In 2010, I wrote the article “iPad for the Enterprise”, which explored the viability of using an iPad as a business laptop replacement. At the time, the iPad hardware demonstrated potential but was limited by the software (operating system and applications).
To overcome the software limitation, I positioned Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), which essentially transformed the iPad into a “dumb terminal” running Microsoft Windows. Although this approach enabled the iPad to run enterprise applications, the user impact was significant, with complete reliance on the network, a non-touch operating system and lack of native hardware support. In short, the use of VDI was technically viable, but not desirable.
Ten years later and the iPad has come a long way! For example, in 2019 Apple released a dedicated iPad operating system (iPadOS), which incorporated iPad specific features (e.g. Multi-Tasking, Split View, Widgets, etc.) The application ecosystem has also matured significantly, with a wide range of native applications that are optimised for iPadOS, including Microsoft Office 365, Adobe Photoshop, etc.
Additionally, with the recent (MAR-2020) release of iPadOS 13.4, Apple enabled native mouse/trackpad support. To complement this release, Apple also announced a new iPad case, known as the Magic Keyboard, which for the first time includes an integrated trackpad.
In my opinion, these milestones demonstrate a shift in mentality from Apple, which is slowly transforming the iPad, unlocking the previously described potential and blurring the lines between a tablet and a laptop.
With this in mind, this article will revisit the question posed in my 2010 article. In a business context, could an iPad replace a laptop?
To answer this question, throughout APR-2020, I have been using an iPad as my daily driver, where possible, replacing Windows 10, macOS and Linux.
As highlighted in the article “My Setup”, my common workflow includes productivity and collaboration tasks, software development, virtual labs, photo editing and video editing.
To give myself the best chance of success, I selected the iPad Pro 12.9‑inch Wi-Fi 256GB (4th Generation - 2020), including the new Magic Keyboard.
It should be noted that this was not a cheap setup, with the iPad Pro costing £1069 and the Magic Keyboard £349, resulting in an eye-watering total of £1418. Although this is cheaper than my Razer Blade Advanced (£2700), it is more expensive than a base MacBook Pro 13-inch (£1299).
With this framing in mind, the rest of this article will summarise my findings, covering the hardware, software and daily usage.
The iPad Pro is a phenomenal piece of hardware, arguably the most well built and futuristic product I own. The Apple A12Z Bionic Processor, although only a minor improvement over the previous generation, is still significantly ahead of the competition, effortlessly powering the 2732x2048 resolution display at 120Hz.
My only minor frustration, similar to the old MacBook 12-inch, is the single USB-C port, which can be restrictive when attempting to work with multiple peripherals. Therefore, like most Apple products, the iPad does not escape “dongle life”.
The new Magic Keyboard is an unusual product, featuring a “floating” cantilever design that allows the iPad viewing angle to be adjusted incrementally. This is a significant step forward from the previous Smart Keyboard Folio, which only supports two viewing angles (both titled backwards). The Magic Keyboard also features a full “laptop-style” keyboard and small trackpad, which both work very well, with the keyboard feeling equivalent to the scissor switches found on the MacBook Pro 16-inch. The Magic Keyboard also includes a second USB-C port, but it can only be used for charging, not data (which is disappointing).
In use, the Magic Keyboard exudes the Apple brand, thanks to the unique aesthetic, high-quality materials and plenty of magnets that ensure the iPad attaches with a reassuring “thud”. The “floating” design means the iPad can also be removed with ease, which I found was my preferred approach when switching from a fixed location to roaming (using the Magic Keyboard more like a dock).
With this in mind, it is worth noting that the combined weight of the iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard is 1351 grams, which is heavier than a lot of ultrabooks (including the MacBook Air). This would not ordinarily be an issue, but when the iPad is attached, the combined product is top-heavy, making it difficult to use from your lap (something I often require when travelling, etc.)
Another disappointment is the limited total viewing angle, which is restricted to 130 degrees. At this price, I would have expected the Magic Keyboard to at least rival the Microsoft Surface Pro range (165 degrees) and support an “easel mode” for drawing, etc. Thankfully, I have found a workaround, by placing the iPad on the keyboard, resting against the bottom ridge (see image below). I assume this approach was not a conscious design decision from Apple, but it works surprisingly well.
