Making the iPad Useful

It’s Not the Perfect Computer, but it Might Be the Best Way to Access One…

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Ever since first iPad came out in 2003, I have been on a mission to replace my laptop (I was motivated by Tim Cook’s assertion that he can do 80% of his work on an iPad.). Given how far iPads and other tablets have come, both spec-wise and software-wise, it just seems like something one should be able to do. But the devil is in the details and a number of very specific problems made going all-in impossible. Even to this day, printing from an iPad is unreliable and slow. There also is the browser problem, where many websites still do not quite function properly, especially if plug-ins are required. With updates to iOS 9, external keyboards have become more useful (they now work with AutoCorrect and support a number of common shortcuts, for example), but using a keyboard with an iPad only begs the question, “why am I not using my laptop?” As for other means of inputting text, the dictation feature continues to improve, but it is still too inconsistent for my purposes. Last, many of the apps I use on a daily basis do not have fully comparable iOS equivalents (Microsoft Office has improved greatly, but it is still clunky compared to a computer-based experience, especially with regard to accessing files.).

Basically, I want to keep all the cool things about my iPad (great video and music playback, easy ways to procure content, extreme portability, long battery life, etc.) without giving up my computer’s desktop. It is a difficult proposition—Microsoft has tried to accomplish this with the Surface, but to me, that device feels just like a very portable laptop and not much like a tablet (in large part due to the lack of quality apps compared to the iOS and Android offerings). At the end of the day, the lesson is probably that tablets and PCs are just different animals, products built up from the manner by which users interface with them (touch versus keyboards and mice). But don’t give up hope just yet!

Enter remote computing. Generally speaking, accessing a computer over the Internet can be a great experience when properly configured. Microsoft has offered a sophisticated remote desktop  application for over a decade, providing nearly seamless interaction with a remote computer. In fact, iOS and Android have a number of remote desktop clients that work exceptionally well (my favorites include Jump and Remotix. From Windows 8 on, Windows is designed to work with a touch-based interface, so on a tablet, Windows via Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) works almost like it was designed to be touched. Mac OS has employed a different protocol called VNC—it is nowhere near as seamless (the screen will not automatically resize to the tablet, nor is the interface touch-friendly), but it definitely works. A better way to access a Mac might be Parallels Access, which requires a $20 annual subscription for up to five computers.

Of course, nothing is that simple. Configuring remote access to a computer can require a bit of networking proficiency, necessitating a public IP address (or forwarding address) and port forwarding on your local router. Additionally, you need a reliable internet connection both at the remote site and from wherever you will be accessing the remote computer. Jump, Remotix, and Parallels offer applications that will take care of the networking, but even their solutions are not foolproof.

However, once you have everything up and running, remote computing has a number of benefits beyond enhancing the utility of an iPad. One of the most important advantages for me is reliability. Whereas my computer at home is rock solid, my laptop is constantly being put in situations where my work can be compromised. I’m always shutting the case in the middle of work, causing it to go to sleep. Every once in a while, I won’t be able to wake the computer and work will be lost. I’ve also dropped and spilled on my computer to similar effect. Had I been remote computing during these catastrophes, my work would not have been lost. Worst case, I would have lost my connection to the remote computer, but when I returned to the office, the work would be there where I left it. Additionally, the work on my remote computer is constantly being backed up; my laptop is only backing up when I’m at home.

There are also security benefits. Should I end up losing my iPad, very little sensitive information is stored there; it is all safely away on the remote computer at home. There are also cost benefits. As a Chicago commuter, I’m much happier to lose an iPad over my suped-up MacBook Air (I’ve already been forcibly relieved of one iPad while waiting for a bus at Midway airport). While the initial software investment can be steep, at least those purchases will transfer to a new iPad at no additional cost.

Naysayers will point out that a remote computing setup is dangerously dependent on strong, reliable broadband connections. This of course, is true. For example, I have yet to have an airplane flight with WiFi sufficient to handle a Remote Desktop session. However, I don’t buy this argument because I am generally dependent on a good network regardless, even if I am not connecting to my desktop remotely. When the network is bad, I have a number of go-to applications to pick up the slack. The Microsoft and Apple office suites are usually sufficient to keep on working or start new projects. I do my writing in iA Writer, which has a tremendous iOS app. Otherwise, I make sure that I use services that are cross-platform between my Mac, my Windows computer, and my iPad (Todoist for my to-do lists, Evernote for notes, and Chrome for browsing the web).

As an aside, speaking of planes, the iPad, with a proper keyboard like the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, is so much easier to use on a cramped flight than even a MacBook because the keyboard places the monitor much closer to the keys, thereby saving precious inches.

