Here’s What’s Wrong with the iPad as a Computer — and What it Does Surprisingly Well
Most people who know me are aware that I’m a pretty avid Apple fan. Fewer know that I got my real-world education in computers and consumer electronics by building custom Windows PCs for myself, friends and family. I switched to a Mac before I went to college because I was tired of being frustrated by Windows while hearing about how Macs “just worked.” I’ve been deeply immersed in both platforms my whole life. For 8 years I was in charge of an IT department responsible for Windows installations from Windows XP all the way to Windows 10 on desktops, laptops and Surface tablets, as well as iMacs, MacBooks, iPads and iPhones. While there are certain things that give PCs an edge (mainly in enterprise environments with closed server ecosystems), Apple products across the range are, in my humble opinion, far superior.
That’s partly because Apple engineers both its software and its hardware in-house with the other in mind, but it’s mainly because Apple really hates putting crap into the world. “There are a thousand ‘no’s for every ‘yes’,” they say. So when it puts out a new feature, it’s usually exceptionally well thought out, thoroughly tested and cleanly implemented. The Windows experience by comparison tends to feel like you’re constantly running beta software, although to Microsoft’s credit Windows has definitely improved since Satya Nadella took over for Steve Ballmer.
It’s somewhat on par for an Apple product to see a slow trickle of new features, and when the iPad was released 7 years ago in 2011 it kind of was just a giant iPod Touch, software-wise. So the fact that I’m sitting on my 13” (okay, 12.9”) iPad Pro in laptop-like formation with a physical keyboard writing this piece on a native app with my notes open in Split View while my music plays in the background is characteristic of a pretty amazing evolution.
But Apple is now being active in promoting the iPad as a full-fledged computer, and that’s a big statement. Yes, my grandma exclusively uses an iPad Pro for all her computing needs. But for her, those basically amount to email, the occasional web search and adorably, reading my blog (Hi, Grandma!! Love you ♥️). With an iPad Pro running iOS 11 or 12 (12 sadly adds very little functionality to the iPad), you can definitely get away with one as your daily driver. But if you’re used to a traditional computer an iPad will probably leave you feeling quite hindered at some point. If you do any professional work, forget about it altogether.
It’s unfortunate because the iPad is an awesome device in a great form factor, and it has the tech to be an actual computer replacement. It’s just crippled by iOS and a handful of small omissions and oversights that add up to a big difference.
What it Needs
1. Multiple app windows
iOS 10 brought Split View to Safari so users could have two webpages open at once, but it's a strangely crippled version of it and Safari's the only app that has it. If you're trying to use an iPad as a computer, creating documents may be something you occasionally find yourself doing. Do you know what it takes to have 2 documents of the same file type open next to each other on an iPad right now? Two different apps with the same purpose. Or magic.
This is something Apple could theoretically build into iOS without depending substantially on developers, and it would make an enormous difference in iPad's usability.
2. All the keyboard shortcuts
Both iOS and many important 3rd party apps fall short on a critical efficiency feature: keyboard shortcuts. I’m looking at your Office suite, Microsoft—why can't we shift-tab to move backward through an Excel spreadsheet, or command-tap to select multiple isolated cells?
iOS provides a few Mac-like shortcuts, and developers can include their own, but they're limited compared to what you have on a computer running a desktop OS, and there's no way to add more yourself. Considering the iPad is designed entirely around clunky touch input (that’s a critique of our fingers, not iOS’s Multi-Touch) with no ability to use a mouse or trackpad, keyboard shortcuts that allow users to hit a combo and instantly perform an action are arguably even more important on iPad than on a traditional mouse-based computer.
To Apple: Since this is arguably a "power feature," just give users the ability to customize shortcuts by app from a central Settings pane and those who rely on them will happily take care of it. Then, set an example by going all-in yourself (where's our control-return to skip a line in iMessage?) and more devs will follow.
3. Function keys and a function (fn) key
The fact that you can't forward-delete on iPad is pretty dumb. This is another feature that is arguably even more necessary on iPad than a traditional mouse-based computer, because if you can't forward-delete on a touch-based device it means you have to try to precisely jab between two characters using your finger. On a Mac this is achieved by pressing function (fn) + delete.
Apple likely believes that the functions normally warranting a row of dedicated keys are all conveniently accessible via Control Center with iPad, but even for the ones that are, it takes time and effort to reach out, invoke Control Center, jab at your toggle and return to your task. Not to mention my muscle memory must hit the emoji button that occupies the function key's spot on Apple's Smart Keyboard three times a day.
To Apple: The reason function keys are useful is the same reason you made a physical keyboard despite already having an excellent onscreen one—efficiency. Throw in a thin row of function keys on the next version of the Smart Keyboard, make them programmable within the new user-customizable keyboard shortcuts setting, and move the emoji key up there while you're at it.
4. A solution for touch and drag input in Safari
This one probably sends me back to my Mac more than anything else. It's unfortunate that 11 years after Steve Jobs announced the iPhone and touted full desktop browsing on mobile that even the 13" iPad Pro fumbles with interactive web content. I would say at this point we're not going to see a revolution in web development where independent devs start coding in touch-oriented UIs en mass.
To Apple: We need a layer baked into Safari on iPad that knows when a web app is dependent on click and drag and translates touch gestures into compatible user input seamlessly.
