Matt Gemmell

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The Big iPad

tech & ipad-only 10 min read

This article is part of a series on going iPad-only.


Last week, I upgraded to the new Face ID-equipped iPad Pro, choosing the larger 12.9” screen this time around. Here are a few thoughts on the device.

This isn’t a review, and it’s entirely about me. If you discover that we’re similar, then this’ll be useful to you. Otherwise, it’ll be more of a curiosity. That’s fine. Any review is ultimately like that; I’m just not going to pretend otherwise.

Two years ago, I replaced my laptop with an iPad Pro, and I’ve been using an iPad full-time since then. Yes, really full-time. No, I don’t use the laptop at all. I’ve written a series of articles on adapting my various workflows to the iPad, and various essays on how I see the iPad as a work tool, and how it compares to conventional computers.

I’m a writer, so my work includes:

  • Planning, outlining, and working with mind maps, scene sketches, and timelines.
  • Research.
  • Doing a great deal of typing, editing, and organising of text.
  • Publishing, which includes preparing print-ready paperback masters of novel interiors, wraparound cover artwork in suitable colour spaces, and of course ebooks.
  • Managing my own business, including promotional activities, fulfilling orders for autographed copies of books, doing my taxes, maintaining and updating my web site and server, and handling my site membership programme including weekly newsletters.

And here’s what I don’t do, on the iPad or anywhere else:

  • Anything serious with photography.
  • Video or audio editing.
  • Programming, other than various automations for my own use (JavaScript in Drafts, Python and Ruby in various places including my web server), or iOS system Shortcuts.
  • Anything I’ve not mentioned.

I play videogames a lot, but not on the iPad. I have consoles for that.

People do keep asking the question about whether an iPad can replace their laptop, though, so some quick remarks on that.

  1. It replaced mine. It wasn’t difficult to adapt. You do need to adapt, because it’s a different operating system and interaction model.
  2. If you’re asking the question, the answer is probably “no”. Not from a lack of technological capability, but rather human inflexibility. And that’s fine. Just keep using a laptop.
  3. More subtly, an iPad isn’t a laptop, so the word “replace” is weird here. It creates an expectation of like-for-like substitution, which just compounds the issue of unwillingness to adapt. That’s why I said the answer is probably “no” if you’re already framing the question that way. I see reviews where an apparent downside of the iPad is that it lacks a trackpad; to me, that’s like complaining that a car lacks a rudder. It’s just strange thinking.

I do also want to give you a note of caution. I previously linked to my series of articles on going iPad-only; if you clicked through, you’ll have seen that many of them deal with moving my specific Mac-based tasks to the iPad, and finding new workflows. I had those articles planned from the start, because I tried to approach the process rigorously.

When I switched to iPad full time, I made a list of all the tasks I did on my Mac. I added new ones as they occurred to me, or as they came up. From day one, the iPad became my computer. I had to find iPad workflows for all of those tasks I did on the Mac, otherwise I wasn’t really switching. And I did that, but it took a few months because some of the tasks are infrequent or unpredictable. I also got more used to iOS and its approach to things. I think that the vast majority of people do things on their personal computer that don’t require a specific app or OS. I’m no different now, having left behind my career as a software engineer to become a writer instead.

So, the note of caution: if anyone says that those regular, average, in-the-majority people can’t replace their laptops with an iPad, I’d be very suspicious. If I’d only “switched” to the iPad for a month, or only partially switched to it for a longer period, I might have said the same thing, and it wouldn’t have been true. Those kinds of reviews are really assessing whether you can immediately, nigh-effortlessly switch from a laptop to an iPad without having to adapt to the new device and find new workflows or apps for your common tasks. Unsurprisingly, the answer to that question is: no, probably not. Hopefully that’s obvious. They draw conclusions that are intellectually dishonest. Watch out for that.

