A Workflow

I stum­bled across this tweet, and it got me to think­ing about a dra­mat­ic trans­for­ma­tion I’ve under­gone over the last six months: inte­grat­ing an iPad Pro into my work­flow.

Obvi­ous­ly this isn’t the biggest deal in the uni­verse, but I am struck by how much we can use diverse tools to be pro­duc­tive in a num­ber of ways.

That being said, the iPad Pro isn’t per­fect and it prob­a­bly won’t be for a long time because Apple has oth­er prod­uct lines to defend and it doesn’t want to can­ni­bal­ize them. How­ev­er, I have found it to be an incred­i­bly pow­er­ful tool for some of the work that I do, and it might be help­ful to oth­ers.

One thing to keep in mind here: a lot of the soft­ware I use is not free — that is a prob­lem for some of the techie types who think that only good soft­ware is free soft­ware, but to me that’s back­wards: the actu­al GNU type soft­ware will often work (say, on Lin­ux), but it’s rarely if ever pret­ty or effi­cient — and con­fig­u­ra­tion is a pain. While I real­ize the priv­i­lege of say­ing so, I’ve tried to move away from no-cost soft­ware, which is often mis­la­beled as “free” on var­i­ous app store­fronts, because the low cost ver­sion almost always is paid for with inva­sive pri­va­cy vio­la­tions.

That being said: I try to not blow mon­ey on use­less garbage. The apps I use cost around $15 per month, or $170 a year. That’s not noth­ing, but it’s also basi­cal­ly a Net­flix sub­scrip­tion. There are alter­na­tives, and in one case prob­a­bly a supe­ri­or alter­na­tive, but it is too expen­sive for me so I haven’t adopt­ed it.

Let’s get into it!


I do not have a new iPad. Ear­li­er this year, I bought a refur­bished 2017 10.5” iPad Pro. It is basi­cal­ly the cur­rent iPad Air, though it has two more speak­ers and the screen has a high­er refresh rate with a slight­ly small­er lag when draw­ing (which is why I chose that over the Air). In terms of the actu­al capa­bil­i­ties of the devices, though, the two devices are almost the same.

You can get a brand new Air for $499 retail, though for the Christ­mas sea­son it will prob­a­bly be heav­i­ly dis­count­ed in places. I would rec­om­mend against buy­ing direct­ly from Apple, as their prices are high and oth­er retail­ers can often apply dis­counts Apple will not: I found an iPad Air 3rd being sold on Ama­zon for $399, which rep­re­sents a sav­ings of $100). I pre­fer the key­board case as it is the small­est and light­est design, and because I don’t envi­sion the iPad as a full com­put­er replace­ment I don’t need a key­board that will be per­fect for mul­ti­hour writ­ing marathons. Direct from Apple it is $160, but I found one on Best Buy for $100. Last­ly, the Apple Pen­cil 1st gen­er­a­tion is also use­ful for me as a note-tak­ing and markup tool; It is anoth­er $100 at Apple, but I haven’t found it for less than $95 else­where so that’s sort of a wash.

That means, with some hunt­ing, you can have this hard­ware set up for as lit­tle as $600 or as much as $760. That’s basi­cal­ly a midrange lap­top price, though I pre­fer the iPad form fac­tor because it is excep­tion­al­ly thin and light. One weak­ness of Apple’s key­board cov­er is that it doesn’t pro­tect the back of the iPad; to rem­e­dy this I also spent an addi­tion­al $15 on a case from KOMO which also pro­vides a hol­ster for the Pen­cil so every­thing stays in one place.

That’s the hard­ware side of things — basi­cal­ly a midrange lap­top in terms of cost. But an equiv­a­lent­ly priced lap­top is more capa­ble than an iPad. So why get one? Two rea­sons:

  1. Form Fac­tor
  2. Soft­ware

Put sim­ply, the form fac­tor of the lap­top is bulky and heavy even in the thin-and-light cat­e­go­ry — and in that cat­e­go­ry the lap­tops become very expen­sive and there are hard­ware penal­ties. In con­trast, Apple’s cus­tom hard­ware for the iPad means even sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions-old proces­sors are fast and run com­plex soft­ware with few hitch­es; if you shell out for a “new” 11-inch iPad Pro the hard­ware will have many years of longevi­ty (plus, Apple’s build qual­i­ty is excep­tion­al com­pared to oth­er mak­ers — their devices, regard­less of type, eas­i­ly last more than half a decade, which ame­lio­rates their high­er up-front cost). All-in, my iPad is thin­ner and lighter than any equiv­a­lent­ly priced lap­top, which has made it my go-to portable com­put­ing device.

