Pushing the iPad Pro to Its Limits

I've written quite a bit about the iPad Pro here at 1Wayswim:

All of those pieces have led to this one... what are the limits of the iPad Pro? Where does it start falling behind a more traditional computing system like a laptop or a desktop? Can it really be used in a "professional" capacity?

In the fall of 2014 I went back to school to finish my masters degree in Space Systems Engineering. So for the past two years I have been fighting my way though a heavy course load on top of my normal workload in my day job. For most of those two years my weapon of choice was my trusty 11" MacBook Air. But after the iPad Pro was released I decided that with most of my school work behind me, the iPad Pro was going to be the more functional device for me. But there was one wild card...my masters thesis/project. My final project for my final semester in my masters program is a very large paper (60+ pages). As you can see from my article history on this site I have no issues with writing, so length was never a concern for me. But the project I chose is graphic Intensive...lots of figures and diagrams. Not only did I need a way to produce very professional looking diagrams, but I also had to manipulate those diagrams within the construct of the paper I was writing. I wasn't so sure how the iPad Pro was going to hold up under those conditions. The results were mostly positive, but there were a few pain points along the way...


I spent the first 3-4 weeks of my project doing the research portion. Once I found a document or paper I needed to read I would save it off to a folder on DropBox. When I was ready to start reading documents I would then, from right within the iOS DropBox app, copy the document over to PDF Pen 2 for iOS and start reading, making notes and highlighting text with the Apple Pencil. As I would run across items that fed into my paper I would start outlining the concepts and content. The one pain point here was the file system interface with the DropBox app. It would cutoff the full name of each file sometimes making it quite difficult to find the file I was looking for. I have no idea why the DropBox app does this, especially given the enormous screen of the iPad Pro. DrpBox needs to update their app.


In my opinion, there is only one real option for professional outlining in iOS and that is OmniOutliner 2. I started with a very high level outline of the paper structure and then started filling it in with content from my research efforts. But traditional outlining wasn't my only approach. Sometimes I would need something a little less structured to just get my ideas down. For that I turned to my favorite mind mapping app iThoughts for iOS. I would use iThoughts to literally capture a stream of "stuff" I needed to get out of my head and collect it somewhere. Once I had those ideas and concepts I could then group them together and once I made sense of it all in iThoughts I would port it over into my paper outline in OmniOutliner. But that still wasn't enough. I was still struggling to figure out how I was going to do certain aspects of my project and I needed to physically draw things out. So I turned to the built-in Notes app in iOS and used the Apple Pencil to start getting an idea down by sketching out the concept. I am NO artist, so I am being generous with the term sketch here...

I told you...chicken scratch

I told you...chicken scratch

Sometimes a sketch would eventually get transferred into text in my paper outline and sometime it would be the start of an actual diagram I would use. Either way, the Apple Pencil allowed me to physically transfer ideas into something. In the digital age we are in today we have lost a lot of the art of that tactile creation and sometimes you just have to go back to it. The fluid lag-free implementation of the Apple Pencil with the iPad Pro allows you to go back to the old-school ways but still capture it digitally. This ended up being a huge bonus for me as I fought my way through this project.

Writing the Paper

I started writing the main content for my rough draft in an app called Ulysses. Ulysses is simple yet powerful app for writers that gives you some really useful writing tools while at the same time getting the hell out of your way so you can WRITE. With a 60+ page page ahead of me I didn't need any more barriers than necessary. Ulysses just within the last week or so just got an update adding in features specifically for the iPad Pro. But even before those features were added I still found the app quite conducive to the work I needed to do. I was able to draft up about the first half of the paper section by section and then export the document out to Apple's Pages app so I could get the rough draft reviewed. This isn't a review for Ulysses but overall it performed like a champ and I can see myself using it quite a bit even after I finish up with school.

