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Using iPad for Long-Form Writing

I fought the notion of a mechanical keyboard for my iPad for years. Part of the reason was every keyboard designed for a tablet I’ve tried (including Apple’s own Smart Keyboard) is just not good. Small keys. Crappy feel. I’ve never been able to type a sentence on any of them without immediately concluding that they were terrible compared to the on-screen keyboard, let alone my MacBook Pro keyboard.

But the bigger reason I’ve always been opposed to external iPad keyboards is I just fundamentally believe a tablet is a superior form factor to a laptop—for the subset of tasks I do most often on my iPad.[1] And combining touching a screen with typing on a keyboard is, as Phil Schiller has suggested, ergonomically ill-advised.

So why, then, am I typing this with a mechanical keyboard on my iPad? Well, because I discovered that for prolonged periods of typing, where I want to do nothing else but type thousands of words for a blog post, a combination of Apple’s Magic Keyboard and iOS can actually be a better choice than my MacBook Pro.

Don’t get me wrong; I still believe strongly that for most uses, an iPad is a much better device when held in my hands than it will ever be when I put it into my Canopy and connect the Magic Keyboard. But that doesn’t mean a mechanical keyboard doesn’t come in handy for the very specific use of long-form writing.

Why use an iPad when you could just use your Mac?

For years, I asked myself this exact question, and I answered it simply by using my Mac. After all, typing long-form on a Mac is a great experience. But there are a few things that give writing on iPad a slight advantage.

First, there’s something to be said for a truly “distraction-free” experience. I use Ulysses in full-screen mode on my MacBook Pro, but even then, it’s way too easy to switch over to Twitterrific, Slack, or any other number of apps. I know it’s almost as easy to do the same on iPad, but for whatever reason, I don’t. I mostly stay focused on my writing, with only the occasional diversion when I need a break.

A Mac can be set up to run apps full-screen, but iPad does that by default.

My very aggressive approach to turning off notifications for just about everything on my iPad probably has an effect here as well. But I don’t really have that option on my Mac, because I often need those notifications while I’m doing my day-to-day work.

I suppose I could easily designate a second Mac to be a dedicated writing machine and get mostly the same effect. But a Mac you use only for writing is a bit like a shotgun you use only to kill flies. It’s way more machine than you need for the job at hand.

Besides, I get a lot more uses out of my iPad than just writing. Most of these involve performance on stage, or other tasks that are similarly in need of a distraction-free setup. Using the same device for writing makes perfect sense.

The second big advantage is battery life. I never give a second thought to battery life when I’m writing with my iPad. The same can’t be said of any laptop. And the more I use my iPad to write instead of my Mac, the more battery life my Mac will have for Photoshop, Logic, Xcode, and all the other things I can’t currently do on iPad.

Third, apps like Ulysses are just as good on iPad as they are on macOS. There’s no sense of using a “watered-down” version at all. Ulysses for iPad is as feature-rich as its macOS counterpart. And just as easy to use.

Finally, portability. When I want to head out to a coffee shop and just do some writing and nothing else, my iPad is always going to be lighter, even with the extra keyboard added, than my MacBook pro, as light as that is. It’s the difference between lugging around a larger bag like my AirPorter and just throwing my Muzetto over my shoulder, too.

Also, a number of cafes here in New York have a strict “No laptops” policy on weekends or at certain hours of the day. They have no such restrictions on iPads however, as silly as that sounds.[2]

Why the Canopy/Magic Keyboard?

I chose the Canopy from Studio Neat, combined with Apple’s Magic Keyboard, which is the same keyboard Apple includes with the iMac. There were a number of advantages in this setup for me compared to Apple’s Smart Keyboard, or any other iPad-specific solution I researched.

