The iPad Pro is (not) for a developer

I got a bonus recently and I thought it was time to buy something new. My MacBook, while still working, was starting to show age. So, what should I buy? Another MacBook?

That’s what I almost did. But before looking at the specs of the computer, I contemplated one thing. How often do I actually use my computer these days? I don’t mean my work computer—that I have no choice to use it all the time—but my personal one.

Turns out, not that much anymore. Why? Because since working at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have two MacBooks on my desk, and switching between them became cumbersome, and has very little worth.

There are two types of developers: those who will code day in, day out, at work and at home, because of their “passion”; and those who, after work, would rather do something else. I am of the latter.

When I am off, I do very little programming. I mean, I still do sometimes, it’s a very useful skill to have, especially if you need to automate anything or when doing something in a complicated and bloated GUI can be done in a single command in the terminal. And I do write some bits of code here and there on my site. But besides all this, I don’t have any coding projects, nor do I want any. When I’m by myself, I’d rather focus my free time on taking care of myself, including hobbies, like writing and photography. (If I’m writing this article, well it’s one of those times.)

Funny enough, I also noticed that I use my iPhone 11 Pro Max, believe it or not, as my “main computer.” I don’t really need my bulky MacBook and, consequently, I rarely touch it these days.

The iPad Pro was starting to look like an interesting option. It’s not the first time I’ve considered a tablet. I even had my eyes on the Microsoft Surface for a little while, but didn’t think much of it. It did have a certain appeal: Windows is practically the same platform on any device, instead of using a different OS per device like Apple does. I find Windows 10 to be good. I like its modern flat UI, and the new WSL letting me run native Ubuntu, as well as the new terminal, really makes it attractive to a developer like me. In fact, Mac OS X being a UNIX operating system was one of the big reasons for me to move away from Windows back in the aughts. And the reason I’m still away from it is I hate its jagged bitmap Japanese fonts… Yeah, call me picky. Anyway, the idea of buying a Surface eventually waned.

With Apple pushing their iPad Pro to become some kind of cross between a mobile and a desktop computer, a month ago, I took a leap of faith, and bought an 11” one, second generation, with the Magic Keyboard, an Apple Pencil, and a screen protector having a paper-like texture. I waited about a month for it to be delivered to me straight from China.

Idle iPad Pro on its box.
The iPad Pro 11” 2nd generation (2020), right out of its box.

All I can hope now is that my investment was sound. I had an old iPad Mini, which I barely used. Will I use the iPad Pro more often?

First impressions

The iPad Pro feels really light. With its rounded corners, small bezel, and solid square sides, it really feels like I’m holding a pad of paper. No more extraneous space for the keyboard I don’t always need and a large space around the screen that only makes up for half the computer. The whole surface (heh) is the computer.

As for the Apple Pencil, it’s like holding an actual pencil in my hand. I tried other styli in the past, and I even used one on my iPhone and old iPad Mini for a while. It worked, but it felt plasticky, and heavier than a normal pen or pencil. The Apple Pencil, however, really felt natural. Its integration in OS is great too—I no longer need to look for apps with 3rd-party stylus support; it’s all ready to go.

I didn’t want to use the Apple Pencil directly onto the screen of the iPad Pro. I’m sure Apple designed the Pencil not to scratch the surface, but I still felt more confident in doing so only with the screen protector I bought. The texture of the film feels like paper, and when writing or drawing with the Pencil, you really have the impression that you’re doing it on paper. I’m sure the high 120 Hz sensing rare of the iPad also has some say in that experience.

My hand holding the iPad.
Ça va ?

On to the Magic Keyboard, the iPad snaps right it with magnets. It feels a bit odd at first to have a display practically “levitate” above the keyboard, but it makes the tablet closer to you, and higher, while giving space to your fingers to type.

Talking of typing, I was pleasantly surprised at the keyboard. There are no butterfly switches on this thing. Actually, the keyboard feels more like my old black Intel MacBook from 2008, but maybe a bit less like plastic. It’s quiet, and has a nice key travel as well as good resistance. It also lits up in dark places, like the keyboard on the MacBook.

