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It’s not ‘can’ an iPad replace a laptop, but ‘how’ to replace a laptop

Thoughts on fewer devices and learning new things with iPads as device replacements for a web and graphics designer

If you’re reading this you’re probably tired of Googling for ways to replace a MacBook with an iPad. I did the same thing and grew tired of professional pundits rambling on about limitations with their otherwise unique workflows doing YouTube videos and podcasts. I don’t do a lot of either of those things, but I do a lot of other random tasks that seemed equally cumbersome on an iPad:

  • Graphic design
  • Website development and design, primarily with WordPress
  • I teach, so I grade a lot of student work submitted from the Adobe suite of apps like Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign
  • Handling clients and managing all their emails, attachments, spreadsheets, documents, etc.
  • I write a lot, usually in the context of website copywriting or historical research

My interest over the last several weeks stems from the desire for a single device. The iPad Pro has the power, it has a great screen, and it can handle various inputs, so it felt like an obvious start. I have a MacBook but I do not want to use it for every scenario. I prefer the iPad for much of my computing needs because I can take it with me in more places — like a bus, on the couch, etc. Sitting on the couch with a laptop demands a little effort in ergonomics. And, I like using the Apple Pencil for some of my work and want to get better at using it.

The YouTuberatti focuses intensely on “Whether” an iPad “can replace your laptop.” They compare what came before with what currently exists and then benchmark the success or failure based on how quickly they can move around and “do work” with the same speed and feeling of efficiency as “before” on their MacBook. This is not an inherently bad metric, but it is a bad answer to a bad question.

As I’ve leaned into the iPad for more “real work” and not just “content consumption” (a lazy, bleak phrase if I ever heard one), I realize a better question is: “How do I replace my laptop with an iPad?”

Recognizing different computing paradigms

If I told you that when you use your phone to, say, tap out an email you instantly recognize the use case involved may be different than on some other device. Most tech pundits liken the iPad to a toy or an incomplete device, I think, because they are used to the way other devices work. But if you recognize a phone surely works differently, why not an iPad, too?

Some of the complaints are fair but worth questioning. For instance, Mac and PC users often use background tasks to enhance their computing lives. Things like background Dropbox file syncing, system-wide Grammarly monitoring, and multiple input support with a mouse, trackpad, cameras, etc. are all common. But they don’t work similarly or at all on the iPad and people run into problems.

To use Grammarly as one example: the app can’t run system-wide. The Safari extension works terribly or hardly at all, probably because they are trying to mimic the same codebase as the Mac. The Grammarly Keyboard never works well when an external keyboard is attached to the iPad, as mine always does. It just sorta flashes and bobs up and down unsure of what to do, unable to check text, and you never know how to “focus” its attention.

This might make some people move back to their laptops. But I started to muse, “Wait a minute. What is this service doing for me? How is it helping or hurting me?” People wrote all manner of books, letters, memos, reports, stories, and even emails for years without Grammarly (and AI). What if my reliance on it is making me a worse writer because I can’t identify my own typos, or re-read my own work less because I assume Grammarly’s picked up the slack? This is not the kind of professional I strive to be.

I often come back to David McCullough who said, “People ask me all the time, ‘How do you work and how much time does it take to research and write a book?’ but no one ever asks me how long I spent thinking.” He often goes on to talk about how he wrote all of his best-selling books on a typewriter. That worked for David McCullough because someone’s going to happily type that into a computer for him, either as an assistant or at his publisher. I don’t have that luxury (yet). But when people tell him, “You can go faster on a computer,” his response was always, “I don’t want to go faster. If anything, I want to go slower.” 

I think about that a lot, as it makes me question if my desire for “productivity” and “efficiency” makes me a worse writer, teacher, designer, or developer. I don’t know, but I am inclined to think, “Yes, it probably does.” 

Further, the environmental impact of having two devices bothers me. It seems consumptive and decadent. And since the iPad can be made more computer-y than my Mac can be made more touch-y or tablet-y, if I am to succeed in reducing my consumption the iPad is the device that I want to lean into.

The iPad isn’t a monotasker anymore, but it is closer to it than the Mac and that forces me to slow down. I have to re-read everything, pay more attention, work more purposefully, and use my human brain to focus more intently. That is a feature, not a bug. On a deep, philosophical level, the use of Grammarly may hinder my ability to be a great or better writer. Using the same apps and services all the time may put me in a creative rut.

Rethinking computing models for iPad-first computing

My Mac-centric work style on any given project involves lots of apps but works out of a folder in the Finder. Take the example of writing a blog post and publishing it for a client’s website. I need several things to happen:

  1. Client sends along some photos to include with a topic.
  2. I move these photos into a folder, synced in Dropbox, organized by Client > Project > files.
  3. I draft text in a Google Doc to share with the client, all via Safari.
  4. Emails are sent exchanging notes or large updates.
  5. I add links and some note on this project in my task list to keep track in case the client forgets.
  6. Once approved, I take the text into a webpage in WordPress, all via Safari, and start pulling photos over from the Finder.
  7. I edit photos in Photoshop, including the creation of a “Facebook Sharer” image to serve as the featured or ‘hero’ image.
  8. This process involves fonts, graphics, stock photos, etc., and moving these files into and out of several apps or services, all via Finder.
  9. I also use system-level background apps, like Sip, to capture HEX values of colors to use in the graphics.

On an iPad this process hits barriers. Some files can’t be dragged and dropped between other apps. Sip isn’t available on the iPad. And the Files app on an iPad bounces around a lot with truly infuriating menu options. I still have not figured out why tapping some .psd files in Files shows an “Open in Photoshop” option and others flatly do nothing

This, again, has forced some rethinking. A lot of my graphic design work was shoving stock assets around, finding available things to license, and cobbling it all together. I’m tired of this approach, and, frankly, AI can do just as much of that. 

