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I dropped off my MacBook for a battery replacement, and due to parts shipping and whatnot, I was Mac-less for almost two weeks. I figured I would take that time to see what an iPad-only life would be like.
For context, I have a conventional five-day workweek, and I do not bring work home. Any computing done at home is for entertainment or personal education needs and wants.
I thought a bit about how to organize my thoughts, and in the end, decided to have sections dedicated to different categories of apps and activities. Since I leave my work at home, there is a greater focus on entertainment, which comprises of gaming and media consumption. Another common theme in my impressions will be how I have been able to consume my own offline content. I am not subscribed to anything at the moment, but I do have a standing trial offer for Apple TV+ (which I should probably activate soon).
My oft-used accessories with my MacBook:
- Elecom DEFT Pro trackball (Seven buttons; can be connected via Bluetooth, dongle wireless, micro-USB wired)
- Western Digital 4TB MyPassport HDD (contains all my media - videos, ebooks, comics, music)
- 8bitdo SN30Pro+ controller
- A generic USB 3.0 4-port powered hub
- HyperDrive GEN2 12-port USB-C hub/dock (detailed specs)
My iPad gear:
- iPad Air 3rd generation (running iOS 13.6.1)
- Logitech Combo Touch Keyboard
- Lighting to USB 3 Camera Adapter
- Apple Pencil 1st generation
- Elecom trackball: mostly no. The iPad says it paired successfully with Bluetooth, but there is no mouse movement whatsoever. In wired mode or dongle wireless mode, pointer movement, left/right clicks and four-way wheel manipulation is possible, but no customizations (this model has 7 buttons in total). 5 buttons all register as left click, 1 as right click, and 1 doesn’t even register at all. If you’d like to use a trackball with the iPad, don’t bother looking at models with more than two buttons.
- WD 4TB: mostly yes. My HDD was already formatted as exFAT to begin with, and I don’t have access to another PC to reformat a spare USB flash disk or SD card as FAT32 or NTFS to check for compatibility. Therefore, it remains to be seen as to whether you can immediately use a hard drive the moment you buy it and open the packaging. Also, it cannot be bus-powered, and requires a powered hub.
- SN30Pro+: Yes. Because of the multi faced nature of the controller, there are a few more steps you need to get through before it’s paired. You can refer to this link to learn more about pairing it: https://mikeknoop.com/8bitdo-ios13/ And as a bonus, the controller will connect with a USB-A to USB-C cable!
- USB 3.0 hub: Yes. Nothing much to say here - plugging in devices in whatever port worked. Any power issues that may arise due to too many power-hungry devices would be prevalent regardless of whether you’re connecting the hub to a Mac, PC, iPad, etc.
HyperDrive compatibility: partial
and it needs to be powered.
- Micro SD/SD. Not simultaneously, but this could be a dock issue. When it works, though, Photos doesn’t open up automatically like in past iOS versions, which I kinda prefer personally.
- USB ports
- 3.5mm headphone jack. Side note: a TRRS jack (mic/headphone combo) had issues with making a solid connection on the dock.
- Ethernet. interestingly, when the iPad recognizes an Ethernet NIC, the wireless symbol does not show up next to the battery indicator.
What doesn’t work: HDMI out. I connected the other side to a 720p Samsung TV, but there was no signal whatsoever. This might be a USB-A limitation, so no fault on the hardware.
Unknown: DisplayPort, because I don’t have a DP-capable monitor, but I’m willing to bet that it won’t work since HDMI won’t work.
Overall, as far as hardware is concerned, the iPad is great for the lowest common denominator. Anything that is not part of the “standard” - that is, the extra button or two on a midrange mouse, the software macro keys on an extended keyboard, etc. - is likely not to be recognized and will be a waste. I imagine Apple-branded devices may be the exception.
Productivity and/or studies
One of my favorite features here is how, app dependent, keyboard shortcuts pop up when you hold the Command key for a few seconds. This is quite handy when you would rather not have to remove your hands in the middle of typing something. It was also nice to see that a lot of shortcuts have remained the same on iOS apps.
