of Kindle, Pokémon Go and Facebook - the fun apps - to a folder on my home screen, and headed to the App Store to start my newly productive portable life. And it turns out that a number of apps are actually rather decent.

The Google Drive suite of apps - including Docs and Sheets are actually pretty good. Writing on Docs (like I’m doing right now) is just as easy as writing using my Mac. The only stumbling block I’ve discovered is when manipulating images. As it turns out that when you use an app, it is basically impossible to scale an image so it isn’t massive. But this is a relatively rare thing to nee to do, at least for me.

Sheets on the other hand seems to work broadly fine, but as you might imagine is a lot more fiddly due to the nature of wrangling a spreadsheet. Loading up a fairly hefty sheet I’ve been working on, the iPad seemed to struggle a little bit. This isn’t an app I’d want to use for building complex sheets in and using complex functions. But for entering a few numbers in boxes, it seems to work fine. Basically, if I was an accountant I don’t think this would work for me, but as I’m a writer who only has basic spreadsheeting needs, I was able to get away with using it.

Many of the other apps that I need to use also have solid iPad equivalents: Gmail is fine, Trello is basically identical to its desktop equivalent, and Slack is just as fully featured - meaning that I was able to stay in touch with my team.

The only thing that I couldn’t really use? Umm, that would be the small matter of the Gizmodo UK Content Management System. Frustratingly, for some reason a decision was taken for mobile apps not to support browser upload - meaning that while I could conceivably login and write a post, it’d be impossible for me to add images.

Inconsistency & Multitasking

So far, so good - but that’s not to say that working on an iPad is without problems.

First off, apps have fairly inconsistent support for keyboard shortcuts - something that becomes important again once you add a physical keyboard. As you might expect, all of the home-made Apple apps, from Pages to Notes all have an array of shortcuts available (you can hold down the Command key to see a pop-up containing that app’s shortcuts). But third party apps are more inconsistent - even those by Google. In Chrome, for example, I can use the keyboard (Command+T) to open a new tab, but in Gmail or Drive, there isn’t a similar shortcut to start a new document. Most apps also contain fewer shortcuts than their desktop equivalents. In Chrome, while I can create new tabs, I can’t hit the “tab” key to go straight into the address bar to type a URL, nor can I use control+tab to cycle between tabs like I can on my Mac. The upshot of this this means that each app’s eccentricities must be learnt before they can start to become truly useful.

The other big challenge is multitasking: Something that comes naturally on a full-sized computer, but something that tablets are not naturally designed for. In recent years Apple has done its best to add more multitasking features - for example, from the Air 2 onwards it has been possible to split the screen and run two apps side by side (as long as the apps support it). Also brilliantly, I discovered that if you have a hardware keyboard connected you can use Command+Tab to switch apps quickly, just like on a desktop.

For the most part, this works well - though what’s clear is that obviously isn’t as well equipped for rapid switching. When trying to write a piece in Google Docs, but while also switching regularly to Slack (to talk to the team) and Chrome (where I was doing some research), the iPad appeared to struggle slightly. Each time I switched back to one of the apps, it effectively had to reinitialise from the ground-up, meaning there was a momentary few milliseconds while the iPad tried to figure out what it was doing. It didn’t make work impossible - but it did perhaps limit the furious speed at which I could work.

The bigger problem was, unsurprisingly, moving files between apps. On a desktop computer with a file system that the user can access, this is easy. But on an iPad, this simple task becomes annoying. For example, at one point I wanted to download a PDF document and annotate it - something that would be easy on a laptop. But loading up the PDF in Chrome, there was no way to save the file locally and open it in the Goodnotes app I intended to use. Goodnotes has not built in support for the “share sheet” - the pop-up where you can see the apps that you can send the web page link to. And even if the share sheet did work, the only thing the iPad would transmit to the secondary app would be the URL as text, rather than the actual PDF file I wanted to edit.

So in the end I had to build a wildly complex work around. To get it into the app I had to use another app called Workflow - this is an app that lets you build basically mini-macros. So I built a macro to take a URL, download the contents, and upload it to Google Drive. Then from the share sheet, I was able to download the PDF to Google Drive. Then, finally, to get it into Goodnotes so I could actually do the work I wanted, I had to hook up Goodnotes to Google Drive, and download the PDF from there. Phew. If I was using my Mac, I’d simply have to drag and drop.

A Feeling of Fragility

Perhaps the most unexpected effect of using an iPad for serious work has not been there on the screen - but has perhaps been almost entirely in my head. For lack of better words, working on an iPad simply feels a lot more “fragile”.

While I’m writing on a tablet, there’s slightly less certainty in my mind that what I’m working on will save correctly - or whether that the email I marked as unread will remain unread so I won’t forget about it later. When editing Google Sheets, part of my mind was wondering whether the app would just crash out entirely.

But this isn’t to say working on an iPad has no merit: While there are going to be some things that I definitely need a full sized computer for, if there’s a day when I’ve got to move between a lot of different meetings and don’t want to lug my computer around with me, I think I can live with the trade off - and still get work done on the move. If I had the cash, this is probably the point at which I’d splash out on one of the ultra-thin MacBooks - but in the meantime, I’m starting to believe.

Buy a bluetooth keyboard for your iPad folks - it just might actually work.