A better, more professional, and unique solution would be to think about each graphic and ask, “What can I do to make this great, not just done?” Hand drawing some of these graphics is what I’m after and part of why I think every computer I have should be able to use pen or stylus input.

Working on the iPad requires that, instead, I:

  1. Recognize the app-first model, not a files-first model.
  2. Recognize many apps are single-purpose and built for one thing. So instead of Sip to capture colors, the excellent HueHouse app does the same thing, but within the bounds of an app.
  3. Relish in the idea of being a beginner again and that, yes, I will very often be like a student and think, “Wait, how do I do this?” It requires a lot of Googling and that, yes, slows me down but only to learn new things. That’s not a bad thing.
  4. Explore the idea of using a new tool to do more unique or different design work, styles, and ideas.

This is rightfully frustrating to many people, especially 30–40+ year-olds like me who have intense muscle memory about apps, services, preferences, and files on a Mac or PC. You have to recognize that Apple’s intent, clearly, is to make the iPad a different paradigm and, true to their history, just move on and forget about ‘the old way’. 

To be clear, I am a fan of ‘the old way’ in many things. I do not believe youth or newness is a proxy for “better”. But there are sometimes many benefits to new stuff. 

The iPad represents “instant computing”, where apps and services launch almost immediately. It is exceedingly rare that I notice my iPad slowing down in anything. There’s a lightness to that that is freeing and exciting. 

My iPad Pro is cellular, and I love it. Yes, I can tether to my phone and I did that for years. But having it built in is a game-changer. I pull my iPad out on a bus or on a bench or at the coffee shop down the street that doesn’t have WiFi and it’s instantly available, on, ready to use, and doesn’t run my iPhone battery down. Cellular is worth it the same way having long battery life means you don’t have to carry a spare battery with you all the time. It’s very freeing.

As anyone with work and home computers knows, having one device feels comforting when you know all your tabs, windows, etc. are more or less right where you left them. 

The iPad is like moving into a new house

If you moved into a new house you would not get mad that you don’t quite have muscle memory to walk around in the dark at night without bumping into a wall. Or if you moved into, say, a new workshop and all your tools got shuffled around. Eventually, you’d find your way, and in short order, you’d adapt and be just as comfortable again. 

YouTubers tend to spend about a week testing “Can an iPad replace my laptop” as if it’s some challenge. Then they go back from whence they came. But it takes longer than a week to break in a pair of shoes. Surely it would take longer than five business days to think about a whole new computing life.

I’ll add that some things are just way better on the iPad. Editing photos is amazing with the Apple Pencil. When I shoot with my Canon EOS R8 and import directly to my Lightroom library, it’s great. But I started with Lightroom because ‘it’s what I know’. I soon realized Darkroom is faster and better and accepting/rejecting photos from an SD card, and Photomator is way better for editing, with more options like AI-powered de-noising filters that Adobe has yet to bother bringing to Lightroom on iPad. That’s not an iPad failure, that’s an Adobe failure.

I’ve used my MacBook far less than I would have imagined in the last few weeks. But I have run into some trouble:

  • I do a lot of work in InDesign, which has no iPad counterpart. Affinity Publisher, now owned by Canva, is close but it struggles to open .indd files and moving into there will require a lot of work to re-create things. This will take me a long time.
  • Email Octopus does not handle the drag-and-drop options from an iPad in Safari at all. It was unusable and one client of mine uses that service.
  • I find the iPad works way better when not plugged into a second monitor. I use a Studio Display, and I’ve learned so long as a keyboard is connected before you plug it in, Stage Manager will launch fine. But many apps — like Adobe Illustrator for iPad — crash a lot when one is plugged in. This is on app developers, not the iPad.
  • Many apps, like Photoshop for iPad, are quite feature-rich (now) and have all the most prominent features as their desktop counterparts. But they insist on saving to Adobe Creative Cloud. I get why, because they assume people are just using it as a “sidekick” app, but to get files saved into Dropbox where I want them, you basically have to remember to export as .psd or .ai AND export as .jpg or .pdf or whatever you need. It does not seem to be able to “save” and work with files in any way except in its silo.
  • Some websites struggle with the touch input model. This is on the site developers.
  • Many apps — including Apple’s — lack tooltips when you hover over a button. Since many buttons are new or unique to the iPad, you don’t really know what it does until you tap it and see what happens. This is a bad accessibility standard that developers should stop ignoring.
  • External mouse support is a little cumbersome with my MX Master 3S. I have it working well enough, but a trackpad is certainly better at gestures and the Magic Mouse is better at scrolling. I, however, much prefer the mouse for the sake of wrist support and like the features of the MX master series. But you can’t configure a lot of the settings on it without a Mac or PC. I continue to tweak and play around with this.

Automations are where a Mac shines, as in programming or other niche use cases like 3D rendering. I’m finding that many very good apps exist on the iPad — just not the ones you might have heard of. This has pros and cons, but I tend to find it exciting and more wholesome to support a smaller developer than a larger corporation. That has risks, of course, and you may decide they’re not for you, but I kinda like that.

I continue to use the iPad as it was intended and to use it hard. I enjoy the allure of it in a way I do not feel about any other device (and certainly not my phone). And now, sometimes when I go back to my Mac, I have a moment where I think, “Ack, this feels rather slow and stodgy, doesn’t it?”


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About JUSTIN HARTER

Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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