But on the topic of keyboard shortcuts, I miss being able to create or modify them for each app. For example, on Evernote for Mac, Command-T triggers a new tab, but I had no use for that function, so I remapped it to strikethrough.
Keyboard observations aside and going back to the iPad, I’ve come to fully realize that an iPad Air is way too small for split screen if you use the Apple Pencil to scribble notes. Half an iPad Air’s screen is roughly equivalent to an A6 sheet, and for me personally, that isn’t big enough to scribble lecture notes down.
This will be highly dependent on the nature of whatever class you’re taking, but the roundabout that worked for me was to use my iPhone to stream the lecture material, while using my iPad to scribble away. The visual wasn’t anything “intense,” like an instructor using a blackboard - rather, it was the equivalent of a fancy PowerPoint presentation with an audio overlay, so this roundabout did not bother me that much. YMMV.
Entertainment - audio
When the iPad has not been synced with a computer running iTunes, or if there is no active subscription to Apple Music, Spotify or any other music streaming service, the iPad is a very poor jukebox out of the box. And in the case of the iPad Air, the speakers on the single side do not help matters. I imagine my experience would have been better had I opted for the iPad Pro, or waited for the (expected) Air 4th generation.
Without any third-party apps, you can use Files to individually tap on a song and listen to it until it’s over, and then you’ll need to manually tap on another song to get it playing. It probably goes without saying that there aren’t any extra features you’d usually expect from a music app like EQ, playlists, and all that. Not great for listening to most music, but good enough for podcasts or recordings of spoken material. And Files will play music in the background.
Foobar2000, VOX, VLC: Cannot access local drives from within the app, but I’ve noticed that you can force audio to play via these apps by tap-holding on at least VLC; a list of random audio and video files pop up.
NPlayer, Flacbox, Evermusic, Wave : So, these can access the external drive. The biggest thing to note here is that the music will not play straight from the hard drive; you need to import the files to the iPad’s internal storage. There’s also no way to one-tap-add folders if you decide to copy over everything.
That said, I did notice a common pattern with these four apps above. They all use the Files interface to access the drives, and this made me wonder whether it’s an iOS limitation that the developers have no way getting around.
Now...buying music from a store that isn’t iTunes is another can of worms. I came across a game soundtrack I really liked on BandCamp and bought it. The buying process was fine; it’s like buying something from Amazon. Actually consuming the music? Hahahahahaha
This is BandCamp-specific. If you’re using Safari, the website doesn’t let you download the music directly. Instead, you have to download BandCamp’s app, make an account and stream it that way. The other alternative is to use a browser that allows you to change the user agent (once again, iCab comes to rescue here), change the user agent to something like Safari Mac or any other Mac/PC-based user agent and then get the straight download link. From there, you unzip the album, and start listening.
But here’s the kicker: you cannot add these songs into your stock music app.
Unless you migrate your entire collection to one of the third-party apps listed above or an NAS, your music collection is fragmented.
This has made me seriously consider giving up the usage of iTunes on my Mac or any other future computer going forward. On the one hand, it’s great that I can make all the Smart Playlists I want with all kinds of conditions, and they are seamlessly synced with my iPhone. I haven’t jumped on the streaming subscription bandwagon because I’m happy with my collection, and there’s plenty of music that I can never remember everything. On the other hand, all that is useless when I don’t have a Mac or PC at hand. I’ve been reliant on using Smart Playlists to automatically rotate through my collection by using play counts and dates last played, but again, what good is all this without a conventional computer?
Entertainment - video
With video, things are much more like what you’d expect from a Mac or Windows system. You tap on a video file in Files, and depending on the file type, either play it directly, or open up another app. MP4 files will open directly in Files, and MKV won’t.
For MKV, I use Infuse. It supports built-in subtitles, enabling or disabling them, as well as multiple audio tracks. If I were to be nitpicky, the only extra feature I’d want is the ability to add multiple files simultaneously to a playlist...but I’m starting to notice a pattern here in conjunction with the music apps.
