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Bill Bennett

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Apple’s iPad is still the most important tablet. Popular with business users and consumers. Now sells more than personal computers.

A practical guide to writing on the iPad

iPad Pro Writing

The iPad is a great tool for writers. For many professional and part-time writers it is a better option than a laptop.

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

You don’t need an expensive high-end iPad model 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.

Write on any iPad

Writing is an undemanding application for a computer or a tablet. It barely skims the surface of a device’s capabilities. That said, you need enough computing power for the screen to keep up with fast typing and to display crisp, readable text.

Every 2020 iPad meets that standard including the iPad mini. Indeed, every iPad from the last five years will do the job and do it in style.

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 other applications.

Apple could have designed the iPad with journalists like me in mind. They 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.

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 better than laptops for many creative tasks.

When it comes to writing the iPad has many advantages:

  • It has long battery life. Sure, you can find laptops that will go 12 hours between charges. 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 lends itself to doing one thing at a time.With the iPad you can focus on writing without other apps distracting you. Turning off notifications and concentrating is much easier.

    This is why the iPad is the closest modern equivalent to a portable typewriter.

  • Portable. The iPad is more portable than any laptop. It can go places laptops don’t.
  • One aspect of the iPad’s portability is that you can work on it even when you are standing.It’s 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 plane 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 tends to make errors harder to spot. A narrow width is easier to proof-read. If you are writing words to print on paper, the screen orientation more closely 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 retain concentration for longer.
  • No waiting. An iPad is always ready to go the moment it is switched 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. The nearest non-iPad 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 people need the models that include cellular phone technology for connecting 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.

This 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.

Cellular adds around $220 to the price of a Wi-Fi iPad. The other option that adds to the price of an iPad is storage.

iPad 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.

There is a terabyte storage option for the iPad Pro. 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 size of storage will add roughly NZ$500 to the base price.

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.

One thing you must be aware of is that 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.

But this is all 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.

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 laptopesque.

When I looked there were a dozen Logitech iPad keyboards. The range covers all iPad models.

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 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.

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.

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. You are pushed towards using Microsoft OneDrive instead of iCloud or Dropbox.

Likewise, when 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 is included as standard 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.

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 database features 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, but adds a lot of word processor-like features. This sounds contradictory, but it marries a minimalist look and feel with background complexity. You’ll either love it or be bewildered by it.

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 an app made solely for writing. Many general applications include editors that may serve your purposes.

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.

Tablet sales surge as pandemic bites

Canalys reports worldwide tablet shipments hit 37.5 million units in Q2 2020, a 26 percent year-on-year increase.

Worldwide tablet PC market Q2 2020

Source: Canalys Newsroom- Worldwide tablet PC market Q2 2020

The tablet is back. Tablet shipments climbed 26 percent in the second quarter. Desktop PC shipments dropped 26 percent, while notebook shipments were up 24 percent.

The overall effect was positive for PC makers who have suitable models, but otherwise it bordered on disastrous.

Across the world retail outlets selling computers and other electronic devices were closed down by the pandemic. Microsoft took the decision to permanently close its physical stores.

Apple wins

The only company to emerge unscathed was Apple, which had the right mix of products and offering to meet the public’s needs. The company made billions of extra dollars from its iPad and Mac product lines during the quarter.

Apple doesn’t provide unit sales numbers, but Canalys estimates the company sold 14.25 million iPads. That’s almost 20 percent more than the same time a year ago.

Apple now has a 38 percent share of the tablet market. Its nearest rival, Samsung has less than half that amount. Yet Samsung unit sales grew even faster than Apple’s numbers. The other tablet makers, Huawei, Amazon and Lenovo all posted a huge growth in sales.

Canalys does not count Microsoft’s Surface models as tablets.

As is usual with these reports, the focus is on unit sales. What Canalys doesn’t show is that Apple’s market share in terms of revenue is higher again. As a rough estimate Apple would account for more than half of tablet revenue and an even higher share of tablet profit.

Canalys notes the strong demand for tablets was because the devices are suitable for remote work and education. They do a solid job with communications and collaboration. Most of all, they are often cheaper to buy. The analyst company also points out retailers offered aggressive discounts on tablets. In the US mobile carriers offered 60 days of unlimited wireless for devices purchased in the education sector.

Apple’s timely shift to value

Sometimes the stars align. Apple set out its hardware stall in early 2020 with advanced, yet lower priced, iPhones, iPads and Macs. The the pandemic hit.

Affordable models arrived as the world tightened its belt to deal with the inevitable downturn.

Take the iPhone SE. It looks like a two-year-old iPhone on the outside. Yet inside the case it has a 2020 processor. The A13 Bionic chip also powers the iPhone 11.

Lockdown ready

April’s story calls it an iPhone that’s right for lockdown times. News reports suggest the SE sell faster than Apple expected. The company struggled to meet demand. Although that could also be down to pandemic supply chain problems.

Last month’s iPhone SE review says: “This may not be the most exciting iPhone from a technology point of view. Yet it is the iPhone a lot of people have been waiting for.”

