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apple

Caught between computers

Caught between computersIn terms of computing platforms, I‘ve been set adrift.

On the one hand, I don’t really want to return to Windows. Don’t get me wrong; unlike many Apple converts, I like Microsoft’s OS, and I frequently miss features and workflows from that platform.

But I left Windows for a reason; my favorite apps—OmniFocus, Procreate, Drafts—are exclusive to Apple’s platforms. There are no real equivalents on Windows, and I’m tired of “making do” with half-baked imitations.

On the other hand, it’s not a great time to have shifted to macOS. Yes, it’s true that Apple has suddenly remembered to make new hardware (see the new Air and Mini or the promised Mac Pro). But the software platform has stagnated, the App Store is eerily quiet, and Mac unit sales have declined in eight of the last twelve quarters, year-over-year. Settling in “Mac land” now feels like buying beachfront real estate in an era of rising sea levels—OK for now, but unsustainable in the long-term.

So what about iOS? Might I make “landfall” there? The short answer is, “Not yet.” Yes, the new iPad Pros are amazing kit, and the software has slowly matured. But too many of my workflows depend on a ‘real’ web browser (e.g. administering SharePoint) or ‘real’ Outlook (building pixel-perfect email templates).

Besides, even if I didn’t work in the enterprise, iOS would be a frustrating place to settle. I want legit external screen support, more robust keyboard shortcuts, and easier font installation. Hopefully, these power user features are on their way. But until they arrive, I can’t make permanent camp on iPad Island. ■

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apple Uncategorized

Buying an iPad Pro

Happy consumer

We visited family near Philly this weekend; in between activities, I slipped out to visit the Apple retail store at the nearby King of Prussia mall.

As an aside, if you ever have the chance to visit this edifice of consumerism… don’t do it. This is the Mall Experience™ taken all the way up to 11, from the impossible hunt for parking to the shoulder-to-shoulder congestion in the Apple Store itself.

Given the size of that crowd, I was surprised to find a bleached-white table of iPad Pros available—my own personal demo station. I experimented for a solid fifteen minutes, hefting the two sizes, flipping and fingering the Smart Keyboard folio, and sketching with the Apple Pencil.

As you may have guessed, it wasn’t just curiosity driving my visit. I had skipped a planned phone upgrade earlier this fall, and that left some cash in our gadget savings fund. I’d been considering a reentry into the iPad ecosystem, so I almost wanted to fall in love with the 11-inch. I half-expected to leave the mall clutching a wee iPad Pro, the Pencil, and the Smart Keyboard Folio.

That didn’t happen. As I played with the devices, I realized that the 11-inch iPad Pro makes compromises in all the wrong places. If you want a tablet for content consumption and occasional sketching, the 9.7-inch iPad gets you 90% of the way there—at just one-third the price. Sure, you’d be stuck with chunkier bezels, but are slightly thinner black bars worth $500?

On the other end of the spectrum, if you want “more iPad” than the 11-inch iPad Pro offers, the 12.9-inch model retains its advantages over its smaller counterpart—sketching and multitasking are better on the big screen. And thanks to the shrunken bezels, the new 12.9er is suitable for couch computing in a way its predecessor never was. It’s lighter, its footprint is smaller, and it’s surprisingly easy to handle. It’s a compromise you might be willing to make.

The other advantage to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro? Its Smart Keyboard is superior. The arrow keys on the 11-inch’s keyboard felt like tiny, cloth-wrapped chiclets—toy keys on a toy keyboard. Based on some brief experimentation, I also preferred the 12.9-inch keyboard’s viewing angles (though I would want to try both models while sitting before deciding on this).

As I compared, I realized that I didn’t want—and couldn’t justify—buying the 11-inch over its 9.7-inch entry-level sister. I knew that I could probably pick up that model for something like $250 on Black Friday, so I left the mall without making a purchase.