As for online videos, it is very disappointing that Safari does not allow users to disable Fullscreen Video API on iOS 13. In other words, you don’t get the built-in play/pause and 15-second back/forward controls anymore unless a website allows it. This indeed makes fast-forwarding and rewinding much more of a chore, and on some poorly designed webpages, those buttons are tiny. And to add insult to injury, I can’t use the arrow keys on my Combo Touch keyboard to fast-forward or rewind, either.
One of the solutions found online is to use a Shortcut to force a video to show those controls in full-screen. For me, I have a second browser (iCab), with its user agent set to iPhone, and by doing this, I get the older, more usable controls. This is pretty much my video browser. The downside of iCab is that ad blocking has to be done in-app, and I’m still working on getting all ads blocked; some still get past.
Once again, though, if you had to jump through hoops to download and listen to music, well, these hoops become rings of fire and the platforms are narrower with spikes on both sides when it comes to downloading most videos. Short of being given a straight-up .mp4 link, it’s just plain impossible to download videos, regardless of legitimacy (unless it’s from Amazon or iTunes). And good luck ripping that DVD or Blu-Ray you bought off the shelves.
Entertainment - reading
I’m sure this has been mentioned a lot already, but thanks to the versatility of orientations, the iPad is definitely the superior reading experience compared to a Mac. Sure, if you have the right monitor, you can rotate it 90 degrees and read there, but you can’t just pick up a monitor from the desk and bring it to your sofa or bed.
Chunky is a great CBCBZ-supporting app, with support for right-to-left and left-to-right reading as well as auto-double-page when reading in landscape mode. It also can access files locally, but the file has to be copied over into the app.
I’ve touched on the SN30PRO+ controller earlier above. I imagine that it will be easier to pair a DualShock 4 or XBox controller since Apple openly supports those, and the extra gaming features coming in iOS 14 will only enhance the experience further.
As for the actual games, this one is going to be the most subjective of them all, and I also imagine the least fleshed out in my post since I do not subscribe to Apple Arcade or any other game streaming service.
As most enthusiast users may know, for almost as long as iOS has publicly existed, gaming has been a source of much controversy and discussion, what with predatory micro-transactions to Fortnite/Epic. There is also the issue of whether iOS can ever be a “true” gaming platform because of the App Store economics and the prevalent notion that mobile apps are not “real” apps.
In my case, I very much doubt I will treat my iPad as my **primary** gaming machine by any stretch. I still like my Marios, Zeldas, Resident Evils and Halos, and while there are quite a number of games that started off as console or PC games on the iPad now, of which I dare say a fair number has been ported efficiently (Sega AGES, Star Wars KOTOR, Marathon trilogy, Castlevania SOTN, Final Fantasy 1-7 come to mind), I feel that overall, they aren’t exactly the gaming experiences I get from my Switch. I don’t say this purely out of merely looking at the App Store offerings; I have spent at LEAST
a couple hundred dollars on premium, single-payment games or games with episodic content as IAP since the release of iOS 4, so I have at least SOME personal experience to go by.
Furthermore, retro enthusiasts will be the most hamstrung when using an iPad. Apple won’t allow emulators on the App Store, so you’ll need to go the builds.io route or re-sideload emulators from a Mac or PC every week. Or jailbreak.
Having said all that, I’m quite sure that for others with different gaming tastes, gaming on the iPad will be the smallest of issues. More than anything else, taste is truly subjective.
This is my catch-all term for things like managing personal photos, scheduling appointments, to-do lists, grocery lists, etc. Overall, I see general parity between iOS and desktops, and iOS would have the edge if portability is important.
Photos: since I pay 99 cents for more iCloud space, and I’ve backed up my photos to iCloud besides my external hard drive, photo management is pretty straightforward. I don’t have much to say here.
Appointments and errands: Shortly after dropping off my MacBook, I downloaded Agenda for making shopping lists and keeping track of appointments. I found that the combination of notes and to-do lists makes it more convenient to have dates and details in one place; it’s as if the stock Notes app had Reminder features. That said, there’s also a Mac version that I’ll give a shot at once I get my MacBook back.