Pages was where my final paper ended up. I've been using Pages since day one for all my school papers but this was the first time I had used Pages exclusively on iOS, where as before I used it on my MacBook Air. Is Pages as powerful as Microsoft Word? No. But it is so much more elegant. And did I mention reliable? One weekend I spent over 30 hours writing on my paper in Pages on my iPad Pro and then had to spend a few hours creating some slides for work the next day. So I hopped on Microsoft PowerPoint and about 45 minutes in PowerPoint hung and I lost all of my work. This type of thing just doesn't happen in Pages, Numbers and Keynote. So I used them anytime I can and I don't look back.

I have yet to encounter a feature missing in Pages that I have to go over to Microsoft Word for. When I needed my group at work to peer review my rough draft I was able to export my document out of Pages into Microsoft Word. And when it is time to completely hand in my finished project I can export it out to PDF right from Pages. Also, Pages on the iPad Pro links into DropBox for iOS for inserting graphics I have captured and stored there and it also allows for direct exporting of graphics via the clipboard from other apps within iOS. So with even greater ease than on my Mac I am able to plug in the graphics I need. I will say that I have heard some amazing things about Microsoft Word for iOS. So if you aren't comfortable with Pages but are with Word I think that is an excellent option for you.

Creating the Graphics

For the graphics for my project I rely on Omnigraffle 2 for iOS. I own Omnigraffle Pro for my Mac as well, but after spending a little bit of time with the new Omnigraffle 2 for iOS I have found the experience of building graphics through the touch interface to be much more rewarding. I guess there is something to be said about being able to touch things. Omnigraffle 2 for iOS does take a bit of time to learn properly. There is a ton of functionality built into the touch interface for that application and it is almost like learning another language. Luckily the Omni Group put out a free iBooks book for Omnigraffle 2 that walks you through absolutely everything. There were two graphics for my paper that I ended up creating on my Mac, but that was only because I already had a similar graphic within the Mac App that I wanted to base the new graphic on.

The Pros and Cons of the iPad Pro

The iPad Pro is excellent for being able to concentrate on a single task. There is nothing else up on the screen to distract you like can often happen on the Mac. But when you need it, you can use things like split screen mode to instantly work between two different applications. There is also the sidebar (almost like a partial split screen mode) that lets your briefly slide out a small portion of the screen for another app to quickly glance at or cut some text or a graphic out of and then go right back to the full screen app you were working in. The Apple Pencil, despite my total lack of artistic skills, has also been quite useful. Being able to write things out, easily highlight documents and make quick notes and even sketch out a rough diagram has been a great tool to use to power through parts of my project.

And now the downsides. Manipulating text can be a real pain. I use a Bluetooth keyboard when writing most of the time so my only option is to touch the screen in order to select the text I need to copy, paste or edit. If I were using the virtual keyboard on the screen I would be able to press down on the spacebar with two fingers and use it like a trackpad to highlight and select the text (and this works great), but the virtual keyboard is not feasible for large writing projects. Moving through sections of a long paper can be a bit cumbersome on the iPad Pro as well. On the Mac you can use a two finger swipe to quickly scroll up and down, but on the iPad Pro you just have to either use the table of contents of the paper to quickly jump or swipe with your fingers to scroll. There are also times that I just feel out of place on the iPad Pro and want to go back to a traditional Mac. I think it is just all the years I have spent using a non-touch interface. When I get into working there is something to be said about falling back on the familiar. This isn't really a weakness of iOS, it is just a result of it being new and therefore not as comfortable...yet.

Even after writing this mammoth of a paper, I am still only about 4 months into working with an iPad Pro. I feel like I am only scratching the surface. There are a few things that are easier to do on the Mac and there are a lot of things that I can do on the iPad Pro that couldn't do at all on my Mac. My initial assessment that I made in my article Is the iPad Pro for You? was pretty much spot on. For what I intended to use the iPad Pro for it was the most versatile and useful tool for me to choose. It is perfect for every task? No, but no tool ever is. So far I haven't really run into anything on the iPad Pro that has limited me. It has all been things that can be overcome by getting more used to the operating system and the new features and eventually new 3rd party software will come along and help fill in some of the professional features as well. But for now the iPad Pro has served me well in this final semester of school. I am anxious to push through these final weeks of school so I can put the school work behind me and start using my iPad Pro for all the other areas of my life that I have had to sideline for the last 2-years.

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