Final­ly, there is soft­ware to con­sid­er. Geeks may tear their hair out over the dread­ed walled gar­den of iOS, but there are sig­nif­i­cant advan­tages to Apple’s method. While it is obvi­ous­ly not per­fect, there is a far low­er like­li­hood of mali­cious soft­ware sneak­ing onto my advice with Apple’s screen­ing process; in addi­tion, they are aggres­sive and ban­ning apps that do vio­late their poli­cies. iPa­dOs is also designed to effi­cient­ly use touch ges­tures to nav­i­gate, per­form func­tions, and inter­act with soft­ware. It is sim­ple, intu­itive, and once the ges­tures are learned it gets out of your way. Key­board short­cuts are great, but you don’t need them, and you can work extreme­ly effi­cient­ly with low men­tal over­head with ges­tures. It took a bit of adjust­ing, but now I pre­fer it to a “pure” key­board-and-track­pad set up.


My default for writ­ing is the Ulysses App. There are a num­ber of rea­sons for this, but the pri­ma­ry one being that it is a sim­ple to use Mark­down text edi­tor that allows, but does not demand, for increas­ing com­plex­i­ty as your needs allow. The orga­ni­za­tion of fold­ers and files with­in the app allow me to set up a con­stant stream of ideas, drafts, and edits, and it’s pro­vides a lot of export flex­i­bil­i­ty so I can pro­vide doc­u­ments to what­ev­er sort of end-state is most con­ve­nient (I write all of my blog posts and most of my essays in Ulysses first and wor­ry about for­mat and what­not lat­er). I real­ly can’t endorse Ulysses enough as a writ­ing tool, espe­cial­ly when com­bined with the iPad’s form fac­tor it is sim­ple to take a pow­er­ful writ­ing tool every­where I go and con­stant­ly take notes and jot down ideas.

I also use the built-in Pages word proces­sor from Apple, which I pre­fer to Microsoft’s Word. Pages does not get enough cred­it for being sta­ble, beau­ti­ful, and intu­itive to use. The tem­plates are some­times help­ful (unlike Microsoft tem­plates), and it makes beau­ti­ful doc­u­ments easy. When I write papers for grad school, I’ll export my text from Ulysses to Pages to final­ize and for­mat when­ev­er I have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to. Last­ly, Pages does not crash near­ly as often as Word does when using high­ly for­mat­ted doc­u­ments with track changes — and when it does, the doc­u­ments are more recov­er­able. While Pages is not as full-fea­tured as Word (this goes for Apple’s oth­er office pro­grams, which are not as deep as Microsoft’s ver­sions), it is vast­ly more pleas­ant and reli­able for the vast major­i­ty of use cas­es.

That being said, MS Word isn’t hor­ri­ble on iPa­dOS. You can draft doc­u­ments on it just fine, and it vast­ly supe­ri­or to how Google imple­ments Docs on Apple’s devices (which is garbage — Google is fine on a deskp­top, but even with­in the iPad Safari it’s ter­ri­ble, and the Google Docs app is lag­gy and con­fus­ing). Word works just fine, and if I’m mobile and need to col­lab­o­rate on a shared doc­u­ment, I can use that ver­sion of Word with rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle fuss, though there is a bit of a learn­ing curve to fig­ure out where Microsoft hides all of the fea­tures of the pro­gram — it isn’t near­ly as intu­itive as Pages.