Date tracker: Besides life-related milestones and anniversaries, we all have a lot of non-holiday, arbitrary dates to keep track of, such as date of purchase for tracking warranties, or the last time you cleaned out the cat litter box. I’ve always used spreadsheets for long-term things like warranties, and for more frequent things like the aforementioned kitty litter, an app called “Days Ago” on my iPhone, which seems to be unavailable for purchase anymore.
I find that after some initial setup by establishing that a column will be nothing but dates, Numbers can be surprisingly easy to use for this. When not using a physical keyboard, you can tap an empty cell, and in the pop-up keyboard, there’s a big fat button that says “today.”
Journaling: I have a grandfathered account on Day One after they went subscription-only. There doesn’t seem to be any major difference between the Mac and iOS versions.
This is where I see the most glaring of issues. Files being a poor substitute for FindeExplorer is a given and plenty has been said about this, so I’ll skip it.
Firstly, there is no option of safe removal of external drives. On my Mac, when I disconnect the hard drive without a second thought, it takes a good while for it to be mounted again, and sometimes I need to go to Disk Utility to bring it back. I notice this on my iPad as well, but there isn’t an option to unmount a drive first before physically removing it from my hub.
Secondly, say goodbye to local iPad backups. It’s iCloud backup or no backup, and it ain’t no Time Machine (as Apple points out here
). There’s no concept of system images like Time Machine, and if you’ve held off on app updates because the new updates take away features or make extreme changes, well, that’s out of your hands.
That might be fine just for the iPad, but what about your external drive with your documents and stuff? The only roundabout I see to this if you’re going iPad-only is to purchase a NAS and set up Backblaze or another backup service that way..and I’m not sure whether a NAS is a mainstream-friendly option yet.
Using the iPad, I came to realize that what constitutes "mainstream tech" has changed. When external hard drives became regular stock at everyday retailers like Target, Wal-Mart or their equivalents in other parts of the world, and not just tech specialty shops, I thought that was the point when Macs and PCs truly became mainstream, household items.
Now, it's online and the cloud. iOS devices are closely tied with iCloud. Android devices make it easy to upload files to Google Drive. Microsoft provides one-touch access to OneDrive when you install Windows. Dropbox provides an online, platform-agnostic intangible flash drive. You don’t have to buy boxed software and CDs that often, but you go to the App Store or the developer’s store page and download the software and provided codes that way.
So the answer to Apple's question of "what is a computer?" is "the gateway to the cloud." Whether the content is yours or not, they are now in the cloud, and you use the iPhone, the iPad and the Apple Watch to bring everything to your fingertips. This is Apple’s vision of a computer: a smarter terminal to the digital world.
If you’re like me and coming from years, if not a couple decades of desktop OS paradigms, there’s a big question of “how much of these so-called inconveniences are the iPad’s fault, and how much of them are because I’m inflexible and too set in my ways?” Maybe I’m just too set in my ways and not open to change...or maybe the iOS paradigm is just not right in more than one way.
As I adjusted and/or came up with workarounds, I am reminded of one of Buddhism’s tenets: desire leads to suffering. My desire to approach the iPad with OS X in mind has led to “suffering” (I use that term as an analogy; I would not say that I suffered any kind of mental anguish or anything like that during the past two weeks). Probably the most stress-free way to enjoy an iPad is to adhere to Apple’s dogma, embrace iCloud fully, do away with dongles and enjoy your services (Apple Music or Spotify, etc. for music, Apple TV or Netflix, etc. for shows, whatever).
For me personally, unless there are other OS changes in the pipeline, I feel I will always have some kind of a conventional personal computer, be it a Mac or something running Windows, in my digital life. My digital life collection is something I cannot easily give up, at least not yet. To finish this off, if you’re one of those people who have fully ditched your older computer and transitioned to iOS-only with next to no issues, more power to you, and I mean that with absolute sincerity. You have an all-in-one device with unparalleled manufacturer support, battery life, portability and (model-dependent) wireless connectivity.
tl;dr: iOS is not optimal for managing offline, local files.