After getting home, however, doubt set in. No, I still didn’t want the 11-inch. But what about that svelte 12.9-inch model? It had felt surprisingly manageable. And If I wanted to buy it, now was the time; Apple’s online store is back-ordered, and we live too far from the nearest retail store to make a sojourn later.

Long story made short, we stopped by the mall again on our way out of town, and I bought the 64GB, WiFi-only, 12.9-inch iPad Pro in Space Gray, along with the second-gen Apple Pencil.

I’m still questioning the decision. $1,200 is a lot of money to spend on a device that could get squeezed out by my phone and my laptop. Fortunately for me, Apple’s generous return policy means I get a 14-day “trial” period to decide whether this iPad will earn a place in my computing workflow. ◾

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apple

The “$100 iPad Pro”

The iPad’s “jobs”

There are digital tasks for which the iPad is better-suited than a smartphone or laptop.

For example, drawing on the iPad (with the Apple Pencil) is fantastic. Not so much on the other devices (even if you pair a Wacom to your Mac). Or consider minimalist text entry, for which the “iPad + Smart Keyboard” combo is uniquely suited. The Mac feels over-built for that simple job, and the iPhone’s software keyboard falls short.

Despite these legit use cases, I didn’t preorder an iPad Pro last week. Honestly, the inflated entry price scared me off; sure, I like to draw and to write without distractions, but would I do those things enough to justify that much cash? Probably not.

The $100 iPad

Other (cheaper) tools for the same job

I’m bummed to miss out on the hotness, but here’s the thing: I can meet these “needs” without dropping $1,200 on an iPad Pro, a Smart Keyboard, and an Apple Pencil. It simply requires some creativity—and some willingness to compromise.

Here’s my recipe for a “$100 iPad”:

Use Case #1: Drawing

  • A new 7” x 10” drawing pad. No, I’m not talking about a Wacom device or an Android tablet. This is literally a $7 book of drawing paper!
  • A few color markers for “funning up” my line drawings. Total cost for 72 fine and extra-fine colors: about $30.
  • I already had some nice graphic pens, pencils for sketching, and a big honking eraser, but you could pick these up for $20 or less.

Use Case #2: Minimalist text entry

The iPhone works perfectly well for distraction-free writing. In fact, that’s pretty much how I took notes in grad school—on an iPod Touch, paired to an old Palm keyboard. That screen was much smaller than that on my iPhone X.

Here’s what I picked up this time around:

  • A folding stand from Anker to hold the iPhone upright. Eleven bucks.
  • A new folding Bluetooth keyboard. (Unfortunately, I immediately shipped this back to Amazon; its build quality and typing feel failed to measure up. I’m still on the lookout for a decent keyboard that folds into a pocketable form factor. In the meantime, I’ll use this less portable AmazonBasics model, which isn’t awful. It cost $26 when I bought it.)

All told, then, since I already own a smartphone, I can cover the iPad’s core uses for less than $100.

The obvious disclaimer: the real iPad is better

If cost weren’t a factor, I’d rather have an iPad Pro than a bag full of markers and phone accessories. It’s convenient to have one device that can do it all in a portable, compact package. But, as a novice artist who doesn’t need a dedicated minimalist writing device, the convenience of the iPad Pro is not worth $1,000+. ■

Categories
apple

Skipping the iPad Pro

I just can’t justify buying the new iPad Pro.

Don’t get me wrong; Apple’s new tablets are gorgeous. I’m impressed by the edge-to-edge display, the Braun-inspired squared edges, and the overall thinness. And the new Apple Pencil fixes all of my biggest complaints: the cylindrical (roll-prone) profile, the fiddly end cap, and the awkward charging method. Overall, the iPad Pro looks like an incredible upgrade.

But it’s also incredibly expensive. Jaw-droppingly expensive. Prohibitively expensive (at least for me). Not only Apple raise the cost of entry by $150, they also tacked $20–30 onto the price of each accessory. All told, even if I bought even the cheapest model,1 an Apple Pencil, and the new Smart Keyboard Folio, I’d be dropping just shy of $1,200.