Overall, even with the previously described limitations/frustrations, the combined iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard hardware are excellent. The iPad itself remains the best tablet on the market, providing enough processing horsepower for almost any workload, assuming the software can utilise it.
I have previously shared my commonly used software for different operating systems (links below), including additional details regarding my use of Linux package managers.
With this in mind, I have added my chosen iPadOS applications to the table below. It should be noted that I currently have 79 applications installed on my iPad, therefore the table below only highlights applications that support my common workflow.
Although there are still gaps, the iPadOS application ecosystem has come a long way over the past decade. In the context of my required capabilities, 70% can be supported by native applications, many of which are optimised for the iPad, including Split View, Widgets, etc.
From a business perspective, the introduction of native Microsoft Office 365 applications was a significant step forward (I live in hope for a Linux release). Unfortunately, the applications do not have feature parity with their Windows counterparts and can be cumbersome to use. For example, managing email and attachments within Outlook can be a frustrating experience.
Recognising the “pro” moniker associated with the iPad, it is ironic that the application gaps are mostly associated with “pro” capabilities. For example, Apple iMovie on the iPad works very well, but there is no Apple Final Cut Pro equivalent. The same can be said for visual effects and software development, which due to the inherent restrictions imposed by Apple on iPadOS, developers lack the required API’s to enable advanced features. I will highlight the impact of these restrictions in the next section.
Finally, it is worth noting that there are a lot of great iPadOS applications that are exclusive to the iPad, which uniquely take advantage of the hardware. For example, I am not an artist, but Procreate is a phenomenal application when combined with the Apple Pencil. My wife previously demonstrated what is possible using Procreate and the first generation iPad Pro. Other unique areas include Augmented Reality (AR) experiences and games, which take advantage of the excellent cameras, LiDAR scanner, motion sensors and ProMotion (120Hz) display.
Like most Apple products, the iPad “just works”, with the hardware and software operating in perfect unity. In my opinion, the hardware is still limited by the software, but the gap is reduced with each iPadOS release.
Apple should also be commended for its mouse/keyboard support. It would have been easy for Apple to add a standard cursor, similar to what is found on macOS. However, Apple decided to re-think mouse/trackpad support for a “touch-first” device and I feel they have achieved perfection on the first try. Instead of a static cursor, the mouse/trackpad support appears as a circular dot that is context-aware, meaning it snaps and morphs depending on the specific use case. This approach feels perfectly at home on the iPad, acting as a natural extension of the touch controls. I am excited to see how developers embrace mouse/trackpad support over the coming months, especially with productivity software such as Microsoft Office 365, etc.
Another strength area for the iPad is security and management, enabled through the hardware and software (e.g. secure enclave, sandboxing, etc.) As a business device, these robust controls make the iPad one of the most secure and easy to manage end-user devices available. When combined with the exceptional hardware performance, strong battery life and the inclusion of mouse/trackpad support, the iPad finally feels ready to take on business workloads.
Regarding my setup, the image below highlights my home page, where you will notice a large number of Dock items, which is the opposite of my setup on macOS, where I don’t use the Dock.
With iPadOS, the Dock is a critical part of the multi-tasking workflow, leveraging the “swipe up” gesture to reveal the Dock without losing focus on the current application. At which point, other applications located in the Dock can be dragged into Split View, etc. As someone who prefers the keyboard, this requirement and the cumbersome experience, makes me miss Alfred on macOS.
With a “swipe right”, my second screen includes a simple folder structure, organising all other applications.
Up to this point, my experience with the iPad has been largely positive and certainly a significant step forward from my 2010 article. Unfortunately, a lot of this great work is undermined by some “show-stopping” issues.
Although the iPad can multi-task, it remains a frustrating, unintuitive and often inconsistent experience. For example, the gesture to enable Split View is not obvious, evident by the fact that Apple has been forced to provide a “How To” video. The multitasking features are also inconsistently implemented, for example, if you attempt to join a Zoom video conference and view a document simultaneously (a common requirement with my work), the video feed will automatically pause (very frustrating).