Also, be extremely skeptical of anyone who makes a judgement about switching to an iPad when they haven’t actually done it themselves (this goes for most judgements about most things throughout life). This group includes the apparent majority of tech journalists, most of whom seem to have an annual ritual of spending one week with the newest iPad, and then saying it’s not a laptop replacement yet in some general sense. How would you even know? I certainly didn’t until six months or so in.

Be wary. Be rational and critical. Don’t invite someone’s opinion into your brain without making them earn it. That goes for my words here too.

In a similar face-reality vein, let me briefly deal with price. An iPad Pro is expensive, and it costs what it costs (prices are clearly documented on Apple’s site; a handy way to compare is to go through the process of adding an iPad to your shopping cart, and it’ll ask you questions and updates the price interactively as you choose). The price isn’t going to come down until they release new models again, if even then. If you can’t afford an iPad Pro, that’s fine, and the rest of this is either irrelevant or just for interest. There’s no point complaining about price.

Also, I have no idea how to answer the question “is it worth the cost”, about anything at all. Only you can answer that, and the answer is specific to you. Anyone who purports to answer the question in a general way is lying, or generalising beyond usefulness. What I can tell you is that it costs far too much for you to make a decision based on someone else’s opinion of its value. For me, once the price tag goes above about £20, I need to think carefully about whether a potential purchase is right for me specifically. I thought a lot about buying this iPad.

Let me also deal briefly with size and weight, which are also clearly documented on Apple’s site. The 12.9” iPad Pro is as big as it is, and it weighs what it weighs. My opinion is that it’s not meant for sustained handheld use. It’s too big for that. If you’ve tried it for a minute in an Apple Store, you’ll have quickly realised the same thing. Don’t buy it to carry around as a clipboard or something, or to read it like a big book in your hands. If you’re doing a lot of that stuff, or AR, or gaming, get a smaller iPad. It would be like holding a 12” laptop in your hands for a long time, albeit a svelte one.

Again, that’s size and weight, not portability. It’s absolutely portable. Portable means “able to be carried”, and I can easily carry this iPad. Portable doesn’t mean “able to be held up in the air and used while you’re carrying it”. Portable has never meant that. It’s from the Latin verb portare, which means… to carry. The distinction is very relevant here, to set your expectations.

Regarding the technical specs and its new design features, you can find a better resource for those things than my blog and my crappy photos. The bezels are smaller. I’ve had no stray touch-inputs on the fairly rare occasion I’ve used it in my hands. Face ID works as you’d expect, which is to say effortlessly.

I previously had the 10.5” model, so an interesting question is why I went for the bigger one this time around. My reasons were mostly based on want, rather than need. That’s fine. I wanted more room for canvas-type apps, including when mind mapping, planning scenes via sketches, working on book cover wraparounds and marketing graphics, and so on. I wanted the bigger split-screen app view for referring to my planning documents while writing. Psychologically, there’s also a sense of it being a more personally justifiable expenditure if it was the bigger model and thus a definitive upgrade (this is utter bullshit, and is actually just me manipulating myself to justify capitalism-fuelled acquisition urges). That’s fine too.

It turned out to be absolutely the right decision, but it was right mostly because of the new hardware form factor, rather than the screen real-estate benefits brought by the larger display. Going bigger was the right choice because the bigness is now smaller than it used to be (same 12.9” screen, smaller actual device). If the bigness was still as big as it was last year, I think it’d have been a bit too big for the benefit of the bigness. Now, the bigness is somehow also still small enough to not feel like the bigness is both the main benefit and drawback. Know what I mean?

It’s important to convey that this device is strikingly small in aspect, given its physical size. You really should see one in real life. I checked the box twice to ensure I’d been sent the bigger one. I did the same thing when I bought the Smart Folio Keyboard. I was initially disappointed because I went to my Apple Store, found the folio, and assumed they only had the 11” version — but I was looking at the 12.9” one. That’s how you’re going to feel too, I bet. Basically, it feels like it’s as small as its bigness could possibly be.