Last thing: if you need to make foot­notes, all of these word proces­sors are fine, though Ulysses has by far the most effi­cient imple­men­ta­tion, to include Mark­down-style anchors and inte­gra­tion with some ref­er­ence man­agers. But for end notes your only option for auto­mat­i­cal­ly han­dling them is Ulysses — none of the iPa­dOS ver­sions of the word proces­sors effi­cient­ly han­dle those. This could be mean­ing­ful for you if you’re in school. And while Word and Docs allow for the embed­ding of graphs, charts, tables, and images, the way Apple imple­ment­ed those fea­tures into Pages is sim­ple, intu­itive, and gor­geous.

While I don’t pre­fer to use word proces­sors as a default for writ­ing, Pages real­ly is a superb pro­gram.

Reading and Notes

I use Nota­bil­i­ty and Kin­dle for read­ing. Kin­dle is how I read ebooks, and I read those on a Kin­dle Paper­white, which is my default read­ing device. I trav­el and have moved cities too often to keep my pre­ferred library of paper books around, and I just accept the com­pro­mise of e‑ink as allow­ing me to read the 40 or so books I read each year with­out fill­ing every cubic mil­lime­ter of my apart­ment with books.

Nota­bil­i­ty is one of the most eye-open­ing apps I’ve ever used. I thought I was fine with using Adobe’s built-in mark up tools for PDFs, or maybe if I had it in Mende­ley or Papers I could do line high­lights and notes. But Nota­bil­i­ty almost per­fect­ly repli­cates the expe­ri­ence of draw­ing on a print­ed PDF, and pro­vides more options. I’ve devel­oped a sys­tem of yel­low high­lights for con­cepts, blue high­lights for ideas I want to branch for blog­posts, and red for ideas I want to explore in future research projects. This is in addi­tion to intu­itive note scrib­bling, and the abil­i­ty to time-index a record­ed lec­ture with the notes I took dur­ing that lec­ture.

For my MA, Nota­bil­i­ty was arguably the most pow­er­ful sin­gle piece of soft­ware I used, and it mea­sur­ably improved my expe­ri­ence of being in grad­u­ate school after I adopt­ed it. I can­not say enough good things about this app. It is a game chang­er for how I ingest PDFs, and I rec­om­mend it for any­one who does a lot of PDF read­ing and likes to write phys­i­cal notes on pieces of paper. This let me go paper­less and I’m nev­er going back.

And the price, at $5 for the iPad ver­sion, is unbeat­able (I’ve not yet found a need for the $10 mac ver­sion, but you might). Tru­ly, this is the pri­ma­ry and biggest val­ue of doing work on the iPad plat­form — non-pro iPads also can use this, they’ll just have slight­ly less smooth pen­cil input. They’re still great, though.

Other Office Apps

Microsoft Office 365 is fine. It works, though despite the cost none of the iPa­dOS apps are as full-fea­tured as their desk­top cousins. It appears to be an app ver­sion of the web-only ver­sion of the office apps. That being said, the Office 365 sub­scrip­tion (which is $100 per year) includes the desk­top ver­sions of Office apps (Pow­er­Point, Excel, Out­look, Access, etc.) for a reg­u­lar com­put­er, and 1TB of One Dri­ve is a gen­uine good deal. As much as I dis­like using Word, I can­not deny that it remains the default pro­gram for col­lab­o­rat­ing with pub­lish­ers, edi­tors, and nor­mal peo­ple. The desk­top ver­sion of Excel has far more fea­tures than the iPa­dOS ver­sion, which is no bet­ter than Pages in terms of fea­tures and far less attrac­tive visu­al­ly, and thus los­es any use case.

For mail, I use the free tier of Spark. This is my one excep­tion to not using “free” soft­ware — Spark has come under fire for pri­va­cy con­cerns, but those rang hol­low for me. Their pri­va­cy pol­i­cy is basi­cal­ly the same as Out­look and Gmail — if you use any app besides Apple’s built in Mail app, you will encounter this con­sid­er­a­tion. Mail is not a very good pro­gram. It’s fine, as far as things go, but it is not my pre­fer­rer mail client. Out­look is extreme­ly good; I began using Spark as an alter­na­tive to the Gmail client, which isn’t very good on iOS. But Out­look is an equiv­a­lent if not supe­ri­or option, and it is includ­ed with an Office 365 sub­scrip­tion so there is no real down­side to using it as your pri­ma­ry email client. The only rea­son I don’t is that my cur­rent Office365 sub­scrip­tion comes through stu­dent fees for grad­u­ate school, and I don’t want to risk get­ting locked into a pro­gram I’m unwill­ing to pay for. By far, Out­look is the best Office 365 pro­gram.