That’s some serious cash—enough to buy a beefy Windows PC, ski passes for the whole family, a passable mountain bike, or a long weekend at the beach, steak dinners included.

If I honestly believed that I would use an iPad Pro, I might be been able to justify its exorbitant price tag. Unfortunately, the evidence is stacked against me. I’ve purchased three iPads in the past, and each one ended up gathering dust. I’ve just never found a great use case for an iPad; my Kindle is better for reading, my laptop is better for writing, and my phone is better for everything else. There was nothing in today’s keynote that makes me think this iPad would be different. (You know, like external touchscreen support?)

The iPad Pro is great for drawing, of course. And I do occasionally doodle. But why plunk down $1,200 when a $15 drawing pad works just as well?

So I’m sitting out this Apple launch, despite a gnawing gadget envy. I’m bummed that I can’t take another crack at the “iPad lifestyle,” but I’m excited to save that money for something I’ll almost certainly enjoy more. ■


  1. I’d get along fine with 64 gigs of storage, but it’s lame that only the 1TB models have 6GB of RAM. ↩︎

Categories
apple

Imagining external touchscreen support on the iPad Pro

Ever since rumors first surfaced of USB-C support in the forthcoming iPad Pros, I’ve wondered about what that means for the iPad’s future.

Most likely, this riddle has a simple (and somewhat disappointing) answer: the new iPad Pros will allow screen-mirroring to 4K displays over the USB connection. (The current Lightning AV adapter only supports mirroring at 1080p).

But what if “external display support on iPad” represented something more interesting? Something like… this?

iPad Pro touchscreen concept

(Excuse my crude drawing!) To summarize what I’m proposing here, I’d like to see the iPad Pro support external touchscreen displays—effectively turning a touch monitor into a giant iOS device.

The basic form factor would resemble Microsoft’s Surface Studio—especially its sweet tilting hinge, which swings the display from a traditional, perpendicular alignment down to a drafting table angle, right at your fingertips.

Unlike the Studio, my imagined setup would put the “brains” of the operation into the iPad (rather than into a weighted base). Another change from the Studio: =Apple could take advantage of the “docked” iPad to display a virtual touchpad and/or some accessory controls (like Photoshop palettes or a zoom dial).

Questions

Do you really think Apple’s ready to debut something like this?

Nope. But wouldn’t it be amazing if they did?

Why not just buy a Surface Studio?

Well, for one, the Studio starts at $3,500. That’s awfully steep.

Even if it were cheaper, I’m still not convinced that porting touch support to a legacy OS was such a great idea. Check out this preview of the brand-new Surface Studio 2; I can’t help but notice the jittery scrolling and laggy stylus support. And, while Windows grows more touch-friendly with each release, you don’t have to dig very far to find decades-old cruft that’s ill-suited for finger manipulation.

Would this external iPad display require touchscreen control—or would iOS also gain support for external pointing devices—mice and trackpads?

Who knows? A few months ago, I might have guessed that Apple would never add a legit mouse cursor to iOS. But the UIKit-based “Marzipan” apps in macOS Mojave prove that Apple’s not above allowing iOS(ish) apps to be controlled with a mouse. Plus, as many others have observed, iOS already supports a “cursor mode” in text fields; this could simply be expanded to allow clicking and dragging across the entire UI.

Finally, there’s that enigmatic reference to a “Puck” input method unearthed by (who else?) Guilherme Rambo a few weeks back. Could “Puck” be a tongue-in-cheek reference to iPad mouse support?

Even if iOS does add mouse support, I expect that it would be a secondary input method—an addition to touch (rather than an alternative). That’s why I would bet on external touchscreen support happening before (or alongside) mouse support. For a different take on the “external touchscreen or mouse” question, though, listen to the last few minutes of Matt Birchler’s most recent podcast episode.

Why not just build a bigger iPad?

