Using the iPad as a Laptop Replacement, Part 1

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

In late 2017, I got my first iPad, and started using it as a laptop replacement. I'm sure this would've been surprising to my younger self. When Apple launched the iPad, I thought it was pointless. It's a big phone that doesn't make phone calls, I thought. But then, I didn't think I'd ever be able to use a touch screen. Apple can prove me wrong.

So why did I decide to get an iPad? I'd been using Windows for many years, but never liked Windows 10 very much. My Windows laptop was getting slow, and would sometimes get itself into an endless loop on startup which I usually couldn't exit without sighted assistance, because my screen reader hadn't launched yet. Meanwhile, my iPhone never had that problem. VoiceOver was always there for me, and if my phone ever crashed, it was up and running again within a few seconds. My phone could do virtually everything my laptop could do and more. Since I had become dissatisfied with Windows, and getting another iOS device would be easier and cheaper than getting a Mac, I decided that an iPad would be a good solution.

With the upcoming launch of iPad OS, I'm expecting that the iPad will work even better as a main computing device. For more information on what's coming to the iPad this September, see this Summary of Announcements from WWDC 2019 Keynote and this iPad OS preview from Apple

In the rest of this post, I'll discuss some of the features already available on the iPad before the launch of iPad OS. The next article in this series, to be posted in September, will be about the features introduced in the update.

Why Not Just Use an iPhone?

After iOS 13 and the new iPad OS are launched, the iPad will have even more advantages over the iPhone. But even without it, the iPad has been worthwhile for me. One reason is that it's useful to have two devices, so, for example, I can have a webpage open on the iPad, and use my phone to check that an email has arrived without losing my place. But the iPad does some things that the iPhone does not. The iPad has some extra keyboard shortcuts. I've got into the habit of using command + tab to switch between apps, which is more efficient than using the app switcher. There are other keyboard commands that only exist on the iPad, and, in many apps, pressing and holding the command key will bring up a list of shortcuts that can be used within that app.

Even the extra screen space can be useful. On the bigger screen, apps can present their information in two columns. Mail, for example, has the list of messages on the left and the content of the currently selected message on the right, which makes navigating through emails more efficient. You can navigate between these sections by setting the rotor to containers, or by using the shortcut control + right arrow, or, of course, by touching the area of the screen you want to focus on. If you use music apps, the extra screen space makes it easier to play instruments.

The larger screen also has some disadvantages, compared to the iPhone. As an example, the rotor gesture can be a little more difficult. On the iPhone, I find that the easiest method is to place two fingers on the screen and turn the phone. That's not practical on the iPad, so a better method is to flick up with one finger of one hand, and at the same time flick down with one finger of the other hand. If you find that difficult, the ability to customise VoiceOver gestures in iOS 13 and iPad OS should help. I usually have a bluetooth keyboard connected to my iPad, so I change the rotor setting with the arrow keys.

Can I do serious work on the iPad?

Most of you will already know that the iPad can easily be used for basic tasks like checking email and browsing the web, but what about word processing? There are plenty of writing apps available, but is it practical to use them to write all your reports, essays or articles? If you combine the iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard, you should find it easy to create documents from scratch. I would recommend choosing one of the many plain text editors rather than Pages or Word (see this guide to writing apps for some suggestions). In these apps, you can use markdown to add basic formatting to your text, and HTML for anything Markdown doesn't support.

Some AppleVis users have asked how easy it is to navigate and edit long documents. I have two suggestions for ways to make this easier.

  1. Add markdown headings to your documents. Many apps have a way to navigate by heading, such as the outline in Voice Dream Writer, so this will allow you to quickly get to the part of the document you need.
  2. Put each section of your piece of work into a separate file, and then compile them all into a single file at the end.

Using these methods, I regularly use my iPad to write documents of several thousand words. Once I've written the markdown, I convert the document to Word or PDF. If your editor of choice can't convert to the file format you need, CloudConvert is a useful tool. If you use it, remember to save your file with a .md extension, rather than .txt because otherwise your markdown will not be converted to properly formatted text.

If most of your work consists of writing documents from scratch, the iPad should be able to handle everything you need. However, editing existing Word documents with complex formatting can be more difficult. It's possible, but can be a slow process. I have Microsoft Word, Apple Pages and Google Docs all installed on my iPad so I can use whichever app is most willing to cooperate with the document I'm working on. I suggest experimenting with these apps to see which one works best for you. However, if you need to regularly edit complex Word documents, I would suggest using a different device.

If you need to use spreadsheets, the situation is the same, Apple Numbers, Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets are all accessible, and should meet your needs if you only need to use them for occasional basic spreadsheet tasks. If you need more than that, a different device might work better for you.

