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Apple’s iPad is a great writing tool. For many professional and part-time writers it can be better than a laptop.

In this feature we’ll look at why the iPad could be the best option for you. We’ll examine which iPad model to choose, explore keyboards and outline the best writing applications.

You don’t need a high-end iPad for writing. The standard NZ$569 (mid-2020 prices) iPad has everything you need. It’s powerful enough and has a screen you’ll have no trouble living with.

You can write on any iPad

From a computer point of view, writing is an undemanding application.

Word processors, editors and other writing tools barely skim the surface of what a computer or tablet can do.

All you need is enough computing power for the screen to keep up with your typing and to display crisp, readable text.

Every current iPad meets that standard. Indeed, every iPad from the last five years will do the job and do it in style.

Hide complexity

When I’m away from my desk, I use a top-of-the-range 12.9-inch iPad Pro for writing. It has far more power than I need to put down words. In my case I use the extra grunt to run other creative applications.

Apple could have designed the iPad with journalists like me in mind. iPads are more portable than even the slimmest, lightest laptop. Their batteries tend to last hours longer than most laptops. And they do a good job of hiding complexity.

It’s no trouble to pull out an iPad and work on in a cafe, on an airplane tray-table, or, at a pinch, on your lap. Sure this is true of a good laptop, but it is more so with the iPad.

If you want to push portability to the limit, use the iPad mini. It has everything you might need in a smaller package, 

Why is the iPad a great writing tool?

When Apple launched the first iPad it pitched the tablet as a media consumption device. It was clear early on that it could do more. Today’s iPads are often better than laptops for many creative tasks.

When it comes to writing the iPad has advantages:

  • It has long battery life. Sure, you can find laptops that will go 12 hours between charges including the 2021 M1 MacBook Air. Yet, measure-for-measure, an iPad will last longer between charges than a conventional computer.
  • Focus. While you can now open two or more side-by-side screens in iPadOS, the operating system lends itself to doing one thing at a time. There is no clutter. With the iPad you can focus only on writing without other apps distracting you. Turning off notifications and concentrating is much easier. This is why you could view the iPad as the closest modern equivalent to a portable typewriter.
  • Portable. The iPad is more portable than any laptop. It can go places laptops don’t. There are fewer moving parts. Well, actually, there are no moving parts on the iPad itself. This makes it more robust. 
  • One aspect of the iPad’s portability is that you can work on it even when you are standing. It is possible to thumb type on the screen keyboard while your are standing. I’ve done this at press conferences. I’ve done this waiting in queues to board planes.
  • This means you can write in more places, more often. Yes, you can do that on a phone, but it’s not the best writing experience. It is not easy to write standing up with a laptop.
  • The same applies if, say, you are sitting cramped on a crowded flight. At a pinch you can tap out words holding the iPad in vertical or portrait orientation when there’s no room for a keyboard.
  • Being able to use the taller portrait orientation is an often overlooked bonus. There are subtle ergonomic problems with writing across a wide screen. This makes errors harder to spot. A narrow width is easier to proof-read. If you are writing words to print on paper, the screen orientation mirrors how your words will appear on the finished document.
  • iPads have glorious, well-lit high resolution screens. Higher resolution means your eyes don’t tire as fast. You can work for longer stretches and concentrate for longer.
  • No waiting. An iPad is always ready to go the moment you switch on. Yes, modern laptops can do the same, but you can always start writing in seconds on an iPad.

Pick an iPad, any iPad

iPads range in size. The smallest is the iPad mini, with a 7.9-inch display. That’s roughly 200 by 135mm. At the other end of the scale the 12.9-inch iPad Pro display measures 280 by 215mm. It has more than twice as much screen.

The Mini weighs 300g. That’s roughly the weight of two phones. The larger size iPad Pro is 640g, about half the weight of a laptop with the same size display.

Even when you add a keyboard, iPads are smaller, lighter and more portable than almost every laptop. Apple’s MacBook Air gets close. The nearest non-Apple competitor would be a Microsoft Surface tablet.  

If money is no object, you can choose the iPad that you find comfortable to read. If it is an object, pick the iPad you can afford.

Cellular or not?

Few writers need Sim-card models that can use cellular phone technology to connect to the net.