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Now, like Tim Cook, I am able to use an iPad (with the help of computer) for about 80% of my work. Web design and graphic editing (really anything that requires a larger screen) is still pretty hard, but otherwise my system works well.

Going All in With the iPad

Can It Ever Replace My Laptop?

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So the answer to the question above is a definitive “no.” However, with recent improvements to iOS in combination with a number of key apps, I’m getting closer to that ever-elusive goal set forth by my main man, Tim (he can do 80% of his work on an iPad, don’t you know). In previous blog posts, I have documented my frustrations with using an iPad as a laptop replacement. There is little doubt that the iPad provides a superior experience as far as content consumption goes (read: it’s great for listening to, reading, and watching stuff). Where the iPad struggles for me is in content creation.

Now, iOS has come a long way over the past few years. The included dictation feature continues to improve, and is serviceable as a keyboard replacement in a pinch (in a quiet place). However, there is a time limit wherein the speaker is cut off (about 30 seconds). This becomes a problem if one is trying to use the dictation feature to compose a blog or longer email. So far, the only viable option I have found comes from Nuance and their Dragon Anywhere software/service. Dragon Anywhere is far from perfect and it’s $150 annual fee is definitely pricey. However, it has allowed me to do the things that I could not do with the built-in dictation feature.

The frustration with Dragon Anywhere is that it does not function outside of its own application. So basically, you need to dictate into Dragon’s app, and then copy and paste to wherever the text ultimately belongs. This is less of an irritation given iOS’s slide over feature, which allows you to, for example, dictate an email response within Dragon Anywhere well at the same time looking at the email you are responding to.

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This is hardly optimal, but the dictation accuracy makes it worth the extra effort. Moreover, if you are a Dragon Dictation user on your desktop, I don’t really think that this iOS limitation is anymore disruptive than the desktop experience.

While Dragon Anywhere may make blogging and emailing significantly easier for me, it doesn’t really help me with coding or terminal work that is part of my daily responsibility. For website design, I love Panic’s Coda, but it is worthless to me without a physical keyboard. I know there are plenty of great keyboard cases out there for the iPad, but I think if you have to add a keyboard case to the iPad to make it work, then you might as well have a laptop. Additionally, external keyboards are unable to take advantage of auto-capitalization and auto-correction features within iOS. The best solution for me has been to purchase a Bluetooth keyboard that I keep in my backpack and can use with the iPad in emergencies. As for command line work I use a multi-platform solution called vSSH. vSSH allows you to store credentials and connections along with code snippets in the app which then synchronize via iCloud to other devices. So I’m able to create the connections and snippets on my MacBook such that they are then available for me to use on my iPad.

This point, there is no ditching the computer, so for the iPad to be useful to me, I need to make it as easy as possible to get information off the iPad and into the computer (and vice versa). At the most basic level, I accomplish this with an app called Copied. Copied has applications for both iOS and the Mac that basically allow you to synchronize text you copy from one device to another. I also rely heavily on Evernote for organizing work notes and Todoist for my to do list. Both products have well-developed apps on both iOS and desktop. By using identical apps on both platforms, I am able to quickly find things that I need regardless of which device I created or organized them on.

Email has always been a problem for me on iOS. I have never really liked the default mail app on either iOS or OS X, and I’m frequently trying out different applications that fit my needs. I have finally settled on CloudMagic, which has a fantastic iOS client and a limited, but developing Mac client. The most important function of an email client for me at this time is being able to get an email out of the client and into either Evernote or Todoist so that I can properly act upon it. CloudMagic handles this very well with the iOS client; hopefully it will also do so with its Mac client in the future.

Ultimately, making it iPad useful with in my professional life essentially means I need to be able to access my work on both an iPad and a computer. By and large, I have found the applications that allow me to do this. Though I haven’t mentioned them yet, I certainly rely upon Dropbox, Microsoft Office, iA Writer, and Google Drive to share and create content between devices. I am also heavily reliant on accessing my computers remotely by RDP or VNC. I use both Jump Desktop as well as Remotix for networks that I manage; I have also used LogMeIn, Splashtop, and TeamViewer for clients that don’t have static IP addresses.

So, I would say that I’m at a point now where I can use my iPad for about 60% of my work. However, I doubt that there is any cost savings over purchasing a laptop given the software expenses that are necessary for me to make the iPad work. I’m guessing that many of these features for which I am paying extra will be included within iOS in the near future. It appears that the shared pasteboard features of Copied will already be included in iOS 10. So, as far as I’m concerned, I think there is a good deal of work to be done before I can ditch my laptop, but I think I can finally see the horizon.

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Technological Simplicity

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