What if I Need a File System?

iPad OS will bring more file management features, so I'll be covering this topic in more detail in the next article in this series. However, I find that the existing features in iOS 12 meet my needs. Having a dropbox account makes it easy to organise your files into a folder structure, and then work on those files with multiple apps, so long as the apps you're using are compatible with Dropbox. The iOS Files app can also be very useful, because it gathers together all of your files from different locations. One of my frustrations with earlier versions of iOS was the difficulty of adding multiple attachments to an email, but this can now be done by selecting "add attachment" from the actions rotor within a message, browsing for the file you need, and repeating for each attachment.

iPad OS will make it easier to download files, but even without the update I haven't found it difficult. I regularly download PDFs from the web and save them to books so I can read them later, by following a link to a PDF in Safari, then selecting 'Copy to Books' from the share sheet.

Conclusion: Who should use the iPad as a Laptop Replacement?

As of July 2019, I would suggest that whether the iPad will work for you as amain computing device depends on what you want to do with it. If you're using it for writing, you can easily create documents using Markdown and HTML. There are many different Markdown editors to choose from, so you should be able to find one that meets your needs. Those who are interested in working with music and audio will also find a range of apps to choose from, although some AppleVis users prefer the software available for Mac and Windows. If you need to use more traditional office apps, the offerings from Apple, Google and Microsoft are all accessible, but unless you're very patient, I wouldn't recommend using them regularly because navigating through documents and spreadsheets can be cumbersome and unreliable.

On the other hand, the launch of iPad OS may encourage Apple, and app developers, to work on the iPad's weaker areas, including improving the experience for VoiceOver users.

Do you have any tips or questions about using the iPad as a laptop replacement? What are you looking forward to in iPad OS? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Submitted by Remy on Monday, July 22, 2019

Thank you for the suggestions for editing large documents. TO me that is the biggest weakness of the Iphone/Ipad, and the biggest reason I don't use it for serious writing. I'm working on a novel now, and while the Docx file imports just fine, navigating it is extremely tedius. I think if VOiceover could read reliably by paragraphs it would be much easier. I've noticed VOice Dream Writer does not import DocX files. Are there any other worth-while text editors out there that will? I do like to have formatting options such as headings to easily navigate my documents, so that is important to be able to do that. I do like Voice Dream Writer, but the inability to import certain filetypes is a deal breaker, since I write on my PC, but would also like to sync my document and write on my Iphone/Ipad on the go.

Submitted by Lysette Chaproniere on Monday, July 22, 2019

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

I wouldn’t recommend editing the docx file directly. If it doesn’t have formatting that you want to preserve, the easiest option might be to paste the text into Voice Dream Writer or any other editor you want to use. If you do want to keep the formatting but edit it as plain text, you could save it as HTML. Various apps and online tools can convert HTML to Markdown if you need that (let me know if you want more information on that). For a novel, though, copy and paste will probably preserve most of what you need, although you might have to format headings again.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Monday, July 22, 2019

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

You might want to take a look at Scrivener for large documents. It works great under MacOS, but I haven't tried it on iOS yet.

Submitted by Catherine on Tuesday, July 23, 2019

How timely! My Mac air is old & slow; it replaced windows PC & netbook in 2011. I'm leaning towards a Ipad air with a blue-tooth keyboard. I like the compact size - great for travel. Having excel and a writer is awesome. My concerns are speed as in keeping up with my touch typing & opening documents or apps or webpages. Any need for the 128 over 64 G? Much appreciated.

Submitted by Trenton Matthews on Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The new IPad Air comes in either 64 or 256 gigabytes, recently looked thanks to the ‘Apple Store” application. I myself have the 64gb iPad mini in gold, since I am mostly using it for online streaming, and that ‘Desktop Class Browsing” coming in IPad OS 13 also is the reason why I got one.

NB. If you’re a ‘Microsoft Edge” fan on ‘IOSYou can also enable the ‘Desktop” site to be used instead of the ‘mobile” one by default, though many do not know that it exists, since it is under ‘Advanced Settings.”
This feature is not within the Android version.

Submitted by Bingo Little on Monday, July 29, 2019

My perspective is that it would be nice to use the iPad as a laptop replacement, but every time i read a thread like this it puts me off. To me, it seems as though in order to get a decent experience with Office apps or their equivalent, you have to jump through a whole lot of hoops converting documents from one format to another. Anything with footnotes, tables etc. seems to require quite a lot of fiddling about. nobody has mentioned using Powerpoint yet, and I assume that this is because the experience would be quite problematic, as is the case if you want to do anything reasonably complicated with Word and Excel. To be clear, I'm not criticising any of you who find work-arounds etc. sufficient to meet your needs, but quite honestly I read threads like this and it all seems like so much hassle that the only conclusion i can reach is that I'm best off sticking with my Windows 10 laptop and Office365, which works very well even if it is slightly less portable than an iPad would be.

