Why the iPad still can’t replace my laptop

For years, I’ve wanted to be one of those people who can do all my work on an iPad.

The idea sounds so appealing: Instead of using a clunky laptop, just carry around Apple’s lightweight tablet with a snap-on keyboard and trackpad. You’ll get snappy performance, excellent battery life, fun apps, and fewer distractions. The way some other tech writers have pulled this off has always made me a bit envious.

Yet whenever I try to spend serious time computing on an iPad, even with a keyboard attached, I always come crawling back to my laptop or desktop. The iPad might be where I go to focus on a single task or enjoy a change in computing scenery, but traditional PCs are where my serious work happens. (Case in point: I drafted this story on an iPad, but loaded it into WordPress with a Lenovo Yoga C940 laptop.)

With the new 10th-generation iPad and its Surface-like Magic Keyboard Folio, Apple continues to push the laptop replacement concept. At some point, I’ll almost certainly be tempted to give the idea yet another chance.

But as it stands, there are several reasons why I can only use my iPad as a temporary laptop stand-in.

This column first appeared in Advisorator, Jared’s weekly tech advice newsletter.

The screen’s too small

If you’re used to working on a laptop, the 10- or 11-inch screens on most iPads will feel cramped while juggling lots of browser tabs or running two apps in split-screen mode. Even Apple’s 12.9-inch iPad Pro is on the small side for a laptop. (It’s also a big commitment to anti-laptop computing at $1,350 and up with a Magic Keyboard case.)

Making the switch might be more tempting if Apple offered a cheaper big-screen variant—like it does for the smaller iPad Pro with the 10.9-inch iPad Air—or expanded the iPad Pro to even larger sizes.

File management can still be hassle

Here’s an example of a roadblock I’ve run into: After receiving a batch of images from Dropbox, I needed to upload them in Airtable. Sounds simple enough, but on the iPad, the Dropbox app wouldn’t let me download the files. My only option was to delete the app, view the files through Dropbox’s website, save the folder, open Airtable, choose the Files app as my upload source, and finally select the file.

An even bigger problem is that you can’t reliably sync cloud storage sources such as OneDrive. Yes, you can connect OneDrive or other sources to Apple’s Files app, but you can’t automatically download folders for offline viewing, and sync operations have been extremely finicky in my experience. Maybe file management works better on the iPad with iCloud, but I’m not going blow up my entire workflow just to find out.

The open web is an afterthought

Apple likes to say that the iPad version of Safari is “desktop class,” meaning that it loads desktop sites instead of mobile versions and works well with a mouse or trackpad.

But whenever I’m on my iPad, I miss having extensions like Simplify Gmail to improve Gmail’s web version (which I’d rather use than the mobile app), the Camelizer to check Amazon price histories, and Tabliss to make my new tab page more productive. Although Apple added extension support to Safari in iOS 15, the ecosystem still doesn’t compare to that of a real desktop browser.

Other web-related frustrations abound on the iPad: You can’t save websites to your home screen in any browser except Safari, and those that you do save sometimes open in new tabs instead of separate windows. (This is a problem for the web version of Gmail, which I’d prefer to treat like a dedicated app.) On a laptop, the browser is my most important power tool, but it’s relegated to just another app on the iPad.

Multitasking remains a challenge

Stage Manager on iPad OS 16.

Apple

After all these years, Apple is still figuring out how to reinvent the multitasking wheel on the iPad. Launching apps in split-screen mode is easier than it used to be, but Stage Manager, Apple’s new system for window management, has been widely regarded as a disaster. Even the lack of a persistent, non-disappearing app dock makes the simple act of switching apps feel slow. The iPad can be great for work if you’re focusing on a single app, but all that efficiency disappears the moment you need to bring in another app or data source.

It’s not exactly dockable (yet)

Later this year, Apple plans to add proper external display support for the iPad, giving you an interface that fills the entire monitor. But this feature only works on iPads with M1 or higher processors, ruling out the 10th-generation iPad that Apple just launched last week.

While you can still plug in other iPads to external monitors, those without USB-C output will be unbearably laggy, and you’ll end up with a cramped 4:3 aspect ratio. Using an iPad at your desk with a full-sized display remains a work in progress.

Where iPads still make sense

None of this means that you can’t replace your laptop with an iPad, but doing so requires throwing out lots of expectations about how to get things done. To me, that means the iPad still works best primarily as a tablet with occasional laptop benefits, rather than a device that serves both needs equally.

Of course, I could write the exact inverse of this article about replacing your iPad with a convertible touchscreen laptop. While my Lenovo Yoga C940 laptop folds into tablet mode, I almost never use it that way, and I’d previously learned first-hand that Microsoft’s Surface isn’t great as a tablet either. For reading books, watching videos, or playing touchscreen games, the iPad’s instant-on, lightweight nature is still unparalleled.

Now, if someone could come up with a “Pro” level Chromebook tablet that runs Android and Linux apps—like a much fancier version of Lenovo’s Chromebook Duet—maybe we’d have a device that feels more like the best of both worlds. But that’s a whole other story.

This column first appeared in Advisorator, my weekly tech advice newsletter. Sign up to get free tips in your inbox every Tuesday.

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