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The Surface Pro is terrible, but it’s still better than an iPad Pro in so many ways.

The developer story has failed. Apple needs to get serious about how serious people are about the iPad.

This is the last thing I want to get off my chest about the iPad as a laptop replacement. For prior bits, see these posts:

Here it is: the new OLED ARM-based Surface Pro is a lousy machine. It runs Windows, which I find ugly. It lacks iMessage, which I rely on. The email story on Windows is horrifying in something call “New Outlook”. The AI stuff is a gimmick. And the battery life stinks. Even the emojis are freakishly ugly. I also can’t stand how there’s no one-stroke keyboard shortcut for a degree symbol, em dash, or other special characters I use a lot like on macOS or iPadOS.

But despite all that, it is a better device than an iPad for anyone who does anything remotely more than doodling in Procreate or watching YouTube.

The punditry says the iPad is probably best suited for students and grandma. Managing files is a chore, etcetera. This is arguably true. If you look at who uses iPads the most in subreddits, it seems heavily tilted toward kids and teens who spend their day scribbling in Notes and watching TV. Fine, good for them. But I am a grown man with stuff to do.

“Just buy a Mac!” says everyone, including Apple. Despite this being a huge waste of money and earth’s resources for the sake of capitalism to demand everyone buy two of something, it’s also missing the point.

This morning, I set out with my iPad and the new Surface Pro. I opted to start with the iPad to do what seemed like it ought to be easy: create a series of printable cards people can hold up at a live auction. It was a JPG and a text box repeated twice on a single sheet of paper. How hard can that be?

On my Mac, I’d use InDesign. But on the iPad the only option is Affinity Publisher, since I need to number the cards 1-400. I am not typing 400 cards. I have an Excel sheet with one row numbered 1-400. A mail merge can fix my problem in seconds.

Except Affinity Publisher can’t do this on the iPad. The one creative suite everyone holds up as the example for how to do desktop-class apps on an iPad and an iPad can’t do it. They just didn’t build it in, surely, because the file management for an external data source like a super-nerdy-no-one-ever-does-or-needs-spreadsheets is a non-starter.

“Just don’t do that kind of niche work!”

So, I switched to another task on my to-do list: create an email campaign in Mailchimp, a service used by millions. Except, it doesn’t work on an iPad. Load it in Safari, and you’ll have a problem with clicking and dragging object blocks in their editor. I am sure this is a limit of Webkit because it is present in all browsers on iPad because they’re all running Webkit. Dragging objects with a trackpad, mouse, pencil, or finger just highlights the text on the page. It is the same story in Campaign Monitor, Email Octopus, and Active Campaign. I have nonprofit clients using all four services for fundraisers, galas, 5k races, etc. The MailChimp app also lacks many of the features of the web version.

“Well, it’s the website owner’s fault!” I’m not sure that’s a line we can believe after all these years.

So I moved to a third option in my task list: creating the cover art for a client’s fundraising gala this fall. I know I need 300 dpi images compatible with CMYK color modes. And I know what the client will want. So I start in Photoshop because, ultimately, I’ll plop the .PSD into InDesign when they send over more details on the program. And I had a start of a file from my Mac.

Immediately, I need to draw a rectangle shape, which Photoshop for iPad can’t do. There is no “shape” tool, and the Pen tool lacks many of the shape-editing properties from the desktop version. I know because I had a custom shape drawn using the pen tool in my file, and it was basically a bunch of static pixels. It even says on the screen, “This feature is not supported in Photoshop for iPad. You can leave feedback…”

I wanted to do three very simple things in a row on my iPad and it failed at every one of them. “Why don’t you just use your Mac?” you ask. Because I want to be able to draw and tap with the Pencil.

Using a stylus to plop points for a shape, draw boundary boxes, and even create artwork that goes into the email campaigns is what feels like it belongs in an iPad commercial. I am a better artist with that tool in my hand. Further, this notion the iPad is a “tandem device” I can somehow switch between on the fly is bonkers. I do not want to carry a MacBook Pro and an iPad Pro in my bag all day just to scribble and sometimes click. I walked out the door to a coffee shop and wanted to work there on one device. For the same reason your phone also plays music!

So I threw the iPad in my bag and pulled out the Surface Pro. As I wrote the other day, it’s in a lousy state. But there are things this device does do (namely, all the things I needed to do):

  • I could launch Photoshop and draw shapes with the Slim Pen.
  • The Slim Pen seems just as accurate and low-latency to me as the Apple digitizers.
  • I could drag and drop blocks in Mailchimp and move back and forth between windows to create and edit images.
  • In Affinity Publisher I could do a mail merge in less time than it took me to Google, “Can Affinity Publisher for iPad do mail merges?” from my iPad.
  • I could adjust the display scale on the Surface so I could fit more stuff on the screen. My eyes are only 37 years old. I do not need or want everything on the screen to be 200%!

I have written before that the iPad is a great “deep work” device because it keeps you focused on one task. But so far, because I do not have any social media apps on my device or an RSS reader (which is my biggest distraction sin) on my Surface Pro, all I did was work.