5. Desktop-grade Safari on iPad Pro
With a 13" screen, and even with a 10.5" one (both Pro models), a user should rarely encounter a mobile-optimized site. Mobile sites are great for smartphones and regular 9.7" iPads in portrait mode, but they often omit functionality and usually reorganize a website into something of a stack. In most cases on an iPad they're unnecessary and inhibiting.
To Apple: Stop identifying iPad's version of Safari as "Mobile Safari" to websites just like the iPhone's. Force sites to default to desktop in every instance except for half-screen or 1/3 mode in Split View and portrait orientation on 9.7" or smaller devices. Instead of the (frustratingly ignorable) 'Request Desktop Site' feature, flip it to 'Request Mobile Site.'
6. Little conveniences
a) Better formatting options in Mail
Why oh why do we need to jump to Mac Mail to create a bulleted or numbered list, Apple? Bring all of your awesome Notes formatting options over to Mail. Please.
b) Scan to PDF directly in Files
iOS 11 added some truly awesome power features to the iPad, one of which was an incredibly useful document scanner built into Notes, and another of which was system-wide PDF creation. Don't stop there Apple! Let us create a new file directly in the Files app by scanning to PDF. There are so many barren notes I've created just as an intermediary between its scanner and my files in iCloud Drive. Bridge the gap!
c) Rename files while using the 'Save to Files' extension in share sheet
Presently if the app the file comes from doesn't let you name it beforehand, you're stuck with a generic filename until you manually launch the Files app, navigate to the (consequently hard to identify) file, and rename it after the fact. Enjoy dealing with multiple scanned PDFs from Notes!
7. Better apps
This may be the biggest issue with relying exclusively on iPad as a computer.
While there are some gems out there, unfortunately many iPad apps fall way short of their desktop-class counterparts, and even some more robust desktop websites. Plenty of iPad apps are still basically glorified iPhone apps adapted for bigger screens. One of the best examples of absolutely dismal iPad app execution comes courtesy of Adobe. Far from offering touch-optimized versions of any of its desktop-class Creative Cloud apps (even on the 13” iPad Pro), Adobe’s chosen to fragment its professional apps into tiny pieces, offering no less than 4 separate apps that contain core functionality of desktop Photoshop alone. InDesign exists only as Comp, a severely crippled basic layout app, and Illustrator is limited to a hand-sketch app.
Even right now as I draft this post on Squarespace’s Blog app on my iPad Pro, I’ll have to shift back to my Mac’s web browser to move content around, add media (if I don’t want to spend 3x longer doing it on my iPad), or add blog elements outside of a very basic 8 from a total of 51 available on the web. That’s right, in some cases you can do more inside a web browser on a traditional computer than you can inside a native app on an iPad.
Where it Shines
Avoiding the traditional desktop and centering the user experience on fullscreen apps has its benefits—namely, you're looking at pretty much only what you're doing unless you deliberately call in another app. In today's distracted world, I find it a welcome atmosphere.
On iPad you can literally flick between apps, control center and the home screen instantly and naturally by dragging one or more fingers across the screen. It's smoother and faster than what you'd have to do in most situations on a traditional computer—even in some cases Apple's own Macs equipped with Multi-Touch trackpads.
3. Drag and drop
Apple went the extra mile with this feature in iOS 11, and it's definitely useful. You can tap, hold, and drag virtually anything throughout and across apps on an iPad. It's a feature that definitely makes you feel like you're moving quickly and getting things done without compromise.
The iPad is easily the most portable "computer" there is, depending on how you equip it. By itself it's a razor thin slab of aluminum and glass you can slip into a large purse or small backpack. With a Smart Keyboard an iPad Pro is still thinner than almost any laptop; all if you weight the comparison by processing power. Top that off with 10-hour battery life (depending on how you use it—I tend to get about 6) and optional cellular data for Internet anywhere and you'll easily be more empowered with an iPad than you could be with a traditional laptop in tons of scenarios.
5. App discovery
There's no traditional computer that has an app store like Apple's for the iPad. Even though impressively powerful desktop- or professional-class apps are lacking big time, there are millions of solid, working apps to choose from, all in one place and easy to find, with screenshots, reviews and compatibility verification for your device. Beyond that, because of Apple's standards and internal review process you can be sure they aren't loaded full of malware.
6. Hand drawing and handwriting
The Apple Pencil is not just a stylus—it's pretty much the smoothest digital writing and drawing instrument available for on-screen input. If you sketch, paint, or like to write by hand, you can't even compare an iPad with Pencil to a traditional computer. With tons of apps that support it and very impressive technical specs, it's definitely a differentiating feature.
Overall the iPad—especially either of the larger and more powerful Pro models—is a great device. The most basic of users who primarily use email and web browsing will probably be better off with an iPad than a more expensive and comparatively complicated Windows or Mac computer. But as soon as you start introducing basic creative needs, efficient workflows, or real productivity to the mix you realize you don't have everything you need. Considering the significant upsides to relying on an iPad as your daily driver and Apple's assertion that it's already a great computer, it's disappointing that users are stuck with such frustrating drawbacks. Unfortunately, based on the iOS 12 beta it seems it will be at least another 15 months before the iPad is given any real computer-grade capabilities, and even then this is really just a wish list. Hopefully Apple will take another page from its own book and surprise us with an unpredictably awesome implementation of these and more features in iOS 13.