Tablets, Desktops, Laptops: How the Tools Fit My Life

on November 6, 2013

© Sergey Nivens -

With the endless arguments about tablets’ productivity or lack thereof, I decided to take a close look at the computing tools in my life. The result is a seemingly contradictory conclusion: We truly live in a post-PC era in which the traditional PC remains a vital player.

I think my habits are fairly typical of a knowledge worker in 2013. The main differentiations are probably that I am older than average and am self-employed, working from home. I spend pretty much all of my waking hours with some sort of connected device readily at hand.  My primarily tools are a oldish 27″ iMac, a 13″ MacBook Air, and an iPad (as of last Friday, an Air; before that an iPad 3.) I use an aged Windows 7 desktop less frequently and a Windows 8 ThinkPad less still. I use a Samsung Note 10.1 tablet only when I want to check something Android. And at any given time, I have assorted other equipment in for evaluation. And a Kindle Fire, which I use exclusively as an ebook reader.

A desktop for the desk. Most of each working day when I am in town is spent at my desk, and that means in front of my iMac, equipped with an aged USB keyboard that I think is left over from a Macintosh G4. For many things, it is my tool of choice. I do technical writing that  requires having lots of windows open at once and the use of Word, Excel, PowerPoint–not those functions but the actual Microsoft Office programs–and SharePoint. I make a lot of use of Adobe’s Creative Cloud–Photoshop for pictures, Premiere Pro for video, Audition for Audio. All of that is work from a legacy PC, in my case, mostly a Mac.

But there are many things for which I much prefer the iPad, even if the desktop Mac is available. I have the Tweetbot Twitter client on my Mac, iPad, and iPhone, but the iPad version is by far my favorite. On the Mac, when I click on a web link in a tweet, it opens the page in a tab that appears on the far right of my tab list. When I’m done and close the tab, I’m left in the browser in what had been my rightmost tab. The iPad version, by contrast, makes great use of the single-window, one-app-at-a-time interface. When I click a link, the page fills the screen. When I’m done, I click the Close button and in Tweetbot, exactly where I left off. (The iPhone version works the same, although web pages, of course, are harder to read on the small screen.) The Mac and iPad versions of the Feedly RSS reader work more similarly, but the iPad model is still slicker at opening web pages.

A iPad away. When I’m away from my desk, the iPad is generally with me. Mostly, I use it to keep up with incoming mail, my tweet stream, the odd game, and whatever else needs doing. For more serious work, I have a Zagg Flex keyboard. The iPad, over time, has largely enlaced the Mac book, with DropBox, Google Drive, and SugarSync giving me access to key documents. But it isn’t quite a laptop replacement.

I have done many Tech.pinions posts on the iPad, but it has its deficiencies. I usually write in the Byword markdown editor and then transfer the contents to WordPress, because the browser-based WordPress editor is not very well suited to touchscreen use. Handling art work remains a lot clumsier than it ought to be. but I can do it in a pinch.

My biggest frustration is trying to moderate Tech.pinions comments on the iPad. The Disqus moderation page really, really does’t like mobile Safari and handling comments is painful. It’s weird, but the need to moderate comments can be the one thing that causes me to take a laptop on a trip that I otherwise might leave at home. There’s an interesting distinction here. Some tasks, such as spreadsheets or video production, are inherently unsuited for the tablet. But many, such as Disqus moderation, are being held back simply because no one has optimized the software yet. In time, more and more of these chores will become accessible.

I find there are plenty of tools for writing on the iPad. Pages works fine for the sort of simple document you might want to create on a tablet, and both Byword and Editorial are great for straight text or HTML. I don’t do slide presentations much, but Keynote is fine.

The pain of Numbers. I haven’t used Numbers much, but I tried last weekend to use it to create a not-too-complicated budget document on the iPad. It quickly sent me scurrying back to my Mac and Excel. Trying to enter spreadsheet data from the on-screen keyboard was horrible. I found Apple’s system of modal keyboards–one for pure numerical entry, one for text, one for functions–slowed me down insanely. I understand why they do it–using the full regular iPad keyboard covers too much of the screen–but I just couldn’t get used to it. Using an external keyboard helped some, but Numbers just is not a very good program; it’s a case where simplicity actually gets in the way and the minimalist user interface actually makes things harder. But, in general, spreadsheets, unless they are very small and simple, are one of those things that really belong on a traditional PC, the bigger the display, the better.

Would Microsoft Office on the iPad make it even more useful. I can see some edge cases where it would be nice to have it, but only if Microsoft could produce apps that really fit the device. Their inability so far to do this for Windows tablets is not encouraging. I agree with my colleague Tim Bajarin (Tech.pinion  Insiders only) that this ship has sailed.

You’ve probably noticed that the device that gets lost in this workflow is my MacBook. Most days it just sits on the desk or in a bag, closed and forlorn. It gets used on longer trips when I know I am going to need the power of traditional PC applications, or when I have to work on something that must be done in Word because of the need to handle long, highly formatted documents or a requirement for Word-compatible change tracking. But most of the time, the desktop and the iPad handle my workflow (with the iPhone filling in) and the laptop that has become the tweener that gets left out.