The one thing that annoys me about both Spark and Out­look is how poor­ly they can inte­grate with Apple’s built-in Cal­en­dar and Reminders apps, both of which are quite good (there are paid options with addi­tion­al fea­tures, but you real­ly don’t need some­thing like Fan­tas­ti­cal for most use cas­es — though again, it is a great piece of soft­ware that is gor­geous and easy to use). I would rather use Apple’s built in pro­gram wher­ev­er pos­si­ble because of their secu­ri­ty, so erect­ing bar­ri­ers to using these default pro­grams is annoy­ing and I’m unhap­py with it, and I think the crit­i­cisms of Apple for pre­vent­ing that kind of inte­gra­tion and default app-switch­ing are valid and some­thing Apple needs to even­tu­al­ly address either through fix­ing Mail or allow­ing trust­ed apps to become default. The con­ve­nience fac­tor of hav­ing Mail talk direct­ly to Cal­en­dar and Reminders could pos­si­bly be a rea­son to nev­er use Out­look or Spark — I wouldn’t blame any­one for mak­ing that choice.

Last­ly, I use Todoist as my task man­ag­er. This is a new process for me, as I was not used to using one until a few months ago. How­ev­er, map­ping out my tasks each week (with a check in every morn­ing) has been life chang­ing in terms of how orga­nized I feel and there­fore how much less stress I have try­ing to jug­gle every­thing in my head. The free ver­sion works fine, but pay­ing $3/month unlocks inte­gra­tion with reminders, com­ments, labels, cal­en­dar sync, and tem­plates that becomes real­ly pow­er­ful. It is not the pret­ti­est app, but it is high­ly func­tion­al. Things is a more beau­ti­ful app with even tighter inte­gra­tion into iPa­dOS, but it is more than twice as expen­sive to use across my iPad­Pro, phone, and lap­top. It may be bet­ter in some ways, but Todoist is the right com­bi­na­tion of val­ue and util­i­ty for me. And real­ly, using any task man­ag­er (even the lim­it­ed one built into Out­look) will make a mas­sive improve­ment in your work.

Where It Excels

The iPad Pro is extreme­ly good at two cru­cial process­es for me: read­ing and mak­ing up PDFs (and also PDFs of web­pages), and draft­ing up writ­ing ideas. For these uses (I wrote this blog­post in Ulysses on my iPad, for exam­ple), the iPad Pro is the sin­gle best device I have ever used. The new­er fea­tures, like split view and slideover, are great lit­tle touch­es that are super intu­itive and make using it a joy. For the size and weight, it is extreme­ly pow­er­ful at these ideas. Ulysses is an extreme­ly good text edi­tor, and Nota­bil­i­ty is an extreme­ly good markup pro­gram for PDFs and notes. Nota­bil­i­ty also repli­cates the func­tion­al­i­ty as the Live Scribe pens, at a frac­tion of the over­all cost and with vast­ly improved usabil­i­ty. I can­not say enough good about the iPad for these use cas­es.

I also know the iPad­Pro is extreme­ly good for visu­al con­tent cre­ation — Pho­to­shop and Light­room remain lim­it­ed, but Pix­el­ma­tor is an excel­lent pho­to edi­tor, Luma­Fu­sion is a very pow­er­ful video edi­tor, and Affin­i­ty is a pow­er­ful vec­tor graph­ic app. And Pro­Cre­ate is an incred­i­bly pow­er­ful paint­ing app and makes beau­ti­ful images. While none of these apps have every sin­gle fea­ture that you can get from Adobe’s Cre­ative Cloud suite, they are far less expen­sive and still suit­able for like 95% of usage cas­es. The lit­tle bit I’ve used it for (like gen­er­at­ing social media con­tent in Can­va) has been real­ly pleas­ant.