I struggled with this. Apple’s already proven its preference for self-contained systems, from the original Mac to the iMac to the iPad itself. They like to own the whole widget, so why not build a really big iPad widget, with the “guts” of the computer embedded behind the screen (or in the base, a la the Surface Studio)? No wires, no dongles—no muss, no fuss.

That’s possible, of course. But my gut tells me that the iPad should remain a portable device. There’s real value in being able to disconnect your accessories and carry your computer with you. After all, isn’t that a major reason the laptop has hung around so long? It’s convenient to have one device that fits in your backpack and can drive big screens. Why wouldn’t that be true for the iPad, too?

It’s also probably easier to convince customers to buy an iPad accessory (that would work with future iPad purchases) than to sell a “desktop iPad” (that would be outdated within two or three years).

What about an iPad “extended desktop”?

Power users of macOS (and Windows) rely on the platform’s support for multiple monitors, side by side. But on a touch-first OS, such a setup presents a problem: how do you deal with the physical separation of the two screens? How, for example, would you drag and drop a file from one display to the other with your finger? You’d hit one screen’s bezel and be left with no way to “bridge the gap.”

In my sketch above, the iPad itself becomes an accessory to the external display. iOS might use the smaller device to display app-specific controls or a virtual touchpad. This side-steps the “gap” problem while still making some use of the “docked” iPad.

What about ergonomics? Wouldn’t this “drafting table” design wreak havoc on users’ backs?

I’m not sure! But artists and architects have used these sorts of desks for many decades. It’s a proven design, and it answers the “gorilla arms” objection Apple has raised about PC touchscreens in the past.

How much would this thing cost?

A lot—more than the iPad itself, I would guess. The Apple Cinema Display was listed at $899 in 2010. Given that my hypothetical device would include capacitive touch, Pencil support, and maybe a Face ID sensor, I would think it might cost at least that much.

Final thoughts

Again, this is wish-casting to the nth degree. We haven’t heard any rumblings from the supply chain that would point to such a device, and I wouldn’t bet on seeing its debut at Apple’s October 30 event.

But something like this seems inevitable in the not-too-distant future. Until the iPad can drive big, honking, external displays, iOS will struggle to supplant its older sibling as Apple’s primary pro computing platform. ■

Categories
meta

You already have everything you need to create stuff on the internet

As Apple’s fall announcement event approaches, I’ve been eyeing the rumored iPad Pro. I find myself daydreaming about a “magic” tablet that, paired with a Smart Keyboard and an Apple Pencil, will inspire me to consistently create content and publish it online. That will somehow catapult me to internet nerd success.

Based on my history, that’s not going to happen. I’ve bought three iPads in the past; none of them made me more disciplined, more creative, or more talented. Each time, I struggled to find a use case for the thing, and the iPad would sit, unused and unloved, for weeks. Eventually, I abandoned the iPad upgrade train and sold off my iPad Pro. To be honest, I haven’t really missed it since.

Lesson learned? A new device won’t magically transform me into a prolific creator.

Fortunately, the inverse is also true: if you want to create stuff, you don’t need a new device. You probably already have everything you need to make stuff on the internet. Consider:

  • You could put off podcasting until you have spent $600 on a microphone, an audio hub, and a year’s worth of hosting. Or you could create an Anchor account for free, record using the built-in mic on your iPhone—and start today.
  • You could tie your blogging aspirations to writing software that costs $40 a year—or you could just use the text editor that comes free with your computer.
  • You could believe that a $150 mechanical keyboard will make you a better writer—or you could get by with a $15 Logitech bargain from Walmart.
  • You could “learn to draw” using a $700 iPad Pro and a $100 Apple Pencil—or you could pick up a $10 drawing pad and $20 worth of pencils and pens.

If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not the tools that hold us back. The real obstacles to creative productivity? Low motivation and overcommitment.  ■

Categories
Culture

My favorite Black Friday tradition? Complaining about Black Friday.

It’s Black Friday—the highest of high American holidays.

