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 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.

You Get What You Pay For

In a world full of "free" games and applications, every once in a while you have to pause and think about just what it is you are "buying" when you download a free game or app. An issue I ran into with one of my applications yesterday made me do just that.

I've been using OmniFocus as my go-to task management tool for quite a few years now and have never had a lick of trouble with the application...until now. I won't go into all the details here, but I essentially lost a good portion of my data (all of my work Contexts were somehow lost). The good news is that OmniFocus has backups, so I could just revert back to a previous backup and recover what I had lost. Except reverting to the backup failed. I was now getting into the "complicated" fix territory. If OmniFocus were like most applications out there I would be stuck with having to email tech support back and forth. But not in this case. I was able to pick up the phone and immediately speak to someone in Tech Support within the OmniGroup (the company that developed OmniFocus). Within just a few minutes the wonderful tech support person at the OmniGroup had identified the problem (it was a bug with how their syncing worked) and figured out how to work around the bug. I was back up and running with my original data in just a few minutes.

Now this will really blow your mind. OmniFocus is an iOS app. How many iOS apps do you know of that have tech support that you can call? Not very many. But that's my point here. In a world full of apps that are "free", its nice to have a few apps that are really important to you personally that you actually pay REAL money for. That way, when things go to hell there is a REAL human you can call that can help pull you out of the fire. I'm not advocating that every application out there needs to go to a pricing model similar to what the OmniGroup uses (let's face it, they charge a premium for their applications). But they provide a premium service that I am more than happy to pay for.

OmniFocus isn't the only OmniGroup iOS app that I use on a regular basis. Here is the full list of OmniGroup apps I own:

So the next time you hesitate or just flat reject the idea of paying REAL money for an app, reconsider. You just might get your money's worth...

Why I Switched to an iPad Mini

In my October 24th post I talked about who the iPad mini would work well for and who it might not work so well for. I firmly put myself in the category of not being a "good candidate” for an iPad mini because of the large amount of content creation I do on my iPad (specifically at work).  I am now using a brand new iPad mini (64 Gb white Verizon) as my one and only iPad. What happened?

Why I needed to make an iPad Purchase

Until last weekend I was using an iPad 2 and my wife had a 1st generation iPad. My wife’s 1st gen was, well, becoming non-functional. So it was time to do something. I tried (I really did) to talk her into getting new iPad, but I have a practical wife. She knew I was running out of space on my iPad and that I had been talking about really wanting to have cellular data with the amount of traveling I was doing for she inherited my iPad 2 and I purchased a new iPad. So what changed my mind about me doing too much content creation to be able to go to a smaller screen? 

Two main reasons for my change of heart: my main work laptop and the situations I use my iPad for instead of my laptop. 

Why the iPad mini form factor was appealing for me

My main work laptop is a 13” MacBook Air which is not that much larger than my iPad 2. My main work use for the iPad is to use it in meetings instead of a laptop. I find using a laptop in meetings with the vertical display being up and open between me and the people I am meeting with to be a bit distracting. The whole purpose of a meeting is to MEET with people, not to insert a screen between you and them. I also don’t like people having to use their imagination about what I am doing on my laptop during meetings. Is he really typing away and taking notes or is he doing an internet search on how to beat the level he is stuck on in Angry Birds? Because the iPad is nearly horizontal when being used on a conference room table vs the vertical screen of the laptop there is less perceived privacy with the iPad, therefore less of a mystery on what you are doing on your iPad.  The iPad is much more like just carrying around a pad of paper and is, at least in my opinion, a lot less likely to be seen as something that is distracting me during a meeting rather than aiding me to be more productive. The iPad (and all iOS devices) after all operate in the mode of one app at a time. For me, true multi-tasking on-screen is a real distraction. For example, I only get email if I open the email app (and have hidden the mail app to keep me from being able to read email with 1 tap) so the iPad is not a distraction in a meeting for me like a laptop can be. So given that my iPad 2 and my 13” Mac Book Air were so similar in size, there wasn’t a huge portability factor in me choosing to grab one over the other. Not the case with an iPad mini. Choosing to grab an iPad mini over my laptop WOULD be a big difference in the size of device I was lugging around.

Why the smaller iPad mini screen is big enough for me

So for my use cases for an iPad the iPad mini seemed to make more sense, but would it be big enough? I had 2 main and music. From a work standpoint the iPad needed to be big enough to take notes (both typed and hand written) and big enough to be able to do diagraming and graphics work on the go in OmniGraffle. So I headed up to my local Apple reseller down the road and started playing with the iPad mini. Typing wise, the on-screen keyboard worked just as well as on the full size iPad (at least for me and my hobbit sized hands...they really are quite small). I did some tests typing a full paragraph on both the mini and the full sized iPad and I was able to type just about as fast with the same amount of mistakes on the mini as I was the full sized iPad. In fact, I am writing the last half of this blog post on the mini while on an airplane. For handwritten notes I use Notability and on the mini I actually like hand writing notes better than on the larger screen. I’m not sure why that is, but it seems more natural to physically write on the smaller screen (maybe because it’s closer to the size of  a small pad of paper than a full 8 1/2” x 11” sheet of paper). Also, because the screen is smaller the issue of accidentally resting your hand on the screen while writing is greatly reduced. So typing and writing worked great for me. Diagraming in OmniGraffle also seems to work just fine. My workflow with OmniGraffle tends to be to start on the iPad and using a stylus to sketch out what I want in one layer and they add the stencil items on top of my sketch. From there I tend to move over to the Mac to do the more “fiddly” things like creating and moving the text and doing the formatting. So again. the iPad mini worked really well even for diagraming in OmniGraffle. So how about music?