It’s the same width (in landscape orientation, i.e. the bigger dimension) as a 12” MacBook, which definitely feels small. It’s also thinner, but it’s just under 2cm larger in the smaller dimension. Coming from a 10.5” iPad Pro, the new 12.9” feels more similar to that than it does to the previous 12.9”. It has this TARDIS kind of quality where I keep thinking this screen is BIG, but then I think oh but this iPad is surprisingly small. My impression oscillates between those two points. My sense is that Apple was aiming specifically to create that sort of tension of delight, if you will.

The solidity of it also helps. The uniform thickness somehow seems to distribute the mass over a wider area, subjectively making it feel a bit lighter than it is. It’s something to do with its immediately-apparent structural integrity. The marketing materials are also right when they say there’s no longer any correct or preferred orientation; this is the first iPad I’ve used where it’s really just an interactive panel you’re holding. I use my iPad mostly in portrait orientation (it’s like a huge page, and I’m typing most of the time — the additional vertical context is very useful), but I’ve found myself flipping it to landscape more often than I did with my previous model.

The Pencil is a robust 2.0 offering; they fixed everything about it. You will use it a lot more, and it’ll hassle you a lot less. My list of annoyances about the previous Pencil were: too slippy, can roll off the desk, cap can be lost, not always paired, loses its charge when unused, not always to hand, no place to store it, and really annoying to charge. None of those points still apply. Impeccable work, Apple. Honestly, in terms of improvements in design and utility, the Pencil is a bigger upgrade than the iPad itself.

I got the Smart Folio Keyboard too, as I mentioned. I don’t love the key action at all (it’s flat and slappy, though the fabric is nice), and I lament the loss of the Escape key, but it’s more stable in the lap than before and it now protects the back of the iPad too. The magnets are strong and they grab the device accurately. Best of all (for me), the part that ends up against the screen when closed is no longer the part that was against whatever random, filthy coffee-shop table you were working at. The accessory as a whole is a compromise, but for me it’s now a compelling one.

At home (which is where I work from), I have a big mechanical keyboard that I use via USB and Apple’s USB-C multiport adapter. I love the feel and sound of the keyswitches. You probably wouldn’t go quite that far, and there are a million Bluetooth keyboards you can use instead. I think that virtually no-one who’s serious about typing uses a software keyboard on a piece of glass, no matter how big it is. The on-screen keyboard is a backup and a convenience for intermittent use. As ever, interactive flat surfaces are bad for tasks requiring spatial accuracy at speed without looking. This is incredibly obvious.

Let me give you some thoughts to take away. I’m very glad I went for the big iPad this time, because I work from a desk at home, and it’s still portable enough that I can readily take it elsewhere. I get the benefit of more screen space, and my work situation is such that there’s no particular sacrifice involved in the increased size and weight — but it’s probably smaller than you expect anyway.

I think that most people who want an iPad should get a smaller one, though. That might be the regular iPad, or an iPad Pro in either of the two smaller sizes (hey, I’m selling my mint-condition 10.5” iPad Pro with Pencil and Magic Keyboard and lots of other stuff).

Note that I said people who want an iPad. There’s apparently widespread confusion about this, even though I find it easy to understand. Here’s how it breaks down: there are people in general who use computer-like devices, then there’s a subset of them who want an iPad. Then there’s a further subset who want a big iPad.

If you want an iPad but you’re not sure you’re in the big-iPad group, I’d advise you to get a smaller iPad by default. If you care less about screen space and instead prioritise ultra-compactness and the ability to potentially use it as a book, or a clipboard, or whatever, then definitely get a smaller one.

And if you’re not sure you’re in the iPad-of-any-kind group at all, maybe don’t get an iPad? That’s what I’d do. Especially since it is not cheap. I mean, you’d have to be a little crazy — or lazy about researching and trying things, or wasteful of money, or just kind of lacking the ability to objectively assess your needs versus your desires, or something — to spend that amount of cash without being sure.

I dunno. It’s your life.

In summary, I love my new iPad. You might love it too! Just be aware, though, that the big iPad has a very specific target market, namely people who want:

  1. An iPad.
  2. That is big.

Thanks for reading.