Submitted by Oliver Kennett on Monday, July 29, 2019

I believe the last poster hits it on the nail. It's just so fiddly getting up files. I'm not sure what keyboard shortcuts will bring, but navigating on my MBA keyboard is much faster than using one on my iPad. It's simple and easy things like typing a letter to get to that in a file list which I miss.

Submitted by Alan on Monday, July 29, 2019

Interesting article, i am considering a replacement for my mac book air, i want something more portable and lightway, to easyly writting on the go.Just a couple of questions, if someone can help: does smart keyboard allows the use of the device from your lap, without a table? Is there any alternative keyboard case for the iPad, (not ipad air)? And, what about the battery? Does it last more or less than an iphone?? Thanks all!

Submitted by Maldalain on Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Please iPad users let me know more about your experiences in editing large or even small documents. I have the iPad Pro 1st gen, I can not edit my documents efficiently. I experience really exhaustive lag which sometimes turns my attempts to format specific sections impossible. I even have issues navigating the document, some sections are fully skipped, I wonder how some of writers here on AppleVis write whole novels or large books using their iPads! Is it only me or everyone's having the same issue?

Submitted by Oliver Kennett on Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The truth is, ipads, as of IOS 12.4, in my view, are terrible for editing. Spell checking is a pain, there are no means of grammar correction or, one of my problems, removal of extra spaces or punctuation. Scrivener is a great app because it creates a folder tree of smaller documents that you can then compile into the final piece, but I would not be confident handing this over to a client. In short, I still need my MBA... For now.

Also, someone was asking about keyboards. The pro has a great one by Brydge which has had some great reviews. I'm not yet in the market for one but I'd suggest looking into them.

Submitted by DPinWI on Tuesday, July 30, 2019

For me, the biggest stumbling block would be the management of my music, and media, library. I have much more content than can fit on my phone or iPod. Aside from the usual mail, browsing, and various content creation, I use my laptop to move media on and off my phone. As much as I have battled with iTunes over the years, there is still not a direct replacement for it on the iPad. I choose to purchase, rather than rent, media, so streaming isn't my option of choice.

Submitted by Tj on Tuesday, July 30, 2019

I believe that's the name of the app and it claims to be voiceover accessible. The "no grammar checking on ipad" is a bummer, I'll agree.

Submitted by Remy on Tuesday, July 30, 2019

I admit I'm skeptical of that. It's probably great for spelling and maybe even some grammer. But I imagine it might not be so good for the nuances in writing that make it so special.

Submitted by Lysette Chaproniere on Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hi Bingo Little,

Formatting such as footnotes can easily be done in Markdown. I use my iPad to produce academic work, and I find it easier to work with footnotes in Markdown than it was in MS Word on Windows. I’m not trying to persuade you to switch from your laptop to an iPad, just wanted to point that out so other readers can make an informed decision.

Submitted by Lysette Chaproniere on Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hi Alan,

I haven’t used the smart keyboard, so I can’t comment on that.

I do find that my iPad battery lasts longer, but that’s probably because I don’t have as many notifications set up, so it’s not having to refresh apps in the background as much.

Submitted by Tamer Zaid on Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Hello, I currently using my iPad Pro with the Brydge keyboard. I also have the bata for iPad OS and using this keyboard is super. This will allow you to use the iPad Pro just like a laptop and you don’t need to use any finger jesters. You just use keyboard shortcuts and you will be able to perform every tasks you want with the Brydge keyboard. In addition, it is awesome that iOS 13 and specially with iPad OS will enable you to use external devices with the iPad Pro. I believe this is a big step with making the iPad a great replacement device to the Macbook. This keyboard is available for both the 11 inch and the 12.9 inch iPad Pro.

Hi Lysette,

Thanks for your reply regarding footnotes and yes, I did not intend to imply that footnotes were not possible via Markdown, as I know they are indeed possible. Academic work is also possible and I'm glad it suits you to do it your way. My main point is that you have to learn Markdown as a prerequisite. There we have the heart of the matter - the iPad is perhaps a decent laptop replacement but only if you are prepared to tolerate the prerequisites. Incidentally, since last I wrote on this thread i tried Powerpoint with IOS and I have to say the experience wasn't promising. I had no better luck with Keynote. I think readers who need to put together presentations regularly are better off with a laptop.

Submitted by Dennis Westphal on Friday, August 9, 2019

ipad OS can make a huge difference in the way we as blind people use computers. That may sound out of line but think about it: This could be the first time real multitasking could become a thing if Apple plays its cards rightand really makes the transition between Apps a breeze. However I am a bit sceptical about those new gestures for copying and pasting text and other elements.

I will give it a try though since I like the formfactor of the iPads. I just wonder which size would be the better one 10.5 or 12.9.