For years, I puzzled about the traditions that have built up around the start of the holiday shopping season. “Who in their right mind,” I wondered, “would willingly wake before dawn to stand outside in sub-freezing temperatures, on the off chance that they might score a slight discount on a terrible TV set?”

And so I scoffed at the plebian masses, standing in line for the right to be the first to sprint into their local Wal-Mart. I shook my head sagely when the local news aired videos of shoppers trampling and berating each other to get their hands on the latest disposable toy. I rued the erosion of a family-oriented holiday and derided retailers who opened their doors on Thanksgiving evening.

Looking back, I relished my own Black Friday tradition: complaining about Black Friday.


Alas, I gave up my right to sneer at early holiday shoppers a few years ago—when I became one of them.

Back in 2013, at the height of the iPad’s popularity, Target announced a killer Black Friday deal: $20 off, plus a $100 gift card. I had been hankering to join the “post-PC revolution” this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

But to snag the discount, I would need to show up, in person, at the local Target outlet at 6 PM on Thanksgiving itself. With some embarrassment, I explained to my wife that I would be slipping out to shop. (Fortunately for me, she was more amused than annoyed.)

The shopping sojourn went as planned. I bought the tablet without incident; no sprinting or elbows required. I even sort of enjoyed the cultural experience—chatting up other people in the line as we waited for the doors to fling open. Power-walking through the store to the electronics department. Clutching my hard-won prize on the victory walk back to the car. Most of all, I felt a strange kinship for my fellow shoppers, who like me saw fit to celebrate the Day of Gratitude by buying more stuff.

As the Black Friday fever subsided, though, I found that I had lost more than I gained. I never really found a good use for the iPad itself. (For me, tablets have always fallen “into the cracks” between devices: worse for portable usage than a phone and worse for “real work” than a laptop.) In the ensuing months, I couldn’t really justify going to such lengths to secure a device I barely ever used.

The lost money and squandered family time are bad enough. But I have a more poignant regret about my participation in Black Friday mania: I lost any credibility as a couch critic of America’s bizarre shopping celebration. How can I sneer at the “mindless hordes” gathering outside the nearest Best Buy when I’m one of them? ■

Categories
apple

Why the Apple Watch could replace the iPhone

As Horace Dediu recently observed, in its early days, the iPhone was effectively an accessory to the Mac / PC. But as backup and app management shifted onto the phone itself, desktop tethering grew unnecessary.

In the same way, recent Watch upgrades (specifically, the Series 3’s faster processor and cellular connectivity) could be Apple’s first steps towards detaching the Watch from its tether, the iPhone. And as it grows more capable, the Watch has started to usurp the phone’s role in our lives. Dediu writes,

The Watch is effectively stealing usage from the iPhone. At first it took alerts, timekeeping, and basic messaging away. Now it’s taking basic phone calls and music and maybe maps.

Phoneless computing

The Watch will inevitably continue along this trajectory. It’s not difficult to imagine the iPhone being “eaten alive,” its role absorbed by devices at either end of the size spectrum: the iPad on the large side, the Watch on the small.

To some extent, the Watch and iPad are already capable of shouldering the phone aside. The Watch handles many mobile tasks that previously required my phone: on-the-go notifications, fitness tracking, navigation, and light reading. And increasingly, the iPad can handle the “heavy lifting” tasks: long-form text entry, video and audio editing, and email triage.[1]

Why would anyone want this?

Shifting power computing tasks from the iPhone to the iPad would be fairly painless; the tablet’s larger screen actually makes many jobs easier.

But moving the other direction—shifting casual and mobile computing to the Watch—is trickier. That change comes with some downsides: the Watch’s processor is slower, its battery less capable, and its screen relatively tiny. Why sign up for all those downgrades?

Well, first, there’s the convenience factor. Tracking, carrying, and charging one device is easier than caring for two. And as the use cases for the Watch and the iPhone increasingly overlap, it will feel more and more redundant to keep both of them with you at all times.

