the great tablet experiment

If you’re asked me earlier this year whether or not a tablet computer (iPad, Android, etc) could really replace a laptop or ultrabook as a productivity tool I would have said no. Working at Korrio I was convinced that tablets and phones were for creating small objects (calendar events, emails, texts, photos) they were far better consumption devices. Advanced users would need so many complex functions that it would be impractical. All the usual excuses — tablets have limited screen real estate, tablets are hampered by their one app at a time window model, tablets lack local storage, easy printing, etc — rolled off my tongue again and again. Now I realize how wrong I was.

Sometime in the late summer, like Paul on the road to Damascus, it just became clear to me. There was no reason, except my own limited vision, that a tablet couldn’t perform all the tasks most people do. This was especially true when you added an external keyboard to the setup.

After leaving Korrio in November I started thinking more an more about this. Could I “live” on phone and tablet alone? What issues are there? Will the app versions of the important web services I use every day be up to the task? What kinds of UX problems would become clear to me once I was using the tablet every day.

I started this experiment around Thanksgiving. The rules were simple: no Windows or Mac laptops and desktops as well as no Chromebooks, and I would stick to one tablet OS at a time. That means I would use an third generation Retina display iPad as my daily machine for the first part of the test, with occasional use of an iPad mini. No Android devices for the duration*.

setup
I should say that I was already well positioned to give tablet life a try. For a while I’ve kept all my important documents online, first on Dropbox and now on Google Drive. That means just about everything I’d want to access is available, though it might not be in a format that works well on the iPad. While Apple’s iWork suite uses iCloud for document sync, except for one or two things created in Pages I haven’t used it much.

tablet
I’m not going to spend this post talking about the iPad. It’s great, it’s fast, the Retina screen is beautiful, yadda yadda yadda. But iOS is not really a tablet operating system. It’s clear when you use it across multiple applications for hours on end that it’s a smartphone operating system extended for a tablet. More about those shortcomings later.

keyboards
I can’t type on a virtual keyboard for anything longer than an a tweet or Facebook status update. The iPhone and iPad mini are small enough that I can thumb type ok, but on the full size iPad I need a Bluetooth keyboard to get real work done. The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Case. After trying other keyboards this has become my go to favorite. As a case it protects the screen without adding a lot of extra bulk and is big enough to type on comfortably even for someone with big hands like me. It has a build in iPad stand which lets you position it in either portrait or landscape (my favorite) mode. Because it uses the same magnetic connector as the iPad Smart Covers you can snap it on and off in a flash. For those times when you won’t need the external keyboard you can take it off an leave it at home.

I occasionally used the Logitech Keyboard for iPad, but only when I was working at home. I don’t like carrying more than necessary and this keyboard, while it comes with it’s own case/iPad stand adds a lot of bulk. The benefit of that extra space is a lot more room for typing and a better key feel. Since typing styles and hand sizing is so individual you’ll have to decide for yourself what kind of keyboard setup is best for you.

apps
Right now my “job”, is split between my consulting and advisory work and figuring out my next full time role. That means a lot of email, lots of sending resumes, filling out web forms, blogging and time on social networks like LinkedIn and Twitter. That means mostly using the native apps for those services, along with Facebook, and the default Calendar and iMessage apps.

Skype has worked well for video calls, which is to say it works as well on iPad as it does on any other platform. I can’t remember having ever made a Skype video call that didn’t break up, hang and have to be restarted at least once before we were done.

Buffer for iPhone has been my “multishare” and scheduling service though their current iOS app is a great update from version 1, it lacks native iPad support and landscape mode screen rotation. I moved my blog to WordPress recently, so all my posts including this one have come through their app.

As I wrote recently I switched during this experiment from the default iOS Mail app to the new Google Gmail 2.0 and haven’t looked back.

For word processing I had been living on Google Docs/Drive, but their support for the Safari mobile browser is limited and the Google Drive app for iOS has it’s own challenges. That meant Pages, Numbers and Keynote from the iWork suite. While I have tried Quickoffice and others, but don’t use them often.

Finally my todo list app changed from Any.do to Catch. Catch is a more full featured note taking application, similar to Evernote. Any.do just handles to do lists, but it’s tablet support and weird landscape mode UI drove me away. While Evernote seems to be the industry darling right now I have never felt comfortable in its UI. Catch works best on the iPhone, especially for grabbing quick notes but I refer to it multiple times each day to key myself on track.