Is the iPad mini big enough for sheet music?

By music I mean sheet music. I play piano every weekend at our church’s contemporary youth mass (catholic church) and I use my iPad to display all of my sheet music. I really struggled with trying to find enough information on the internet to determine if it was going to work. So I bought the mini before I really knew if it would work. I did this because I wasn’t going to make the decision on such an expensive purchase just based on one use case. I could always use my wife’s iPad 2 for 2 hours every weekend if the mini didn’t work out. So I pulled the trigger and last weekend I played with the mini at church and it worked great. The iPad in general works extremely well as a sheet music reader. I use an app called DeepDish GigBook with a bluetooth pedal, the PageFlip Cicada. Because I play a lot of contemporary Christian music I tend to read mostly lead sheets (chords and lyrics only), and the mini is more than big enough to clearly read lead sheets. We also play a lot of music out of a small form factor (9" x 7") spiral bound book, which isn't much larger than the iPad mini. So far the only problem I see with using the mini for sheet music if you sight read a lot of really complicated musical pieces or don't have the best vision, then you are going to want the extra real estate of the full-sized iPad. For me, I don't read a lot of intense piano sheet music and when I do I quickly memorize the piece (because I am a poor sight reader) and use the sheet music as more of a guide or visual reminder. To give you a better idea of how well the mini works as a sheet music reader I took a few photos:

Example sheet music from a 9" x 7" music book in PDF form on the iPad mini

Full sized sheet music shown next to PDF version on the iPad mini

Which pre-paid carrier & data plan to choose?

Now for the big question...which carrier to choose and do I sign up for a dedicated plan, go with a shared data plan or go pre-paid? 

First the carrier choice. For me, it was between AT&T and Verizon because I wanted LTE and I wanted to use the iPad for travel. My iPhone is with AT&T, but I am currently grandfathered into the "unlimited" data plan. So was it worth it for me to move to a shared data plan? The answer was no. My wife also has an iPhone with AT&T but she has the smallest data tier, so we would need to buy a shared data plan big enough to cover what we generally use per month combined plus what I expected to use with the iPad while on travel. A 1 Gb shared data plan would have actually been enough for my wife and I to comfortably share (yes, surprisingly I don't really use much of my "unlimited" data plan). So in order to to comfortably add the iPad on to that I would have to bump up the shared data pool to the next tier, which is 3 Gb. It ended up costing me an extra $30 a month to do that, which would buy me 3 Gb of pre-paid with AT&T. So why would I want to lock myself into any kind of contract or shared data plan? Better to stay flexible. Although I did seriously consider going the 2-year contract route given the current $100 rebate AT&T was offering when you buy an iPad and sign a 2-year contract. But my travel isn't constant enough that I will always need to buy data every month so it didn't make sense. So with the shared data plan out the window my choice of carrier was wide open.

Coverage and price per Gb

 It really ended up boiling down to who had the best coverage and the most attractive data plans. As of right now Verizon has the better LTE coverage, but AT&T has the faster network when you are in areas that don't have LTE coverage (AT&T 4G is faster than Verizon non-LTE). However, given the places I travel to the Verizon coverage for LTE is excellent and even more important...locally I have LTE coverage with Verizon and not with AT&T. Although, 2 days after I purchased my iPad AT&T rolled out LTE in the Melbourne, Florida area! In the end it wouldn't have change my choice of carrier. I went with Verizon because of the better overall nationwide LTE coverage and even more importantly the more sensible data plans. I plotted up the cost per Gb for the AT&T and Verizon pre-paid data plans and the low end data option for AT&T on a per Gb cost basis is off the charts!

Price per Gb for Pre-Paid Cellular Data

At the low end of the data usage spectrum Verizon is clearly the more economical choice with being able to pay only $20 per Gb (with the $20 1 Gb plan) verses the $60 per Gb with AT&T (with the totally ridiculous $14.99 250 Mb plan). Once you hit the 2 or 3 Gb amount or greater the cost per Gb is comparable between the two. I've found that 1 or 2 Gb tends to be more than enough in one month for the average user, but 250 Mb is just not enough. For example, on the business trip I just came off of I used about 150 Mb over 2 days. It was a pretty light use of data with my only need being light email use and some web surfing (no video streaming or music streaming). So a data plan as small as 250 Mb just doesn't make any sense unless you are an extremely light data user and the $5 more to get 4 times the data on Verizon breaks your budget. Now, by purchasing the 1 Gb plan I have enough data left over to use for my next trip (which occurs before my 30 days on this pre-paid plan expires). That does bring up one important point...wifi hotspots. The AT&T pre-paid plans come with free access to AT&T wifi hotspots and Verizon pre-paid plans do not get you free access to their wifi hotspots. When I travel I'm not near enough AT&T wifi hotspots to make it worth considering, but depending on where you go it might make a difference for you.

I know this was a long post, but since I really struggled to find any really good write-ups on how well the iPad mini worked as a sheet music reader and then trying to put all the pieces together to figure out the best carrier and data plan for me I decided to post why I made the decisions I did. Hopefully others find it helpful. I plan to write a post In a few weeks or so that talks more about how well the smaller iPad mini is working for me.

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