Relatedly, the Watch has a major advantage over the phone as a portable device: it’s far less accident-prone. Phones can (and often do) slip out of hands and flop out of pockets, but a device that’s strapped to your body isn’t going anywhere. Also, because the Watch is so small, Apple can build it out of more durable materials (e.g. the scratch-resistant sapphire screen of the stainless steel models).

There’s a final reason that I’d like to see the Watch usurp the iPhone—one that’s more philosophical than pragmatic. Eliminating the pocket computer would help restore our attention to the people and places around us. As miraculous as smartphones have proved, too often we use them to distract us from being present here and now. The moment we even sniff a bit of boredom, we slip out our phones and snort greedily at Facebook or Instagram.[2]

The Watch’s form factor eliminates the temptation to pursue such soul-sapping dead ends. Its screen is too small to browse social media feeds. Its battery life is too limited and the processor too underpowered to watch video or play games. And because I have to lift my arm to view its screen, the Watch discourages extended use; fatigue sets in after just a few seconds.

As a hardware device, then, the Watch is designed to request my attention momentarily, then immediately release it, returning me to return to my surroundings.


Sometimes constraints are a good thing. Although the Apple Watch is less flexible and capable than the iPhone in some ways, its hardware constraints provide “bumper rails” that could help me avoid unhealthy and unproductive computing habits. ■


  1. We’re not quite there yet, though. The Watch needs a few basic additions to become a viable primary device. First, from a software perspective (and as mentioned above, Apple must eliminate the requirement that the Watch be tethered to the iPhone. Second, the Watch needs a camera. Yes, cue the Dick Tracy jokes. And yes, we’ll all look ridiculous holding up our wrists to align our Instagram shots. But I can’t leave behind my phone until Apple fits a great image sensor into its wearable. I’ve grown accustomed to having the best camera I’ve ever owned with me at all times.  ↩
  2. Substitute your mobile drug of choice: Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Bejeweled, or Words with Friends.  ↩


Pac-Man vector artwork courtesy of Christian Quiroz. Licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Categories
tech

A better iPad lap stand

Yes, there are already 1,001 tablet stands out there, ranging from $5 cardboard easels to aluminum docks that cost nearly $200. But very few existing models work well on the lap. Either they’re fixed at limited, inconvenient viewing angles (e.g. Apple’s Smart Cover), or they’re too narrow to span the gap between your thighs (a la my beloved Satetchi R1).

Here are the key features of my proposed alternative:

  1. This stand offers a place to rest your keyboard—but does not include the keyboard itself. Although I liked the BrydgeAir keyboard dock while I had it, I don’t like plunking down $100+ for an accessory that may not be compatible with future iPad models. This stand invites the user to add his favorite Bluetooth keyboard rather than rely on a proprietary port or form factor.
  2. The BrydgeAir keyboard dock inspired the drawing’s hinge design. These pivoting arms grip the iPad across its widest bezels, so that its screen remains unobscured. They’re rimmed with a rubbery material to prevent scratches on the iPad’s screen. They allow the iPad to be removed quickly (unlike bulky keyboard cases). The hinges rotate 180 degrees, allowing the user to lock in her preferred viewing angle. And these arms would ideally slide sideways along a channel or rail, so that the stand could be used with smaller tablets—or with the iPad Pro in portrait orientation.
  3. Because the iPad Pro is fairly heavy, the base would probably require some counterweight to prevent the assembly from toppling over. Admittedly, this would make the lap stand less portable. The anchor weights could be extra batteries—to charge the iPad on the go. But that would add complexity, inflate the cost, and (most critically) impact the stand’s longevity (since batteries lose their capacity over time). Better to embed some other dense material near the stand’s front edge in order to counterbalance the iPad itself.

There are probably engineering concerns that make this design impractical, and the market for 12.9″ iPad accessories may be too small to justify much experimentation from third-party manufacturers.

But something like this stand would go a long way towards making the iPad Pro a true laptop replacement—i.e. by letting it perch on my app.