  • The Magic Keyboard just plain feels better. It’s not nearly as nice for me as my new MacBook Pro keyboard, which I love. The keys on the Magic Keyboard overall have a spongy and inaccurate feel in comparison. But the keys and layout are full-sized, which is a huge advantage over the Smart Keyboard (at least the one for the 10.5-inch iPad, which is what I have.) And they don’t feel like whatever it is those Smart Keyboard keys feel like.[3]
  • The Canopy folds into a nice compact package that fits into my bag with no issues, and yet is easy to leave behind when I don’t need it. I have a Smart Cover for my iPad, which I use occasionally to prop up the iPad to watch videos and such when I’m not typing, and to add an extra level of protection to my screen. I can keep the Smart Cover connected to the back of my iPad while using it in the Canopy.[4] And I still get screen protection when I don’t want to bring the keyboard along with me. The Smart Keyboard, because it is a combined screen cover/keyboard, leaves you with the extra weight of a keyboard at all times. Unless you want to swap between a Smart Keyboard and Smart Cover.
  • The Canopy is easier to open and close, at least for me, than the Smart Keyboard. And when closed it provides a nice layer of protection to my Magic Keyboard.
  • Because the Magic Keyboard is a regular Bluetooth keyboard, I have the option of using it with other devices, such as my iPhone, or even my MacBook Pro, if I want to.
  • As new iPads get released, assuming they continue to have Bluetooth, I can keep using the same keyboard. I could go back to the 12.9-inch for my next iPad, for instance, and not have to replace my keyboard. The Canopy accommodates any sized iPad, since it’s designed around the Magic Keyboard, not the iPad.
  • Being able to pick my iPad up out of the Canopy very easily and then place it back down allows me to switch between typing and more touch-based user interface operations much more easily. If I want to check Twitter, or navigate around in the Music, app, etc. I just pick up the iPad, work it as I normally would in my hands, then put it back down when I’m ready to start typing again.
  • A Canopy and a Magic Keyboard combined costs less than the Smart Keyboard.

There are, of course, some downsides to this setup versus Apple’s Smart Keyboard.

  • Battery—the Smart Keyboard uses the Smart Connector to get its power directly from the iPad. So you don’t have to worry about charging a separate battery for the keyboard itself. In practice, this has turned out to be mostly a non-issue, though, as I find the Magic Keyboard’s battery lasts months. So I just about never have to worry about running out of charge. I just set a reminder to recharge every five weeks or so (even though I don’t necessarily need it) just to be sure the keyboard always has some juice.
  • Bluetooth connection. Because it doesn’t connect to the Smart Connector, the Magic Keyboard needs to reconnect to the iPad. 90% of the time, I flip the on switch, tap the spacebar, and a few seconds later I’m connected. Sometimes it takes a little more effort to get it to connect. Not a big problem at all, really. But definitely not as nice as the Smart Keyboard’s instant connection.

Overall, I’m very happy with my choice to move most of my long-form typing to iPad. And I’m very pleased with the Canopy/Magic Keyboard combination. I resisted the notion of attaching a keyboard to an iPad for too long. I stand by my original opinion that for many, many tasks, iPad is much better as a slab of glass with no mechanical keyboard. Thus I still have no interest whatsoever in an iPad with an integrated, always-connected hardware keyboard for my own uses. I also have no desire to see iOS and macOS merge completely into some sort of combined touch/pointer Frankenstein.

However, designating my iPad as my main blogging device by optionally attaching a Magic Keyboard on occasion will help me fulfill one of my goals for 2018, which is to spend more time in iOS and to get even more use out of my iPad.

  1. Anything you would do while standing, for starters. Or, as I like to put it, if you have a job that involves a clipboard, it would be perfect for iPad, and likely terrible on a laptop. ↩︎

  2. I’m always happy to exploit a loophole in bad policy whenever I can. ↩︎

  3. I can’t even describe to you what the keys of the Smart Keyboard feel like to me. It’s not anything even remotely resembling a keyboard. And the space between the keys makes the target area of each key seem smaller than it should be as well. It’s just about the worst-feeling keyboard I’ve ever experienced, to my fingers. I have never been able to complete a single sentence with it without multiple typos. ↩︎

  4. I actually recommend the Smart Cover in conjunction with the Canopy, since the Canopy protects the keyboard, not your iPad screen, when folded up for travel. Also, the extra magnetic area connecting the iPad to the Smart Cover acts to prop the iPad up ever so slightly when placed on the Canopy. Which makes it just a bit easier to tap buttons at the bottom edge of the iPad screen, or to swipe up for multitasking when necessary. ↩︎