You can’t argue a NZ$800 phone is cheap. Many readers will wince if we describe it as affordable.

Yet it puts advanced technology and, arguably, the best experience in reach of more buyers.

The iPhone SE stacks up well against similar price competitors. If Android is not your thing and you prefer to avoid second hand hardware, its $800 price tag is tempting.

iPad

This year’s base iPad model costs NZ$600. You get a lot of iPad, but not enough storage. Its 32GB is not enough for most uses. Pay $780 and you’ll get a 128GB model. It represents good value for money.

Move up to the iPad Pro and prices start at NZ$1500 for an 11-inch model. That’s in line with prices two years ago but you get more iPad. The base Pro now comes with 128GB at the price of the two year old 64GB model.

Although currency movements haven’t been kind to New Zealand, prices for new MacBook Airs are still $100 or so lower than the models they replace. They come with better keyboards. Apple kept MacBook Pro prices in line with earlier models, but bumped the storage. Likewise the Mac mini.

Apple remains at the more expensive end of the market when benchmarked against similar hardware from other laptop makers. Yet the gap has narrowed. If you like the performance, the operating system and the wider Apple experience that margin is less of a barrier than it was.

Apple still has nosebleed prices if you know where to look. You could fork out NZ$10,800 for the basic Tower version of the Mac Pro. A full configured model can cost more than NZ$94,000. That includes NZ$700 to put wheels on the beast.

That’s not likely to be on your shopping list. A nice iPad keyboard might be. Apple wants NZ$549 for the iPad Pro Magic Keyboard. That’s pushing it.

Some incorrect prices were shown in an earlier version of this post. 

How the iPad made lockdown productive

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 iPad.

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 on an iPad. 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.

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 to the iPad. 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 iPad 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 app to the iPad 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.

 

2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch review part two: Camera, lidar

For the last four or five years camera upgrades have dominated new phone launches. Now Apple is doing the same with the 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro which comes with added lidar.

The processor upgrade in the 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro is incremental. Apple has done much more with the rear camera. Or, to be more accurate, cameras. The cluster includes two cameras and a lidar sensor.

For the last five years, phone upgrades have centred on beefed up cameras. This follows that path.

The iPad’s main wide angle camera is like the 28mm equivalent camera on the earlier 2018 12.9-inch iPad Pro. It has 12 megapixels. If there’s a performance difference, I can’t see it.

By tablet standards it’s still a great camera although it’s not as good as the camera on the iPhone 11. You wouldn’t expect that.

Apple 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro ultra wide camera

 

 

Second rear camera

There’s also a 10 megapixel ultra-wide angle camera. It’s the first time the iPad has had a second camera. For the most part it helps the iPad Pro take better pictures in poor light conditions.

In practice the two cameras work together much of the time.

Taking pictures with a 12.9-inch iPad Pro is unwieldy compared with the iPhone. Using on screen controls also gets in the way. And it feels a bit odd standing there with a magazine-size device shooting images.

Wide-angle lens

The wide angle lens makes this even harder when focusing on near objects. That’s because a lever effect comes into play, so a small movement moves the camera target a fair distance.

No doubt there are enthusiasts who swear by the iPad Pro camera and do amazing things with it. For me, it is for opportunistic snapshots. I also use the iPad camera as a replacement for a scanner. It does a great job of capturing images sitting on my desk.

On the front of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a seven megapixel camera for selfies and video conferencing. It’s limited when compared to the rear cameras, but is great for FaceTime or Skype calls.

Video conference camera better than laptops

I’ve been using it while working from home. The picture quality is way better than you get on a MacBook or, for that matter, most Windows laptops.1

The only issue with the front camera is that sits at the top of the display when you hold the iPad in portrait mode. This is the same as the camera on an iPhone.

It makes sense when you are using the tablet as a tablet. Yet when it is sitting on your desk, perhaps with an attached keyboard, the camera is off the left hand side.

The software is clever enough to adjust the image so that when you look face on at the iPad in landscape mode, it centres your image. If you want to look people in the eye, you need to remember to stare at the lefthand edge of the display.

Measuring with lidar on a 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro

Lidar

When Apple told me there was a lidar sensor, my first thought that it would gauge depth. This would help with photography. Although that’s possible and, in theory, could be a future software update, it’s not why Apple included the sensor.

For Apple, lidar is all about improving the augmented reality experience. You can use it to accurately measure the space around you.

The iPad has a new iPadOS measuring app that uses this. More often lidar is used in conjunction with augmented realty apps and games. You might, for example, have AR games characters running around your living room.

Lidar technology is used by autonomous and semi-autonomous cars to map the immediate world around them. The iPad version works up to 5 metres which is more than enough inside most homes, but is less useful out of doors.

There’s no question this technology is clever, but I consider it a nice-to-have feature. It is far from essential as things stand right now. That could all change with the arrival of new applications that make use of it. Nothing springs to mind, but if it did I’d be a wealthy software entrepreneur not a journalist.


  1. The iPad Pro video calling experience is vastly better than calling on any laptop. This alone could justify the expense of buying a 2020 iPad Pro. ↩︎