You’ll find Wi-Fi is available in many of the places where you will want to write. Where it isn’t, you can tether your iPad to your phone and connect that way.

Tethering works with both iPhones and Android phones. The experience is better and smoother if you have an iPhone, but don’t get hung up on this point, it isn’t a deal breaker. Android phones will work perfectly well. 

Cellular adds around NZ$220 to the price of a Wi-Fi iPad. That money can be better spent elsewhere.

iPad storage

The other option that adds to the price of an iPad is storage.

While you don’t need a huge amount for storage for written documents, you may want to store music, other audio, photographs and video. These are all storage hungry.

The iPad Pro has a terabyte storage option. This adds NZ$900 to the price of the base 128GB model. It will be overkill for many readers. I have a huge music collection, store audio and video files and struggle to fill a 512GB iPad. That amount of storage will add roughly NZ$500 to the base price.

It’s easy to overbuy storage

The exact amount of storage you need should take into account what other devices you own. If you have a computer and an iPad, then you won’t need to splurge on a lot of storage. Likewise, if you can offload files that you don’t need all the time to an external drive, you can save money.

Remember it is near impossible to upgrade iPad storage. It’s a decision you need to get right before you buy.

Based on my experience, I’d suggest you should budget for at least 256GB of storage and consider buying 512GB. That’s the amount I have on my own iPad, it has enough headroom for me to never worry about running out of space.

iPad keyboard considerations

A keyboard isn’t essential if you own an iPad. You can do a lot without one and there is always the Apple Pencil and handwriting recognition. Apple’s new Scribble feature can change the way you think about your iPad

But this post is about writing on an iPad. A keyboard is always going to make that easier.

There is no shortage of iPad keyboards to choose from. Any iPad will work with any Bluetooth keyboard.

When you buy an iPad, chances are someone will attempt to sell you a keyboard as an add-on. Apple’s iPad keyboards are the most straightforward choice, although your choice should be down to what you find comfortable. That’s both from an ergonomic point of view and from a budget point of view.

Whether you choose an Apple-branded keyboard or one made by another company, take care to match the size and shape with your iPad. Keyboards serve as protective covers and the ones that fit neatly do a better protection job. 

Magic Keyboard

At NZ$550 a pop, Apple’s Magic Keyboard is an expensive, Rolls Royce option. It’s good. When you use it at a desk or on a flat surface it is little different from a laptop keyboard experience.

The $320 Apple Smart Keyboard Folio is less expensive. It’s the one I choose for when I’m on the move. It has the best balance of function and price. Again, it gives the iPad a laptop feel. Yet it is more flexible and feels less robust than the Magic Keyboard.

Then there’s the NZ$260 Apple Smart Keyboard.

Not all Apple keyboards are available for all iPads. One aspect of the Apple keyboards that you might see as a negative is that they flex more than you might expect if you are typing on your lap. When used this way they are not as solid as laptops.

Two third-party brands to consider are Logitech and Brydge. You can save a few dollars when compared to Apple prices. Brydge makes hard shell keyboards that turn your iPad into something resembling a conventional laptop.

When I last looked there were a dozen Logitech iPad keyboards. The range covers all iPad models. I’ve used a few, they are largely good. 

Protection

All the keyboards that are made to work with iPads offer a degree of protection. That’s important if you are mobile. The devices are not fragile, but once you start moving about the potential for dropping them or doing other damage increases.

Keyboards are a matter of personal taste. I touch type and find there’s a huge variation in what works for me. The only way you can be certain is to have a quick test drive before buying. It may make sense to shop online for an iPad, I recommend you visit a physical store before choosing a keyboard.

Much of the time I use a first generation Apple Bluetooth keyboard and a mStand tablet from Rain Design to hold the iPad. It’s a simple and elegant approach. There are many other options. Any store that sells iPads will have a selection. 

Buying an Apple Pencil can be confusing. There are two models. The one you buy depends on your iPad model.

It’s not realistic to use a Pencil for long writing jobs. They are great for jotting quick notes when on the move. My regret is that I can’t use shorthand to write with an Apple Pencil.

File the Apple Pencil under nice to have rather than essential. Although there are people who say they can’t live without them. It’s a good thing to ask someone to buy you as a present.