I could use my Airpods thanks to the excellent MagicPods app for Windows. I moved between screen configurations, mouse, pen, and keyboard input.

I dipped into YouTube for a tutorial on mail merges with Publisher and was pleased to find you can place a PiP window at virtually any size anywhere on the screen! Not just the corners which, like that weird iPad on-screen keyboard button, is always in the way of something. I just set it in the empty artboard space around my document.

Despite its current lack of cellular and wimpy battery life (5 hours max by my count), I got everything done on the Surface Pro (notably, Photoshop’s ARM-native version does not report in the Windows battery monitor window).

I even switched to Word and wrote a draft note I will include in the shipments for my upcoming book preorder. And when I was done I could sign my name right there on the screen. Wonderful! I didn’t have to unbox $2,000 in hardware or scan a piece of paper like a pilgrim to do it, either. To be fair, I could have done this much on the iPad, but the point is I was doing other stuff that I couldn’t. Workflow matters.

On my Surface Pro I can configure my mouse to do shortcuts like Mac. I can detach its Flex Keyboard and continue using it for keyboard shortcuts while I draw on it, thanks to its handy built-in kickstand. Unlike my iPad, which literally falls flat on a table and has no useful keyboard for things like “Cmd+T,” a shortcut used constantly in Photoshop, once it is detached from the Magic Keyboard. Somehow the Magic Keyboard becomes a brick when detached from an iPad, but a Flex Keyboard is still a keyboard when detached from the Surface.

Perhaps these shortcomings on the iPad are Adobe’s fault and web developer’s faults and the fault of other app makers. But I don’t think so. John Gruber’s remark that iPads are “baby computers” offended some who love the iPad. I also enjoy the iPad. But it clearly can’t be my sole work machine. That’s bad for the environment (insofar as having multiple computers is bad), bad for me, and only good for Apple shareholders. I don’t give a shit about shareholders. And trust me, I’m not thrilled about supporting Microsoft, either. But this is the world we live in cause Linux is a non-starter for me given some of my teaching and project requirements.

The narrative about all this is not new. Most people seem to agree that shoehorning macOS onto an iPad wouldn’t be great. I have no real advice for Apple on this. No one cares what I think anyway and it’s surprising to me you’re reading this. But the best I can argue is that Apple could lighten up on some things or really put their back into fixing the file, browser, windowing, and cursor issues on an iPad.

The line is always, “There’s a zillion apps that do everything!” for iPad. But my Surface has a functioning clipboard manager at least. It can run more than four apps at once without ejecting my browser tabs from memory and forcing a refresh (and lost work). And sometimes a separate app is just dumb. Like when I do website work and I need an inspector window. I use the Inspect app on iPad since Safari can’t do this natively. And if I have that, a text editor, a Safari window, and maybe my email open for reference my clipboard manager (Paste) gets ejected and just stops working. It does not seem impossible to me that I should be able to copy and paste text, look at an email, an Inspect window, a text editor, and Safari simultaneously!

I am trying to be even-handed in this all-too-real experience. I do not want to feel swayed by marketing. And it is genuinely annoying that so much of my work happens via iMessage, Fantastical, Things, or Bear, and none of that works on Windows. But when I look at the landscape of what I do it’s hard for me to juggle two devices in my bag at the same time. I also don’t feel comfortable biking or walking around with $5,000 of gear strapped to my back.

Apple does not and seemingly won’t make the device I want. That’s their prerogative. But the Surface is sitting right there, capable of at least helping me do what my clients pay me to do: make graphics, print pieces, design and send email campaigns, write, and maintain websites.

And because I know someone is going to say, “Just learn how to use the iPad!” I have done my level best. The other day I timed myself doing something I do constantly:

  1. Copy text from a Google Doc into a WordPress page or post.
  2. Format the blocks and page layout (a hover-state friendlier task best done with a Pencil on an iPad).
  3. Go to Adobe Stock and find a stock image to go with said post.
  4. Download, edit, or adjust the image with text or other assets.
  5. Size the image to 1280×630 at 72 dpi (dpi is important since many apps won’t adjust a 300 dpi image to 72 no matter what you size it as).
  6. Upload the image to WordPress and publish.

Not counting the time to browse the possible stock images, my times were…

  • 2:24 on my Mac.
  • 3:40 on my Surface Pro (it’s the newest, and I’ve only discovered one ancient app that manages DPI).
  • 7:40 on my iPad (you have to download, share, open another app, size, crop, tap tap tap, export, and then delete the file you no longer need). I thought I was just being dumb, so I repeated this and this was the better time.

Except for Windows where I’ve done this only a few times recently, I’ve done this a lot on my Mac and iPad. The efficiency of Preview.app on macOS is supreme. But iPadOS curiously omits Preview.app. Windows still has nothing nearly as good or available for use, which I detest and along with the lack of iMessage is one of the most infuriating things to me.

But the iPad’s time is simply because it has to pass through so much finicky tapping and repeated menus to size, share, and export in the clunky third-party “Preview Mini” app. It’s roughly 2-3x the time commitment for something as simple as cropping, resizing, and exporting a piddly JPG.


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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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