The trackpad also feels very nice, just like any other trackpads by Apple. That’s one thing they know how to do right. It’s quite smaller than a typical trackpad on the MacBook, but it really didn’t cause any problems while I used it.

The iPad Pro mounted on its Magic Keyboard.
From tablet to notebook: the versatility of the iPad Pro.

The downside of the Magic Keyboard is you always have to set up your iPad in a landscape position—you can’t really use it in portrait. It also has to stand up—it won’t allow you to lay the tablet down while it a nice slant like Apple’s Smart Covers once did. Some people hacked their way around this, but those tricks didn’t really work for me.

The other thing is, while the iPad Pro is quite light on its own, with the Magic Keyboard, it becomes as heavy as a typical 13” MacBook.

However, with the Magic Keyboard cover is closed, I really get the impression that I’m holding a book… Ironically more than a MacBook. The whole thing can be charged via a single USB-C (not Lightning!) port in the cover, but to transfer data, the cable must be plugged into the tablet. The battery, by the way, lasts a long time—I can easily use the iPad for an entire day.

Another thing I never thought about before is how easy it is to authenticate with practically anything its Face ID feature. Combined with the usage of Apple ID in apps and Web sites, all I need to unlock and log on most services I use online is simply my face. In many cases, you simply need to push a single button to log in, but in others, the authentication is done quickly and automatically, so you won’t even notice it. Using your face to log in instead of inputting a password is surely a very convenient yet secure feature to have. Although I still use other platforms, so I’ll still keep 1Password to manage my passwords.

Finally, an iPad Pro is much easier to carry than a notebook, so that’s always a plus when you want to travel light, even if you’re not going far.

A month using the iPad

I didn’t know what to expect, but somehow I’ve been using the iPad quite a bit. Maybe I’ll use it to help me at work, I thought, but no. Somehow, I ended up using it quite a lot for my hobbies and creative outlets. I even started sketching and doing some illustrations.

Probably, I could have done all this with any other computer—I’m not sure why I didn’t. But just the way the iPad Pro morphs into whatever you want it to be feels more liberating when doing anything with it. You want to type like you’re using a typewriter? Just slide the iPad in the Magic Keyboard case. You want to read a book? Just pop it out and rotate it in portrait. You want to edit photos or fool around with music creation? Rotate it in landscape and let your fingers do the work. You want to draw instead? Open any sketching app, and draw with the pencil. A notebook stays a notebook. But the iPad Pro just becomes whatever you want it to be, when you want it.

With that ability and flexibility, I haven’t spent this much time doing creative work on a device in a long time. Much of my time using the iPad was spent drawing, creating music, writing, and editing photos as well as videos rather than just wasting my time being lazy on a MacBook and waste it browsing the Web.

Can it replace a desktop computer?

Before getting an iPad Pro, I would have said that’s a ludicrous question. But today, you know what, I’d say that’s possible. But it depends on what you do with a computer.

If you’re doing advanced 3D graphics, programming, or video editing, you probably want to look at a MacBook or an iMac. But, if all you want to do is use a computer for fun and explore your creative outlets a bit, the iPad Pro may very well replace your computer. In fact, after noticing I don’t use it anymore, I tucked my MacBook in my closet a few weeks ago and I haven’t need to touch since.

As I said above, I was successfully able to write, edit videos, and photos. I could even vector graphic files using the iPad Pro, and it was all smoother with the Pencil. I was even able to do some programming with the iPad, when the need arose.

Another important factor in your decision is how you access files, and it turns out iPadOS is much more flexible with this now. With its Files app, I can easily access a USB drive, or even network shares on my NAS. There’s also a 3rd-party app, Documents, which allows you to connect to even more kinds of remote shares, including SFTP.

So can the iPad Pro replace a desktop computer? For you, maybe or maybe not. For me, even being a programmer, it did.

If you’re also a programmer considering an iPad, but you’re on the fence because you’re worried you can’t code on it, read on.

Programming on the iPad

Certainly, the iPad Pro isn’t really made for programming. There’s no complex IDE like Visual Code Studio, a favourite for many, including me.