The lack of “pro” software is also a real pain, with limited options when trying to complete advanced workflows such as video encoding, visual effects, etc. On macOS, Windows and Linux, these tasks can be completed quickly and efficiently, with multiple application options available to support every user and budget.
Personally, this “pro” limitation is most evident with software development, which due to Apple iPadOS restrictions, makes it almost impossible to set up, customise and run a local development environment (e.g. Node.js, etc.) Some applications let you execute code locally (e.g. Pythonista), but these are often limited to prototyping, automation or simple code snippets. I am sure some creative (brave) developer has achieved more with one of these applications, but I find it hard to believe it would be anyone’s development environment of choice.
As a result, the only viable option is to have the development environment set up remotely, leveraging Git and SSH on the iPad to version control and execute code. For example, with applications such as Wroking Copy (Git Client), Coda (Code Editor), iA Writer (Text Editor), and Termius (SSH), it is possible to write code on the iPad, push to GitHub and then execute on a remote server via automation (Continuous Integration) or manual commands (SSH).
This is the approach I have been taking to update this blog, connecting to my GitHub account using Working Copy, cloning the repository to the iPad and then updating the Markdown files in iA Writer. Once complete, I push the files using Working Copy, which triggers the remote build process (Jekyll).
The process works fairly well, but due to the iPadOS filesystem limitations, requires the code/text editor to support the Apple Files application, which allows applications to access and edit files stored in other applications (e.g. Working Copy Files > iA Writer).
Although functional, the inability to develop offline is a real challenge, especially as I spend a lot of time on planes, etc. On macOS, Windows and Linux, I run Docker, with local images of my favourite runtime environments. I also have client virtual machine capabilities, providing access to other operating systems for testing, etc.
In an attempt to maximise my usage of the iPad, I did come up with a way to mitigate this limitation, leveraging a Raspberry Pi 4 as a portable Linux server, connected via and powered by the iPad Pro’s USB-C port.
Surprisingly, this approach works reasonably well but certainly feels “over-engineered” when you consider the relatively basic issue it aims to solve. Simply put, if you have to go to this much effort to use the iPad, you should probably just buy a cheap Linux laptop. With that said, for those who are interested, I plan to cover my Raspberry Pi 4 setup in a future article.
Finally, although the iPad Pro supports external storage via the USB-C port, other third-party peripherals and monitors remain largely useless. For example, in theory, you can connect a monitor to the USB-C port, which would be perfect when working from a fixed location. However, the iPad only supports display mirroring, with no custom resolutions, which feels like a ridiculous limitation in 2020.
As stated in the introduction, the iPad has come a long way over the past decade. It is more capable than ever, with exceptional hardware and software that is continuously improving. In 2010, I had to rely almost exclusively on Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) to make the iPad a feasible business laptop replacement. I am pleased to report that this is no longer the case, with 70% of my common workflows being completely by native iPadOS applications.
Unfortunately, there are still gaps, mostly with “pro” capabilities, specifically video editing, visual effects, software development, etc. It is possible to mitigate some of these limitations with “creative” workarounds (e.g. Raspberry Pi 4), but this is far from ideal, especially when you consider a budget Linux laptop would easily accomplish these tasks.
Therefore, in 2020, could the iPad replace a business laptop? It depends…
If your job is focused on basic productivity and collaboration, then the iPad is viable, but likely less efficient than an equivalent macOS, Windows or Linux laptop.
If your job requires specialist capabilities (video editing, visual effects, software development), the current answer is no. Although it is technically possible, the compromises are simply not worth the effort.
Regarding the iPad Pro, it is a phenomenal piece of hardware, but without the ability to support “pro” capabilities, it is wasted. Therefore, if you do plan to purchase an iPad, I would recommend the cheapest iPad (non-pro) option (starting at £349) and the new Logitech Combo Touch Keyboard case with Trackpad for iPad (£119.95). This “budget” iPad setup costs £468.95, which is £949.05 cheaper than my setup but still supports all of the capabilities I have described in this article.
Let’s see what the next decade brings!