I tried replacing my computer with an iPad Pro. It did not go well.

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This article was provided by Zapier.

Apple once aired a commercial where an iPad-toting young person is asked what she’s doing on her computer, only to ask what a computer is. The implication being that these devices are so great you don’t need a computer, or even to know what a computer is.

This might be why, when I dropped my laptop off at the Apple Store for battery repair, I figured I could do 100% of my job on my iPad Pro. I was optimistic. I’m a team lead here at Zapier, which means I don’t write a lot of code anymore. I spend most of my time on my laptop in Zoom calls, in Slack, or in a browser—all things you could theoretically do on an iPad.

I have a 2020 iPad Pro with one of the older clamshell keyboards (not the fancy ones with a touchpad). In the past, I’ve found that using my iPad is a great way to cultivate dedicated focus time for reading or writing. So I figured an iPad could replace a laptop. This should be easy, right?

It wasn’t easy

Unfortunately, the first few days were pretty rough. Mondays and Tuesdays, I spend almost all of my day on Zoom calls—and it’s a pain looking down at my iPad on call after call. The posture just isn’t great.

I tried a variety of positions: my iPad propped on my standing desk with me looming above it (can’t really use the screen), the iPad on the couch (less craning down, still pretty unusable), or with it on my lap. Only the last one actually let me use the device while taking a call.

One thing I didn’t anticipate: Zoom’s iPad app cuts out your video if you do anything else. Want to change the brightness? No video. Switch apps to look at the meeting agenda? Nope. Check your notifications? Bye-bye.

The only workaround is the two flavors of multitasking on iPadOS. The best version of this is where you can have two apps share the screen—but often you’ll lose some functionality when the apps shrink. If you’re on a call with screen sharing, Zoom drops your video from the call. The pop-over version of multitasking also works, but it’s much more inconsistent and presents a super skinny version of the second app.

The ridiculous trick that (kind of) made this work

Fortunately, I happened to talk with another iPad enthusiast. He saved my neck (literally) by recommending I use my Mac’s external keyboard and touchpad with the iPad. This let me hang my iPad on my external monitor and restored somewhat ergonomic working conditions by allowing me to stand while using the device. It did, however, look absurd.

Scott's iPad Pro hanging on his monitor

The touchpad in particular is really helpful—it’s mouse-like but does “feel” like using touch. The mouse-like pointer will expand and form around usable touch elements, so you know when to drag, pull, and use other gestures.

Using my monitor as a stand for an iPad is absurd, yes, but it worked. I found myself starting to get into a bit of a groove. The singular focus of iPadOS forced me to take one task at a time instead of hopping between email, Slack, my to-do list, and meetings. I could almost imagine this as my solution full-time and, getting really galaxy-brain, if I only could only plug my iPad into my external monitor (and it didn’t hijack my sound) and webcam, this could even be an improvement.

Still, some things just don’t work. Parts of Jira, Coda, and Figma just don’t fully function as an iPad app or in a mobile browser. And other seemingly easy things become impossible. I use Zappy, a Mac app, to host internal images. I have no idea how I’d access those images on my tablet. And of any kind of coding would be impossible, especially if I needed to inspect elements in a browser.

This works, but only barely

Overall I’d give the experience a C+. Using an iPad for my job is passable for the short term, but just barely. And it only really worked with the change in posture, plus the additions of an external keyboard and touchpad.

It’s a shame. I like the way I work on iPadOS and wish I could do more of it. A decade after launch, though, the iPad still isn’t robust enough to replace my computer. I wonder if that will ever change.

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