But, if you’re a Web developer, there are some ways that will free you from a bulky notebook computer.

Natively, I use the iPad Pro for my creative outlets, as I wrote earlier. But for anything “dev”, I simply recycled my Raspberry Pi 4, installed OpenVPN on it, and left it home. Now, if I really need a terminal, I simply connect to it via VPN then SSH. I can even run a server to give me an interface like VS Code. It has some minor problems, but it works mostly well. That said, I often use Vim when editing in a terminal on the iPad. So, YMMV.

I also installed Samba on my Pi, so I can transfer files to it, if needed. Furthermore, I added tmux, so I can start terminal sessions, detach them, log off, then log back on later and re-attach them, essentially like running a terminal in the background. (Pro-Tip: Set up Prompt, mentioned below, to run tmux new-session -A -s $HOSTNAME in bash—replace $HOSTNAME with $HOST in zsh—to automatically start or re-attach the same session when you log in.)

Development apps on the iPad

Here is a short list of apps that can help you do some Web development on the iPad Pro. Keep in mind that some are paid, but I avoided apps with subscriptions:

  • Prompt, a SSH terminal by Panic. Even allows you to sync your connection profiles between devices.
  • Inspect, a Web inspector. Unlike on the desktop, there are no good DevTools or Inspector in iOS. But this app is the next best thing. It allows you to inspect HTML elements, CSS, change viewport size, monitor network traffic, and even has a JavaScript console.
Inspecting a Web page using Inspect.
If you think there are no Web inspectors on iOS, let Inspect prove you wrong.
  • code-server, a VS Code server. An open-source Node app serving an instance of VS Code, which you can use in your browser on iOS. You may use Servediter to help you access code-server, but just accessing it via Safari and adding an icon to the site to the Home screen works just fine.
  • Scriptable, to automate iOS. Much like Shortcuts, but instead of building scripts visually, allows you to write them in plain JavaScript.
  • JSAnywhere and Web Maker are two good apps allowing you to write and run snippets of JS, CSS, and HTML. Like CodePen, but offline. However, JSAnywhere forces you to use 3-space indents and there are no ways to remove ads. Web Maker is not a native app, but can be installed on the Home screen and works offline.
  • play.js lets you write Node apps and run them offline on your iPad, even with external modules.
  • HTTPBot and HTTP Fish, API clients. Similar to Postman on the desktop, lets you write queries to help you test or interact with APIs. HTTP Fish is free, but HTTPBot is a bit more advanced, letting you use variables and export your requests to Postman.
  • TLS Inspector, for free, allows you to inspect SSL certificates of sites. Once installed, you can even inspect the certificate of any page in any browser from the Share menu.
  • iCurl HTTP let you inspect HTTP requests and responses just like your can with curl in a terminal, including their headers and body. It works well, but I wish the app gave you the option to change the font size or use a monospace font.
  • iNetTools is a networking Swiss knife with a set of tools like ping, WHOIS, and a DNS resolver.
  • Playgrounds, free by Apple, isn’t for Web developers. But if you want to learn Swift, Apple’s newest language for iOS development, it’s a good app to start with. While it won’t let you build apps on your iPad, it will let you experiment with Swift before you get back on your MacBook to write your first iOS app.

An app for everything

For those who want to explore their creativity on the iPad instead of doing development, I have some apps for you:

Writing

  • iA Writer is my editor of choice on iOS and iPadOS. (I’m using it for this right now!) The Markdown editor has a simple distraction-free interface, available in both light and dark modes. You can export your writing in WordPress and Medium.
  • Editorial is another good editor, but perhaps best for power users. Beyond Markdown, it supports TaskPaper for to-do lists, and for screenwriters, even works with Fountain files. The app also lets you write Python scripts you can run within to help you automate anything in the app. Although, oddly, it only supports Dropbox and not iCloud Drive.
Writing in Editorial.
Practicing my talent of screenwriter in Editorial, with Python scripts to help me edit faster.
  • If you have a WordPress site, the WordPress native app got better over the years on iOS, but it still doesn’t have full support for the new Guttenberg editor. For this, I recommend you go to your WordPress admin panel and WordPress.com, if your site has Jetpack enabled, and install each site on your Home screen. The Web interface and its editor works very well on the iPad.