Writing apps

There are iPad versions of two best-known writing apps: Microsoft Word and Google Docs. While they may be all you need, there are a wealth of alternatives that may suit your needs better than the juggernauts.

It’s controversial, but I argue Word is a better experience on the iPad than on a Windows or Mac computer. It’s stripped back and has an elegance that’s hidden on a conventional computer.

If your iPad has a screen smaller than 10.1-inches, Word is free.

Otherwise you can buy Word for the iPad as part of any Microsoft Office subscription. If you use the software at work, or on a computer, you may already have a licence.

A Microsoft Office licence costs around NZ$130 a year, although you can find deals.

Word on the Web

There is a web version of Microsoft Word, which is handy if you need the software in a hurry and don’t have the app loaded.

One Word drawback is that it doesn’t dovetail as neatly into the Apple-iPad world as many other writing tools. It pushes you towards using Microsoft OneDrive instead of iCloud or Dropbox. And you sometimes rub up against Microsoft’s this-is-how-we-do-things attitude.

Say you try to mail a Word document. The software assumes you want to send it using Outlook, not the stock iPad Mail app.

Google Docs

Google does something similar with Google Docs on the iPad. You can use the app in its familiar web-based version. When you open a document, say from Google Drive, there’s an option to download and install a Google Doc iPad app.

If you don’t choose to download, opt to open the document in Safari, a second pushier screen pops up asking you a second time. Never forget that installing a Google app gives the company permission to spy on your iPad.

Google Docs works fine on a browser on the iPad. I’m hard-pressed to see any difference in the user experience when compared with Docs on a laptop or desktop computer. If you are all in with Google, the app might make more sense. Otherwise, stick with the web version.

While Microsoft Word has collaboration features, Google Docs is a better choice if you work with others to build documents. Better, not foolproof. 

Apple Pages

Apple’s own Pages word processor comes free with every iPad. It could be all the word processor you need. It will open documents created with Word or Docs and you can send Pages documents in the Word format.

As the name hints Pages is more page design oriented that Word or Google Docs. This works better than you might expect on an iPad, although you will need a larger screen to make the most of it. Pages is ideal, a better bet than Word or Docs, if you plan to create Apple Books or PDFs.

There’s one Pages feature I love, even if it is not my first choice for writing on the iPad. Presenter Mode turns the iPad into an autocue. When I’m on a long radio broadcast, presenting live or doing similar work I use it as a prompt.

Every writer has their favourite apps. Different writing tools perform different functions. What works best for you depends on what writing you do and what you are familiar with.

iA Writer

For my everyday work the best writing app is iA Writer. It may not suit you. iA Writer is not a word processor, it is a text editor. That means it’s a barebones writing app with few features. You can download it from the App Store for NZ$30.

iA Writer uses Markdown. This is a way of formatting text without lifting your hands from the keyboard. It takes minutes to learn and can speed up writing.

Byword is a good NZ$6 alternative to iA Writer. The developers neglected the app for a while, but are now back on the job.

Collabora Office is a promising-looking free iPad version of LibreOffice. I’ll write more about this soon. 

Other writing apps

Two other apps worth considering are Scrivener and Ulysses. I’m not familiar with either beyond testing them both many years ago.

Scrivener, NZ$19 in the App Store, sells as a writing tool to help novelists. That means it has a database to help track characters and other novel elements.

Fans swear by the app. It goes in the opposite direction to where I want to go with writing on my iPad. That is, it adds complexity.

Ulysses has the same Markdown formatting as iA Writer and Byword. It adds more word processor-like features. This sounds contradictory, but it marries a minimalist look and feel with background complexity. You’ll either love it or it will bewilder you.

Pricey subscription

The app is a free download, you can test it without paying. After that it costs NZ$11 a month or $92 a year to use. That makes it expensive if you don’t expect to tap into its complexity.

You aren’t restricted to using a writing app. Many general applications include editors that may meet your needs.

There are iPad users who write everything in the Notes app that comes as part of the iPad operating system.

Tools like Evernote are popular with iPad writers. Bear is another app that comes up in conversations about writing on the iPad. It is more a note-taking app than a text editor, but it covers all the bases. Simplenote is a free alternative.

ipad air

An enforced stay at home meant a change of emphasis for personal technology. The Apple iPad proved the best tool of all.

Here in New Zealand we spent five weeks at lockdown level 4 and two weeks at level 3.

