The Travel Buddy PC

There have been a flurry of articles and blog posts lately on the topic of can the iPad Pro replace a PC (Windows or MacOS), and I thought it was time to wade in to the muck. If you’ve read my blog these last (almost) 9 years then you’ll guess some background on where I land on this topic. But before we get there, let’s talk a little about observations.

The other day one of our friends came to visit for a few days. While she has been an iPad (both the 9.7″ and iPad Mini) user ever since Apple released them, in the past whenever she needed to do work she pulled out a MacBook. Not on this trip however, instead she sat on our couch with a 12.9iPad Pro. When I queried her about it she said that when she traveled she preferred to take the iPad Pro with her rather than the MacBook. It hadn’t replaced the MacBook, but it addressed an overlapping requirement.

Another friend, a former Microsoft C-level executive, uses the iPad Pro in much the same way. He has a few Windows notebooks as well as a Mac, yet the device he always has with him is an iPad Pro. I have seen him use it to present to another former Microsoft C-level executive on a large monitor, and present to senior (including C-level) executives at both a large bank and a medium-large technology company. He can also frequently be seen using the Apple Pencil and iPad Pro to take notes in OneNote.

Our friends’ use cases caused me to reflect further on my wife and my own iPad Pro usage. While we both have notebooks, and a family desktop, for serious productivity work, our go to devices for portable personal computing are our iPad Pros. Indeed, this blog is being written on my new iPad Pro 11″. It is sitting on the ottoman, its base and keyboard stable (actually more stable than my top heave Surface Book 2 would be) while I sit on the edge of the couch. The viewing angle is almost right, I do wish I could adjust it a little more, but certainly not a problem. While the Surface Pro is more adjustable, most traditional notebooks really don’t offer a better angle for how I’m sitting, their screens don’t go back far enough. I haven’t tried the 11″ on an airplane yet, but my 9.7″ worked great on an airline tray and it worked adequately on my lap. The 11″ keyboard/case design is more stable than that used on earlier iPad Pros and passes the lapability test far better than many of the 2-in-1 Windows PCs I’ve tried.

I regularly use an iPad Pro to do management of my AWS account resources, research problem solutions, and of course write emails. I also use it for spreadsheets and preparing presentations. Some of those (famous) narratives that are the bread and butter behind all decisions at Amazon were partially written on my iPad Pro 9.7″. I’ve even done some limited software development on it, by using it to connect to both a remote Windows desktop and an Ubuntu Linux development machine. While I wouldn’t recommend the iPad Pro be a primary computer for any of these things, it does most of them adequately enough to let you leave your Windows or MacOS notebook behind much of the time.

My iPad Pro is almost always with me. I slide it under the seat of the car when I am out and about, take it into restaurants when I dine alone, take it to the doctor’s office or car dealer etc. when I know I’m going to be waiting around. Take it to business meetings so I can take notes or do research. And usually it is the only computer I take with me when doing non-business travel.

I only take the Surface Book 2 when I am in full work mode. Then it travels between my home, a client, whatever I am currently using as an office, etc. I take it if I’m in the middle of building something serious, where the advantages of having a full WIMP user interface at my disposal makes me more productive. But that’s my 10% use case. Most of the time my SB2 sits docked to a large monitor in my home office.

When people ask the question “Can an iPad Pro replace my notebook” the answer is a clear “much of the time”. For me the iPad Pro is ideal as what I call the Travel Buddy computer (or even Travel Buddy PC). It retains the application library and content consumption strengths of the original iPad, while getting to the 80-90% mark on content creation compared to similar Windows tablets/2-in-1s. Recent Windows systems like Microsoft’s Surface Go also fall into the Travel Buddy category, but are too weak in tablet usability and limited application library to address most user’s non-work desires of a Travel Buddy PC.

So what are the biggest limitations of the iPad Pro as a notebook replacement? As others have noted the lack of a mouse or equivalent pointing device makes some work painful. In particular, cut/paste. The iPad Pro has an advantage over a PC in terms of broad adoption within applications of sharing entire objects, and sometimes that makes them feel superior. But if you need to take a precise region of data, like part of a list within a document, and copy it to another document, then the PC wins. PCs are also much better at multiple windows than the iPad Pro, although this is somewhat a matter of taste. As I’ve written in the past, I mostly run in full-screen mode no matter how big the screen I’m using. Sometimes I use two windows so I can look up data at the same time I’m filling in a form or writing a document. Well, the iPad Pro can do that. But if your work style is to keep 3, 4, 5+ windows open on the screen at the same time then…what on earth are you doing buying an 11″ or 12.9″ display device of any variety?

So could you replace your notebook with an iPad Pro? For many scenarios absolutely. For all scenarios no way. And in particular, could an iPad Pro become your only (non-phone) computing device? I think for a surprising number of the 1.5B PC users out there it could, but that is because many of them don’t really rely on the PC’s strengths. And for all of us, the computer you have with you always beats the computer you left at home. Which makes the iPad Pro a good alternative to a Windows notebook or MacBook as a Travel Buddy.

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4 Responses to The Travel Buddy PC

  1. Safrane says:

    Hi Hal,

    I think much of what you said in this post applies to smartphones.

    If you don’t work in IT, you are likely to be ok with just a smartphone.
    Smartphones (and tablets) have certainly reached the point where both the software and the hardware are powerful enough to cover most needs. It all just depends on how big you like the screen to be.

    That’s why even tablets sales are shrinking. The smartphone is the only required computer.

    • halberenson says:

      The smartphone is a much more compromised device, though I agree that for many it can be either all they need or a large slice of it. I don’t think it is just an “IT” thing (which often is the case when talking about a tablet vs. PC) though, but a broader “creative professional” distinction. Anyway, I was trying to keep away from throwing the smartphone into the equation since it would have doubled the size of the blog post! Maybe another one….

  2. Tim says:

    I purchased a Surface Go two weeks ago, in spite of a lot of bad press about it being slow/underpowered. But my use case was pretty simple – I wanted a lightweight device that was convenient to take to my meetings and one that I’d **actually use** for note taking (generally with OneNote via the Surface pen or keyboard). It meets my needs for that. My secondary use case was to be able to ditch my laptop/bag on any personal trip but still feel comfortable that I could connect to a RDP session for any data/dev work needs that came up while away. (I can spin up a VM running VS2017 in Azure and that’s sufficient in a pinch.)

    How is it performing so far? The slow speed does occasionally get in my way, and the battery life is less than stellar, but overall it gets the job done. And frankly, it’s kind of fun – I really like the convenience and feel of the device. I even went with the lower spec’d model to save money since I didn’t have high expectations about it outside of good note taking and using it for email and browsing.

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