I should add that my time during this experiment was not all work and no play. I use my iPad for playing games probably more than I do my Xbox and certainly more than I ever did on my Macbook. Battle Nations by Z2Live, a local Seattle games company, has become a recent addiction. Sharing photographs, none of which were actually captured with an iPad, was a combination of Instagram, Flickr, Aviary, Photoshop, and Snapseed.

experience
You can live on an iPad. It really works. I never really needed to crack open my laptop, despite occasionally having to backtrack to desktop websites with touch unfriendly interfaces (for example GoDaddy). This has become my default way of working. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some caveats. These are mostly due to the apps themselves but a few from the nature of iOS.

  • No matter what app you are using, you can’t delete emails from the keyboard in iOS. If you’re used to using cursor keys to navigate the inbox and the delete key to trash emails after a quick scan, be prepared to find and tap the trashcan icon. There is no reason that app developers can’t take full advantage of bluetooth keyboards when they are available!
  • Blogging using the WordPress app for iOS is a lot better than using Blogger’s app. Too often to get any kind of formatting with Blogger I was forced into the web page. WordPress solves that problem for the most part and includes everything from stats to your blog subscriptions in the app.
  • Photography really plays to the iPad’s strengths. They have native support for RAW image files, including for my FujiFilm X100 and my Sony a77. I used the iPad camera connection kit to import from the SD card directly into my photostream. While too many of the editing apps offer the same basic filters, just with different names, they all work well and make sharing a breeze. What I haven’t figured out yet is how to limit my photostream sync across devices. I’ve already hit 1000 imported pictures and it’s becoming unwieldy.
  • EVERYTHING takes too many taps across too many apps. Take copying the links to web pages for this blog. Home key double tap to get the recent apps list, then tap for Safari. Find the web page, tap the address bar. Hold to load the context menu, now tab “Select All”, then “Copy”. Back to the original app, tap into the edit box for the link, tap “Paste” and you’re done at least 8 taps later. It may be simplified, but it’s certainly not simpler. You can shortcut some of this with the external keyboard via the standard cut, copy and paste keys.
  • You can’t add attachments from any email application. To send out a document you have to launch an app, find the doc, then tap “Share” to load the Mail app compose screen. You can add photos to an email, and Google’s Gmail let’s you also add “doodles” but that’s it. This is really a limitation of the iOS lack of a file system — each app really maintains it own files so there’s no one place to go find an file except for the photostream.
  • Battery life isn’t as good as you might hope. With the screen brightness up, Bluetooth on for the keyboard and heavy WiFi usage I generally would drain my battery in a day, often in just a few hours. Laptop battery life is usually worse because of bigger CPUs, spinning hard disks and larger screens but don’t expect an iPad being used as a daily machine to go without charging regularly.
  • “Simplified” tablet apps that lack key functions. Building apps for touch screen tablets is an opportunity for developers to really rethink how their app works. Users interact with their services in fundamentally different ways on tablets. Too often developers take shortcuts creating “simplified” mobile apps that aren’t really simpler to use at all. These apps cut out features, assuming that you’re most likely just visiting on the phone or tablet. LinkedIn is a great example. Key functions like recommendations and forwarding contact requests are missing from the iPad app. The 80/20 rule applies, and I used LinkedIn every day but still missed functions in LinkedIn and other apps often enough to feel the pain.

One thing I didn’t use, at least for productivity apps, was Airplay screen mirroring. While that might have given me a bigger screen I’m not sure that would have made me more productive. Because of how many times iOS forces you to reach up to touch the screen, there would be a lot of looking back and forth from the big screen (Apple TV device) to the little one (iPad). More confusing than helpful.

conclusion
PC makers should be afraid, but don’t panic yet. The tablet hardware, at least from Apple, is good enough to replace the desktops for most users. What is holding them back is the application suites. Right now people look at app lists and want to know if there’s a “native app” for each platform. What they don’t realize is that to get to that simpler tablet UX the developer has probably cut out many key features (LinkedIn), or just not be able to handle full compatibility across platforms (Google Docs).

If you’re thinking about whether a tablet or whether moving up to a ultrabook or laptop is better for you I can say from my experiment that a tablet really is more than good enough, it’s the perfect solution for the kind of work I do every day.

The experiment will continue soon, when I live for a few weeks on a full sized Android tablet (the ASUS Transformer Infinity) and a Nexus 7.

* In the interest of full disclosure I did pick up an Android tablet a few times, usually because the Nexus 7 was the nearest device and I wanted to control my Sonos. However I did stick to the spirit of this experiment and produced all my work, including this blog post, on my iPad.

4 comments

  1. Pingback: Android is better, but I’ll still probably get a new iPhone 5 « @stevebanfield
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