For most of us that meant staying at home apart from exercise, trips to buy food or urgent medical appointments.

Above all it meant working and being entertained at home. For that you need a computing device, the right software and decent connectivity.

iPad ticks all the boxes

Phones, tablets and personal computers all fit the bill, but the one that delivered best on all counts turned out to an iPad.

It could be any iPad. In my case it was the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, but most of what I’m about to say could equally apply to a basic NZ$600 model

The iPad has the perfect combination of features for working at home. The screen is much bigger than on a phone.

Videoconferencing is a breeze. If you are lucky enough to work with other Apple users the FaceTime app is excellent. We used it for three way catch-ups with our daughters who were locked down elsewhere.

Not everyone you deal with chooses Apple kit. Zoom and most other popular videoconference tools work fine on the iPad. In fact I find they work better on the iPad than anything else.

That’s entertainment

The iPad is also great for watching Netflix and other online entertainment. Sadly there was no sport in the lockdown, but it’s great to cuddle up warm in the wee small hours to watch matches beamed in from the other side of the world.

All iPads are good for video, the 12.9-inch screen is better for older, weaker eyes. It’s also possible to wirelessly connect the iPad to a big TV screen. In our case we use a Chromecast.

Add a keyboard to an iPad and it becomes a basic computer. You can surf the web, read and compose emails, write blog posts like this one or even wrangle Office apps like Microsoft Word and Excel.

It’s possible to write without a keyboard. I’ve posted elsewhere about my keyboard-free iPad writing experience.

Yet a real keyboard is better. I have an Apple Magic Keyboard, the iPad Pro Smart Keyboard and a couple of older Logitech Bluetooth keyboard. All work a treat.

iPad creativity

There are creative apps. My iPad doubles as a music workstation, photo editing terminal and games machine. Apple’s Pencil helps when it comes to fine drawing or other on screen work.

I also download magazines, books, audio books, podcasts and music. It’s a great reader.

Yes, you can do all the above with a phone. Yet the bigger screen improves everything, except portability, which isn’t a huge deal in a lockdown.

Best of all the iPad’s form means you can do all these things from a desk, from the dining room table, from the deck, sofa or the bed.

Value

Apple iPads can be good value. As already mentioned the cheapest full size model costs NZ$600.

That’s much cheaper than an equivalent phone and, by the time you’re added a keyboard, the price is on a par with everyday laptops.

That basic iPad will done everything, although it may wheeze a little with more demanding create apps.

While the basic iPad is a bargain at $600, you may be reading this and thinking you could economise further with a cheaper tablet. There are pitfalls with that plan.

A cheaper tablet will have a lower quality screen. In general it will be slower than the iPad and may not be so flexible with software choices.

You’ll need to budget extra for a keyboard. There are excellent Logitech keyboards for around $170. These will also protect your iPad. The Apple Magic Keyboard doesn’t hook up direct to the iPad – I use a stand when I wrote on the iPad with this keyboard. It costs $150.

Apple’s Smart Keyboards are pricey. The 11-inch model costs NZ$330 while the 12.9-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard costs $359. I find they work the best, but they bump up the entry price a lot.

Storage

The other cost to consider is buying more storage with your iPad. The basic model comes with 32GB. That’s fine if you are at home and have an external hard drive or a cloud account with plenty of storage. I’d recommend finding the extra $180 to get the 128GB model.

Adding a keyboard and storage takes the price up to around the $1000 mark. If you don’t have a specific need for a laptop and there is maybe already a more traditional computer at home, this would be good choice.

Is it good value? It depends on how you use technology.

It clearly is good value for me. Apple recently added an iPadOS app that tells you how much time you spend with the device. During a typical lockdown week I was spending about 45 hours on the iPad and less than an hour on the iPhone.

 

IDC reports the world wide tablet market fell 1.5 percent in 2019. Total shipments fell to 144 million units. The Apple iPad strengthend its position as the top tablet brand.

The only winner in the sector was Apple, which saw a fourth quarter year-on-year growth of 22.7 percent in iPad sales. Much of that growth came in the last quarter of 2019 after the launch of new models and the arrival of iPadOS 13.

Apple’s growth for the full 2019 year was 15.2 percent. It sold a shade under 50 million units.

