My Next Computer Is Not A Computer

I've not had a purely personal laptop for several years now. At my previous job, I decided that I was blending work + home so much that it made more sense to just have one machine for all. Luckily, I was in a position to institute a "BYOD" program at work that actually let work save on hardware costs, and also let me recoup some personal costs for the machine I really wanted (13" MacBook Pro) - win-win! Once I moved to Amazon I was issued a 13" MBP as standard, and didn't want to manage 2 laptops. The "old" one (essentially the same spec as the AWS-issued one) stayed in the family, but I settled around just using the same laptop for work and pleasure, using my Mac Mini at home occasionally.

Trying out the iPad

In 2017 I decided to create more of a separation between work and personal, but I still didn't want to cart 2 laptops around when travelling - especially if it was a trip that was going to include some personal time and work time. I bought myself a 10.5" iPad Pro with a Smart Keyboard and decided that would be my personal "computer".

For the most part, it worked well. Email / web browsing was great, going through my photos was good, and occasionally playing some casual games like Hearthstone, or writing up notes for draft blog posts was "fine". But I still found myself gravitating to my notionally "work only" laptop to do heavy lifting. My general "workflow" for things that weren't work was a bit messy. I didn't have a good setup for blogging1 or photography2 - the two bigger things I was trying / doing in my non-work time. Of course I made it all worse when I bought myself a gaming PC running Windows 10 and breaking basically all my automation. About the only thing that I had "nailed" was using GoodNotes for hand-written notes and D&D character sheets using the Pencil.

Settling down the workflows

Fast forward to 2019 and I decided to simplify things. I started to use the (excellent) Working Copy app to manage source-controlled text editing on the iPad - covering both the blog and other things like my home automation configuration. I went all-in on an Apple-centric photo workflow - iPhone for almost all photos, iCloud Photos for library management, and Darkroom for editing beyond the basics. Earlier this year, I started using Secure ShellFish to essentially give me an SSH file system and Textastic to remove the need for round-tripping through git to push blog drafts back to my mac mini at home doing auto-builds and then just Prompt to deploy.

I broke the work/personal boundary a bit on the iPad and installed a few apps to allow me to do a limited subset of work easily, and remote control a virtual workspace for essentially "full work", if a little bit clunky.

All these things combined to make the iPad a much more viable "personal computer" for me, and feel like 2019 is when I really started to "get it"

My next computer

When Apple announced the first 11-inch iPad Pro in 2018 I was tempted, but it wasn't enough of an upgrade, and I didn't really feel like I had enough of a handle on the iPad workflow to justify it. This year I was settled on my iPad workflow, and was a lot more tempted. As soon as I saw the Magic Keyboard I was sold. I bought the iPad, the 2nd generation pencil, and a cheap case off Amazon to wait for the Magic Keyboard to be released before making a final decision. I realised very quickly that I really rely on using my iPad with a keyboard. I plugged in a keyboard and paired up my trackpad to see if the iPadOS 13.4 trackpad support would help justify the ridiculous price of the Magic Keyboard. It did, so I forked ponied up a few hundred bucks and ordered it as soon as I could. Yesterday it arrived.

In general there's not much to say about the 2020 iPad Pro compared to my previous iPad. It's a little faster, it has better graphics, and the new pencil is just generally "better"3. With a shitty stand, an awesome keyboard and a bluetooth trackpad, I really found myself getting in to using the iPad for everything personal. The iPadOS 13 default to making Safari request "desktop" versions of websites rather than "mobile" or "tablet" versions also makes a big difference.

The Magic Keyboard is heavy. It basically doubles the weight of the iPad. But it's awesome. The scissor keys have a reasonable amount of travel, and feel like typing on a decent laptop keyboard. The backlight is good, and the trackpad - while small - feels a good size, and easily allows for gestures that translate well from MacOS4. I love the USB-C pass-through power, especially with it being low-down on the case, so it feels more like a typical "laptop" positioning. The opening angle is a bit wider (and thus better for me) than the Smart Keyboard was on the 2017 iPad Pro, but I could still use a little more of an angle sometimes when standing at the kitchen counter. This is definitely a rock-solid option for making the iPad a little more laptop-like.

I didn't actually notice until reading/watching some reviews today that there isn't a function row. Now that I know it's not there, I am missing some things - and I realised I'd quite missed the volume buttons being where my fingers already were, but at the same time either using the trackpad to whip up to Control Centre to change it, or reaching out to the hardware buttons on the top of the iPad isn't really that problematic. What I have noticed - especially while writing this post in markdown with square brackets - is that while most of the keys are full-sized, some aren't. What's especially annoying is that the square bracket keys are different sizes. I was also a little surprised that the gestures that involve sliding in from the edge of the screen (notifications, control centre, slideover, dock / multi-tasking) when touching the iPad directly, instead involve slamming the cursor into the edge of the screen from the inside out when using the trackpad. I've adjusted to it already, but it does seem a bit odd - especially given MacOS has support for things like two-finger swipe in from the side of the trackpad.

Oh - and in the iPadOS settings I can now remap caps lock to Escape. This is how it should be.

So why not just get a small laptop? I mean the 13" Macbook Air basically weighs the same, costs less, and doesn't have the same multi-tasking limitations as the iPad. Two reasons. The first is that my iPad has cellular, which is much more pleasant to use than tethering to my phone whenever I'm out and about and don't have wifi access. But the biggest one is the real magic of the keyboard/case. It's not the keys, it's magnets. With the iPad on the Magic Keyboard it's rock-solid and feels like a single unit. But the iPad just pulls away, and suddenly you're in Star Trek: The Next Generation, you've got a PADD. It's magic AND the future.

So that's my personal computer.

  1. I had the source documents for the blog in a repo, but then individual virtual environments for building/deploying the blog configured on my laptop + mac mini. Combined with the fact that my host requires IP whitelisting for SSH, I would often be writing blog posts + doing builds on my laptop, only to then commit the source, SSH into my mac mini at home, just so I could rebuild and publish from a fixed IP. Gross. 

  2. I was using Lightroom + Olympus Micro 4/3 camera for "real" photos, and iPhone + iCloud photo stream for "quick" photos. I had automation on the mac mini to pull things into a master Lightroom library, but whenever I was travelling, I'd be using Lightroom on the laptop and then have to manage manual iPhone imports + Lightroom library merges. Gross. 

  3. Attaching and charging magnetically on one side of the iPad is infinitely better than the shitty lighting plug on v1. The double tap gesture is a cool idea, but I find it super hard to trigger with the way I naturally hold the pencil. 

  4. Probably helps that in my WFH setup I am using an external trackpad rather than a mouse. 


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