The iPad Pro also excels in media con­sump­tion. This is a usage case that a lot of geeks sneer at, because you can con­sume media on a lap­top. This is true, but it is a vast­ly more pleas­ant and engag­ing expe­ri­ence on an iPad. Being able to flip the key­board around to watch a video is MUCH more enjoy­able than doing so on a lap­top, even a 360 swiv­el 2‑in‑1 lap­top. And lay­ing the iPad flat to read a rent­ed text­book in Kin­dle or draw notes and high­lights on a PDF in Nota­bil­i­ty is bet­ter than any sim­i­lar process on a lap­top. I real­ly can’t repeat too often just how pow­er­ful the iPad is at han­dling PDFs, and if this is a major part of your work you should con­sid­er one just for that.

The iPad also excels sim­ply by being an Apple prod­uct, and thus hav­ing access to pow­er­ful mul­ti device usages through pro­grams like Hand­Off (which I use all the time — espe­cial­ly if you need to switch to a com­put­er to add an PDF into a cita­tion man­ag­er). I don’t have a new enough Mac­Book Pro for this, but being able to use the iPad Pro as a sec­ondary mon­i­tor through Side­car is a pow­er­ful fea­ture I wish I could take advan­tage of. Luna Dis­play is a fea­ture-rich option for us old­er Mac users, but I don’t need this fea­ture so bad­ly that I’d spend $60 for a don­gle.

And if you’re into it, gam­ing is real­ly enjoy­able. I bought Civ­i­liza­tion VI and love it (espe­cial­ly on long flights). And for $5/month, Apple Arcade has extreme­ly good games that will make the sub­scrip­tion more than worth it.

Where it falls short

The most obvi­ous place where the iPad impos­es an unfa­mil­iar work­flow is in file man­age­ment. For some rea­son, despite my hav­ing an iCloud sub­scrip­tion, my iPad wants to default to either local stor­age or One Dri­ve. I have to click through extra steps to save to my iCloud. And some pro­grams have a hard time access­ing iCloud fold­ers from their file input dia­logues; I don’t know why this is, because oth­er solu­tions like One Dri­ve, Google Dri­ve, and even Drop­box are more intu­itive­ly inte­grat­ed. For some rea­son, Apple just doesn’t do file man­age­ment well in the cloud and if I had anoth­er solu­tion for man­ag­ing my pho­to library I’d be switch­ing right away. But this is by far the weak­est aspect of work­ing on the iPad.

Many of the oth­er crit­i­cisms of how it han­dles file man­age­ment don’t per­suade me, how­ev­er. Espe­cial­ly in the new­er ver­sions of iPa­dOS, which is more native­ly able to han­dle exter­nal stor­age, you can store things wher­ev­er you feel like and most of the time retrieve them with­out issue.

Aca­d­e­m­ic or research writ­ing is frus­trat­ing. The only cita­tion man­ag­er that is beau­ti­ful to use on iPa­dOS is Papers, which is $3/month if you have a stu­dent ID (it is $5/month oth­er­wise). While I’ve not used Papers, I have read high­ly crit­i­cal respons­es to their deci­sion to shift from a dis­crete soft­ware pur­chase to a month­ly sub­scrip­tion mod­el; I’ve also seen con­cerns about how it han­dles vir­tu­al­iza­tion and file man­age­ment, which makes it prone to crash­ing. Def­i­nite­ly not ide­al. Book­ends is a com­peti­tor, which some aca­d­e­mics like using, but it is an ugly inter­face and I strug­gled to use the pre­view ver­sion to file PDFs. The Mende­ley app for iPa­dOS is poor­ly designed as well, and is bad at import­ing and cat­e­go­riz­ing PDFs. I wish Zotero had an app, or was a bit eas­i­er to use than its brows­er-spe­cif­ic book­marklets and desk­top ver­sions, since that is a very well designed sys­tem.

Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters is how dif­fi­cult it is to use a cita­tion man­ag­er in iPa­dOS. Copy­ing and past­ing is eas­i­er with new ges­tures, and is even quick­er with key­board short­cuts, but it still isn’t as smooth and organ­ic to do as on a nor­mal com­put­er. While Papers lets you gen­er­ate cita­tions from the app (some­thing I strug­gled to do with Mende­ley and sus­pect it’s not pos­si­ble), it is some­thing Book­ends makes unin­tu­itive and frus­trat­ing. More­over, gen­er­at­ing the cita­tions with­in the text you’re writ­ing remains clunky and requir­ing too many steps. Ulysses can inte­grate with Papers, but it is a mul­ti­step process that requires tech­ni­cal acu­men and a lot of fuss­ing. I’m unhap­py with it, and unwill­ing to pay mon­ey for Papers when it remains such an inor­gan­ic solu­tion — I’d rather just do things man­u­al­ly for the time being.

Ulysses does have some syn­tax sup­port for writ­ing in LaTeX — an essen­tial markup lan­guage for writ­ing math for­mu­lae. But it doesn’t seem to sup­port full LaTeX markups for an entire doc­u­ment. The iPa­dOS ver­sions of Word and Pages also per­mit for enter­ing LaTeX math for­mu­lae as well, so it might be eas­i­er to just for­mat into a .docx file and add the for­mu­lae there. In a sim­i­lar vein, there is no easy way to include sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis in R using iPa­dOS — you can write code snip­pets, but have to fuss with com­pli­cat­ed serv­er instan­ti­a­tion in order to exe­cute the code, gen­er­ate tables or graphs, or cre­ate RMark­Down doc­u­ments.

The iPad is also not good for actu­al top-of-the-lap writ­ing. The key­board cov­er isn’t stur­dy enough, though it’s per­fect­ly fine on a sol­id sur­face.

Wrap Up

Hon­est­ly, the iPad Pro is just not very good for research and aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing. But I also don’t think it is meant to be. Ulti­mate­ly, this is not a com­plete com­put­er replace­ment, and if you don’t think of it as a com­put­er replace­ment you can see where it is a real­ly pow­er­ful tool.

How­ev­er, it can replace a com­put­er for a LOT of tasks, and for those tasks it is out­stand­ing. The iPad Pro line also falls into the now-famil­iar Apple prod­uct loop where old­er devices are still real­ly good and it’s a hard­er val­ue propo­si­tion to shell out top-dol­lar for the newest devices. While the thin-bezel iPads are extreme­ly pow­er­ful and will last years longer than my cur­rent iPad Pro, I don’t think they are essen­tial for every­thing.

I bought a refur­bished 2017 iPad Pro in 2019, and it is stel­lar in terms of per­for­mance and I see no need to upgrade any time soon. My Mac­Book Pro from mid-2015 is still in almost per­fect shape, and if it weren’t for forced obso­lesce by Apple (see the bit about Side­car above) I wouldn’t even be think­ing about upgrad­ing. Apple just in gen­er­al makes very durable, long-last­ing devices (except for the dread­ful but­ter­fly key­board, which they are thank­ful­ly migrat­ing away from).

If you either can’t or don’t want to get a refur­bished 10.5” iPad Pro, I think the iPad Air is a stel­lar device for the usages I men­tioned above. It is still pow­er­ful, will last many years, and will enable all of the new, high­ly mobile work­flows that make up the bulk of my com­put­er time these days. The sheer plea­sure of using the iPad for writ­ing ideas, mak­ing edits, and con­sum­ing PDFs is more than worth it, and I’m at the point now where I prob­a­bly won’t replace my Mac­Book Pro when it final­ly dies. I’ll just switch to a prop­er desk­top with a nice mon­i­tor, either an iMac or a Mac Mini with addi­tion­al mon­i­tor (depend­ing on my bud­get). Unless you’re in an envi­ron­ment where you have no work­space at home for a prop­er desk­top, I can see the iPad dis­plac­ing the lap­top as a mobile com­put­ing device, unless it’s one of those mon­ster gam­ing lap­tops that real­ly aren’t portable or enjoy­able to lug around.

In terms of it’s sheer porta­bil­i­ty, pow­er­ful con­tent fea­tures, and ease-of-use, the iPad Pro and mod­ern iPad Air are worth work­ing around their lim­i­ta­tions. They have notice­ably made my work flows eas­i­er and more enjoy­able, and I sus­pect for most nor­mal peo­ple they are all the com­put­er you’d real­ly need.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.