This undermines the negative arguments made by John Gruber and other prominent Apple bloggers about the iPad operating system. The geeks may not like Apple’s iPad direction but customers do.

Apple iPad clear tablet leader

Apple now has a 36.5 percent share of the tablet market when measured by units. It is bigger than the next three tablet brands combined. The company’s top tablet models tend to be more expensive than offerings from rivals, which means Apple would dominate tablet revenues and, by extension, tablet profits.

Samsung is the next best selling tablet brand with its Galaxy Tab range. The company sold 21.7 million units in 2019, that’s well under half Apple’s result. Samsung Tablet sales fell 7.2 percent during the year.

Android doesn’t translate well to the tablet format, but Samsung has the best implementation.  It’s tablets are a decent alternative to the iPad for customers who want to stay in the Android world or opt out of Apple’s orbit.

Huawei under pressure

Third place Huawei faces a challenge reaching customers in the US market and, no doubt, the security scare has affected sales in other markets. Even so, it dropped less than Samsung. Huawei has some solid, if unoriginal, offerings in this space. In 2019 Huawei’s tablet sales fell by 3.5 percent.

We don’t see much of fourth place Amazon in New Zealand. The company makes a range of low price tablets with an idiosyncratic version of Android. For the whole of 2019 Amazon’s sales climbed 10 percent, but there was a big 30 percent dropped in the last quarter.

Lenovo with an 8.5 percent market share also saw a small drop over 2019 for its low-cost tablets.

Top Five Tablet Companies, Worldwide Shipments, Market Share, and Growth, 2019 (Preliminary results, combined company view for the current quarter only, shipments in millions)
Vendor 2019 Unit Shipments 2019 Market Share 2018 Shipments 2018 Market Share Year-Over-Year Growth
1. Apple 49.9 34.6% 43.3 29.6% 15.2%
2. Samsung 21.7 15.1% 23.4 16.0% -7.2%
3. Huawei 14.1 9.8% 14.6 10.0% -3.5%
4. Amazon.com 13.0 9.0% 11.8 8.1% 9.9%
5. Lenovo 8.5 5.9% 8.8 6.0% -4.2%
Others 37.0 25.7% 44.3 30.3% -16.6%
Total 144.1 100.0% 146.2 100.0% -1.5%
Source: IDC Worldwide Quarterly PCD Tracker, January 30, 2020

Whatever the expert users say about the iPad, it strikes a chord with Apple’s customers. The move to sell an Apple-branded keyboard and the Apple Pencil, along with the, controversial in geek circles, upgrades to iPadOS have all propelled the iPad.

It gives owners of earlier models a solid reason to upgrade and pulls in some buyers who may have considered laptops. You can use the iPad for jobs, like writing, that were previously only practical on a traditional computer. The other strategy Apple has got right it pricing. There are low-cost models at the bottom along with more expensive pro models at the top.

Ben Brooks argues that you should ditch your laptop for an iPad Pro. He says the iPad has shown it is a better tool than a laptop.

Up to a point I agree with Brooks. The iPad Pro can be a better work tool than a laptop in many circumstances. One day it may always outperform the more traditional computer format all the time.

The gap between what you can do on an iPad compared with what you can do on a laptop has almost closed. Every new version of iOS makes the gap smaller. That will accelerate now Apple has split iPadOS from iOS.

iPad Pro not there yet

But we’re still not all the way there yet. Some tasks are still better done on the laptop. Take, for example, troubleshooting a web page. Despite there being excellent iOS web inspection tools, my favourite is Inspect Browser, this still works better on a laptop with a desktop-style browser. Doing this work on an iPad is clumsy and feels wrong. 

Apart from anything else, some web pages still force the iPad to a mobile version. This makes troubleshoooting hard. Although you can now demand the desktop page.

On the other hand, there are tasks that are better on an iPad Pro than on a laptop. I’m a journalist, I write for a living, all day most days. Writing is arguably better on an iPad Pro than a laptop.

I was surprised to find the iPadOS version of Microsoft Word is a better user experience than the MacOS version. This could be in part because the iPad version is simpler.

I no longer use my MacBook as a portable. When I’m on the move the iPad is my preferred device. I fly with it, take it cafes and to meetings. Soon I will drop the MacBook, but not yet.