Sketching/Illustrations

  • Procreate, an illustration app. This one is well known in the community of illustrators. Lets you draw with the Pencil and some 3rd-party styli. You can even do some animation and record a video of your progress. It has an extensive set of brushes, grids and guides with can automatically help you draw symmetrically.
Sketching in Procreate.
Not bad for a beginner. Procreate helps illustrators draw perfect symmetry with its guides.
  • If Procreate is too advanced for you, you may also want to give Zen Brush, Sketches, and Art Set a try. They are all good apps to just let you draw with brushes.
  • Affinity Designer is a bit pricy, but it’s a powerful vector editor with support for AI & SVG files. It’s probably one of the most refined professional apps I’ve seen on iPadOS so far.
Editing vector graphics in Affinity Designer.
Affinity Designer allows you to edit vector files, anything from illustrations to logos.
  • Adobe Photoshop requires an Creative Cloud subscription and is not as advanced as its big brother on the desktop, but it’s certainly the closest to the original you can get at this point if you’re an Adobe subscriber. Many of the tools are present, including subject selection and clone brush, and they’re working to add more. (That said, there’s also Affinity Photo, but I haven’t tried it yet.)
  • Adobe Fresco lets you sketch illustrations on both raster and vector layers, which may be convenient for some who want the best of both worlds. The app, however, also requires a subscription with Creative Cloud.

Music making

  • Auxy Pro, a music making app. It is nowhere like an advance DAW like a professional musician would use, but its simple interface is enough for newbies to explore their musical skills and for experts to make a rough rendition of their tracks before moving to the big apps like Ableton. It comes with a free set of samples, and you can buy a subscription to have more.
  • Samplr lets you record sound using the microphone on the iPad Pro and sample it in any way you like. Record your voice or anything you hear then chop it and loop it in any way you like. It’s probably mostly useful for electronic musicians, but still for me, it’s good fun.
Sampling audio in Samplr.
Record anything in Samplr and having fun sampling your audio in any way imaginable.
  • Don’t overlook GarageBand. Over the years, the app become more and more powerful and remains a stable in the toolbox of any iOS musician. It’s free, but the downside is it has no support for Ableton Link, which is probably a bummer for professionals.

Photo editing

The stock Photos app is often enough for my photo editing needs, but when I need more editing control…

  • Camera 2 offers creative tools and filters in a simple interface.
  • Adobe Photoshop Express is similar to Camera . But contrary to the name, it does not feel like Photoshop, and you can use brushes to pinpoint your edits.
  • Adobe Lightroom is similar to its desktop counterpart, with most of the professional settings available, but requires a Creative Cloud subscription.
  • Pixelmator Photo is powerful professional photo editor and has perhaps the simplest editing flow of them all: instead of importing images before editing, like the apps above ask you to do, you can simply pick any photo in the Camera Roll and start editing.
Editing photos in Pixelmator Photo.
Making photos “pop” in Pixelmator Photo.

Video editing

  • iMovie is free but is limited. Adding titles and transitions is frustratingly restrictive. Still, if you just want to have fun with simple movie editing, it offers quick tools to get the job done with a wide library of available songs and pre-made themed titles anyone can use in their videos.
  • LumaFusion is probably the best professional editor for the iPad (and the iPhone!). There’s is no Premiere available on iOS, but the best you can get for what the platform can support. The biggest downside is having to keep the app in the foreground while exporting videos—a limitation by the OS—but it has great editing features including transitions and titles.
Editing video in LumaFusion.
My latest non-sense video on YouTube was edited in LumaFusion.

In conclusion

The iPad is not a desktop computer, but it’s far from being limited to the screen size and performance of a smartphone, or even a typical tablet. With the various forms of the iPad Pro being enough for me to put my notebook away, and the apps and OS keep getting better, I’m certain I won’t be the only one to do so.